Cleveland Comedy in Cleveland, Ohio. What makes Cleveland a comedy capital? Find out in the article below.
Excerpt from a past edition of OhioTraveler
by Bijan C. Bayne is a freelance writer and critic
Bob Hope, Tim Conway, Arsenio Hall, Drew Carey, Steve Harvey. These entertainers and others have started their careers in Cleveland before hitting the national comedy scene. With every city that produces such a stream of talent, one wonders if there is something tangible to which to attribute the legacy. Is there something intrinsically funny about Cleveland or its residents, and where can one go to experience stage humor in the city today?
British-born Leslie Townes “Bob” Hope moved to the U.S. with his family at age five, his father a stonemason, his mother a light opera singer-turned-cleaning woman. His family’s Doan’s Corner neighborhood was home to several vaudeville theatres such as The Alhambra. As a youngster, Hope earned money singing on the trolley en route to Luna Park. In 1915, he won a Charlie Chaplin imitation contest at the amusement park. By 16, he had dropped out of school. He and his Cleveland girlfriend, Mildred Rosenquist, aspired to the dancing success of Vernon and Irene Castle, the country’s most popular hoofing couple. It was as part of a two-man dance team that Hope, who also tried his hand at boxing under the pseudonym “Packy East”, was discovered as a dancer during the vaudeville era by the legendary comic actor Fatty Arbuckle. Dance teams employed comedy lines and repartee as a staple of their acts, and Hope’s quick wit led him to the New York’s famed Palace Theatre. The rest, as the saying goes, is history.
One requisite of effective comedy is the ability to speak comfortably before audiences. Another is wit. Steve Harvey’s parents were a churchgoing mother and a construction worker dad who supplemented the family’s finances during the slow winter months by booking numbers in the organization headed by the aptly named Don King. Harvey aspired to work as a t.v. comic from his teens- he graduated Glenville High School in the Richard Pryor era of 1975. Arsenio Hall, like Harvey, was exposed to the oral tradition of the Black church- his father was a minister. Harvey, Hall and Carey all attended Kent State, though frat boy Carey was expelled. In 1986, Carey rode the success of winning a local comedy contest to an emcee position at the Cleveland Comedy Club. By then, Hall was opening for acts such as R & B singer Patti LaBelle. It is worth noting that the signature “Whoop, whoop, whoop” chant favored by Hall and his late-night t.v. studio audience was very similar to that used by Browns fans in the section of the Municipal Stadium end zone known as The Dawg Pound. As for his church roots, many recall Hall’s archetypical Black preacher in the 1988 film “Coming to America”.
What about suburbia? Funnyman Tim Conway was born in Willoughby and grew up in Chagrin Falls. After majoring in speech and radio at Bowling Green, and a stint in the Army, he took a job answering mail for a Cleveland radio station. Conway became a writer in the promotions department. He later worked with Cleveland broadcasting legend Ernie Anderson on WKYC and WJW t.v. (“Ernie’s Place”) and recorded a comedy album with Anderson before landing a starring role on the 1960’s sitcom “McHale’s Navy”. No matter the training ground or the era, there have always been mentors and outlets for Cleveland comics.
Observational comics, as opposed to practitioners of the one-liner, are known to have open minds. Think George Carlin, Steven Wright, Jerry Seinfeld. The Midwest has few more open-minded cities than the one that produced progressive politicians the likes of Mayors Carl Stokes and Dennis Kucinich, the former who was America’s first Black to govern a major city.
The city has long laughed at itself, another characteristic of a comic mind. From a mammoth football/baseball stadium lovingly nicknamed “The Mistake on the Lake”, to the notoriety of the “Major League” movie series based on the woes of the then-hapless baseball Indians, Clevelanders have joined in the fun Americans have had at its expense. Native son Carey even set his popular sitcom in his hometown.
Mike Polk, a promotions writer for a local t.v. station and freelance comedy writer performs stand up and improv. Says Polk, “the Cleveland comedy scene has a pretty rich history and has produced some rather respectable stars over time. I think that Cleveland is such a remarkable breeding ground for comedic minds for the same reason that it is a swing state. The state is eclectic, with many differing opinions and cultures. There is a little bit of everything and it is all concentrated in small areas.
Within fifteen miles of the Cleveland area, you have the blue-collar working class, intense poverty, extreme affluence, and rural farm dwellers. Unlike other parts of the country where areas have a consistent mindset with rare exceptions, ie: California is liberal and blue, Alabama is rural and red, etc. Cleveland is all over the map. I believe that it is this exposure to tons of different types of people and circumstances that feeds comics and makes their material approachable to so many people. Cleveland’s underdog status is a factor as well. We are consistently the nation’s poorest city. We are losing people and jobs at an alarming pace. Our weather is, at times, wretched. Crime is high. Our sports teams are cursed. Our river caught on fire. Much like the fat kid in grade school, we as Clevelanders have been forced to develop a sense of humor about ourselves and what goes on around us as a self-defense mechanism.”
According to Polk, Cleveland has ample opportunity for stand-up comics to work on their acts before moving on to bigger and better things. There have been open mic comedy nights periodically at various bars and clubs, which last until owners decide karaoke is more profitable and interactive. The two main venues in town, for rising comics, Hilarities and the Improv, provide a stage for area comics in addition to bringing in national headliners.
This city’s rich legacy of laughs inspires one to check out the scene, form one’s own opinions and catch a rising star. History shows it is well worth the effort.
Where to go for a laugh in Cleveland:
The Improv – Cleveland
1148 Main Avenue
Web: click here
Hilarities / Pickwick and Frolic
2035 East 4th Street
Web: click here
Something Dada Improv Comedy Co.
1900 Superior Avenue
Web: click here