If the Cleveland cultural renaissance narrative is to be believed — and it is — witnesses should look no further than the ascendant comedy scene around town for proof. And laughs.
Like, say, the way our public and private sectors collaborate to get things done, local comics have long been exhibiting the sort of mutual cooperation that moves mountains. Ramon Rivas II knows this. He's been helming the at-times underground comedy community for years, hosting the late Chucklefuck series and honing his promotional chops to make sure people take notice of those shows. Brick by brick, the house that Ramon built has become a bustling party.
To tend to the scene, local comics Jimmie Graham, John Bruton, Brian Kenny and Mary Santora joined up with Rivas to form the Accidental Comedy Club.
For a few years now, the crew has overseen small, independent comedy shows all over Cleveland. Surely by now you've either caught one or stumbled mistakenly into a room before realizing that this is where you're meant to be. Lots of venues around town are opening up to the idea of hosting comedy shows; places like Happy Dog, Great Lakes Brewing Co., the Cleveland Hostel and others have really taken the reins.
This weekend, Mahall's 20 Lanes in Lakewood will host them and their battalion of rising comics for the fourth annual Accidental Comedy Fest. It's another notch in the belt for the cream of Cleveland's comedic crop.
Graham has been performing for more than three years now, and he says much of that time has been spent fumbling around the burgeoning scene: meeting people, working new material, hopping from now-defunct venue to now-defunct venue.
"All that I knew of Cleveland comedy at that point was Hilarities and the Improv," he says of his earliest inclinations toward the scene in 2010. "All these alt-indie shows started popping up, where, you know, you could see some super funny people on a Tuesday night. Cats were coming in from Chicago and doing it. I saw that and was like, 'Holy shit, this is actually doable.'"
Rivas' Chuckefuck series bounced from bela dubby in Lakewood to Reddstone in Detroit-Shoreway. Graham and many others were there, soaking up the vibe and coming around to the idea that this community is what you make it. But those places closed, and the crowd had to move on.
"It's always been kinda scattered," Graham says. "We got together after Reddstone closed and we decided to collaborate with five or six comedians to become more of a collective — something closer to Second City or UCB or NerdMelt."
The full list of performers for the fest is expansive, with some local and regional comedians catching short sets in the upstairs room and more well-known names commanding the joint's main stage. In short, the list includes: Ted Alexandro, Dave Hill, Baron Vaughn, Greg Barris, Jim Tews, Nate Fridson, Reid Faylor, Will Miles, Clark Jones, Kenny DeForest, Mike Polk Jr., Brendan Eyre, Megan Gailey, Noah Gardenswartz, Curtis Cook, Ben Palmer, Bill Squire and a host of other comics.
On the ground at the festival, there's going to be a real make-yourself-at-home atmosphere. (The upstairs room at Mahall's is going to have the feel of a little apartment.) And this event will be distinguished not just for the crowds, but also for the comedians. See, typical comedy festivals are submission-based and at times detached from the personal element of the profession. Once a comic gets in, it's pretty much on them to get to the place and book their own hotel room.
"Our goal is to bring these people in from New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Portland, and treat them like they are those next people," Graham says. The Accidental crew rented out the Cleveland Hostel for them and arranged to meet all sorts of transportation and food needs. "Our goal is to have these cats come in and have this be such a good experience that, when they do blow up, Cleveland becomes a stop in between New York and Chicago — or we'll get skipped all the time," he adds.
Already, Cleveland's getting skipped less and less by regional and national tours. Alexandro, a New York City-based comic, has come through Hilarities a bunch of times. He's putting the finishing touches on a pilot for Teacher's Lounge, a web series he created with Hollis James, and he just returned from a tour with Jim Gaffigan. Up next: Cleveland.
"The festival espouses a lot of the things that I'm into: do-it-yourself grassroots stuff," Alexandro says. "I admire the fact that they kind of built the scene and built this festival from the ground up, and it's rooted in the community. It has more of a hand-knit feel than a lot of the things you do."
In New York, he says, young comics are sort of always surrounded by the greats. He came up watching Dave Chapelle and Jon Stewart crush stages across the city. He and Gaffigan, meanwhile, plugged away in, like, the back of a burger joint in Midtown. The struggle paid off, as time has told for him and many comedians in NYC.
Here in Cleveland, the trajectory is at once different and completely similar. We're a smaller market, but, just as in bigger cities, a sense of self-awareness and mutual support remains the cornerstone of the scene.
"Cherish your peer group as you're coming up. Those relationships will last throughout your career and lifetime," Alexandro says. "What I would tell young comics, no matter where they are, is just to do it as much as you can and to write and to really acquaint yourself with your thought process. That's what's going to distinguish you over the years."