Cleveland is many things, but it is most definitely a comedy town. The crowds know that, judging by the attendance at the daily comedy nights that dot the calendar every week; and, of course, the comedians — locally and nationally recognized alike — know that too. Yusuf Ali has risen with the tides since 2009, growing his artistic vision as the city has grown its comic scene in the same span.
Come October 13, the lifelong Clevelander will have been in the game for six years. As for origin stories, he performed for the first time during the Tuesday comedy contests at the Funny Stop in Cuyahoga Falls.
"The growth from 2009 to now is crazy. There's somewhere to go literally every night, Sunday through Thursday, if you want to," he says.
He was working in a porno warehouse at the time. "It was an interesting job," he says. "We had everything. Everything that anybody is seeking, it came from there. All those stores on the side of the freeway — it came from there."
But the job was boring, so Ali took to scrawling jokes on scratch paper in his spare time. His cousin was doing standup around town, piquing Ali's interest. So he called around, asking places like the Improv and Hilarities for their open-mic nights. Of course, those spots don't just bring in anybody, so Ali had to turn to lesser-known, more dubious circles to get into the game. So he picked up an issue of Scene. (Aw, you're making us blush.)
That led him to the Funny Stop gig and they gave him five minutes — no cussing — and Ali killed it. No one believed it was his first time. "My heart was beating through my chest," he says. "Once I took the mic off the stand, it was like something went over me. It was like I was in a bath. I was so comfortable."
Winning that first contest meant he was allowed back the next week. Then, the lighting guy tipped him off on a Friday night show. Soon, Ali fell in with the crowd at the now-defunct Bela Dubby, which gave him his Monday night outpost. Lakewood Village Tavern filled in Wednesdays. (Check out his Facebook page weekly for his current schedule.)
Onstage, he grounds himself in topical jokes, working to not repeat himself in his opening sets while staying away from, like, well-trodden Browns humor. He reads the news, gleaning historical perspectives, current events and "weird animal facts." He's got a new one about a spider that has two dicks, if that's any indication of what you might hear.
In his car, Ali rotates five CDs, all curated for his professional development: Patrice O'Neal, Martin Lawrence, two Richard Pryors and Hannibal Buress. He falls asleep to that stuff too. Like air, the comedic stylings of Ali's heroes surround him at all times. When he was growing up, Ali's father was encouraging him to feast on Eddie Murphy Raw while other kids were forbidden from that sort of stuff. "I knew that word-for-word when I was, like, 11," Ali says.
Ali says Cleveland is one of the best possible places to cut your teeth as a comedian. We've got tough crowds, smart crowds, engaged crowds. When people here like your stuff, they really like your stuff. Ali knows this; he rejoices in their splendor and, when his material doesn't stick, he returns to the mic to hone his craft some more.