The comedian, rocker, and Cleveland-native talks about his new book and saying yes to everything.
Dave Hill is a comedian, writer, musician, and self-proclaimed pride of Cleveland, but it wasn’t always that way. Hovering around age thirty, he had reached peak inertia living with his parents in University Heights, until one day in 2003 he visited some friends in New York and never came back. As he recounts in his new book, Dave Hill Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, “You’d be surprised what you can accomplish by just setting your bag down in someone’s apartment and refusing to leave.” The book is a collection of comedic essays that explore formative childhood experiences, surviving Mexican prison, and reconnecting with his father after his mother’s death.
With plenty of poignancy to go along with the laughs, Hill showcases his masterful storytelling and understated brand of humor. There’s plenty of Cleveland within the pages, a city he describes as, “the Paris of Northeast Ohio,” and “despite internet rumors…a pretty magical place.” There’s even a bit of Trump for good measure.
Hill has appeared on Comedy Central’s @Midnight, TBS’s Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, and is currently writing for TruTV’s Comedy Knock Out. In addition to stand-up tour dates, he is also set to appear on the current season of The Jim Gaffigan Show.
Cleveland is the backdrop for many of the stories in your book, both from your childhood and later in your life. What do you love most about the city and what does it mean to you?
I mean, I love the people. I would say that anywhere in the world the greatest asset is always people. I like the Cleveland sense of humor. It’s very dark. At least the people that I know (laughs)…It’s tough to explain to people here in New York and other places that Cleveland has everything. You just have to know where to look for it, you know—my favorite Mexican restaurant is in Cleveland. Luchita’s on W. 117th is still my favorite restaurant.
Pressure Life: What’s better Cleveland or New York, for you?
David Hill: I’m a good example of coming to New York and just seeing what happens from there. It transformed my life completely. Just for the kind of stuff I do—I wasn’t even in comedy when I came here, I just sort of stumbled into it. I certainly think Cleveland’s changing, especially in comedy. There are some great Cleveland guys like Mike Polk, Ramon Rivas, and Bill Squire—those guys are doing awesome stuff. I’m so bad. I mean my entire career is pretty much just based on someone going like, “Dave, do you want to do this thing?” That can happen anywhere, but here there’s just more people and there’s more going on. You know, without even really trying, one thing leads to another. I’m just very open to suggestion really. I think if I were living in Cleveland, there just wouldn’t be the opportunities that I have here. If I really were taking this career of mine seriously, I would live in Los Angeles, but I just can’t bring myself to do it.
PL: Although you’re a comedian and writer now, music is still a huge part of your identity. You melt faces with the best of them and your band Valley Lodge’s song “Go” is the theme song for Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. What role does music currently play in your life?
DH: Sort of the irony is, that’s how I started. I wanted so badly to be a big rock star. My first band, Sons of Elvis, that I formed in college, we got a record deal and were on MTV and all that and had a song on the radio and it was like, “Oh my gosh, my dreams are coming true!” But that’s when I was 22 and like, “Oh I want this so badly with every fiber of my being.” And now I don’t think of music that way at all. It’s completely just fun for me.
The irony is, now my success rate is much higher. I have a blast doing it. I just love playing the guitar. I think doing writing and comedy and all that, you’re just in your head and up your own ass all the time. But playing a guitar is like a physical thing. I’m not gonna pick up [a] basketball league or anything. For me, picking up guitar is like the one quantifiable thing that I do.
I think I’m just such a fan of rock music. Every once in awhile, I feel like I’ve written a few songs where that I’m like, “Oh I think that’s a good one.” Now that I, on some level, don’t really care at all, I make more of a living in music than I ever have by a wide margin. So it’s sort of instructive, I think, in life. Maybe that’s why I’m just easy-breezy about everything. I have this career in comedy—I’m not playing arenas, but I have a nice career and I travel the world and I think it’s because, I didn’t give a shit (laughs). I never set out to do it. Obviously, I have great respect for people that are like, “I’m doing this. I’m gonna work my ass off at it,” and I do work my ass off, but I never went into it with expectations.
My friend asked me to do a show in the back of a bar. I did it. It was fun. I never thought past that. Then I got asked to do another thing. Then within a year and a half of that, a network was like, “Hey we want to do a TV show with you.” And I ended up doing a TV show. I think I had a TV show on the air within two, two and a half years of when I started. Of course, I haven’t had a TV show since, but I think that basically everything I do [I am] like, “Oh wow, that’s cool,” and then just having a lot of fun. And I think the more I can let go and not squeeze anything like a precious little rabbit—this year I’m having the best year of my life, at least career wise and earning money, and I think it’s because I’m just trying to be like, just work hard, get out there and do my thing.
Anyways, there’s always going to be a part of me that’s like, “Oh, maybe this’ll be the one.” We’re making a new record now and I’ll be like, “Maybe it’ll catch on!” But I’m pretty insecure about it too. On the one hand, it’s really cool that I’m psyched that people I really admire ask me to play with them. And I’ve gone on stage to play with so many people that I admire, but then I’m like, “Oh man, it’d be fun to do that every night.” Sometimes I wish someone would be like, “Hey do you want to be the guitar player in my band? And you can just tool around.” I just love standing there playing guitar and doing nothing else. I love it.
PL: You’ve got a lot of eclectic experiences in this book, like finding yourself in a Mexican prison. Do you consciously go looking for these types of experiences or do they just seem to kind of find you?
DH: I think they find me. I think I’m just open to stuff. You know those old suitcases you’d see covered in stickers from all the places they’ve been? I kind of look at life like that. I just want to see and do as much shit as possible because I’m kind of just living for my own experiences. And also—on the flip side, going back to the career—until they have me do like a three-episode arc on Girls or something, you know, I have to find my own fun. So if that means going to a Mexican prison, I’d rather do that than sit around and wait for the phone to ring. The more I get older I realize all I really want to do is hang out with some people that I love and eat Chinese food and have a few beers. Everything else is just stuff that happens so I’ll have something to talk about.
PL: In your book you confront many personal subjects, some are embarrassing yet funny, some are more serious. How do you use humor to talk about the tough things in life?
DH: I think you have to. Otherwise, you’d be consumed by the darkness, you know. Really humor, that’s all that it is (laughs): just getting us through. Without it, life would be horrible. I think when you get into things like death and tragedy and all that, you have to find what’s funny otherwise you’d be just swallowed whole I think.
PL: Your relationship with your father is at the forefront of this book. You two become closer after the passing of your mother. You see yourself in him in more ways than one. Did writing this book help you understand your relationship with him better?
DH: Yeah, I think so. Sort of the one good byproduct of losing my mom, was getting to know my dad in this new way. I’d always known we were very similar, but I learned about him as a guy, not just my dad. I think he learned more about me as another guy (laughs), not just his son. So yeah, I think just learning just what he gets up to now that he has none of the responsibilities he had for so many years. It’s been great. I worried about talking so much about him in this book. We’re not a huggy, warm family at all. When I see him, we shake hands in a formal manner. So I was wondering, maybe he wouldn’t react well to me talking about him in a book like this. But he really loves it, so it’s nice. I was worried I might be grounded or something. Not be allowed to borrow to car. It’s worked out so far.
PL: Among all the funny stories, you go through a lot of self-reflection in this book. Do you finally feel like you’ve found what you were destined to do?
DH: I think so. I don’t know we’ll see (laughs). I think I’m always evolving. Hopefully I’ll stay focused enough to build on the things that I’m good at. I feel like things like stand-up, I’m just figuring out how to do, just barely scratching the surface of knowing how to do it after ten years. And I feel like I’m getting better at everything. So I just want to explore the things I love doing. At the same time, things like the radio show—I only have one because somebody asked. Right now I’m doing that and finding that I really love it. I’m kind of like, “Oh man it might be really cool to just do that every day.” I never would have seen myself doing that. So who knows. I’m open to whatever comes along. Someone might dangle a carrot in front of me that’s really compelling. I’m sort of excited/terrified to see where I end up in the coming years. Hopefully, it’ll be good things and I won’t be back in Cleveland turning tricks on Lorain Ave. or something. Cleveland’s fine. Just the turning tricks part.
PL: Are you coming back to Cleveland anytime soon?
DH: I’m sure I will. I come there all the time. I’ll be there this summer I’m sure. Usually I just see I have a weekend open and I just cruise back and hang out. I’m back there probably like five times a year.
PL: What do you hope people will take away from your book?
DH: Hopefully they’ll be entertained. Hopefully it’ll be a literary thrill ride for them. It seems like people are enjoying it on the levels that I had intended. It’s not all dick jokes—there’s a couple dick jokes in there for good measure of course, but not all dick jokes. Hopefully, they’ll be blown away and it will become the literary classic it’s destined to be. That’s my modest hope for it.
The Time Dave Channeled The Donald
As crazy as it may sound, Dave Hill once worked with Donald Trump—if only for moment. The story of this occasion, “A Meeting of the Minds,” appears in Hill’s new collection of essays, Dave Hill Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. Around the height of The Apprentice, Hill was working as a freelance writer and got a gig writing ringtone slogans to compliment the hit show. Because NBC inexplicably owned the rights to the catchphrase, “You’re fired!” Hill had to find some alternatives. In the style of Trump’s signature bravado, he crafted memorable zingers like, “This is Donald Trump. I have no choice but to tell you…you’re getting a phone call.” To his surprise, Hill was invited to Trump Tower to witness The Donald himself lend his voice to the recordings. The hilarious and slightly surreal account of this encounter is certainly worth checking out for yourself.
Circumstances have obviously changed since then, with Trump’s transition from appearing on reality TV to arriving in Cleveland for the RNC as the presumptive Republican nominee. Hill is only half kidding when he says he’ll move to London if Trump takes the White House, but having met the man, he has some insight into Trump’s nature. He suggests that Trump is really is just playing a character and really doesn’t believe what he says. He knows he’s probably wrong, but he hopes Trump will turn out to be the greatest performance artist of our generation and will say, “Oh I was just kidding!” any minute now.