Photography by Casey Rearick
Mike Polk Jr. is not afraid to talk. Whether he’s on stage, in print, or in front of a camera, Polk is typically willing to share his view on the topic at hand. However, there is one topic that can leave the comedian at a loss for words.
“I can talk in most situations, but I’m bad at talking about myself,” Polk says. “It’s never been something I’ve been particularly good at.”
Polk fidgets slightly as the words leave his mouth, occasionally glancing down at the blinking recorder situated just feet away. He’s slowly winding down after wrapping up another Tuesday performance of The Mike Polk Jr. Show on the Frolic Cabaret Stage at Pickwick & Frolic alongside the likes of PressureLife’s own James Earl Brassfield and other local comics. Unsurprisingly, Polk’s apprehension fades away once he begins to do what he does best: tell stories and share his views on the world around him.
It’s that penchant for storytelling that has made Polk a notable entertainer in Northeast Ohio. Since he moved to Cleveland in 2002 after graduating from Kent State University, the Warren-born comedian has earned local and national attention from a variety of projects. On a local level, these endeavors include hosting shows around the city, writing columns for the Plain Dealer, and contributing to sports segments on Channel 8. Polk also created viral video hits like the Hastily Made Cleveland Tourism Video series, The Factory of Sadness, and I’m a Stupid Cat!, all of which have millions of views on YouTube. Combined, these efforts have made Polk a recognizable name inside and out of the local comedy scene.
“I will jokingly always refer to him as the only comedian in Cleveland,” says Zachariah Durr, fellow comic and member of Polk’s sketch group, Last Call Cleveland. “It doesn’t matter if you’re talking to a kid in college or to your dad’s buddy, they know who Mike Polk is from different things.”
While the success has helped Polk book more gigs, it certainly hasn’t propelled him to the upper echelon of YouTube stars or helped him buy a home in a ritzy neighborhood on Lake Road. Instead, he lives in Lakewood next door to his sister and hustles to take on new, interesting projects. In his own words, he isn’t one of the “big YouTube people who can say ‘I’m going to be at the Great Northern Mall for a dance contest’ and a billion morons will go down there and watch them.”
Still, Polk has gained both admirers and detractors since 2002 – check out the comments section of any local news story on Polk for some eye-roll-inducing examples of the latter. However, Polk’s diverse range of projects and subject material also allows people to find some form of joy in his work.
“He can be an acquired taste, but it needs to be set out on the table like a nice offering of culinary delights,” argues Nick Kostis, owner of Pickwick & Frolic. “You have to taste them all and decide whether it was good singularly or in the gestalt – was everything good? No man meets all constituents.”
Of course, disapproving denizens hasn’t bothered Polk for a long time. He’s dealt with criticism since the days before YouTube when he and his friends would pay to upload sketches on video-sharing services like iFilm.
“Regardless of the effort you put in, the first thing somebody would [comment] under it was ‘Not fucking funny, kill yourselves,’” Polk says. “I’ve been getting heckled before YouTube. I’ve been drinking in this negativity for 20 years now. It’s a plus and a minus, but I’m happy that I’ve developed that callus over time.”
What took longer for Polk to deal with was the occasional comments from people openly questioning why he’s still living and working in Cleveland. After the success of some of his videos, people would tell Polk that he should get out of town and that they’d move to a bigger market if they were in his shoes.
However, destinations like Los Angeles never appealed much to Polk. For three years, Polk worked for HBO Labs, during which he lived in Cleveland and would stay in L.A. for a week each month. While there, he got to check out the comedy scene, but it didn’t quite mesh with what he wanted. As a result, he’s decided Northeast Ohio is the right place for him.
“I stopped beating myself up for not wanting [to go somewhere else],” Polk admits. “I’m not wired that way. I’m more of a Cleveland speed kind of person, and I’ve come to terms with that.
It’s not just Polk who hears these types of comments. Durr suggests that some people assume comedians aren’t successful unless they’ve branched out of their hometown.
“I think that when people see that you’re in entertainment, they assume that you want to be the most powerful entertainer in the world,” Durr says. “I don’t think that’s a necessary goal or even a healthy goal for everyone. If you’re doing standup, you don’t need to be at the level of Kevin Hart in terms of popularity. I think some people could see it as limiting, but I think it could also be healthy to be in your environment and enjoying yourself. Do we need another talented person to leave Cleveland?”
One person who’s pleased by Polk’s continued presence in Cleveland is Adam Miller, director of content at the recently rebranded 3NEWS at wkyc studios. Miller, an Orange native, worked in New York City as a senior producer for The Today Show until he returned in 2018 to take the job at wkyc. Now he’s actively investing in local talent to promote that homegrown connection for viewers, which includes tabbing Polk as a reporter to provide what Miller calls a “uniquely Cleveland way of showcasing” news and events.
“I don’t think Mike Polk even knows how talented or how smart he is and that there’s a real need for his intelligence and his perspective on what’s happening in Cleveland on a daily basis,” Miller explains. “I admire his love and his passion for that area, and I think that’s why he relates so well to the audience here in Northeast Ohio.”
However, Polk wasn’t quite as convinced about the job as Miller at first. He’s still not completely sure what a news station would want with the man who once sang “One Semester of Spanish Love Song” to Kim Kardashian on Telemundo. However, Miller and the crew at wkyc wanted to change the way people experience local news, which led Polk to leave a six-year gig at Channel 8 to test his abilities in a new role.
“I figured I needed a kick in the ass,” Polk says. “I was too comfortable for too long and I wanted to try something different.”
While Polk dubs himself as “not a very ambitious man,” he doesn’t rest on his laurels. He actively tests out new ways to make people laugh and helps other regional comics grow. For a man who admits that he prefers collaborative projects instead of more solitary work like standup, the existence of a comedy community that’s steadily grown since 2002 is more appealing than the bright lights of NYC any day.
“I’m enjoying what I’m doing right now,” Polk says. “I don’t know exactly where it’ll go, but I’ve found that if you keep doing stuff that you like doing and you’re not a total dick to everybody, you can probably keep doing it.”
Life in Cleveland may not move as fast as it does in NYC or LA, but the rest of Polk’s story wouldn’t feel quite right anywhere else.
Tales from Beyond the Lens
Polk may not be a YouTube star, but he’s certainly no pushover when it comes to video success, with tens of millions of views to his name. Polk shared a few anecdotes about some of his more recognizable videos.
Spanish Love Song
Polk’s first viral hit did well enough that he was invited to sing on Telemundo. The guest of honor? Kim Kardashian.
“This was long enough ago that Kim Kardashian was already known, but not to me because I’m ignorant to pop culture… when somebody said ‘you’re about to sing this song to – get this – Kim Kardashian’ I was like ‘Oh, nice, who’s that?’ I had never heard of her or seen her before, but I went out and she was so beautiful that I was taken aback, and I had a hard time catching my breath. I hate admitting that. It makes me feel weak, but we’re all monsters to a degree.
TNT Tourism Video
After the success of the first two Hastily Made Cleveland Tourism Videos, TNT contacted Polk to have him roast Charles Barkley and the rest of the Inside the NBA analysts.
“It was interesting hearing their reactions to it. Hearing that even stars at that level have some insecurities, and if you call them out, they’re like ‘Yeah, that guy has no idea what he’s talking about, just making videos somewhere.’ I can just hear it in their voices. I like knowing that no matter what level you get to, it still stings when people call you out on things.”
I’m a Stupid Cat!
Polk has some videos about important causes. Others involve cats. For Polk, one of the latter ended up as the most popular video he’s ever had.
“That’s always the frustrating thing – people go ‘watch the cat video.’ I’ll do some political ones and people aren’t as nuts about those it turns out… You’ll make something to try and support something you believe in and try to get it out there and it’ll die on the vine, but you put a cat video up and throw a few curse words on it, they’re all over it… but if I’m being very honest with myself, if I had my option between those two videos, I’d probably look at the cat video too.”
Live at the Kent Stage
Some comedians make people pay to see their comedy specials. Others put it on YouTube. Polk discovered an untapped platform for new fans.
“There are no bylaws that says you can’t put your comedy special on PornHub, so I put it up there. The comments are like ‘fuck this guy, this is bullshit’ and then one guy is like ‘I laughed.” Some guy went there for porn and God knows what he typed in, but this popped up and he’s like ‘you know what? I’m going to settle in for this and watch this before I crank it.’”