Having been on the receiving end of countless jokes over the years, Cleveland is no stranger to comedy. We’ve heard the haters take cracks at our culture, landscape, sports, and—yes, our river caught on fire once. But after decades of taking a variety of shit from outsiders and onlookers—and occasionally ourselves—Clevelanders have seemed to develop a much thicker skin. No one enjoys being the butt of the joke, but what doesn’t kill us only makes us laugh. Perhaps this is why a new generation of hilarious talent has set the city’s comedy scene ablaze, and Cleveland comic mastermind Ramon Rivas II and his Accidental Comedy Club are always turning up the heat.
Growing up in Lorain, Ohio, Ramon Rivas II has expressed a flair for funniness since childhood. In elementary school, Rivas was recognized as a smart, precocious kid with a big personality, one he’d often use to disrupt the room. As he grew older, Rivas learned to embrace his humorous side. “I was class clown in high school,” said Rivas. “But comedy didn’t seem like a thing you could actually do.” It was, however, a class available at Tri-C, where he would deliver a first act among his fellow students of comedy. The youngest in his class, Rivas’ potential as a stand-up stood above the rest. So he went for it.
Viva El Rivas
In 2009 Rivas pulled no punchlines, tackling comedy “like a full time, non-paying job.” He hit the scene hard, attending open mic nights, performing free shows, and taking any road job or five minute set available. In the same year, Rivas co-hosted Chucklefck, a weekly open mic night, and a name Rivas would go on to use as the banner for shows around Cleveland. He was pulling in comics he admired, like Amy Schumer, Hannibal Buress, and Trevor Noah, demonstrating not only an excellent taste in comedy, but his ability to organize a meeting of comedic minds on a broad level.
Touring clubs from Chicago to New York to eventually L.A., repping Cleveland throughout his travels, Rivas gained hard-earned notoriety by leaving the crowd in stitches with his intimate blend of comedy. On stage, Rivas displays the warm personality of a self-deprecating teddy bear while seamlessly translating his uncensored frustrations, observations, and interests into the mic. “That tends to be women, weed, mushrooms, chickens, politics, being poor, and my family,” said Rivas. “A comedian should be able to joke about anything, but don’t joke about anything you’re not willing to get beat up over after the show.”
Nowadays he’s often referred to as the modern Godfather of Cleveland comedy, and clearly Ramon Rivas II didn’t earn that title over night. After years of humor hustling, pooling resources, and championing Cleveland as a second Second City-style comedy hub, Rivas leads the charge by bringing comics together and into the spotlight with his comedy funny farm, the Accidental Comedy Club. Hosting year round shows and events, including their annual Accidental Comedy Fest this past August, Rivas and his crew are not only making Cleveland laugh, but ushering in a new generation of comics, intent on establishing recognition that comedy is indeed a form of art.
Q&A — PRESSURELIFE/RAMON RIVAS II
In celebration of his ongoing mission to light Cleveland up with laughter, the Accidental Comedy Club’s uproarious recent festival, and his new stand-up special on Comedy Central’s The Half Hour, we hit up Ramon Rivas II to pick the brain of the man behind Cleveland’s comedy revolution.
PressureLife: After eight and a half years of stand-up, what is your proudest accomplishment thus far?
Ramon Rivas II: Putting on shows that give people the opportunity to come together is one of my favorite things. People always complained there was nothing to do in Cleveland, so buckling down years ago and putting on shows…Thousands of people have gone to weird bars, churches, Mexican restaurants, bowling alleys, Slovenian homes, rooftops, and made new friends. Aside from that, probably rolling a joint of Dave Chappelle’s weed and smoking it with him. Not really an accomplishment, I just want everyone to know how dope my life is.
What’s kept you in Cleveland after all these years?
I haven’t been able to afford to live anywhere else. Cleveland is a great place to be broke. You can be an artist without having to be starving…I love Cleveland. When I travel around, I’m always wearing a CLE shirt and [trying] to be an ambassador for the city. I love the city, with all the makers marts and cultural innovation happening year round. Even though there’s definitely two Clevelands right now…
How is Cleveland’s culture split, and what issues are the most in need of attention?
There’s so much of the city that’s forsaken, but if people get their energy together hopefully something changes. I’ve been turned away from empty bars downtown for having on hoodies, only to have a friend get us in and see 13 white guys in hoodies. The fashionist door policies downtown are weird or just racist. Our police department needs work and sometimes our politicians are crooked as shit. East Cleveland has needed to merge with Cleveland proper since the ‘80s in order to save a whole chunk of people no one seems to care about.
In what ways has Cleveland comedy evolved since you first took up the calling?
When I started, the Chucklefck open mic was Mondays and struggled to have five different comics every week. In order to get up more than once a week, I had to do music/poetry open mics. Fast forward to now and the abundance of stage time and growing number of comics trying to figure out the craft—it’s cool to see it grow, and it’s been an honor to be a part of that growth and resurgence.
As you continue to establish Cleveland as a comedy capital, how can the city help further improve the state of the scene?
People coming out and supporting is step number one, two, and three. More and more, the shows are full, but honestly, a tenth of the least-attended Indians/Cavs/Browns game would be a very successful comedy festival or enough to sustain 10-20 individual comedy shows. Think about that for a second. You go to a game to eat, drink, and hopefully feel good after a victory. Comedy shows have no losses. Plus, the drinks are usually cheaper.
How would you define the city’s current comedy atmosphere?
Surprisingly deep…The crowds in Cleveland are so real. It’s great. The comics are all flailing about, developing their own instincts and point of views that are as unique as those I come across in my travels…We have the big major clubs (Hilarities, Improv) and Playhouse Square bringing in top talent year round, and a string [of] AAA/AA clubs like the Funny Stop, Comedy Zone, Bonkerz. Then there’s a nice amount of open mics weekly, plus irregular showcases pop up year round, not even counting the accidentalcomedy.com productions.
In Cleveland’s expanding comedy scene, how did Accidental Comedy come to fruition?
I started curating a comedy stage at Ingenuity Fest in 2011, and the second year of that I had Kyle Kinane and Neil Hamburger booked, so I filled in the gaps and that was our first official fest. End of 2013, I changed Chucklefck to Accidental Comedy Productions and founded it with the goal of enriching the arts in Cleveland through live comedy and other productions…Cleveland didn’t set out to have such a great comedy scene, it just kind of happened over the years. Now we’re accidentally at a point where every night, there’s a fun show you’re missing out on by staying at home.
What are the ongoing ambitions of the Accidental Comedy Club?
Get out, laugh, make fun…The hope is that Accidental becomes to Cleveland what Second City is to Chicago: a beacon of where comedy grows, a place where community can develop and tie in to the experience of the city…to continue to establish comedy as an art, so that one day, maybe a portion of the support for Playhouse Square, Cleveland Public Theater, The Orchestra slides over to comedy where it can have a great impact on people pursuing this as a sustainable thing.
How has the Club changed shape since its original formation, and other than the recent Accidental Comedy Fest, what other events does the group have in the works?
A few members quit early on, but [the] current roster is Jimmie Graham, John Bruton, Brian Kenny, Mary Santora, Dave Flynt, Joshua Morrow, and Cody Cooper. The more people come out and support shows, the more artists the group can include and help bridge the gap between amateur and professional comedian. In addition to the yearly festival, there are weekly/monthly series all over Cleveland all year round people can check out. Visiting accidentalcomedy.com you’ll be able to check out a calendar of dope shit.
What does the future hold for the Accidental Comedy Club?
We’ll see. Hopefully it continues to grow and help generations of comics in Cleveland. That, or Jimmie sells it for money to fix his car.
You can catch Ramon Rivas II with Hannibal Buress at Masonic Temple Oct. 2, headlining at Mahall’s on Oct. 5, opening for Robert Kelly at the Grog Shop on Oct. 7, and headlining at Hilarities on Nov. 16. Found future dates on blazerramon.com.
THE BEST FEST YET
Proving the club’s commitment to blowing the lid off Cleveland’s comedy scene, the fifth annual Accidental Comedy Fest was their biggest bash yet. From August 26-28, Ramon Rivas II, Jimmie Graham, and their fellow club members organized, performed, and hosted an all-out extravaganza, presenting a cavalcade of over fifty comics from around the country with amazingly diverse personalities and styles. The fest was held in Lakewood at Mahall’s, a legendary triple threat venue for comedy, concerts, and bowling. Primed for a show of this magnitude, the main bar branches off to twenty lanes and three separate stages for concurrent acts of simultaneous hilarity.
Main stage headliners, Kurt Braunohler, Beth Stelling, and Rivas himself, each lit up the audience with their notorious comedy stylings. Upstairs on the Apartment Stage, often likened to the common uncle’s wood-paneled den, one show, “Cleveland vs. the World,” pitted locals against non-Cleveland comics in a battle of witticism. In the Basement Lounge, “The Waiting Room” provided non-stop entertainment throughout the festival.
Between the trifecta of stages, a lineup of outstanding comedians too long to fully list kept the mood alive all weekend. Marcella Arguello, Brandon Wardell, Langston Kerman, Jo Firestone, Felonious Munk, Dave Halem, Clark Jones, Will Miles, and Giulia Rozzi are just a sampling of the names that made up the extensive lineup Rivas and company reeled in to take turns cracking up the audience.
“Accidental rents the entire Cleveland Hostel for artists to stay, so it has a real summer camp vibe,” said Rivas. After invites 25 spots were open to any comedians to submit for consideration. As the Accidental Comedy Fest has expanded, submission rate for the fest has spiked from 26 in the first year to now over 200.
The Fest, however, was not entirely stand-up. Vocalist Natalie Grace Alford, rapper Chris Crack, and “Brooklyn’s number two Weezer cover band” The Undone Sweaters brought their musical talents into the mixer. Up in the uncle’s den, Cleveland favorite Bill Squire and Accidental member Cody Cooper recorded their first live episode of the ever-enjoyable podcast Gabbing with Grandma. One of Sunday’s closers, sketch quartet Last Call Cleveland, took spectators for a wild ride with a series of skits, songs, and a special appearance by everyone’s favorite talking baseball hat, Sticky T.
With plenty of food, liquor, smoke, and laughter to go around, attendees were treated to a rare night of comedy in Cleveland’s own backyard. By and large, the humor on display was of the ear-tickling “adult” variety. Nothing was off limits. Politics, drugs, racism, violence, suicide, sex, masturbation, religion, vulgarity—all the classics. And, no one even got beat up after the show. The often taboo topics were always served in a manner of self-expression and professional jest, with respect, intelligence, and laughability. For those willing to check their sensitivities at the door, the latest Accidental Comedy Fest was a hysterical experience to remember.
The truth is, Ramon Rivas II and the Accidental Comedy Club have already cemented themselves as a great comedic force in the city, but this is still just the beginning. “This year, the Cleveland Leadership Center awarded me a grant for the fest,” said Rivas. “So hopefully that continues to legitimize the fest and other efforts of the group year round.” And aside from their ongoing endeavors to further flourish the local scene, the community has a major part to play in this comedy uprising. It takes a village, and in this case that village is you, Cleveland. They need an audience, and you need a few laughs. Get out there and show ’em we can take a joke!
MEET THE CLUB
You’ve read the rundown on Ramon Rivas II. Now get to know the full roster of the Accidental Comedy Club, the locally brewed comic medley set on making Cleveland a destination for comedy fans around the world.
Years of stand-up: 4
Comedy style: *rolls eyes* “I am basically Jeff Dunham.”
Trivia tidbit: On his 21st birthday, was choked out by the dude from Nickelback’s bodyguard
Random Q: What makes Cleveland’s comedy scene so unique? “Both the comedians and the fans here are real. We’re not a bunch bloggers bitching about safe places and trigger words. If something’s funny we laugh, and if it’s shit, we don’t.
Upcoming gigs: Modern Kicks Comedy @ The Happy Dog, every 2nd, 3rd and 4th Wednesday // Mahall’s w/ Langston Kerman, 9/19 @ 9pm
Years of stand-up: 6
Comedy style: Chill anger
Trivia tidbit: Oldest member of the Accidental Crew and the “blackest”
Random Q: What’s your favorite part of doing comedy? “The rush I get when I tell a new joke or have an idea pop in my head and just say it and the crowd dies laughing. That emotion is priceless.”
Upcoming gigs: Make Em Laugh Mondays @ Grog Shop, 9/26, 10/3, 10/17, 10/31 // Opening for Mark Normand @ Hilarities, 9/28-10/2
Years of stand-up: 4 ½
Comedy style: Charismatic and kinda loud storytelling, life-altering sexual thunder
Trivia tidbit: Used to weigh over 300 pounds and has “fat people diabetes”
Random Q: How much sexual thunder are we talking and am I gonna be able to walk after? “All of it. And no, make your travel plans to and from the shows accordingly.”
Upcoming gigs: Step Brothers Comedy @ Brothers Lounge, 9/20 // Opening for Robert Kelly @ Grog Shop, 10/7 // Featuring @ Hilarities for Andy Woodhull, 10/26-10/27 & 10/30 // Opening for Dave Attell @ Hilarities, 10/28-10/29
Years of stand-up: 4
Comedy style: Quick witted and observant, with a slightly dark twist
Trivia tidbit: Has never been to a haunted house
Random Q: What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned from doing stand-up?
“You have to be okay with failure because failure is where you learn and grow. That’s something I still struggle with but remind myself of often. The best way to see if an idea is funny is to watch it crash and burn.”
Upcoming gigs: The Cleveland Improv, 10/6-10/9 // Hilarities, 10/12-10/16
Years of stand-up: 5
Comedy style: Shock pop culture social commentary sauce
Trivia tidbit: His driver’s license has been suspended longer than Obama’s been in office
Random Q: What’s your most memorable experience within the Cleveland comedy scene? “Watching the local standup scene flourish from what it was six years ago into this vehicle for self-expression for so many that need therapy, stress relief or whateva.”
Years of stand-up: 4
Comedy style: Personal PG-13 life observations, current events
Trivia tidbit: Is a badass on a pool table
Random Q: What’s your greatest accomplishment as a comic so far?
“In 2013, I took over hosting an open mic that was about to die. With positive energy and a lot of hard work, The Village Idiot has grown into the biggest comedy open mic in NE Ohio, regularly drawing over 30 comics a week. I am proud of that.”
Upcoming gigs: The Village Idiot @ Lakewood Village Tavern, every Wednesday @ 9pm // Ingenuity Fest, 9/24 @ 9pm
Years of stand-up: 4
Comedy style: Storytelling and absurd observations
Trivia tidbit: Had an unhealthy obsession with Sporty Spice at age 12
Random Q: How’d the Fest go this year?
“The festival was fantastic. As a comic, there’s a special feeling when you have so much talent in an intimate space, mingling and becoming friends with each other.”
Upcoming gigs: Barrio in Lakewood, every Monday @ 10pm // East End Tavern in Lakewood w/ Bill Squire, 9/22