Often times when you see a comic on stage, while their insights, observations, and stories may be honest and real, the personality that they’re projecting is sometimes more of a character, or at least an exaggerated version of themselves. From the best (Louie CK can obviously afford to turn it up a notch from a faded old black t-shirt, especially when he’s performing at Severance Hall), to the worst (Larry the Cable Guy’s real name is Daniel Whitney) the laughs are usually accompanied by an element of theater. With Ramon Rivas, the stand-up comic who is known around town for his company Chucklefck and founder/organizer of the Accidental Comedy Fest, what you see on stage is what you get anywhere else. I sat down with Rivas at Crust in Tremont to talk Cleveland comedy and he pretty much came across exactly like he does on countless stages around the city: quiet, reserved, with a sharp wit and intelligence coated in a stoner veneer.
The Accidental Comedy Fest started, well, on accident. In 2011, Ramon attended Ingenuity Fest and one of the blocks normally reserved for music was filled by local sketch troupe Last Call Cleveland. That gave him the idea to approach the festival to program a stage specifically for comedy. They agreed and he immediately got to work curating it.
“That first year at Ingenuity I brought out Al Jackson and Michael Palascak. 25 comics submitted from around the country and the top 15 came. And of them, Lisa Traeger, came, and she’s been on Chelsea Lately, The Lucas Brothers who three month later were on Fallon and in 22 jump street, and Chris Thayer who wrote for the Pete Holmes show. So it’s cool to bring these guys in before they’re big based on them hearing there’s a cool comedy scene in Cleveland.”
In 2012, Rivas brought in Beth Stelling and Ryan Singer. He had already been working on bringing in Kyle Kinane and Neil Hamburger. “I realized that if I lined these up right it was like a festival,” Rivas said. “And that’s how the Accidental Comedy Fest was started.”
Just like the trajectory these young comics are on, the festival has grow as well. This year’s Fest boasted shows all over town, from mainstays like Reddstone and the Grog Shop, to bigger, more “mainstream” rooms like Hilarities and the Improv. “We had these Just Faces showcases,” said Rivas, “which is kind of poking fun at the ‘New Faces’ and ‘New Faces Unsigned’ showcases at the Just For Laughs festival, so we called these ‘Just Faces.’ They might not be signed and you probably don’t know them, but they’re funny people with faces.”
This year’s Accidental Comedy Fest also featured a couple of live podcast tapings, sketch shows, and a musical performance from Cleveland native Jim Tews and his Weezer tribute band The Undone Sweaters. “Jim has this joke that goes ‘A lot of my friends are having a lot of problems in their marriages, which is really bad for them… but really great for my Weezer cover band.’ A couple of comedians got together and started practicing and now they’re playing some really great shows that are part sketch part musical performance.”
Having the Accidental Comedy Fest reach all corners of Cleveland has its ups and downs. “If I had my druthers I would book the fucking awesomest comedic experience,” said Rivas. “But I can only do so much with what I’m given and with the time frames the venues have given me. While it’s cool to do shows all over town, on the east side, downtown and west side, at all different price points, I can’t do a festival bracelet for all the shows because of all the different venue guidelines.”
Rivas takes pride in the fact that Cleveland has become a touch point on the national comedy scene. When competing with giant markets like New York, LA, and Chicago, Rivas makes it a point to really take care of the participating comics and give them a great experience while they’re here.
“I kind of try to improve the experience for the comics each year. With other fests you have to pay your way there, put yourself up and you’re maybe playing two 5-7 minute sets. The cost doesn’t justify the trip. The second year I was doing it, I rented out the third floor of the Cleveland Hostel in Ohio City so all the traveling comics had lodging taken care of. And then I begun adding more venues and more layers of programming.”
People like to come iron stuff out in Cleveland because it really is a savvy comedy scene.
From the strength and reputation of the weekly comedy shows Rivas books, he’s able to give bigger comics an environment to hone their craft. “People like to come iron stuff out in Cleveland because it really is a savvy comedy scene.” Ramon says. “A lot of that is the audience being there. There being a critical mass of people in the audience for anything makes it hard to fail. There’s no industry here. It just has the reputation for just being a really fun festival. It’s proving that Cleveland is a destination for comedy.”
The Accidental Comedy Fest wraps up with two shows this weekend. On Sunday night Hannibal Buress will play the Ohio Theater, another prime example of Accidental alumni who have really taken off. “In 2011 he was the first national headliner I had at Reddstone and he sold two shows out there. Then he came back in 2013 to the Grog Shop and sold that out 400 people standing room only, and this time he’s going to be at the Ohio Theater. So it’s been cool to see him grow.”
On Monday, The Lucas Brothers will perform at B-Side in Coventry along with Ramon Rivas and Yusuf Ali. Get more info on this show HERE.
But rest assured, when the Accidental Comedy Fest ends, the comedy certainly doesn’t. Visit www.chucklefck.com to get hip to the weekly shows Rivas runs in town.