Cincinnati is known for making many things: chili, soap, aircraft engines. Lately, though, the Queen City is being recognized for producing comedy, as several current headlining comedians started their stand-up careers here and more are making their way into the national spotlight. At first glance, it might look like a coincidence. But Cincinnati has long had strong local comedy scene, and the rest of the country has only recently started to take notice.
Cincinnati has two comedy clubs that feature nationally headlining comedians: The Funny Bone on the Levee in Newport and Go Bananas in Montgomery. During the so-called “comedy boom” of the 1980s, there were four clubs, but only Go Bananas survives from that era.
Go Bananas General Manager Michael Kurtz has been with the club almost since the beginning. One October night in 1994, he accompanied a friend who had just been hired as a bartender. “The club was short-staffed, and they asked me to work the door,” he recalls. “And I never left.”
Go Bananas is considered one of the top rooms in the country, and several comics have recorded CDs there. Kurtz believes the club’s reputation has been built on the fact that the entire staff is passionate about comedy. “We have a good staff here,” he says. “They’re here for comedy, not to make a lot of money. Most of our people have been here between seven and 15 years, and we take care of the comedians.”
Comedian Gabe Kea, who runs the club’s open mic pro-am night, came to Cincinnati from St. Louis based largely on what he heard about Go Bananas and the local comedy scene as a whole. “I looked into it and figured out that, compared to St. Louis, Cincinnati is geographically a great place to start.” Five years into doing stand-up he reasoned it was just as good a place to branch out. “Within two hours you have Columbus, Indianapolis, Louisville, Lexington and Dayton.” Kea has since met his goal of opening, or “featuring” as they say in the stand-up comedy business, in each of those cities.
Cincinnati’s other major club, Funny Bone on the Levee, is managed by Steve Fosthoefel, who started working at Joker’s Comedy Club in Dayton right about the same time Kurtz was pressed into service at Go Bananas.
While it’s not uncommon for two clubs in a town to feud (Indianapolis is a good example), The Funny Bone and Go Bananas are on friendly terms. “Me and Mikey understand that we attract slightly different audiences,” says Forsthoefel. The Funny Bone skews slightly urban, while Go Bananas tends to be more suburban, though several headliners, like Vice Morris and Chris Porter, have played both. Local talent is welcome at both venues, and it’s not uncommon for up-and-coming area comics to perform ahead of a feature act during a weekend run at either club. That speaks to the depth of talent in the Tristate.
“I think the comedy scene in Cincinnati is better than most markets this size,” Forsthoefel says. “I think we have a lot of young, hungry comedians, a lot of great talent. I can fill this room with great comedy at any given moment. If someone cancels it’s not hard to find a replacement.”
The giants of Cincinnati comedy
The list of comedians that have a connection to Cincinnati is rather lengthy. Most are from the area and also started their careers here. Some came from the Tristate, but started doing stand-up in another city, and then there are those who wound up here and decided to give stand-up comedy a try.
Josh Sneed, a Cincinnati native, had a good job at Procter & Gamble. “I was systems analyst,” he says. “I worked in IT. A computer geek — that’s what it was.” Long inspired by the performers on Saturday Night Live, however, he never lost the desire to do comedy. He eventually quit his day job and has been doing comedy full time. He has headlined across the country, released a CD called Unacceptable, has his own Comedy Central Presents episode and in 2008 finished second in that network’s annual “Stand-up Showdown.” Sneed is now based in Mason, where he also runs a successful T-shirt business between TV appearances and live headlining dates around the U.S.
Greg Warren also worked at Procter & Gamble after moving here from St. Louis. “I think I made people laugh in the office,” he says. “Especially toward the end because I didn’t take my job very seriously,” adding: “I’d like to tell you I worked very hard up until the end.” Warren transferred to Houston but soon left P&G to pursue comedy full time.
The world’s largest packaged goods manufacturer is apparently quite the producer of comedy talent, as Fairfield native Rajiv Satyal also worked there. He currently lives in Los Angeles and also headlines shows around the country. He frequently features for former Saturday Night Live performer Kevin Nealon.
On the other end of the spectrum is Gary Owen, who was born and raised in the Hamilton area but started comedy in San Diego while stationed there with the U.S. Navy. His career took an interesting twist early on. Owen, who is white, found it much easier to get stage time at urban comedy clubs in San Diego, and the audiences fully embraced him. He went on to win the “Funniest Black Man in San Diego” contest and later become a fixture on BET’s Comic View. Like Sneed, Owen still lives in the area, but does live shows nationwide as well as TV and movie work. Most recently he was in the Steve Harvey film Think Like a Man.
Similarly, Katt Williams, from Avondale, found great success on BET and now lives in Los Angeles. When not performing in sold-out theatres, he appears in movies. Former Funny Bone general manager Jeff Jenna does both club and corporate work across the country and frequently appears on TV.
The latest Cincinnati comedians to make their way onto the national stage are Geoff Tate and Dave Waite.
This past February, Tate appeared on The Late, Late, Show with Craig Ferguson. He was booked after Ferguson decided to check out a local comedy club in Wichita, Kan., after a performance at a casino there.
“Who thinks Craig Ferguson is going to walk into a club in Wichita?” Tate says. In April, Tate recorded a CD and DVD at MOTR Pub in Over-The-Rhine, and he is currently planning a tour of small East Coast venues later this summer.
Waite appeared on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon back in May. “I was seen by the show’s booker at the Laughing Skull Comedy Festival in Atlanta,” he says, “and then I did an audition in New York City.”
He won the Laughing Skull competition, incidentally. Based in New York for the past few years, he performs frequently in NYC and across the country.
The next generation
As more and more Cincinnati comics move on to perform around the Midwest and in other parts of the nation, there seems to be no shortage of talent in the Tristate. A trip to either the Funny Bone on the Levee or Go Bananas for an open mic show will confirm that. Unfortunately, both clubs schedule these shows on Wednesday nights, but there’s really no reason you can’t alternate. Both shows feature folks new to stand-up, as well as seasoned veterans. The cost for either show is just $5. You often get to see about a dozen comics perform, and very few are terrible. Most have at least two or three good jokes, and the majority have a workable five minutes.
“The crowd is good here,” says Gabe Kea, who runs Go Bananas’ ProAm open mic show. “And that’s what comics who come here from other cities say. We have a show with tons of people who are very talented and are just trying to do stand-up. Some are trying to do something different; others are just trying to do their thing.”
Krish Mohan recently travelled all the way from Pittsburgh to do five minutes in the Funniest Person in Cincinnati contest at Go Bananas. “I had heard about Go Bananas from some comics in Pittsburgh,” he says, “and I wanted to see if I could come out and just do an open mic.”
Kea encouraged him to try the contest, and Mohan took him up on it. “When I told people I was travelling to Cincinnati they said ‘Go Bananas is a great club, have fun, talk to all the other comics there.’ It didn’t disappoint.”
The Funny Bone runs two different open mic shows. The first Wednesday of every month it’s the Clash of the Comics hosted by Brian Million. “Each month the winner of that show is crowned Titan for that month,” explains Million. “At the end of the year, we’ll have Clash of the Titans to determine the funniest person of the year.” Million also runs a free workshop once a month, usually on Sunday afternoons, that teaches comedians not only how to write jokes and perform in front of an audience, but the business aspects of comedy as well.
The club’s standard open mic show runs once a month, also on Wednesday. Ray Price began hosting and organizing it two years ago at the behest of club management. “It has morphed into the current open mic competition,” says Price, “where contestants compete for $50.”
More seasoned comics are showcased in JuDee Brown’s W.O.W. show, also one Wednesday a month. The show is run “Apollo-style,” meaning the audience decides who is the best comic. “The club also runs showcases on Thursday when the week’s headliner cannot be in town for a Thursday or Sunday show,” says Price, himself an open mic comic. “I perform at 200 shows a year. The vast majority are unpaid open mic performances. I’m not very good,” he says, joking.
Bars and festivals
In addition to Go Bananas and The Funny Bone, several local bars and coffee shops have comedy nights. Most of these are organized by comedians and are usually well attended.
Zen and Now coffee shop in Cheviot has a show the second Tuesday of every month. It’s hosted by area veteran comedian Mike Cody, who just started doing the show again after a hiatus. “The previous version,” he says, “was the longest running show in town: three years. Zen and Now is very supportive, they love having us there and they have good coffee.”
Across the river in Kentucky you can attend Comedy Tuesdays at the Duck Creek Bar & Grill in Cold Spring. “We have been having a great time with the show,” says comic Vince Gulino, who took over hosting duties in January. “The comics and audience always enjoy it. Duck Creek Comedy Tuesday seems to always be fun, weird and completely unpredictable.” Up the road in Covington, comedian and musician Matt Stanton hosts a show at The Avenue.
You might have noticed a pattern at this point. Many of the shows put together by comedians run on Tuesday night. That’s because the open mics at Go Bananas and The Funny Bone are on Wednesday, and headlining comics perform Thursday through Sunday in most cases. However, there are other shows those nights as well.
The third Thursday of each month you can catch The Big Reveal at York Street Café in Newport. Started by Mike Cody, the show is currently hosted and organized by comedian John Bunyan, former writer for The Gary Burbank Show. Instead of stand-up, comedians tell a story related to that night’s topic. Usually humorous, the story culminates in some sort of discovery or unexpected ending. Cody started the Big Reveal when he realized storytelling shows in bigger markets were becoming popular. He cites The Moth storytelling event series in New York as the prime inspiration. Cody also ran the Underbelly Comedy Show, until the closing of the Southgate House forced the show into a hiatus. The show featured area stand-ups doing sketch comedy and was well received by audiences.
Still another comic organizing shows is Rob Wilfong. He puts together gigs that usually feature brand new comics, as well as some seasoned veterans. Venues include Boomerangs on Vine, Mahoganys in Covington and occasionally The Syndicate in Newport. Wilfong, who has been doing comedy for about four years, started organizing these shows after getting laid off from his day job. “I wouldn’t call assistant manager at Movie Gallery employment,” he says, “but I was able to get some equipment and we started doing these shows.”
While there’s plenty of opportunity so see good comedy, often for free, Cody wants to see more weird shows. “I want people to be able to step up to the plate and say ‘I want this type of show in Cincinnati,’ ” he says, “and bring something to the table that’s never been done before. I want there to be three or four weird shows a week.”
The city’s reputation for producing comedic talent continues to grow. On Aug. 24, comedians from across the country will descend on Sawyer Point for the annual Brew Ha-Ha comedy festival. Several local comics will also perform, including the eventual winner of the Funniest Person in Cincinnati contest, both semi-pro and amateur divisions. Last year the amateur winner was Brian Knab, who this year moved up to the contest’s semi-pro division. He’s not ready to quit his day job yet, but he does wonder if he should consider it. “Actually, having a family and a day job provides me with a lot of material,” he says. “It would be hard for me to go out there and step into this full time, but that is my dream.”
That’s where a lot of the area’s talent finds itself. Tabari McCoy, who has opened for Charlie Murphy, Mike Birbiglia and Tommy Johnagin, is taking a steady approach. “A lot of people want to be stars overnight, and that’s not going to happen,” he says. “Some people don’t realize comedy is a serious business.” Beyond the stage time, he notes that up-and-coming comedians have to get in touch with bookers, put together tapes to send out to clubs and, of course, write jokes. “It’s a grind and a hustle,” he says.
But it doesn’t dampen his enthusiasm for comedy. “I enjoy comedy because it’s hard to cry when you’re laughing,” he says. “If you’re having a bad day, go to a comedy club. You’re either going to be laughing at someone offering you a fresh perspective in life, or they may be so horrible you’re laughing at them.”
In Cincinnati it seems, the latter is unlikely.
P.F. Wilson has been a regular contributor to CityBeat since 1995. He hosts PF’s Tape Recorder Comedy Podcast and is an open mic comedian. He will perform in the Funniest Person in Cincinnati competition at Go Bananas in Montgomery.
In addition to weekend touring performances, Cincinnati’s comedy scene offers several regularly scheduled weeknight events.
• Bombs Away! Comedy open mic 9 p.m. every second and fourth Monday. Free.
4227 Spring Grove Ave., Northside, 513-541-0999.
Zen and Now Coffee House:
• Mike Cody hosts comic showcase on second Tuesdays.
4453 Bridgetown Road, Bridgetown, 513-598-8999.
Duck Creek Bar & Grill:
• Comedy show at 9 p.m. every Tuesday. Free.
1942 Industrial Road, Cold Spring, Ky., 859-442-7900.
Funny Bone on the Levee:
• Clash of the Comics open mic at 8 p.m. first Wednesdays. $6.
• Standard open mic night 8 p.m. final Wednesdays. $5.
• JuDee Brown’s W.O.W Comedy Night: 8 p.m. third Wednesdays. $10.
One Levee Way Suite 2125,
• Pro-Am Night: 8 p.m. various Wednesdays. $5.
8410 Market Place Lane,
York Street Cafe:
• The Big Reveal: story-telling comedy 8 p.m. third Thursdays. $5.
738 York St., Newport, Ky.,