Cincinnati might be known historically for its brewing tradition, but in recent years the city has offered the world a different type of export: comedians.
Next weekend, Cincinnati will witness the return of several of its comedic expats when the annual Cincy Brew Ha-Ha festival sprawls out over Sawyer Point Aug. 21-23. The fest this year added a third night, demonstrating the region’s wealth of talent and making this year’s Brew Ha Ha the biggest in the event’s eight-year history. More than 25,000 people are expected to sample beers, eat and watch stand-up comedy.
And if you’re not drinking beer, the event is completely free. Not bad for an idea that started in a traffic jam.
“I came up with the concept about a decade ago,” explains the event’s founder, Pat Sheeran. “I was sitting in traffic. I was producing another event that was dealing with a band and they had a pretty hellacious rider. It was pretty frustrating and as I was sitting in my car listening to sports radio, they referred to a fight during a baseball game as a ‘brouhaha.’ ”
Sheeran took it phonetically as “brew ha-ha,” and envisioned something completely different. “I thought, ‘That’s really just beer and comedy,’ ” he says.
He then thought about how that related to the difficulties the band was giving him. “If I had a comedian, I’d only need a microphone and a stool as opposed to all the backstage stuff and all the riders that go with having live entertainment like a band. So I went home and just sketched out the concept, and couple of years later Brew Ha-Ha was born.”
The Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce, where Sheeran is a vice president, produced the inaugural Brew Ha-Ha, but decided it didn’t want to be involved after that. Sheeran also produces Taste of Cincinnati and Oktoberfest for the chamber. “I asked if I could just continue on with Brew Ha-Ha, and they’ve allowed me to do so,” he says.
A portion of the proceeds from the event go to several local charities and not-for-profit groups such as The Cure Starts Now Foundation, whose mission is to promote a unified effort to cure all cancer, as well as several youth athletic programs. To date, Brew Ha-Ha has raised more than $100,000 for these charities.
According to Sheeran, one of the biggest differences between the first Brew Ha-Ha and this year’s event is the number of beers available. “When we stared this eight years ago, it was at the very beginning of this craft beer movement,” he explains. “Locally, Mt. Carmel was being produced and Greg Hardman had just brought Christian Moerlein back. Sam Adams was producing here, but we had to go out of town to get a lot of beers to participate because there weren’t a whole lot of craft beers available in Cincinnati.”
Concurrent to the growth of craft beers in the area was an upswing in the popularity of stand-up comedy in the Tristate. Consider that the Funniest Person in Cincinnati contest in 2014, put on by Go Bananas Comedy Club in Montgomery, had twice as many entries as the year before. That was also reflected in the number of comedians who wanted to perform at Brew Ha-Ha. The interest was so great a submission fee was imposed for applicants, with the money going to The Cure Stars Now Foundation. For Go Bananas General Manager Mike Kurtz, who is in charge of booking comedians for the event, the fee served as a much needed filter. “We’ve always had submissions,” he says, “but this year we had so many it’s been hard to go through all of them. So we tried to make it worth people’s while. If they’re going to commit, they’ll pay the fee, so we don’t get a thousand people who think they’re funny.”
Coordinating the schedule for more than 80 comedians seems like a daunting task, but Kurtz relies on his years of experience and his relationship with the comedians to guide him. “For the most part I know what they’re going to do. The cleaner ones will go on earlier, the younger ones will go on earlier, and the ones that have been doing it longer will get the later sets. It’s just like a normal comedy show, where the younger guys go up earlier and it moves up to the headliner to close the show. It’s four different stages and a total of about 20 hours of comedy each day, so that makes it a little more difficult.”
Many of the comedians are from the Tristate or started here and now live in New York, Chicago or Los Angeles. For those who have moved, Brew Ha-Ha is a chance to come home and reconnect with old friends.
“I’m kind of biased toward it compared to other festivals I’ve done,” says comedian Mike Cronin, who has appeared at the past three Brew Ha-Has. “Maybe because it’s in my hometown, but it’s like comedy Christmas to me.” That’s because Cronin, who is based in Cincinnati, gets to see fellow Queen City comics who have moved to those bigger markets.
“Absolutely,” agrees Dave Waite, a Northern Kentucky native who now resides in Los Angeles.
“Now that we’ve all dispersed across the country, it takes on more of homecoming sort of vibe. A lot of those guys are headliners, and I’m headlining most places, so I don’t get to see those guys, either. So it’s a great opportunity to hang out with some awesome comics.”
Some will make arduous journeys back to the city. “There is a bus that goes from Chinatown in New York City to Cincinnati,” says Sam Evans, who moved to New York from Southwest Ohio in January 2013. “It costs about $60 and it goes overnight. I’m told it’s extremely uncomfortable, but if you want to get back in a cost-effective and timely fashion, that’s the way to go. I’m also told you better fall asleep because it’s a scary ride, so that’s what I’m going to do.”
It’s all worth it, though. “It’s a really nontraditional environment for comedy that actually makes it so much better,” Evans says. “You go to a comedy club or theater and there’s a set way to do comedy. For Brew Ha-Ha, you’re outside and it’s more about people drinking and having fun, so you have to figure out a way to grab their attention and also make them comfortable enough to laugh at your jokes.”
Evans’ friend and fellow comic Alex Stone also feels that getting people’s attention is important, though not imperative. “I think you can get too hung up on keeping people’s attention at a festival,” says the former Sycamore Township resident who now does stand-up out of Chicago. “I’m just trying to talk loud enough so people can hear me.” Unlike at a club, it’s difficult for the comics to hear the crowd at a festival. “You just kind of look at faces to see how you’re doing,” Stone says. “If you get a big laugh you’ll hear it. Even if you just see smiles, though, you’re crushing it up there.”
“Drinking and comedy do have a long history together,” adds Mark Chalifoux, a Cincinnati native who just moved back to the area from New York City. It’s one of the things that sets Brew Ha-Ha apart from other comedy festivals. “Brew Ha-Ha is in a class of its own,” he insists, “because of the unique location. It’s outdoors, which can kind of be a drawback, but the way they place the stages helps a lot.”
Indeed, most comedy festivals are spread across a particular town and utilize several separate indoor venues. “Last October, I did this one in Montana called the Big Sky Comedy Festival,” Waite says. “It was a great time and [Dayton native] Ryan Singer and I did that together.”
“It was in different venues in the city of Billings,” Waite continues. “There were two groups of 10 of us at one venue, then the next night we would switch. It was a contest and the finals were held at a big theater.” Competitions are a part of many festivals. “Brew Ha-Ha is one of the most fun because there’s no industry pressure,” he says.
Not so with the world-famous Just for Laughs in Montreal. “It’s a great time there, but there are all these movers and shakers who attend,” Waite says. “If they’re not talking to you, you feel like the kid that doesn’t get asked to dance at the prom. ‘Why isn’t that guy trying to make me famous?’ ”
While Evans describes Brew Ha-Ha as more of a vacation, Funny Bone regular Brian Million insists that the comics still concentrate on having a good set because promoters and bookers have been known to show up. “When you do the festival and are trying to get exposure, you want to make sure you’re doing comedy that is more expressive of who you are as a person,” he says. “So topical stuff like dating and ‘I hate my job’ don’t play well, because people have seen that before and the bookers are looking for comics with unique voices. They want diversity, not just from a racial or gender standpoint, but from a comedic perspective.”
Finding that range of voices is part of the challenge for Kurtz when he books the comics for the festival. “There are a lot of good comedians in this town and they all want to be a part of it,” he says. “They respect me and I respect them, and once I get the schedule lined up, everybody knows what they’re doing. They all do their time and do it well.” That’s of particular importance this year, with more than 80 performers. “It’s difficult trying to get them all into spots, but they make my job easier because they want to be part of it and they take it upon themselves to do their work.”
Speaking of work, the festival not only lets the comedians reconnect, but also see what their peers have been up to, personally and professionally. “I like watching and seeing what people have come up with,” Waite says. “If you haven’t seen someone for two or three years, they may have a whole new act. That’s always exciting to see. I’ll sit back and be a fan for that.”
Waite and Stone, along with Geoff Tate and Ryan Singer, are a few of the more successful comedians to come from the Tristate in recent years, logging TV appearances and headlining clubs across the country. “Those guys have done very well,” Kurtz says. “There might have been some jealousy in the past, but those people have come to realize that those guys deserve it. They’re funny and it helps the scene a lot. They help out the younger comics and show them that all they really have to do is write good jokes and keep working on it and they can reach that level of success, too.”
It isn’t just about the local comics, though. In addition to the three main headliners — Bobcat Goldthwait, the Sklar Brothers and David Alan Grier — many more top headliners from around the country will appear. One of those is Robert Hawkins from Dallas. “Being from out-of-town, I’ll be getting around Cincinnati by taxi,” he explains. “That means I can get Mayor-of-Toronto-hammered and not have to drive. Walking will be hard enough, which is why, for safety, I’ll be wearing a helmet again this year.” For Hawkins, even with no other ties to the area, it’s a can’t-miss event.
The Cincinnati comics who have left the area have also helped spread the word. “A lot of New York comics know about Brew Ha-Ha, mostly because they hear Ohio comics talking about all the fun they have every year,” says Mike Cody, who moved to the Big Apple a few years ago. “The festival doesn’t have the same national profile of events like Bridgetown [in Portland, Ore.] or even Limestone [in Bloomington, Ind.], but that’s not necessarily bad. The hometown feel is one of the reasons I keep coming back year after year. Well, the hometown feel and the fact that Tom + Chee hasn’t opened up in New York City yet.”
Even the main headliners are fans of the festival. Sheeran recalls
Bobcat Goldthwait’s first appearance at Brew Ha-Ha a few years back.
“He performed on Friday night and then asked if we could put him up in
hotel, because he wanted to come back the next day as a customer,” he
says. Bobcat showed up the following day as a regular festivalgoer. “He
saw no one was on one of the small stages and just jumped up and did a
set for about 50 people. For those 50 people, that’s an experience that
will last a lifetime.”
UPDATE: Due to his close relationship with the late Robin Williams, Bobcat Goldthwait has cancelled his performance. Local favorite Josh Sneed will replace him as the headlining act for Thursday night.
CINCY BREW HA-HA returns to Sawyer Point next weekend, Aug. 21-23. The comedy is free; $5 per beer wristband; $1 per beer sample ticket. More info: cincybrewhaha.com.
Want to get involved in Cincinnati’s growing comedy scene? The following are several options for comedy lovers and aspiring comics alike.
Below Zero Lounge
1122 Walnut St., Over-the-Rhine, 800-650-6449,
Bye Bye Liver: Described as “two parts comedy, one part social game,” Bye Bye Liver sees Cincinnati comedians mix sketches and audience participation. 8 p.m. Saturdays. $15.
1 Levee Way, Newport-on-the-Levee,
The Laugh Off: Funny Bone opens the stage to comedy’s rising stars with this monthly event, usually the first Wednesday of the month. 8 p.m. Wednesdays. $5.
Wild’n Out Wednesday: Comedienne JuDee Brown-Burns showcases up-and-coming Cincinnati comics, then the audience decides who stays or goes. 8 p.m. Wednesdays. $10.
Go Bananas Comedy Club
8410 Market Place Lane, Montgomery,
Pro-Am Night: Amateur comics can perform “one or two” Wednesdays a month, but only if they bring five guests. 8 p.m. Wednesdays. $3.
4227 Spring Grove Ave., Northside,
Bombs Away Comedy Open Mic: A Mayday tradition, Bombs Away Comedy has turned Mondays into comedy nights; the second and fourth Mondays of each month are usually open mic. 9 p.m. Free.
24 E. Third St., Newport, 859-261-SHOW,
Open Mic Comedy: Newport’s Thompson House opens its doors to local comedians every week in the Rock Star Lounge. 8 p.m. Mondays. Free.