This is a big weekend for Cleveland comedian Ramon Rivas II. Not only is his collective Accidental Comedy putting on their fifth annual comedy festival with headliners like Beth Stelling and Kurt Braunholer, but he’s also making his television debut with one of the first Comedy Central Half Hours of the season. Rivas is DIY comedy incarnate and an interesting model for any working comedian not residing in an industry-heavy city. I caught up with Rivas poolside on the rooftop of New Orleans’ ACE Hotel as he was getting ready to leave town after his Half Hour taping in April. We talked about his family, the Half Hour, and his true love: Cleveland.
You had quite a crew rolling with you this weekend.
Yeah, my family came. I flew my mom, dad, sister, and her three kids down. They got here about an hour after me. They went to their Air B&B, unpacked, and were hungry, but I really wanted to watch Aparna Nancherla’s set with my niece. I’ve been sending her Aparna’s web series. We got some snacks so that they were fine and got to watch Aparna. It was a cool moment to be right next to my niece watching the show. She’s the one I mentioned in my special who is really mean to me. She’s been warming up to me, though. Then we went to eat at a fancy seafood restaurant.
You’ve talked about your family sometimes viewing your comedy career as a hobby. Did them being here for the taping and seeing all the work that you’re putting into it solidify for them that this is a legit job?
Yeah. It’s weird. I’m living in Cleveland. I moved back in with my dad a year and a half ago. I don’t pay rent, so it enables me to save up and travel for dumb reasons. Even before this came about my parents were proud of me, even though I was living with one of them. Early on they were questioning me like, “So you’re going to do what for no money? How long until you start getting paid?” A year in I started treating it like a full-time, non-paying job and getting super into it. There was a stretch when I didn’t have a car. I came back from Chicago and didn’t have a job or a place to stay. My sister let me crash at her place on the floor for two years. They’ve always been supportive. They don’t have a lot of money or the finances to support me, but with their hearts or whatever they can they get behind me. I’ve had little benchmarks in Cleveland like write-ups in the papers and radio interviews in town. Those have been little validation checkmarks along the way. I’m kind of like an ambassador for Cleveland. I like to make sure when people come to town they leave with a great experience so that they’re like, “Oh, Cleveland’s not what I assumed it was.” My family is proud of that.
When did you start doing comedy?
I started eight years ago. April 2008. I actually got the call for the Half Hour on my eight year anniversary.
One of the interesting things about the Half Hour this year is that they pulled quite a few comics from scenes that you wouldn’t expect Comedy Central to be paying attention to: Cleveland, Houston, Austin. It’s nice to see spotlights on scenes other than New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. What do you think makes Cleveland special?
I’ve been trying to put my finger on that. It’s definitely a place with a feeling where when you leave, it stays with you in some way, shape, or form. That’s just the vibe of the city. There are two A clubs in town: Hilarities and the Improv. I run a lot of independent shows called Accidental Comedy. I’ve been doing those for a few years and last year I formed it into a collective. The first few years I was producing shows it was just me. Now it’s a collective. Accidental Comedy is dedicated to enriching the arts in Cleveland through comedy and other performances. I mostly just do shows in bars, but it’s gotten to the point where there’s a whole community that loves coming to shows and supporting what’s happening. Building that sense of community is important to me. When I go to New York or LA and get to do awesome shows it’s cool, but it feels a little hollow to me. A dope show in Cleveland feels likes it’s building towards something. It feels like it has a momentum toward something. The way I phrased that mission statement was purposeful to get people to think of comedy as an art. Not a lot of people view it that way. It’s getting close to the point where Cleveland gives it that respect.
Northeast Ohio gets one of the highest arts endowments in the country. I’m trying to position in a way that hopefully at some point we can get some of that grant money. We can stretch it super far because comics are good at being broke. The cost of living is super affordable so you can have a life outside of comedy too. A lot of people go to New York and work so hard to afford to be there. You’re doing comedy, but you’re not living. You go from work, to a show, to home, to sleep. It’s a constant cycle. I’m in no rush to move to another city. I’m not the only one doing shit in Cleveland. There are a lot of other people doing things too. It’s just that now it’s at a point where all these little things that everyone’s been doing, when looked at collectively, are shining a light on the city. I want people to be as passionate about comedy as they are for sports in Cleveland. Cleveland cries whether they win the championship or lose the championship because the connection is that emotional. I want that for comedy.
Now that you had a couple days to decompress, how do you feel your Half Hour went?
It felt good. Man. I wasn’t in my head at all. Backstage the production people were like, “You’re so calm.” I mean, I smoked a little bit before the show, but I had a good window before I had to get onstage. But I was comfortable. I know how to fuck with a crowd. They have your set list on teleprompters, but I was like, “I don’t want the setlist. Just give me time stamps.” My mind doesn’t work in list form. I used to go onstage with the setlist in mind, but I would be too worried about keeping things in order and I wouldn’t be in the moment connecting to the crowd. The only difference between writing and performing is the crowd. But it felt good. I felt like myself. Sometimes you adjust to fit the moment, but I let the moment come to me.
Do you have management?
I’m completely unrepped. [Note: Since the interview Ramon has signed with Jerilyn Novia at Brillstein Entertainment Partners] I don’t live in New York or LA, so getting this was like outlier status. But that didn’t intimidate me from asking for some adjustments to my contract. It didn’t stop me from asking questions. I don’t have anyone to advocate for me, so I have to advocate for myself, which is something that all comics can do.
You have a very Cleveland blue collar work ethic.
This will be my first time on TV. I had my Cleveland shirt that my friend screen-printed by hand. I had my hat from my Accidental Comedy shows. It sounds dumb, but I have my city on my back.