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Dec. 8, 2014

Cleveland Comedy Festival highlights local talent

By Nicole Drake

Fifty shows in seven days — the seventh annual Cleveland Comedy Festival, co-directed by Joe Hannum, unites national and local acts from Cleveland, Lakewood and surrounding areas in venues such as Hilarities, B-Side Lounge, The Cleveland Bop Stop and many more.

The Cleveland Comedy Festival has been growing since 2008. In the words of organizers, it “started things off with a bang.”

“We started with very humble beginnings,” Hannum said. “Back in 2008, we did five shows in two nights.”
Bill Squire and Mike Polk Jr. headlined Friday, Nov. 21 at the comedy festival, which presented shows Monday, Nov. 17 through Sunday, Nov. 23.
Squire, a local comedian and co-host of The Alan Cox Show, has been a part of the Cleveland Comedy Festival since it began.

“The comedy festival brings comics in from across the country to our city and they see all the talent and great audiences we have here,” Squire said.
This year’s festival featured a panel discussion, which the Comedy Festival has never done before, according to Hannum.

On Friday, Nov. 21, the unscripted comedy panel Cleveland Writes! was moderated by Mike McIntyre of WCPN Sound of Ideas and was held at The Hanna Theater, Cleveland Playhouse, featuring comedy TV writers who hail from Cleveland.

Nicole DrakeThe writers featured included Steve Skrovan (“Everybody Loves Raymond,” “Hot in Cleveland”), Marc Jaffe (“Seinfeld,” “Mad About You”) and Lisa DeBenedictis (“Mad About You,” “Dream On”).

The discussion opened with a clip from Seinfeld called “The Limo.” The idea behind the clip came from the notion that ideas are created and come to be through real life situations.

“Sometimes you have to get in the character’s head — how would they think? How would they act? How would they behave?” DeBenedictis said. “Sometimes stories come from conflict and real-life situations.”

The three panelists took turns describing their experiences in the industry and how they survived Sunday Night Amateur Night at the local comedy clubs they frequented during their early beginnings.
“I started in 1980 as a customer at the Cleveland Comedy Club,” Skrovan said. Skrovan described his time at the club on amateur night. He said it looked like fun, so he tried his hand on stage.

“I swear, it was like the comedy club gave an award to the most rowdy heckler in the club,” Skrovan said. “Most of them were drunk guys.”

The panelists went on to describe how people approach them on the street with ideas for a story.
“This was very annoying in the beginning,” DeBenedictis said. “I’d get people all the time giving me their stories, and they expect people to write them for them.”

Their advice for aspiring writers was that if you are really a creator, you just have to do it — write it down on paper, take disasters and work backward, don’t try to mimic something you have watched before and be original. They said to touch on things that are a part of the human condition, make shows relatable, use reverse engineering to take scripts and break them down, build your stories and find your peer groups.

According to Skrovan, writing is a collaborative process — it’s about surfing the wave of the premise.
“Artists really need to help each other,” DeBenedictis said. “I’ve never had an agent get me a job.”
The mantra for the evening was the idea that all roads lead to Ohio.

“Cleveland is a great comedy town, that’s one of the things we are celebrating tonight,” Hannum said. “We really think Cleveland exports comedy — Cleveland does comedy — Cleveland has a great sense of humor and it’s something that we do well. We want to celebrate that.”

Following the panel was a question and answer session with the audience members.
Ten percent of the proceeds from the Cleveland Writes! show went directly to support Shaking With Laughter — a non-profit organization founded by Marc Jaffe to fight Parkinson’s disease.