Ramon Rivas knows what people think about his home town of Cleveland. “Every time I travel, when I tell somebody I’m from Cleveland they’re like, ‘oh, I’m so sorry,’” the comedian tells Paste. “Everyone has a preconception of Cleveland because it does exist as a pop culture reference point, in a way that Des Moines, Iowa, doesn’t.”
No matter how hackneyed Cleveland jokes are by this point, that bad rep still clings to it, as it does with many other Rust Belt cities that faded in the second half of the 20th century before undergoing a 21st century rejuvenation. A proud local son, Rivas and a handful of other local comedians are reclaiming Cleveland’s reputation through the annual Accidental Comedy Festival, which starts tonight, Aug. 30, 2017, and runs through the weekend at the comedy club Hilarities. One of countless local comedy festivals that have popped up throughout the country this century, Accidental is becoming a festival of note outside the 216 area code, as the now-LA-based Rivas’s burgeoning career and expanding industry connections have lured big names onto the schedule. This year’s headliners include Ron Funches, Dave Hill, Dan Soder, a live taping of Doug Benson’s Doug Loves Movies podcast, and more, with Rivas himself main eventing Saturday’s lineup. The rest of the schedule features some of the best up-and-comers in stand-up today, including Jak Knight, Mia Jackson, Kate Willett, Brett Druck and others. It’s about as strong of a collection of comedians as you’ll find outside the major megafests like Just For Laughs.
For Rivas, Accidental serves two goals. It highlights the city’s comedy community, which, despite growing rapidly over the last decade, still struggles for respect in its own town. It also acts as a de facto sales pitch for the city itself to the festival’s out-of-town performers. “It’s been cool to be able to bring people to town,” Rivas says, “and either through working with them at a club or bringing them in to these independent shows at rock venues and shit like that, getting to show them that there’s nothing that’s going to blow you away [in Cleveland] but there’s good food, good bars, good people. If you just stay in your hotel and don’t go experience the city, yeah, it’s going to be as shitty as you’ve had it built up in your mind. But if you take the time to go out and do anything you’re going to realize it’s a vibrant city that has stuff going for it. It’s cool to use comedy to bring people together from all parts of the city.”
Accidental’s roots stretch back to 2011, and true to the name, it wasn’t really planned to be a festival. “I did a comedy stage at an existing music and arts festival in Cleveland,” Rivas says. “It was, like, under a bridge, the Detroit-Superior Bridge, where the trolley system used to run. Cleveland hasn’t used the trolley since like the ‘50s. It was an interesting repurposed stage. The next year I was doing a comedy stage with that festival again, and I had Kyle Kinane and Neil Hamburger booked at other venues that same week, so I was like ‘oh, if I fill out these gaps I can push that out as an accidental comedy fest.’ So that’s how the name came about.”
Since that first installment, Accidental has grown every year, to the point where it’s now being held in Cleveland’s major comedy club. Along with it, Rivas’s own career has grown; in 2015 he was named one of Comedy Central’s Comics to Watch, and had a half-hour special on the network in 2016. Earlier this year he was one of Paste’s favorite comics at Just For Laughs 2017. His career and the comedy festival have grown symbiotically, with Rivas meeting comedians like Funches (who invited him to Just For Laughs) and then inviting them to Cleveland to play Accidental.
“There’s no industry here,” Rivas says. “In the early years it was just the experience of being in Cleveland. And that has helped me, like my first meetings with Comedy Central that I had years ago, I went into the meeting and a bunch of the executives had already seen me opening for people that I’d done shows with in Cleveland who were cool enough to let me do guest spots when I was in New York. I was just trying to get them to come to the festival and through emailing them for that I got asked to do a Comics to Watch audition. If I wasn’t doing things the way I was doing things I don’t know how that could’ve happened. I couldn’t afford to live in New York full time, I couldn’t afford to live in LA full time. I was living with either my mom, dad or sister at various points early in my career, and just saving up the money to go and do open mics and shit in other cities. And when I was home just working to build up the scene so I could perform more and get funny to the point where I could work at the clubs and it wasn’t a question of me just being overeager or hungry for it, I was just ready for the opportunity. So Cleveland was a super great place to fail anonymously, through Accidental and through what I’ve done. It’s helped my career tremendously, just doing it myself and not waiting for anybody.”
Accidental’s about to have its biggest year yet, but Rivas isn’t resting on any laurels. He’s looking forward to the fest’s future, and hoping to establish it as a crucial event not just for Cleveland’s comedy scene but for the whole city, and for the entire comedy industry. “Throughout the year I want it to help bridge the gap from amateur to professional for comics in the Cleveland area,” he says. “Let when people are traveling know they can go do good spots in Cleveland while in between spaces. The festival is growing. People have heard of it within the industry. Comedy Central is sending some reps this year. I’m just hoping it continues to grow into a thing—I want it to be enriching to people who take the time to come to it, as artists, but also as audience members, because that community of people who come to support the shows is as important as what happens on stage.
“It’s weird trying to figure out how to get the support that I know is there,” he says. “I hope that through putting on a good show, and just Field of Dreamsin’ it—if you build it they will come—hopefully it continues to just be an experience that people realize is as good as Clusterfest or Just for Laughs. It’s such a smaller scale, but it’s just as—I feel like it’s as relevant of a place to consume comedy.”
Tickets for this week’s sixth annual Accidental Comedy Fest at Hilarities.com or call box office 216-736-4242
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games section. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.