CINCINNATI—Cincinnati’s standup comics operate on their own calendar. In their community, this coming weekend is Christmas.
“It’s the one time of year I know I’ll be able to see most of my old friends,” said Mike Cody, a comic raised in Cincinnati who, since 2012, has made his way in New York City.
“I miss my friends, I miss the city, I want to eat at Skyline, I want to eat at Eli’s,” Cody said. “I think for everybody who’s done this as least once, the performances are secondary to being around everyone else.”
This, as Cody is referring to, is the showcase for comedy and craft beer called Cincy Brew Ha-Ha. Now in its eighth year, the festival has ballooned to three nights, Aug. 21-23, with more than 70 comedians plying their trade on four stages at Cincinnati’s Sawyer Point. Lubricating the laughs are 31 booths of craft breweries and regional wineries.
Marquee headliners are Cincinnati native Josh Sneed (Thursday), Randy and Jason Sklar (Friday) and David Alan Grier (Saturday). But dozens of local names—and the stories and relationships among and between them—are the real draw for anyone with history on stage or in the seats of local comedy clubs.
“There’s a secret little bar on Plum Street we’ll take over on Friday, MOTR on Saturday and the Reds game Sunday. That’s the fun stuff, because none of us get to do that anymore,” said Geoff Tate, a longtime Cincinnati comic. Tate gave up hosting a monthly standup showcase at MOTR this past February when he moved onto a friend’s couch in Los Angeles.
Tate rattles off the names of several contemporaries—Cody, Dave Waite, Alex Stone and Dayton native Ryan Singer—who came up together through the local clubs, Go Bananas in Blue Ash and, to a lesser extent, Funny Bone in Newport, and are now touring nationally. All are on this weekend’s Brew Ha-Ha lineup.
“We get to spend the weekend doing what it was like when we started, when it was just a bunch of comedians telling jokes and hanging out,” Tate said. “That was good enough to keep us going and doing this.”
Unlike the Aspen Comedy Festival in Colorado or Just For Laughs in Montreal, which are magnets for HBO and Comedy Central scouts, Cincy Brew Ha-Ha is more a party than a platform for launching national stars. Nobody will win network development deals this weekend. Still, few comedy festivals offer the sheer deluge of comedians as Brew Ha-Ha.
“Nobody’s looking to get industry exposure. There’s no pressure, and we get such great headliners and performers (at this festival) because they know it’s a great time and won’t make or break their career,” said Sally Brooks, a former Cincinnatian now rooted with her husband in Morgantown, W.V.—that is, during the roughly eight weeks each year she isn’t spending on the road.
“We all want to do well in front of our friends,” she said of Brew Ha-Ha. “And it’s fun for the audience because when they see all of us having fun.”
Aside from each evening’s headliners, nobody will perform sets longer than 20 minutes—indeed, most comics will get five to 10 minutes and perform two to three times through the weekend.
“I wanted more time, frankly, but they’re really good about giving everybody who’s contributed to the scene some time on stage,” said Erica Russell, a relative newcomer who’s already had success on short-lived ABC reality show called “The Glass House.”
“It’s like a homecoming,” she said. “So if it means we get shorter sets so more people can get up there, I think everybody’s OK with that.”
The festival is designed, one director said, to give comedy and beer equal footing.
“We don’t strive to be just a comedy festival nor just a beer festival,” said Michael Filhardt, one of three former marketers with the Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce who purchased this festival from the chamber after its first year.
“Our zany spin of beer and comedy sets us apart. The two definitely go hand-in-hand,” he said. “It’s good for the comedians and it’s good for the audience, because it’s a lot more like an actual club. Except here, you’re not stuck in one spot. If one comedian isn’t doing it for you, you can grab a beer and walk to another stage.”
Women are a minority at this festival—particularly on stage but also in the audience—but their histories are more interesting.
Brooks was an attorney working for a federal judge when, in 2008, she signed up for a standup comedy class through Funny Bone. She gave up law in 2010 to devote herself to comedy. In 2011, Russell dropped out halfway through her course work at the University of Cincinnati’s law school to focus on comedy. Another notable comic on the Brew Ha-Ha lineup is Ally Bruener, from Louisville, who suffers from Congenital Muscular Dystrophy and performs in a motorized wheelchair.
“Cincinnati was an amazing place to start. There were guys working at every level,” Brooks said. “The young guys now are building their own thing—shows at MOTR and Mayday—but Go Bananas has always been there and done so much for comics. If you’re really putting in the time and working hard, they’ll give you a shot.”
Though Cincinnati tends to hold onto its comics far longer than do other cities, most careerists leave the Tri-State for the lure of Los Angeles or New York and the potential for better-paying writing gigs or screen work. But Geoff Tate has seen enough of Los Angeles to say his “goal is to stay here only as long as I have to.”
“I will tell you, it’s hard to write jokes in Los Angeles,” he said. “Most of the things that cross my mind are (about) the traffic. I write that joke on paper and throw it away. Cincinnati is always going to be my home. I put a little work together to come back just so I could get some writing done.”
IF YOU GO ...
What: 8th annual Cincy Brew Ha-Ha
When: 5 p.m. to midnight, Thursday-Friday, 4:30 p.m. to midnight Saturday, Aug. 21-23.
Where: Sawyer Point Park, Cincinnati
Cost: Comedy is free. Wristbands $5 for beer wristband, plus cost of tickets for beer ($5 for full beer).
Info: Full comedy schedule and list of brewers at cincybrewhaha.com