Stand-up comic Steve Brewer played all the joints as he toured the Midwest relentlessly for nearly 15 years, beginning with open-mic nights, then as emcee and featured act, before he finally graduated to headliner.
Brewer made audiences laugh in Toledo. In Columbus. In Ann Arbor. In Detroit. In Chicago. But to really make it big, Brewer knew he had to make them laugh in Los Angeles.
So in 2000 Brewer moved his family to Los Angeles. Six months later, his dream of being a household name was nearly realized when he landed a Showtime special and development deal for his own sitcom.
Then the Sept. 11 tragedy unfolded and everything changed. The collective mood of the country shifted from upbeat and bullish to pensive and frightened. Laughs were in scarce supply, and producers were gun-shy about green-lighting new sitcoms.
A year later, Brewer and his wife moved back to Michigan to raise their son with a support system of family and friends, leaving Brewer's dream of fame and fortune on hold.
Brewer, now 38, has no regrets; his stand-up career is doing fine without TV exposure. And while he hopes to one day have another shot at a sitcom, his initial exposure to the fickle politics of Hollywood taught him an important lesson.
"If I want to be on TV I have to be there [in Hollywood]. If I want to be a stand-up comedian, the original goal, I don't have to be out there. I can live anywhere," he said.
Brewer's tale is cautionary and typical. It serves as a reminder to young local comics that to achieve a level of success beyond simply "touring stand-up," Los Angeles is the ultimate destination. And even then, fame is more elusive than advertised.
Comic Jon Ueberroth describes achieving such success to "trying to catch lightning in a bottle."
A Toledoan who moved to New York, then to Los Angeles,to parlay his stand-up act into a career as a comedy writer, Ueberroth has spent nearly a decade attempting this difficult feat, with limited results.
"Comedy is a real competitive business," the 44-year-old said. "You don't realize until you get in it, and you don't realize how many people are trying to do it. You keep writing and writing and honing your craft, [but] there are so many talented people out there, it really does come down to being in the right place at the right time, and being in front of the right people at the right time."
While comedians flock to the West to boost their careers, there's really no place better than the Midwest — Ohio in particular — to get it started.
Bob Hope. Jonathan Winters. Phyllis Diller. Martin Mull. Arsenio Hall. Drew Carey. Steve Harvey. Dave Chappelle — all stand-up products from the Buckeye State.
"Midwestern comics are the funniest comics out there," Ueberroth said. "They come from a place that's family and real life, that commonsense factor. "I always tell people, You fly to L.A., and you leave all common sense on the east bank of the Mississippi River, and pick it up on the way back."
Just as teenagers outgrow their parents' home and move out, though, area comedians find themselves ready to move on to the next phase in their careers.
Patrick Keane started performing stand-up in his mid-20s in 2000. After a year of performing around the state, the Toledo native relocated to Los Angeles to become a screenwriter.
"If you're writing novels you can go live anywhere. If you want to write television shows or screenplays, you want to live in L.A.," he said. "You may only be performing to 20 people [at an L.A. comedy club], but you never know who's in the audience."
Keane has since landed small roles on TV shows and has performed three times on The Late, Late Show with Craig Ferguson. While his screenwriter goal remains the same, it's his stand-up act that's paying the bills.
In hindsight, the 37-year-old comic says he should have stayed in Toledo longer.
"L.A. is a tough place to get good," he said. "Once you're out here, people expect you to be great; they don't have time for amateur hour. Places like Toledo, Detroit, Chicago, San Francisco — those are nice launching points before you move to L.A. or New York."
Bert "Chili" Challis is the exception. The New Orleans native moved to Los Angeles, where he wrote material for other comics including Carey, Ellen DeGeneres, and George Lopez, and became a full-time staff writer with The Tonight Show with Jay Leno in 1997 after working as a satellite writer for the talk show at the beginning of the Leno era in 1992.
Several years ago, though, Challis moved to Toledo, his wife's hometown, with no regrets and no thoughts of moving anytime soon.
"I realized I could do everything I needed to get done here," he said. "I actually wanted to come back and do stand-up. I got away from it for a while doing The Tonight Show thing."
In addition to performing stand-up, Challis teaches a class for aspiring comics Tuesday nights between 7 and 9 p.m. at Funny Bone in Perrysburg.
Like Ueberroth and other comics, Challis said the region is a hotbed of young comedic talent.
"Michigan and Ohio have a very lively scene. It probably matches up to any in the country," he said. "But it's a training ground. Sooner or later, you've got to hit the Los Angeles stage. Sitcoms, commercials, the big writing jobs — you've got to go out there and courage up and play that game."
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