From Cleveland to New York with Jim Tews
New York by way of Cleveland comedian Jim Tews is more than just another standup comic. He’s a also a cat blogger (Felines of New York), documentary director (Make Fun), and singer/guitarist for a Weezer tribute band (The Undone Sweaters). Since making the move to New York, he’s performed on Last Comic Standing, Louie, and The Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival. His new album I Was in Band drops tomorrow in Rooftop Records. I caught up with Jim to talk about the new album, what makes Cleveland so great, and playing in a Weezer cover band with the dude from The Adventures of Pete & Pete.
You recorded the album in Cleveland where you started comedy in 2003. Do you get back there a lot to perform?
I do. I feel like I end up back there way more than I want to. The club is real nice to me there and the scene has kind of built up. It was building toward the end of my tenure there, but it’s gotten bigger and bigger. It’s nice to go back. My friends are there. I have some family there. I went back there to record the album because it was a place I knew. I had more resources there. I knew I wouldn’t be competing with 14 other things that night.
In listening to the album it sounds like you had a really great audience.
It was definitely a nice, warm crowd. I did myself a disservice though. I wanted to see all of my friends perform and make it a fun night. I had four of my friends do guest sets. Sometimes I forget how good everybody is. The first 40 minutes of the show was all of my friends killing for 10 minutes at a time. I was like, “Goddamnit, I’ve got to go follow this?” I should have just had one funny friend do five minutes and then let the rest of them close the show out. I felt like I was doing some heavy lifting toward the end. We only did one show.
I like that. I could tell listening to it that it was one take. I’ve been having this conversation with a lot of comics recently about albums versus specials. There’s something more enjoyable about hearing something front to back without the distraction of edits and multiple camera angles. One-take albums really capture the feeling of what it’s like to be at the show.
Totally. Part of why I did it was because I didn’t feel like pushing to fill the room twice, honestly. But I feel like I prefer this. I’ve been working on this stuff for a while and running the set everywhere. If I can’t get it close to a hundred percent once, what’s the point in doing it twice?
What is it about Cleveland that makes it such a great place to perform?
There’s a team mentality. There’s a feeling that we all had a hand in building this up. Nobody moves to Cleveland to do comedy. I mean, they do, but they move from the center of Ohio, some cornfield town. But there’s no promise of anything there. When you’re doing comedy you do it because you love doing it and you want people around that appreciate it. I think that extends to comedy, music, art, everything there. Not only is it easy to do stuff there because it’s accessible and affordable, but people also go out to see stuff just because they heard about it. You don’t necessarily have to be famous to get 80 people in a room there. It’s communal. I ran a show at a coffee shop there for three or four years that built up to standing room only. I guess when you do something there people take almost a civic pride in it. Until recently they didn’t have sports teams to get behind, but now that the Cavs won a championship the attitude may have changed.
Do you think there’s anything to be said for the adversity of living in a Rust Belt town that is always going to be a little rough, is constantly dealing with crime and economic problems, a city that is trying to stay true to its roots while simultaneously keeping up with modern trends?
I would say that plays into it. Also the shit weather. You face adversity living in New York too, but your potential payoff is so much greater. I fight through it here, but my first TV credit was getting on Louie. I got on Louie because he saw me at a show here in New York. You deal with the adversity that New York delivers, but the payoff is a television credit. You deal with adversity in Cleveland and the payoff is a full room for one night and the satisfaction of making the thing you felt like making.
You spend some time at the beginning of the album talking about your issues with New York. Are you happy there?
Yeah, I am. I always wanted to live here. I grew up in Allentown, Pennsylvania. That’s another old steel town. I always had a fascination with New York, but once I started doing comedy I knew this was the place to be doing it. When I was ready to leave Cleveland I was going back and forth with the decision of LA or New York. I went with New York because it was closer to Pennsylvania and more what I wanted. I’ve gotten used to it now. It was pretty sad for a while. I had people that were like, “What if it doesn’t work out in New York?” I’m like, “Well, I’m living in an apartment with two other dudes, I have barely any employment, and I’m doing comedy. If this is what ‘working out’ is I don’t want that either.”
Can you pin down one thing that happened in New York that gave you the feeling that you made the right decision and the confidence to keep going?
The obvious one would be the Louie scenario. You get waves here where you’re like, “What the fuck am I doing?” Then six months later something comes out of nowhere that you didn’t expect. When you map it back you realize it wouldn’t have happened if you weren’t here in the first place. I started the Felines of New York blog that went viral and became a book. That’s something I wouldn’t have done had I not moved here.
Another interesting part of your resume is The Undone Sweaters. You’ve got this actual band that you created a web series around and one of the members just happens to be Danny Tamberelli. How did that all come about?
I had a joke about waiting until all of my married friends were divorced so we could start a Weezer tribute band. Two of the other members, Reid Faylor and Andrew Short, used to do a theme show called Underbelly at Creek and Cave. It’s comics doing anything but comedy. I was like, “Can I play Weezer songs on an acoustic guitar?” They were like, “Yeah, sure.” We started talking and they were like, “We play music too. Would you want to do something together?” I was like, “Let’s do a fake band thing called The Undone Sweaters,” which was the name I used in the joke. We learned a medley of Weezer songs. We had no bassist at the time. They were working with Adam Wirtz, the guy who directed all of The Undone Sweaters stuff. They were looking for a project to do together. I said, “What if we did a web series about a weird sociophobic Weezer tribute band?” I wanted it to be scored by us. Even if it was bad I thought it would be funny.
In the first season it’s a lot of modified versions of Weezer songs. All three of us are kind of neurotic like, “We can’t leave until this is right.” So we got better and better at it. Eventually it became, “Let’s screen these but do a show where we also play the songs.” We learned most of The Blue Album. We thought we should bring out a bassist to play “Only in Dreams.” We thought it would be funny to have a bassist on just one song. The running joke is that Weezer cycled through bassists. We were going to say that the venue made us get a bassist. We’re doing a show and I asked the booker, Marianne Ways, if she knew any bassists with a sense of humor. She said, “Oh, you should meet Danny Tamberelli. He’s a huge Weezer fan and he would totally get it.” I was like, “You mean the Pete & Pete dude?” He showed up to a practice that we had arranged. We figured he would play “Only in Dreams” and it would be cool. But he was like, “Do you want me to play more songs? I know the whole album.” So he started playing with us, and when we were writing our second season we wrote him in. Through that we were like, “We should play together more often.” It snowballed. We started writing originals and playing out. We toured. It got kind of out of hand. I was never in bands in Cleveland. I was in bands in high school and then The Sweaters, but that’s pretty much it. I’m now in my thirties getting to make up for some lost experiences and a childhood hero just happens to be there.
Photo by Mindy Tucker.