Cincinnati punchline

It’s dark on Interstate 71, and Josh Sneed is driving from Louisville to Cincinnati after a gig at Bellarmine University. He’s listening to one of Todd Barry’s comedy albums, and Sneed can’t stop himself from laughing out loud.

“That’s so true,” Sneed giggles while glancing at the backseat at his girlfriend, Jenny, and his pug, Jack Sneed, to see if they’re enjoying Barry as much as he is. “Oh my God,” Sneed says a few minutes later, “that’s hilarious.”

There’s something comforting – something cozy – about listening to a man say funny things in the cocoon of your car as you hurtle through the dark at 70 mph. It’s 11 p.m. on a Wednesday, but when Barry starts riffing on Trader Joe’s and prairie dogs, you don’t have to fight to stay awake. When you’ve got time to kill on the road, you appreciate the nonsensical observations and the pithy asides spoken by those who make jokes for a living.

Sneed perhaps more than most.

Like Barry, Sneed is a professional comedian, and on this night, he was the one making witty remarks that caused the 100 Bellarmine students in attendance to double over with laughter. But Sneed, unlike many of the comedians you might see on TV, is banking that living in Cincinnati will allow him to continue his ascent in the world of humor.

Already, Sneed has reached heights never seen by the vast majority of those who take those first nervous steps onto the stage, armed with only a microphone to protect them from the heckling or – even worse – the absolute silence that can emanate from an audience.

Sneed made a half-hour special for Comedy Central – one of the loftier accomplishments one can achieve in his line of work – that debuted in March 2007, and in September 2008, he released his first comedy album, “Unacceptable.”

Already, he’s tasted some high-level success. But he’s not moving to New York or Los Angeles to experience the very highest of highs. He’s quite comfortable in Cincinnati, and he thinks ultimately his comedy can benefit by staying in the city in which he was raised.

“I think you can do it from anywhere,” Sneed said. “A scene can grow when you get a cluster of comedians with similar senses of humor. They know what’s hack and what’s not hack. When you have a couple comedians settling into one location, it would be the perfect storm.”

Recently, comedians have begun building their own scene in Cincinnati, moving into town from other cities and finding work at the two comedy clubs in town. Greg Warren, who lived in Cincinnati before transitioning into comedy, and former Queen City resident Drew Hastings eventually moved away to pursue their goals. But Sneed doesn’t think he needs to take those steps. Not at this point of his career.

“I try to keep things in perspective with the things that I want,” said Sneed, who also is the president and CEO of an online T-shirt company called “I have my family, I have a house, I have a relationship. I want to spend time with them. If I stop at this level, there are not many people who can say they’ve gotten to this point. And I got to do it in my hometown.”

A town that apparently is becoming a little more well-known for comedy.  

“A comedian friend of mine just moved up here from St. Louis,” said Bob Biggerstaff, who recently headlined four nights at the Go Bananas comedy club in Montgomery. “This is a good spot geographically. I live in Houston. There are four clubs in Houston, and I work two of them. It’s four hours to Dallas, three hours to San Antonio. But just in Ohio, you have Dayton, Toledo, and Columbus. Jesus, there’s more clubs here than in Texas, and Texas is huge. The Midwest is just a good spot to do comedy.”

And Biggerstaff isn’t even mentioning Indianapolis, Lexington or Louisville. The close proximity of so many comedy clubs within a two-hour drive of Cincinnati is immensely important to a local up-and-comer who needs as much stage time as possible.

While the national comedy boom of the late 1980s that allowed Cincinnati to play host to as many as four clubs has long since died, Go Bananas has been around for 20 years and the Funnybone on the Levee in Newport has been going strong since 2004.  While a minor rivalry exists between the two clubs, both manage to pull in national acts for six shows a week. Go Bananas opens the club on Tuesdays to local acts for a group-writing session and it hosts an Open Mic show on Wednesdays, while the Funnybone offers a comedy class for those looking to make a mark on stage.

Whether this city becomes another Boston, Austin or Minneapolis – cities where the comedy scene has boomed – remains to be seen. But Mike Kurtz, the general manager of Go Bananas who also books the club’s acts, thinks it’s a possibility.

“We’re getting a good scene here,” Kurtz said after taking tickets to a Biggerstaff show that drew a nice Thursday-night crowd. “It’s a little more difficult to do (comedy) in Cincinnati, because you’re not going to get the TV experience you can get in New York or LA. But I think you can do it here.”

That’s what Sneed hopes anyway.

Sneed – who went to high school at St. Bernard-Elmwood Place – worked at P&G for more than two years as a systems analyst, but in his downtime, Sneed improved his comedy. He’d use his vacation time to tour the country to get out his name and work on his craft.

“Everybody would go to the beach for their vacation,” Sneed said. “I would be in Grand Forks, N.D. at a comedy club.”

Now, he’s reaping the rewards. And as Todd Barry ends his set on the car stereo, Sneed looks in the backseat once again at his girl and his dog (one of whom is snoring rather loudly). He’s about to cross the Brent Spence Bridge into Cincinnati and is close to home after a fulfilling night’s work. He shifts his body frontward and looks through the windshield, content with his career and with his life.

“When people who aren’t in my field think of success in my field, they think of having their own TV show or not being able to walk down the street without 100 hundred people stopping you or millions of dollars,” Sneed said. “What I’m happy to have learned is that I can get all the things I wanted out of my life just by being able to do what I love. If this is as far as I can go, that’s good enough for me.”

Photography by Scott Beseler
Josh Sneed taggin the Lodge
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