How Cleveland Became the Butt of the Joke

It feels as though Cleveland is always being name-dropped in film and on TV — and not in a good way. The perpetual joke of Cleveland’s mediocrity dates back decades. But after more than half a century, maybe it’s time the media picked a new punchline city. The opinions expressed in this essay are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official organizational stance. Cover graphic by Zoe Neely for Midstory. Video by Huilin Shi and Jason Mecchi.

In the 2015 movie “Trainwreck,” sports doctor Aaron Conners, played by Bill Hader, has a good-natured chat with NBA player LeBron James, played by, well … himself:

LeBron: Cleveland, Ohio? You’re talking about the home of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? Maybe we go down to Canton to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. You know Superman was created in Cleveland?

Aaron: Yeah, no, I know Superman was created in Cleveland. You’ve told me that a number of times.

LeBron: You ever see a Cuyahoga sunset?

Aaron: No.

LeBron: Do you know Cleveland’s great for the whole family?

Aaron: Yes, yes, yes, I do. You tell me that all the time [ … ] Why are you trying to always sell me on Cleveland?

LeBron: When are you going to come to Cleveland?

Aaron: I’ll come when I have the time. I just don’t have the time right now. I’ll come when I have the time. I’ve just been really busy.

LeBron: You visit me in Miami all the time.

Aaron: Yeah, but that’s Miami.

If you know anything about Cleveland, you at least know it as LeBron James’ hometown. As much as LeBron advocates for the city in this exchange, he’s clearly in on the joke, and that joke is, well … Cleveland. 

As someone who was born and raised in Cleveland, I object to this point. It’s like having a younger sibling; if you’re from Cleveland you’re allowed to joke about it, but if you’re not from here, you’d better back off. 

“Trainwreck” is (by far) not the only movie to fire shots at Cleveland. The TV Show “30 Rock” has an episode where New York native Liz Lemon, played by Tina Fey, visits Cleveland with her boyfriend in a dopey montage contrasting the Big Apple with an overly Midwestern (read: a nice city full of nice people with a nice smell) version of Cleveland. Even Pixar’s “Finding Dory” has a joke about the Cleveland aquarium. But since when did Cleveland become the butt of the joke?

Rewind to 1967, when Dan Rowan and Dick Martin hosted a landmark TV series called “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In.” The show was immensely popular, with up to 40 million viewers a week. This large audience, however, was a double-edged sword; in 1968, the show began an intense comedic berating of Cleveland that would leave a legacy lasting far beyond the show’s end in 1973. 

One-liners such as, “In Cleveland, Velveeta cheese can be found in the gourmet section of the supermarket,” or “Attention Cleveland! Your river is on fire,” or “Definition of a plush Cleveland cocktail lounge: A bottle of Seagram’s with a brown bag around it” began appearing in the show weekly. From one end of the country to the other, everyone was laughing at Cleveland. And who was responsible? A 43-year-old TV writer named Jack Hanrahan who was born and raised in Cleveland and got his start as a cartoonist for the Cleveland Times. What a traitor. 

In truth, Hanrahan didn’t hate Cleveland. The show had previously made many Polish jokes, but NBC’s censors cautioned “Laugh-In’s” writers to go easy on the ethnic jokes, so the writers had to come up with something new. Enter Cleveland. 

In a 1976 interview with Cleveland Magazine Hanrahan described how he and the other writers for “Laugh-In” needed a city as a target for their jokes instead of a specific ethnic or racial group. Hanrahan said initially they were choosing between Schroon Lake in New York and Lake Titicaca in the Andes. But somewhat delirious from the long meeting, one of Hanrahan’s co-workers suddenly shouted, “Don’t pay any attention to Hanrahan’s ravings, he’s from Cleveland.”

It was at that point Hanrahan said a hush fell over the room. There it was. Cleveland.

And just like that, a phenomenon that has lasted over 60 years was born. In the same Cleveland Magazine interview, Hanrahan says, “Pittsburgh was the place we made fun of when I grew up back in Cleveland. I didn’t think Cleveland was funny when I grew up there.” Like most comedians, he ended this sweet sentiment with a joke: “I thought it was a nice city … until I got out of it!” Despite his betrayal, Hanrahan makes a good point: Cleveland is actually a nice city.

But don’t take it from me.

The average cost of living in Cleveland is 259% less than in New York, 225% less than in Washington DC and 65% less than Chicago. Cleveland is also a city on the rise, with a 52% per capita income gain from 2003 to 2016. It has a great education system: its high school and elementary school districts are the fourth-fastest improving of all districts in Ohio. At the collegiate level, Case Western Reserve University is one of the best private research universities in the nation. The Cleveland Clinic and University Hospitals are renowned in the medical community.

Cleveland is also a cultural hub. The Cleveland Orchestra is one of the top orchestras in the world and plays at the architectural masterpiece of Severance Hall. The Cleveland Museum of Art has a beautiful art collection and Playhouse Square is the largest performing arts district outside of New York City. And you don’t need LeBron to tell you that Cleveland is a sports lover’s dream. 

Granted, Cleveland is not a perfect place. The iconic case of post-industrial city syndrome, Cleveland continues to suffer from population decline and a surplus of vacant infrastructure and dilapidated homes. In 2018, Cleveland came in at number five on investment website 24/7 Wall St.’s list of the worst cities to live in and its poverty rate sits at 35 percent, more than double the U.S.’s.

Of all the things to criticize, however, perhaps the easiest to poke fun at are the disastrous Cuyahoga River fires — and “Laugh-In” didn’t miss a beat. While the historical fact is true — the river burned thirteen times over the course of a century, with the last occurring in 1969 and ultimately earning Cleveland the moniker “the mistake on the lake” — the exaggeration and perpetuation of the joke is where the larger problem of this Cleveland phenomenon lies. When the only experience that people have with a place is negative jokes, it means they will likely never consider the positives that a city like Cleveland has to offer. The fires were terrible outcomes of an underregulated industrial system, but they led to environmental changes for the city, spurred the passage of the Clean Water Act and sparked a national conversation about pollution

See if you can joke about that, Hanrahan.

The great irony is that despite the big screen’s love of using Cleveland to get a quick laugh, Cleveland actually has a strong relationship with the film industry. From major blockbusters like “The Avengers” or “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” to holiday movies like “A Christmas Story” and classic films like “Air Force One,” the industry loves filming in Cleveland.

As one of the most successful comedy writers of the 1970s, Hanrahan, the man who started it all, had credits for some of the most popular shows and movies of the time. Beyond the irony of a son of Cleveland being responsible for its poor reputation, Hanrahan’s Cleveland story is a tragic one. His commercial success in Hollywood was accompanied by a lifestyle of partying and drugs. He became estranged from his family and eventually returned back to Cleveland, living in homeless shelters before passing away in 2007.

As tragic as his story is and as much as Hanrahan made fun of Cleveland, I’d like to believe he had a soft spot for the city. He once wrote a screenplay and wanted to film it in Cleveland. When asked why (in the same Cleveland Magazine interview), he said, “Cleveland gives you the atmosphere for [shooting a film]. Every time I’ve written anything of real value, I’ve had to go back to that setting for most of it.” 

Cleveland may seem like low-hanging fruit for some short-lived comedy, but there’s a sort of enduring appeal in the city’s familiarity, authenticity and willingness to change. The moral of the story? Don’t believe the cinema slander. Listen to LeBron and take a chance on Cleveland, because — joke’s on you — we’re better than Miami. 

Julia Conti contributed research to this article.


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