When Pittsburgh comedian Ed Bailey opened for headliner Tony Rock at Pittsburgh’s Improv comedy club last Friday, his polished set landed plenty of laughs – until he mentioned his hometown of Cleveland, Ohio
“Ya’ll get mad when someone from Cleveland walks in the room,” he said as the crowd booed. “We’re giving ya’ll two division wins a season. I don’t get it.”
The comedian, 30, has been performing for about four years.
Outside the club, before his act, he said his knack for comedy began as a kid. As the only boy in his household, it was a way for him to get what he wanted. As he got older, some suggested he take that attitude on stage.
“My girlfriend now handed me a list of open mics and was like ‘We’re doing this,’” he said. “And I’ve been doing it ever since.”
Bailey has opened for renowned comedian Hannibal Buress and taken his act on the road. This year, he’ll be performing at the Pittsburgh Comedy Festival, running Aug. 25-28 at the Henry Heymann Theater inside the Stephen Foster memorial.
The nonprofit, volunteer-run event will showcase headliners Quincy Jones and improv group Sheldon.
Bailey said the festival represents the growth in Pittsburgh’s comedy scene. In addition to performing at open-mics, Bailey co-hosts a podcast called Drinking Partners with his friend Day Bracey.
Bracey, a Braddock native, started in comedy by recording YouTube videos. He said he had to search to find the Steel City’s comedy scene – and when he did, he found a small group of people keeping it alive.
“And they saw the boom of the ‘80s, the death in the ‘90s and the resurgence that we’re going through now,” Bracey said. “It just so happens that Pittsburgh is in an uptick, people want to do things and there’s enough money to go into the art scene and the support.”
Bracey said when he first participated in open mics, he’d be on a list with about 20 people. Now it’s more like 40 and there are more mic nights per week. And, he said, there are even more options to perform now.
The city’s mainstream club, The Improv, still hosts national headliners. The up and coming Arcade Comedy Theater downtown hosts improv and alternative shows. Bailey and Dacey also host a live version of their podcast every month in various breweries – bringing comedy to a different audience.
“Especially when we’re at the breweries we make a reference to the fact that we are the only black people in the building,” Bracey said. “And we usually are.”
They’re both black, but very different people – something that works in their comedy, Bracey said.
“We’re both black folks, but we have a lot of differing views,” he said. “When people see us they get to see at least two different varieties of black. So they get to see a diverse black, and how they relate to that black. If you’re laughing, you relate.”
Bracey said social dynamics can change in that context.
“Old white folks come up like, ‘I love you,’” he said. “I would never talk to an old white dude just randomly walking down the street with his wife, he might even cross the street, but once we get done with the podcast, he’s shaking my hand. It’s bridging that gap, letting people know, ‘Hey, we’re the same, for real.’”
He said he wants to start the conversation that is sometimes uncomfortable with friends and family in a personal context. Laughter begets laughter, and can help make it easier to talk about things like race relations.
He said the upcoming Pittsburgh Comedy Festival is another way to get comedy to new audiences. Bracey served as this year’s stand-up director, booking diverse talent from around town and across the country. The event also offers improv workshops and family days.
Bracey said he expects a wide ranging audience, from college students, yinzers, tourists and even the occasional passerby.
“That is part of the goal is to let the whole country know, ‘Hey, look at what we’re doing here,’” he said.
Bailey will also perform at the festival. He said the event is part of the larger growing scene, which isn’t the biggest in the country, but that can be good news for those who are trying to make a name for themselves.
“I think what’s good about this scene is everybody understands that we are the building blocks,” said Bailey. “You don’t get to be that in other cities, you don’t get to be the groundwork, the framework. There’s a little more pride in these opportunities that we’ve been able to forge because we’re getting them from scratch.”
This year, the Pittsburgh Comedy Festival started offering a pay-what-you-can pricing model for some workshops and performances to make programming more accessible.