Cleveland, of course, can’t make national attention without attracting the requisite Cleveland jokes. D.C. journalists made snarky complaints about having to spend time in a city where people are nice and Budweisers cost less than $7.
Most of these writers, surely, have not spent time in Cleveland. They’ve just heard the jokes. As Yakov Smirnoff said, “In U.S. you make fun of Cleveland. In Russia, we make fun of Cleveland.” The Cleveland Joke has existed for decades, and in the end, the punch line is simply “Cleveland.”
“Cleveland” has become code for “depressing place to live” or “broken city.” While it’s seen some remarkable economic revitalization in its center, the truth is there are still parts of the city that are broken and depressing. Industrial decline, contaminated waterways, unemployment, broken infrastructure, crime, abandoned homes, crumbling schools—it’s surely a depressing list. Of major American cities in the 2010 Census, Cleveland’s poverty rate was second only to Detroit’s. The devastating foreclosure crisis littered neighborhoods with thousands of vacant homes, and unemployment remains well above national and state averages. You might say Cleveland is poor—oh, so hilariously poor.
As in other Rust Belt cities, that wasn't always the case. Cleveland was once the country’s sixth largest city, and vestiges of its glory days remain, from vibrant working-class neighborhoods to world-class cultural institutions. By the ’70s, economic and manufacturing decline (not to mention that whole incident with the Cuyahoga River catching on fire followed a few years later by the mayor’s hair) made the city Johnny Carson’s go-to punching bag, and Cleveland went from being “The Best Location in the Nation” to “The Mistake on the Lake.”
Detroit, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Newark and others have all rivaled Cleveland as the butt of jokes; in recent years, however, the true tragedy of Detroit’s situation has received national attention. Stories—even commercials—exalting the pride residents take in Detroit’s history, character and revitalization efforts have reminded Americans that poverty and socio-economic hardship are serious issues.
Yet somehow Cleveland has remained fair game. The selection of Cleveland as the home of the 2016 Republican National Convention initiated a recirculation, even among progressives, of the “Hastily Made Cleveland Tourism Video” on YouTube, a funny series of jibes until it arrives at the unfortunate line: “Watch the poor people all wait for buses!” In the same headline that vilified the GOP as “Party of Satan,” Gawker referred to Cleveland as “hell” and included a helpful photo of a decrepit dollar store that, one assumes, is representative of the entire city.
If progressives and journalists really want to make a nuanced point (and many have), they could instead focus on the utter dissonance of the GOP celebrating its platform of inequality in this working-class, majority-black, decidedly Blue city, where Republican attempts to suppress minority and low-income votes pose a regular problem. I'm not asking that the jokes stop, just that we, as a nation, start to take what's happened in these cities a bit more seriously.
But Clevelanders have never taken themselves too seriously (with the exception of their sports teams). Make a joke about a burning river, and they’ll shrug in acknowledgment then tell you it’s the name of a good local beer. They’re used to being the punchline, and not all jokes are cheap ridicules of poverty. (The best extended Cleveland joke is still the episode of 30 Rock where people in Cleveland mistake Liz Lemon for a model and offer her a job on TV.)
If you must make a Cleveland joke, make fun of the fact that, despite great local music and a few choice college stations, the home of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame has terribly vanilla Clear Channel radio. Make fun of 10-Cent Beer Night, or the fans who, with the same whiplash desperation that made them burn (then inexplicably save) LeBron James jerseys, wore the tattered garment proudly when he announced his homecoming last week. Go ahead: Make fun of Cleveland’s terrible fashion scene (unless you live in Washington, D.C.). And sure, make fun of the river catching on fire. Because really, jokes should be about things that are funny.