For the past several years, Sam Dee has been creating inclusive, creative spaces for comedians and audience members in Cleveland. She cocreated the comedy advice show Share-apy in 2017, cofounded the female-run comedy festival Mass Hysteria Comedy Fest and started the comedy competition Improv Death Match in 2018, and is part of the improv troupe Casually Late Stampede and Hopscotch. Sam will be taking Share-apy on the road to the Detroit Women of Comedy Festival on June 1, and the second year of Mass Hysteria Comedy Fest will be from September 19 to September 21 in Cleveland.
“I always try to help people out who are starting up, because I did not have anyone helping me or telling me what to do, and all I wanted to do was interrogate someone like, ‘Is this the thing I should be doing? Should I be doing this? Do I need a headshot? What’s my bio?’ Sending an email, asking someone to be part of a show, is super hard—it’s things you don’t even think you’re going to need.”
I saw Sam perform at Mahall’s 20 Lanes—part performance space and part bowling alley—in April, where she gave a “TED Talk” on “hot-button” topics like Canada geese immigration. “I like very absurd, very emotionally raw comedy, and that’s kind of what I try to do. I like to be really silly and really real, I guess; I like to mix the two. I like things with a lot of energy and theatricality.”
Sam opened for Helltrap Nightmare, a Chicago comedy-horror experimental variety show hosted by Sarah Squirm (Sarah Sherman). I talked with Sam after the show about the Cleveland comedy scene, getting started, the supportive nature of improv, and the importance of honesty in comedy.
ALISON MARCOTTE: How was opening for Helltrap Nightmare?
SAM DEE: I was very nervous. We don’t get a lot of acts coming through here that I actually like. I’ve followed Sarah for a long time on Instagram and always loved her work. I was so excited when I saw her on Adult Swim doing “Flayaway” because that is the kind of content that I like to see, and that does not come through the Midwest very often, especially since we don’t have a dedicated comedy theater. We have to do popup shows where we can, and thankfully Mahall’s has open its doors to alternative comedy. They let do my show Improv Death Match, and they’ve been hosting improv classes, improv shows, and just trying to fill that void that we have in the city because there’s nothing going on, like not consistently, not in a way that can really establish a community like in other big cities.
We have to do popup shows where we can, and thankfully Mahall’s has open its doors to alternative comedy. They let do my show Improv Death Match, and they’ve been hosting improv classes, improv shows, and just trying to fill that void that we have in the city because there’s nothing going on, like not consistently, not in a way that can really establish a community like in other big cities.
MARCOTTE: How do you like the Cleveland comedy scene?
DEE: I haven’t been a part of [the standup scene] for two years. I started out doing standup, and felt like it was a very narrow racket full of a lot of toxic dudes that made me feel bad about myself when I would do shows with them, because I felt like they didn’t want me there. And I didn’t want to leave because I didn’t want them to win, because I’m a very competitive person and I run on spite, so I was like, “No! They’re not going to get me out of here! I’m gonna stay!” Until I was just so miserable, I was like, I got to do something different.
I started my own show called Share-apy, which I do at Forest City Brewery. It’s a comedy advice show. And that kind of gave me the confidence to do different sorts of comedy than standup. Because I didn’t know anything else; there was no improv scene that I knew of. I actually did a show where I met an improviser, Lisa Perrin, who went on to be my cohost of Share-apy. We just had an immediate connection, and then I got into improv through her, and I’ve been doing it for a couple of years, taking classes, creating shows, and it’s been really amazing. It’s a much more inviting environment, it’s all a team effort, everybody says “I’ve got your back” before we go onstage, and everybody I do improv with I’m friends with as well. So I like that the improv scene is growing here and I want it to keep blossoming.
MARCOTTE: How did you first get involved in comedy?
DEE: I was always interested in it, but every time I’d bring it up to someone, I’d be like, “What would you think if I did standup? Do you think I’d be okay?” And people would go, “Mmmm, you’re funny in person, but I don’t think you’d be good at jokes.” And I was, “Okay.”
And then I had a couple of friends who started doing standup and every time I’d bump into them, they were like, “Oh my god, come to a set, come to an open mic, it’s no big deal. It doesn’t mean you’re a comedian once you’ve done one. Just see how you like it and go from there.” And so, I did a pretty good job, my first-ever set, I got some chuckles. Everyone says, “You’re going to f*cking crash into the ground and bomb. You’re going to hate yourself forever,” but I actually did kind of good! So I was excited and I kept going and I was really into it, and I guess—I started very late. I started doing standup when I was twenty-five. And everybody else had been doing it for years before that, and I always felt like a late bloomer in that regard, but I’m glad I started when I did.
MARCOTTE: You cofounded Mass Hysteria Comedy Fest, a female-run fest of workshops, improv, and local performances. Can you tell me more about it?
DEE: My mentor Deena Nyer Mendlowitz, she is the first person who ever coached me doing improv. I do a lot of shows with her. We would talk all the time about how we wanted to see more female-run content, and we had started our own shows because we were so frustrated, like just waiting for things to happen. And we were like, “Well we want to do these things. We’re not going to wait around for anybody else to do stuff.” She started Mental Illness & Friends, I started Share-apy. Our good friend Dana Norris had been doing Story Club Cleveland, which is amazing. And then Deena is also in a troupe that does This Improvised Life, which is storytelling and improv, and we were like, “Wouldn’t it be so cool to just get all the ladies in the area together to do a big show together, invite cool women we know, and just have an amazing weekend of female-run comedy?”
Our tagline is “Created by women, for everyone.” We just wanted to make a safe inclusive space for everyone to feel comfortable in coming, to know that they’re not going to be supporting someone who is dangerous or has a horrible reputation for being a harasser or anything like that.
And it’s not just strictly female. Our tagline is “Created by women, for everyone.” We just wanted to make a safe inclusive space for everyone to feel comfortable in coming, to know that they’re not going to be supporting someone who is dangerous or has a horrible reputation for being a harasser or anything like that. Everyone is vetted; we make sure it’s just an open environment because the more safe someone feels, the more fun they can have. And that is our main goal, and we did it last year in October at Forest City Brewery, and it was sold-out shows. We had an amazing time; everything went off without a hitch.
MARCOTTE: How did you come up with the concept of Share-apy?
One thing I love about comedy is you have to talk about yourself. You have to talk about bad things about yourself. Going up onstage and talking about good things that happened to you, you’re going to get crickets. People want to hear your story, people want to hear the gory details and the horrible things. I think that was really empowering to me, because I was always someone who wanted to only show the best parts of me all the time, wanted to just be so supportive of other people so they don’t look too closely to me.
DEE: One thing I love about comedy is you have to talk about yourself. You have to talk about bad things about yourself. Going up onstage and talking about good things that happened to you, you’re going to get crickets. People want to hear your story, people want to hear the gory details and the horrible things. I think that was really empowering to me, because I was always someone who wanted to only show the best parts of me all the time, wanted to just be so supportive of other people so they don’t look too closely to me.
And with Share-apy, I was like, I want an opportunity for people to just vent, for them to anonymously submit something that’s bothering them, and make light of it, or laugh about it, and see how people are like, “Yes! Me too.” And just make a connection through our struggles, because we have more in common than we do different, and everybody has the same problems.
But it’s so hard with social media, seeing everybody’s highlight reel and just feeling like sh*t about yourself, like “Oh my god, I’m lazy, I’ve never been out of the country, everybody else has, I’m unmarried, I don’t have kids, I have no career.” It’s so much pressure weighing down on you every time you open your phone. And it’s terrifying. And I want a place for everybody to just be together and know that everybody’s f*cking up, everybody’s sad, everybody has mental health issues, don’t worry so much.