Valley native hits it big with online videos
By AMANDA C. DAVIS
Mike Polk went to the park a few weeks ago in the middle of a Tuesday, lay down on a picnic table and awoke six hours later.
While most people his age were working or pursuing other adult endeavors, the 31-year-old had nowhere to be, no pressing to-do list and no one looking for him.
“The funny thing about it is it didn’t really affect my day a lot,” said the former Warren man. “No boss called to ask where the hell the Johnson report was.”
So he did what he thought was right — he fell back asleep for another hour.
Such is life for the funny man who works for the Web company Break Media based in Los Angeles. Polk works mainly from home in Lakewood, Ohio, but travels to Los Angeles about one week each month, making product ads for the Web and other creative programming. In his spare time, he keeps busy with the occasional nap and various comic pursuits.
Polk gained national attention after his two Cleveland tourism videos hit YouTube a few months ago, poking fun at Cleveland, saying the economy is based on the Cavaliers’ LeBron James. They also joke that Cleveland “leads the nation in drifters,” and Lake Erie is full of fish with AIDS. One of the videos invites people to come to Cleveland to see “both of our buildings,” and one ends with “at least we’re not Detroit.”
Instead of defending itself, tourism group Positively Cleveland set up a contest, asking participants to make videos highlighting positive aspects of the city. Polk served on the panel that chose the winner.
He also helps produce an office-based Web comedy called “Man in the Box,” made up of three-minute skits based around office shenanigans and his character, Greg, a bitter and sarcastic drone. He writes the episodes and works with co-producer Aaron McBride of Cleveland, who also edits, shoots and stars in the episodes.
About 120 episodes are available on YouTube, and Polk said there are at least 50,000 subscribers who tune in through YouTube, My Space or other sites.
He also has a following for two music videos on YouTube, “One Semester of Spanish — Love Song” and “2nd Semester of Spanish, Spanish Love Song starring Erik Estrada.” Polk said someone knew someone who got in touch with Estrada. He starred as “Ponch” in the 1970s series “Chips” and agreed to be in Polk’s video.
The songs showcase Polk’s playing the guitar and singing humorous love songs using only words learned in beginning-Spanish classes.
Sara Ricciardulli was Polk’s Spanish teacher at JFK and commended his command of the language in the videos, calling them “really funny” though “a bit convoluted” in the way ideas are strung together.
For instance, Polk sings “Where is the bathroom?” and “Happy Birthday,” and — minutes later — throws in references to Antonio Banderas, nachos grande and cinnamon twists.
“He really is a character,” she said, recalling Polk’s expressive face and classroom antics. “He had a cutting-edge kind of humor. He could take any situation and find humor in it.”
Ricciardulli, now a Spanish teacher at Mineral Ridge High School, said she wishes Polk a lot of success. “I think he really found his niche.”
The first Spanish love song has been viewed on YouTube more than 4 million times, and Polk said that number is closer to 10 million when you factor in all the sites it’s shown on.
Polk said YouTube is an amazing avenue for comedy but that anyone can post random videos, making it hard for people to find the “real gems.” The way he sees it, if something is good enough, it will find an audience.
Web videos are such a new medium, but Polk said those involved in making them are still trying to figure out what works and how to make money off it.
The comedy gene runs in Polk’s family. He said his dad and uncle exposed him to the comedy of Monty Python and Steve Martin when he was young. Though he didn’t understand a lot of it then, he knew he liked what he saw.
John Gillen, athletic director and former social-studies teacher at Warren’s John F. Kennedy High School, remembers Polk as a focused and dedicated student who knew what he wanted to do.
“He had an awful lot of humor when he was here at school,” Gillen said. “He was a gentleman and a scholar, and I know that sounds corny, but it’s true.”
Experience that’s influenced Polk’s career includes four years as on-air host for Cleveland channels 19 and 43. During that time, he was part of “The Block,” a group that performed between shows, persuading the audience to buy pizza, cars or other products.
This is where Polk said he lost “all sense of pride and most of my fear.” Dressed as a cat, pirate or other amusing characters, Polk and others were sometimes required to perform impromptu skits live.
“It’s hard to feel foolish about anything anymore after they dressed me as a tomato and made me talk to an auditorium of high school kids for a Pizza Hut commercial,” Polk said. “There was a stem hat and everything.”
He still does the occasional story for Channel 19 but doesn’t cover hard news. “If there’s like a dog in Parma that knows how to roller- skate, they’ll send me out to report on that,” he said.
He also wrote for a few years for an online humor magazine The Phat Phree, which Polk said opened up doors. He and others got a book deal out of it and wrote “Look at My Striped Shirt,” a book published by Random House that he co-edited.
Polk is also part of the sketch comedy group “Last Call Cleveland,” which performs regularly around the country and at festivals in major cities. The group has also earned a following on YouTube with its “Hangover Regrets” videos.
As for his future, Polk said he’d like to write his own series but admits it’s difficult for two reasons. First, he said, it’s a hard thing to do in such a crowded field. Secondly, he acknowledges being somewhat lazy and without ambition.
“And I have an adult kickball team to captain, and “Rock of Love” marathons aren’t going to watch themselves,” he joked.