It's Just a Stage

Alumnus Rob Cleveland has found his niche as an actor and comic in Atlanta

By Allison O. Adams

In his Lake Claire home near Emory, Rob Cleveland carries his dozing fourteen-month-old daughter, Eloisa, to the room where her twin brother, Andrew, is already napping. Minutes later, a muffled wail has him hurrying back to the nursery and emerging with a tearful, groggy Andrew in his arms. Inevitably, Eloisa also is soon awake and weeping again. Between trips to the nursery, Cleveland says, "It's like having foreign terrorists living with you: they don't speak English and they make constant demands."

As a stand-up comic who has performed nationally in such venues as Dangerfield's and Catch a Rising Star in New York and The Improv in Los Angeles, Cleveland doesn't have to search far for inspiration. "I don't tell jokes," says the 1976 Emory College graduate. "I just look around at life and relate what I see." In addition to tales of twin-rearing, his act also includes observations on Atlanta driving ("Speed limits are just suggestions. If you want to drive fifty-five in Atlanta, go ahead, but you'd better have a ramp on the back of your car") and on being both an animal lover and a carnivore ("I am naive enough to think that the chicken in my freezer died of natural causes and had a donor card").

Also a stage, television, and film actor, Cleveland first aspired to a performance career as an Emory undergraduate. He majored in biology, thinking he would become a dentist. "I spent the first two years actually attempting to be a student," he says. Toward the end of his sophomore year, he auditioned for a role in a student production of Death of a Salesman. "I thought, This looks like more fun than studying for a bio test," he says. He landed a small part and was instantly hooked. He appeared in a succession of student productions, including The Dark of the Moon, The Man Who Came to Dinner, and Godspell.

After graduating, Cleveland took a job in Atlanta teaching elementary school. At the same time, he cultivated roles in local theater productions and television commercials. His first professional performance, in the late seventies, was in a C&S Bank advertisement for car loans. "I didn't say a word," he recalls. "I just polished the car, looked at the camera, and smiled." Soon he was making a guest appearance on "The Dukes of Hazzard" and taking pratfalls and doing pantomime in a giant bird suit as an Atlanta Hawks mascot, a job he held for seven seasons.

In 1980, Cleveland left his teaching position to write and perform for a comedy show called "Tush" (named for host Bill Tush), produced by Ted Turner for Atlanta television. He worked with script writers Bonnie and Terry Turner (who wrote Wayne's World and The Brady Bunch Movie), as well as actress Jan Hooks, all of whom later joined the creative team of "Saturday Night Live."

"I wasn't a writer," Cleveland says. "I wasn't even a stand-up [comic] at that point. I was an actor who did Agatha Christie plays. I was fired twice [from the program] because I wasn't coming up with anything." Cleveland returned and continued to write and appear on "Tush," but the irreverent show was cancelled after twenty-five episodes. Cleveland and his colleagues received several Cable Ace and Emmy awards after the show's demise.

Left to his own devices, Cleveland teamed with another "Tush" alumnus, Kelly Baker, assembling a two-man act with some of the material they had written for the show but never used. "They were pieces of highly questionable taste," he says. "We called it, `Stuff They Wouldn't Let Us Do On TV.' " After working Atlanta clubs with Baker for several months, Cleveland went solo during Open Mike Night at The Punch Line shortly after the comedy club opened in 1981.

Despite some initially humbling experiences, he persisted at The Punch Line week after week, polishing his stand-up routine until he was offered a spot as an opener at the club. As his popularity increased, he moved up the hierarchy of club circuit comics to become a headliner. He has performed in comedy clubs around the country and is especially well known on the West Coast and in the Midwest, where his television commercials for a furniture rental company air frequently. "When I go to Indianapolis or Cincinnati, I literally cannot walk out of my hotel room without getting stopped every ten feet, without getting pointed at and yelled at," Cleveland says. "It's really fun for a while, but then I start putting on my cap and dark glasses just so I can go to the zoo."

Although he enjoys some notoriety, Cleveland has consciously avoided the Hollywood milieu. "I can more than hold my own with New York and L.A. comics," he says. "It's been said on many occasions that if I were in L.A. right now, I'd be on somebody's sitcom. I've been good friends with and shared some bad stages with John Mendoza and Tim Allen and Brett Butler. I look at them sometimes and think, I could do that, but you give up a lot. I don't know that I'd really like that much public stuff."

Cleveland's prominent roles in Atlanta theater provide a welcome counterpoint to his comedy career. "I enjoy doing stand-up, just freewheeling with my own words," he says. "But I also enjoy the group Zen that comes when you do a theater performance." He has appeared in such productions as T-Bone and Weasel, I'm Not Rappaport, The Boys Next Door, and Driving Miss Daisy. One of his most memorable theater performances was in 1992, when he returned to the Emory stage with his wife, actor Mary Lynn Owen. The two appeared in Athol Fugard's Statements after an Arrest under the Immorality Act, which was produced as part of the Fugard Festival in Atlanta. The audience included Fugard himself. "It was really special, doing a play for probably the world's greatest living playwright," Cleveland says.

Since his children were born in November 1993, Cleveland has limited his travel on the comedy club circuit. He performs regularly in local clubs and appears in industrial training films for major corporations and, most recently, in a national advertisement for a denture care product.

"I like staying home because I like watching Andrew and Eloisa grow up, and I don't want their mother to kill me," he says. "With two on two, you can do a man-on-man defense. One on two, you have to play a zone."

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