Growing up in California in the 90s, I was basically only aware of Cleveland as a punchline. Even now I can still remember a handful of them. Major League. That scene in Naked Gun 2 1/2 where Priscilla Presley says she came out to get some fresh air, but it turns out she’s standing in front of a giant pile of dead fish. “I grew up on Lake Erie,” she says. “There’s nothing quite like it.”
Then came the ironic Cleveland love on shows like Drew Carey, or the 30 Rock episode where Liz Lemon goes to Cleveland to see her new boyfriend played by Jason Sudeikis, and it turns out to be a magical paradise. It’s funny, because who would expect that? Not from a city that’s literally used as a euphemism for unimpressive cities. How else to explain the oft-repeated quote, “there are only three cities in America: New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everywhere else is just Cleveland.”
Usually attributed to either Mark Twain or Tennessee Williams, best anyone can tell, the quote first showed up in a 1975 book review written by neither of them. Cleveland hasn’t actually been a punchline since the Gilded Age, but it seems fitting that people in the 1970s wanted it to be, and 30 years later many have come to believe it so.
It’s tempting to feel sorry for Clevelanders about this, but I suspect that was partly the point. The plucky underdog role seems as much an identity they’ve chosen as something foisted upon them. After all, the corollary to that fake Mark Twain quote of which Cleveland is a punchline is that there are thousands of other unnamed Clevelands out there that people don’t even deign to shit on. I should know, I grew up in one. And in the rest of them, mediocrity didn’t beget cool slogans like “you gotta be tough.” (To be fair, I’ve never had to dig a car out of the snow in the morning. I honestly can’t even imagine. My people probably aren’t that tough.).
Point being, shitting on Cleveland is a pastime that seems to have been promoted most enthusiastically by Clevelanders themselves. When I told a Cleveland-bred friend in San Francisco I was going there, she said “oh, Cleveland,” discussing the place with the kind of patient smile normally reserved for a seven-year-old eating crayons.