Cards Against Humanity sends scrappy Chicago comics into Cleveland’s streets.
The Cuyahoga County Progressive Caucus is housed in an innocuous office in Cleveland’s Lakewood neighborhood. A “Feel the Bern” sign still hangs on one of the stark, white walls, a nod to the committee’s humble beginnings. It was early afternoon on a mild Sunday in October and I was sitting amongst a group of 20-plus comedians; earlier that day, we had made the six-hour pilgrimage from Chicago to Cleveland on a luxury bus. The trip was conceived and funded by Cards Against Humanity, the bawdy party game.
It’s been a banner year for Cleveland, Ohio. In June, the Cavaliers overcame a 3–1 deficit to defeat the Golden State Warriors in the NBA finals. In July, the city hosted the Republican National Convention and the world watched as Donald J. Trump accepted his party’s nomination. When we arrived in late October, the city was once again reveling in the spotlight: Earlier that week, the Cleveland Indians clinched their spot in the 2016 World Series.
“It’s impossible to make comedy without taking a political position. Anyone who thinks they’re doing comedy absent a political position is just quietly accepting political structures they’re already part of without questioning them.”
But the comics weren’t there to celebrate. We were there to canvass?—?Ohio remains one of the most contentious swing states in a brutally close election.
On the front lines in a battleground state
As of Nov. 4, a POLITICO poll of Battleground States currently has Clinton leading Trump 45.2% to 38% (the poll aggregates five of the most recent, reliable public polls to determine an average estimate for each of the 11 swing states).
In Ohio, Trump is beating Clinton by a mere 2.2%. It’s the closest race of any swing state, with the exception of Florida, where Trump is polling .4% ahead of Clinton. In Cleveland, there are still plenty of votes up for grabs and both the Progressive Caucus and Cards Against Humanity wants to make sure Clinton gets them.
How comedy can win votes
Cards Against Humanity has always been political, but this is their first foray into canvassing. One of the CAH co-founders, Max Temkin, tells me, “It’s impossible to make comedy without taking a political position. Anyone who thinks they’re doing comedy absent a political position is just quietly accepting political structures they’re already part of without questioning them.”
He adds that Cards Against Humanity has “never been as involved in an election as this because we’ve never felt like a candidate threatened our democratic institution as much as Donald Trump.”
“My biggest fear was a Clint Eastwood-esque suburbanite coming at me ‘Gran Torino’-style and yelling at me to ‘get off his lawn.’”
Cards Against Humanity was famously started by eight high school friends. As the game grew in popularity and later, profitability, the founders sought out new ways to push themselves?—?and their company?—?outside their comfort zone. A year ago, CAH hired two women from Second City’s national touring company to head up their writers’ room.
Over the last few years, the company has donated over $4 million dollars to different charity organizations and political causes. Their anti-Trump PAC, dubbed “The Nuisance Committee,” spent $20,000 dollars on a 90-foot billboard near Chicago’s O’Hare airport. It reads, “If Trump is so rich how come he didn’t buy this billboard?” The canvassing trip to Cleveland, and a similar trip planned for Nov. 5 to Iowa City, are the most recent examples of the Nuisance Committee’s efforts.
Cards Against Humanity’s plan to send performers canvassing is a no-brainer. Owing to the nature of the work, comedians tend to be politically informed and opinionated. And after a year and a half of enduring election-induced anxiety, a lot of comics were eager to do more than retweet articles. Temkin agrees: “I think this election has left a lot of people feeling defeated and hopeless, and getting together to actually do something is a great antidote.”
The art of the canvass
So that’s how I found myself hopping a bus to Ohio with a spate of Chicago comedians.
Now, you’d think a six-hour ride on a bus full of comics would be an absolute hoot, with everyone trading zingers and trying to one-up each other’s Trump jokes. It’d basically be a free comedy show, right?
Nope. We slept and watched movies. (Hey, comedians mostly work nights. We’re pooped.)
Upon our arrival at the Cuyahoga County Progressive Caucus, a volunteer took us through the finer points of canvassing. He went over the script and explained how to use MiniVan, an app that canvassers use to track voting data. He checked his watch; it was Sunday afternoon, the Browns were playing. The volunteer told us not to worry about bothering people watching the game?—?the team was so bad that some residents might appreciate the interruption.
After the orientation, our group of canvassers was divvied up and dispatched to four separate Cleveland neighborhoods. A few of us hitched a ride to Ohio City with yet another Caucus volunteer. As she drove, she pointed out the Cudell Recreation Center, where 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot and killed in November of 2014.
The act of canvassing is a distinctly Western one. The practice gained prominence in Britain, although its roots can be traced all the way back to the Roman Republic. A 1999 research project studying the effectiveness of canvassing found that going door-to-door increases voter turnout by about 6% and is most successful amongst voters without a party affiliation.
In other words: We funny folk were there to put human faces on an election that has repeatedly veered into the realm of the inhumane. We were there to mobilize and to motivate.
I knocked on the first door; nobody answered. The same thing happened at the next several homes I visited. At one house, I knocked and received no response, even though the resident was clearly visible inside, watching TV.
This was my first experience going door-to-door and, truthfully, I wasn’t expecting to like it. Comics generally fall into two personality camps: enthusiastic extroverts and angsty introverts. I’m both an introvert and a people pleaser; I hate small talk with strangers, making people mad or getting in trouble. My biggest fear was a Clint Eastwood-esque suburbanite coming at me “Gran Torino”-style and yelling at me to “get off his lawn.”
Other comics felt similarly. Marie Maloney, a Chicago-based improviser, told me, “I wasn’t expecting to be so nervous walking up to people’s houses…I don’t really get nervous when I go onstage but walking up to someone’s home is so much different.”
There’s no crying in canvassing
The volunteers at the Progressive Caucus told our group that the 2016 election was different from the one in 2008. In ’08, people were practically begging to canvass. In 2016, Cleveland had to bus in a ragtag group of comics from Chicago. I understand why?—?during my three hours spent going door-to-door, I spoke to three people. All three told me they were planning to vote for or already had voted for Hillary. I changed no minds and felt like I made no progress.
But other canvassers had better luck. My canvassing partner spent the better half of an hour sitting on the front stoop with an undecided voter. When he left, the voter was still undecided, but seemed to have enjoyed the conversation. Another comic convinced over 18 people to sign cards pledging to vote for Hillary. A third canvasser, Rachel Copel, made such an impression on a prospective voter that he invited her inside to “do a dab.”
“I politely declined because I had a lot of other houses to get to, and I am also not 100% sure of what a dab is,” said Copel.
Not all the interactions were positive. Maloney was going door-to-door with a partner; a resident saw the two women and invited them onto his front porch to discuss their materials. As the three stood there talking, a neighbor overheard and interrupted to challenge their assertions that Donald Trump is a sexual predator. Unprompted, the neighbor asked the women, “What if I raped you?”
Negative experience notwithstanding, Maloney says she would canvass again in the future.
After a long day of driving and chatting up strangers, our group of volunteers headed back on the bus, mentally preparing for the long drive home. I was feeling depressed until someone reminded me that it only took 537 votes for Bush to beat Gore in Florida in 2000. In less than three hours, we knocked on 750 doors. It’s still too soon to tell, but don’t count out canvassing yet.