CLEVELAND, Ohio — Mary Santora’s debut comedy album “Hillbilly Boujee” has been nine years in the making.
The comedian and radio personality has built up a following in Northeast Ohio for the better part of a decade, earning her spot as one of the most renowned comics in town. In 2016, 2017 and 2019, Cleveland Scene Magazine named Santora the “Best Female Comedian,” and in 2018, Thrillist named her the “Best Undiscovered Comedian in Ohio.” In January 2020, Santora became a co-host of “The Alan Cox Show,” airing weekdays on WMMS-FM/100.7. The show is also available online and via podcast, earning her new fans in Ohio and around the country.
Santora says the whole journey started with a five-minute guest spot at Hilarities nearly a decade ago.
The next milestone in her comedy career comes Feb. 26 with the release of “Hillbilly Boujee.” The album — recorded at Hilarities over the course of five shows in early December 2020 — compiles personal stories about her own family, past standup performances and her relationships, including a called-off wedding.
The album also features a little bit of interaction between Santora and her father and brother, who were in attendance for one of the shows. The back-and-forth energy gained new meaning after Santora’s father, Tony Santora, died on Jan. 14 due to complications from coronavirus.
Presales for “Hillbilly Boujee” launched on Jan. 27 on Amazon — and the album quickly rocketed up to top spots in the platform’s album sales charts, with fans placing their orders en masse ahead of the project’s release.
We caught up with Santora ahead of the album’s release to chat about family, her history in Cleveland, COVID-19 and more.
Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
I noticed today (Feb. 2) that your comedy album is the No. 1 comedy release on Amazon. That’s got to be so exciting for you.
It’s pretty crazy. I actually didn’t even know about that until Hilarities, the comedy club in downtown Cleveland where I recorded it, tagged me in a post on Instagram, saying, “Look who’s on top of the charts.” I was like, “Get out of here.” I sent that to the sound engineer from the record label, and he was like, “Take a screenshot of that. It updates hour-by-hour, they update it every single hour, so make sure you get a picture of that. That’s super awesome.”
It was No. 1 overall on my first day of presales — not even just comedy charts. I sold more albums than Eminem and Garth Brooks that day, and that felt really cool. Again, that was just the first day of presales. It’s very promising and very exciting.
How’s it feel to be putting this out into the world, later this month?
The analogy I use is that it’s like I’m sending my kid to school for the first time. I hope everyone likes him and they’re nice and they get along — just don’t be a terrible person. I want it to be well-received and make friends.
This is my first comedy album. I’ve never put anything out before and I tend to be a little bit of a perfectionist when it comes to material. I’m like, “Oh, there are some jokes I thought were done,” and then randomly six months later I’ll say something onstage, off the cuff, that makes it perfect. I’m always nervous that if I put something out too soon, it won’t be finished.
I’ve been doing comedy for nine years on Feb. 23. It’s taken me nine years to cultivate this. I’m definitely excited to have something out there at this point. I’ve been on the road, traveling for comedy for three or four years now, pretty consistently. To get something more out there, to hopefully spread my name, is the next step.
The content — the material itself — was very vulnerable to me. I think that’s why I feel so attached to it and am nervous to release it. It’s one thing to do it live, and you have this show: people come and they either like you or they don’t, they had a good time or they didn’t, but most of the time they’re probably not going to remember you.
When you put something out there, it’s out there forever. So this material about my family, having a rough childhood, calling off a wedding — it’s all very vulnerable, very dark stuff. I’m really hanging myself out there to dry, hoping people like it. It’s hard for me, with this type of material. It’s not like I’m just commenting on politics or the grocery store. With this type of material, it’s very much who I am as a person. The material is so close to home, I want to make sure it’s good.
In one of the bonus bits on the album, you talked about working your way up at Hilarities, starting at guest spots and going all the way to recording your first album there. Could you reflect on that journey?
One of the bonus tracks is just me basically thanking Hilarities for everything they’ve done for me. I’m incredibly lucky to have such an amazing club as my home club, where I get to essentially practice. And I’ve done things on the road as well, but to be able to stay home and work with some of the best headliners in the country, is incredible.
Starting out there, they had these 11 p.m. on Saturday night showcases back in 2012 and 2013.. They don’t do them anymore. I remember, if you could get on that late-night showcase, that was like getting your foot in the door. I was trying to get in there, doing those five-minute spots. You dream of being on the big stage one day, where you’re peeking into the other room when the big-name headliners are in there. That’s what you want to do, that’s what you want to be. It’s really cool to put in the time and effort, and them giving me the chances along the way. To have such a strong base, that trusts you enough, to be like, “Okay, here’s some room to play. We know you’re a good comic, let’s see what you can do.” They very much aided in my growth as a comedian.
Was it important for you to record in Cleveland?
This is where I’m from. Born and raised in Berea, Ohio, and then I went to school in Toledo so I was only gone a couple of years, and then I moved back to Cleveland. Ever since, comedy has been a part of my life — dive bars, open mics, and bombing my face off, and getting those tiny little exciting shows. The first time Cleveland Scene Magazine voted me Best Cleveland Comedian was in 2016. All the accolades have stemmed out of Cleveland. I stemmed out of Cleveland.
Between my own standup and “The Alan Cox Show,” being a co-host on there, most of our fans are here. We have fans all over the country but this is our home base. Not to mention friends and family, people who have known me my entire life. When I was thinking that I might have to record this in a different state, I was really bummed out, because I want my parents to be there and I want my siblings to be there, and I want the people who have been watching from the sidelines the entire time, to be there. Radio listeners or comedy fans who have been coming to shows for years. All those people got me to this point — if I didn’t have the support of all the people in Cleveland, I never would have gotten to the point of making an album.
It felt like the right thing to do. It’s where I started and it’s a big milestone, putting out your first album, and it just felt like this was the place to do it.
You became a full co-host on “The Alan Cox Show” last year. How’s that been going for you?
I was filling in intermittently from 2017 until 2019, and then in January 2020 they signed me on fulltime as a co-host. It’s been awesome. It has been 100% my saving grace during the peak quarantine days. When everything was locked down last March and April, I wouldn’t have made it. Before Alan gave me a job, I was a bartender and a road comic. Both of those industries shut down immediately. If it wasn’t for them, I would’ve been out of luck.
I feel very lucky to have that job and I love doing it, it’s so much fun. Not everybody can say, after 2020, that they have a job they love. It’s something I’m very grateful for. We have a really good time — I hate the word “blessed,” I wish there was a different word, just because it’s so overused, “hashtag-blessed.” But I feel very lucky, very grateful, to have that job.
Back to “Hillbilly Boujee,” I was hoping to hear more about when and how the recording deal came together.
I did what was called the “Coast to Coast Roast” for Helium Comedy Clubs in the summer of 2020. There are Heliums all over the country, they have their own record label. But they did this thing last summer, where different cities would roast other cities. Two comics from Cleveland would roast the city of Minneapolis; we wouldn’t talk about the other comics, we would just look up facts about Minneapolis and then make fun of it. I did that with another comedian, Mike Paramore who’s also very funny, from Cleveland. We made it all the way to fourth place, to the semifinals. We beat out New York, Los Angeles, Chicago — all these other big comedy cities. It was cool to make a splash in that, put Cleveland on the map in whatever sense that was.
Two months later, I got a call from the owner of all the Helium Comedy Clubs and he said, “What do you think about putting out an album? Have you ever thought of that?” I said, “Yeah, I’m out of practice, 2020 hasn’t been kind.” I used to be touring every other week; I was on the road 30 weeks a year and now I wasn’t. You get rusty, it’s a muscle you have to continue to work. I told him I wasn’t sure about it or what the timeline was. We started to line some things up, and then COVID numbers started to spike. I wasn’t able to travel to work out the material, and because I wasn’t able to travel, we were able to talk about doing it in Cleveland, and that’s when we came to the conclusion that we’d be able to do it at Hilarities. One thing led to another. I signed up for this road show and that went well, then they called me about an album, and then there were traveling restrictions, and then we were able to do it in Cleveland. It was very kismet.
What were those recording shows like at Hilarities? It had to be pretty different, during the pandemic.
Hilarities has absolutely gone above and beyond with all of their safety procedures and protocols. Everything they’ve done is incredible. Hilarities is honestly the only club I’ve been performing at because I feel safe there. They have all the tables socially distanced, they have plexiglass in between them, they rigorously clean in between shows, they make sure you don’t get paper menus or anything like that. They also put in a new HVAC system that’s constantly, every 15 minutes, pumping new fresh air in from outside. To do it there, I knew everybody’s going to be safe, I knew they were going to do it right.
The only real difference is that they’re at a little bit of a limited capacity. Before COVID, Hilarities’ capacity was around 400, and we were working with about 160 seats. It was less than half, what would be considered sold-out. We sold out three of five shows. Two Sunday, one Saturday sold out — and then Saturday’s early show and Friday’s shows were not sold out.
Those shows were incredible. Even at the limited capacity, with everything going on, the crowds showed up, they were ready to laugh, they were excited to be a part of something. The other comedians I had on the show brought it as well. Bill Squire, Jimmie Graham and John Bruton were the support acts, and they’re great. They’re hilarious comedians and that’s why I used them.
The reaction from the crowd, and the comics having a good time and everybody being so excited… Honestly, people were probably just excited to just get out of their house, which I’m okay with. I’m fine if they were just happy to be out. But I was very happy to have them there. The atmosphere, the overall feeling in the air, was just electric.
Hearing the recorded version, I noticed that your dad and brother were at the show. Looking back after your dad’s death, what’s it like to have them be a part of the recording? They’re a part of these bits about family — you can hear them laughing or shouting out. That seemed so special.
It’s funny because something to take into consideration when you’re releasing an album, is if a track can be clean. On the backend, you can get it to more places if you’re not cussing in it. That track that you’re specifically referring to — it was clean, up until when I started talking to them. Then there was cussing. I was debating even putting it in or not. I was like, “Oh man, I really want to at least get some clean stuff out there, so I can have a wider reach.”
But then it was such a moment to have with them — to have with my dad and my brother. It was so raw and organic and funny, that I couldn’t not have it.
Then once my father passed away, I said, “Oh, absolutely, that’s going in there.” It’s just so funny how those little worries about it being clean, the right time, this or that — I don’t care if it meets any of those requirements. That’s my dad’s voice on my album, and I need that there.
It was very awesome for him to come see me record that. Up until that point, I think he had only seen me headline one other time and it was in a bar show. For him to see me do a full hour set in front of a sold-out crowd, with the reaction that I got, meant so much to me, because he wasn’t always the happiest that I chose a job in a field with no promise. You know, from a dad standpoint, when your kid tells you they want to be a comedian, or an actress, or an artist or a musician — there’s no security in that. He had his thoughts about that. It really meant a lot to me that he was able to come and be at that recording. It was a big thing. He was meant to be there.
Do you have any live shows on the horizon, or any other projects around the album’s release?
I’ve been doing a lot of podcasts through the end of the month, just because that’s the easiest thing to do right now without being in-person or near people.
I’ve limited my in-person shows for the time being, just for safety issues and, with my dad passing from complications from COVID, it makes it a little bit harder to be ready to travel. For the most part it’s mostly online promotion, with social media, sending press releases out, and trying to get the word out as best as I can. Promotion now isn’t the same as it was two years ago. I’m just hoping people will listen to the album.
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