Just over two weeks into the COVID-19 lockdown in Michigan that started March 2020, Detroit-based musician and comedian Jimmy Ohio began an Instagram live show dubbed On the Pot. Born out of the fear and anxieties over the newly declared pandemic and shutdowns, Ohio spent an hour talking with guests including a Zen Buddhist, a molecular and cellular biologist, a costume designer and a burlesque dancer, all from his teal-tiled bathroom.
“It was the 15th day of lockdown in Michigan and I was freaking the fuck out just like everybody else,” Ohio said. “We were living in a really small place and two of my kids came home from college which made it terribly small. The bathroom was my only place.”
After nearly a year and over 100 guests (among the notable names, Grammy-nominated producer Tony Maimone and legendary bassist Mike Watt), Ohio has turned the show into a podcast and given it a new name: On the Line with Jimmy Ohio.
While Ohio understood the market saturation of podcasts, he still pursued turning On the Pot into its podcast successor as a way to stay creative during lockdown.
“This idea to transition [On the Pot] to a podcast was easy for me because it was just what I wanted to do. So I did it. No matter how many people are already doing it or how in or out of fashion it is, I just see it as another art form.”
On the Pot and On the Line were not Ohio’s first long-term internet projects. In 2019, he produced short, 60-second music videos weekly for five months. His early comedic skits and music videos on YouTube date back to as early as 2006.
Prior to comedy, Ohio spent 20 years as a musician, playing in bands in Detroit, Chicago and New York City. Raised in an evangelical Christian household in Detroit, Ohio had no exposure to the kind of garage rock he would come to play as an adult. It wasn’t until his family got a clock radio that he was able to scan through the FM stations.
“We weren’t really allowed to listen to music outside of hymns, so of course the first thing I wanted to do was play music,” he notes. “I didn’t know good music from bad music. It was all just non-religious music.”
Ohio went to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago for performance art, where he played in the band Camera Club. Shortly after, he moved to Detroit where he formed the group The Ultimate Lovers from 1999 until 2003. (The band would briefly reunite again in 2013.) From there, Ohio moved to Brooklyn and performed under his own name with a backing band, ultimately returning to the Detroit scene after five years. (He also recorded his 2009 EP Basic Black during a four-day stint in Detroit, where he gathered in a former Baptist Church with friends to produce the album.)
In the early 2000s, he recalled that the Motor City music scene could be too competitive for his taste: “It got a little competitive, which was not terribly satisfying to me. The egos were out the window. Everyone had a super rock ego because everyone was posturing to be the next big thing.”
Now Ohio is based in Ypsilanti, Michigan, just outside of Detroit with his wife and children. He prefers the current atmosphere of the city’s comedy and music. “It’s a better place to create instead of [people] just trying to be the best. Instead you try to bring out your vision, however that plays out.”
Living Arts and Positive Mentorship for Detroit Youth
In 1999, Ohio, his wife Maggie Crawford, and dancer/teaching artist Christine Allen-Carlson founded Living Arts, a nonprofit that provides pre-school, K-12 and after school programs to Detroit youths. Programming focuses on creative expression in the performance, visual, and media arts, with a special commitment to equity and inclusion. Ohio currently sits on the organization’s board.
Due to the pandemic, Living Arts is operating remotely at this time. In 2020, over 1,700 youths watched and participated in “Living Arts at Home” programs with video lessons, activities and a virtual show and tell, according to the organization’s 2020 impact report.
Ohio comments, “So many kids have it tough in the city. It’s not really about the art form. To me, it’s about positive mentorship. It’s really amazing to see kids inspired by this type of work.”
Typically, Living Arts would celebrate its upcoming anniversary with a showcase in the Detroit Masonic Temple, where kids would perform dance routines, exhibit artwork and play music. However, the 2021 event will take place virtually to ring in the nonprofit’s 22nd year.
Transitioning from Music to Comedy
After Ohio’s nearly two decades of performing as a musician, the much-traveled rocker decided to pursue comedy as his primary art form. The abrupt transition came on the heels of Donald Trump’s ascent to political office and the increasingly virulent rhetoric the former president espoused.
“It was all about Trump,” Ohio recalls. “Trump was getting dark. Everybody was getting dark. I was like, ‘I got to do something else.’ And I started hanging out at the local comedy club. I would just go every week. I didn’t know anybody. And then I got up on stage.”
His first standup experience was at a variety show at Pointless Brewery & Theatre in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
“It was the weirdest place I had ever been,” he said. “They had an open mic night which seems normal, but there was a Marine [who] would just pour out his heart and then a very good drag queen and...comedians there for their first time.”
He continued to perform standup in clubs in and around the city until the beginning of 2020. Ohio’s final live standup gig before the pandemic lockdowns began was at a sold-out show in an Ann Arbor club called The Ark. Known as “50 First Jokes,” the show spotlighted both veteran and novice comics kicking off the new year by reciting jokes in rapid succession. His podcast has since featured a sprawling network of friends and referred guests that Ohio has met from his time traveling on tour and through acquaintances, including many fellow comics from his standup experiences.
Looking forward, Ohio will continue to host On the Line but makes no concrete promises about its future: “Well, it won’t be as fashionable, will it? There is a little embarrassment to me in doing a podcast. Like God, the world doesn’t need another podcast. So the longevity of it, I’m not sure. I think when people’s lives start to get moving again, it’ll be a little more difficult to book people.”
For more about Jimmy Ohio, visit jimmyohio.com or follow him on Instagram at @jimmy0hi0. To learn more about Living Arts, visit livingartsdetroit.org.