Kevin Kiley glares at Chuck Booms overtop his reading glasses. His eyes double in size and his voice is full of annoyance as a small smile creeps across his lips.
"Excuse me," he shouts. "Are you Michael?!?"
It's the fourth time this morning Booms has interrupted one of the listeners calling in to his and Kiley's morning show on Sports Radio 92.3 The Fan. Kiley is fed up, sort of. His and Booms' vitriolic back-and-forth feels real, but their listeners expect it.
The rampant bickering often elicits some of the show's best moments.
"KEVIN IS A MISERABLE HUMAN BEING." *
The Kiley & Booms co-hosts have been talking about the Cleveland Browns' uniforms this morning. Last season, the team wore white jerseys and pants every game, even though the home team gets to choose what color to wear. Booms argues this is a crime of the highest offense and blames team president Mike Holmgren.
He says the Browns looked weak. How could they play confidently when their opponents all wore intimidating dark colors? He argues that the brown jerseys were a source of pride that was stripped from the team as it skidded to a 4-12 finish.
Booms cuts off the caller again.
"THE PLAYERS CARE WHAT THE UNIFORMS LOOK LIKE! IT MATTERS." *
This is standard Booms. He's not so much a co-host as the guy who butts in on every conversation. Kiley, a former Jets linebacker, thinks his co-host's assertion about the uniform colors is ridiculous. He also thought the topic was ridiculous when Booms suggested it before the 6 a.m. show went on the air.
Before each show, Kiley spends about 90 minutes scrutinizing the day's topics. About 20 minutes before they go on the air, Booms argues about the list, tinkering with the lineup. The uniform subject, he assured Kiley, would get Cleveland callers riled up. Kiley was doubtful.
Now, almost two hours into the show, the phones are still lit up with callers irate about the white uniforms, and most of them agree with Booms.
"THE PLAYERS SHOULD GET TO VOTE. THE PLAYERS SHOULD DECIDE WHAT COLORS TO WEAR." *
"You're an idiot," Kiley shoots back.
"YOU'RE NOT FROM HERE." *
Cue the commercial.
This is Booms in his natural state. He's funnier when he's miserable. And with no major free agent signings by the Indians, a Cavaliers team with a top lottery pick (again) and a Browns offense that scored one point more than the wretched 1999 expansion team, his humor is desperately needed.
But Booms never expected to be in his hometown at this point in his career. He flirted with the A-list. He landed farther down the alphabet.
A rising stand-up comedian in the '90s, Booms considers Jerry Seinfeld and Brad Garrett friends and early mentors. When he lived in Los Angeles, he was given the stage every week at the Hollywood Improv, where the owner let him go for an hour — 90 minutes sometimes — compared to most comics' standard 20-minute set.
The skinny kid from Euclid appeared in nine television pilots. His standup act was peppered across cable channels. He landed roles on quickly canceled network shows. He was on the panel of Bill Maher's Politically Incorrect more than a dozen times. He nearly replaced David Letterman at NBC.
"He had all the markers of an overnight success," says Lee Herlands, who runs the Cleveland Improv Comedy Club & Restaurant and has known Booms for most of his career. "There are a lot of overnight successes who take about a decade to find their night."
Time and time again, that night never happened.
"There are at least four times in my life when I think I could have become a multimillionaire," Boom says. And he means it.
And I bet you had no idea how big of a deal Chuck Booms
"THERE'S NOTHING LIKE WET BOOBS AND GUYS IN THONGS TO GET YOUR STAGE PRESENCE POLISHED UP." *
Chuck Booms lives just a few blocks from his childhood home in Euclid.
The working-class neighborhood is still filled with kids. They shoot hoops and throw baseballs around in the street just like he did with his older brother Brian. With a World War II Navy vet for a dad, and a stay-at-home mom who packed his lunches and drove him to school when it rained, Booms has a lot of good memories tied to these streets.
It's the kind of inner-ring neighborhood people are proud to call home. The elderly and young couples alike keep their yards nice. The brick bungalows and larger gable-front homes are a short walk from Lake Erie. Here, it's not startling to hear a knock at the door. It's the sort of place where neighbors still drop by unannounced.
Booms isn't married. He lives here with his "five kids": three dogs and two cats. He also works where his mom once did. Before she married his father, she was an elevator operator in the Halle Building, where 92.3 The Fan has its studios. But Booms takes the stairs.
The way he tells it, he fell into his career. He used to work DJ gigs at clubs in suburban Cleveland. It wasn't exactly glamorous. At times, it meant hosting male strip shows and wet T-shirt contests. But it was also a chance to get on a microphone and figure out how to make people laugh. Still, he'd never tried stand-up comedy until one of the Cleveland nightclubs where he worked, The Mining Company, sectioned off part of its space and created It's Comedy.
The club opened on March 16, 1988, and its first headliner was Jerry Seinfeld. He was a nationally known comic at the time, but his NBC sitcom wouldn't premiere for another 16 months. Nevertheless, he was a big name. The club's owner, Alex Solomon, asked Booms if he'd serve as the opening night house MC.
Booms didn't have a specific comedy act planned that night, or any night thereafter, really. He wasn't worried about it. Just like when he hosted scantily clad women and the occasional male revue on stage, he got the crowd chuckling with his commentary. Whereas Seinfeld was known as a studious comic who religiously played with his act to ensure each joke hit its mark, Booms was completely off-the-cuff. He mostly picked on audience members that first night.
"I don't believe anybody can learn to be funny," Booms says. "If you want to be an actor, you can take classes. But you have to have a gift. There are a lot of well-studied, terrible actors."
It went well, and after the show Seinfeld asked Booms if he'd like to grab a bite to eat. Booms knew Seinfeld didn't often hang out with less experienced comics, so he immediately agreed. They headed to the nearby Denny's on Brookpark and Pearl, a gritty part of the Old Brooklyn neighborhood that's roughly midway between the road's legendarily questionable strip clubs and the Parma municipal line.
"It was late," Booms recalls. "There weren't many people."
The place was dirty and the air was blue with stale cigarette smoke. Booms says Seinfeld, whose fame was rising at the time, loved the older waitress who served them because she didn't know who he was. Booms ordered a patty melt. Seinfeld ordered turkey.
Eventually, Seinfeld asked Booms how long he'd been grinding away at comedy.
"I said about three hours," Booms recalls. "Seinfeld was a little put off."
Booms recounts that night with nonchalance, but also has amazing recall of it. He says fame doesn't faze him, but nearly every time he tells a story from his past, the cast of characters usually includes at least one entertainer you'd recognize. During our initial interview, he mentions 18 such people in the first half-hour.
Seinfeld gave Booms his phone number that night and the two kept in touch. In the following weeks, Booms introduced other big comics at It's Comedy — Brad Garrett, Sinbad, Paula Poundstone and Carol Leifer. He also continued to perform each night.
The comics he met encouraged him to move to Los Angeles. While mulling that decision, Belkin Production's Mike Belkin gave Booms the opportunity to open for music acts such as Air Supply and Kenny G.
"After that, I decided to give it a try in LA," he says.
Life in Los Angeles was rough. Booms waited tables at the Sunset Marquis in West Hollywood by day and sold Holiday Inn travel packages at night. He picked furniture from the garbage, including a set of chrome, 1970s-style chairs he still has in his living room. In between, he did whatever comedy gigs he could find. The work came slow. The first job was at a hotel following a Monday Night Football game. He performed behind a table offering free hot dogs and condiments. His audience was a group of four drunken businessmen from out of town.
After months of similarly awful gigs, he got a shot on stage at the Hollywood Improv in front of comedy club legend Budd Friedman. The founder and proprietor of the original Improvisation Comedy Club that opened in Manhattan in 1963, Friedman helped launch the careers of comics such as Rodney Dangerfield, Andy Kaufman and Jay Leno, among others.
Booms says Friedman was notorious for judging a talent on a first impression. Fail to impress, and he knew it would be difficult to get back on an Improv stage.
"Budd gave me 10 minutes," Booms recalls. "I thought, for me, it was a seven out of 10. Good, but not great. He says to me, Not bad for a first time. Lose the Dennis Miller voice.' And he kept walking. I thought, That's it. But instead, the next day he comes to me and said he wants me to be on again."
Booms never did develop a set act.
"I've never written anything down in my life," he says.
His comedy, much like his radio shows, was primarily based on riffing off recent news events and poking fun at people in the audience. With the right target, Booms could spend his entire set picking on a person, which didn't come without pitfalls. He says he once didn't recognize the guy whose hair he was making fun of was Neil Diamond.
For several years, the Hollywood Improv became Booms' stage. Only two people closed regularly there: Booms and Charles Fleischer, whom you probably know best as the voice of Roger Rabbit. During that time, Booms also toured all 50 states doing stand-up to great reviews.
"He is loud, obnoxious, offensive, flamboyant, disgusting, foul-mouthed. And absolutely hilarious," J. Frank Lynch wrote in the Savannah Morning News.
Judy Brown, a renowned comedy writer for LA Weekly called him "a good-natured manic cross between Don Rickles and Dennis Miller" who "sports a Dagwood Bumstead haircut."
Booms had a contentious first meeting with Lee Herlands of the Cleveland Improv though. Herlands remembers him barging in one night demanding stage time.
"He was dropping names. I had a show going on," Herlands says. "The Improv was new. We were packed every night. Chuck came in and [said], I'm Chuck Booms and I'm ready to get on stage.' I told him I'd talk to him the next night. I talked to Budd Friedman and he told me to put him on."
Booms eventually earned an open invitation to perform at the Cleveland Improv any time he wanted, Herlands says. The offer still stands.
"WHAT THE HELL KIND OF TOWN DO I LIVE IN? GET ME BACK TO CLEVELAND. PLEASE." *
In those last days before he found out, Chuck Booms mostly remembers Las Vegas and floating in the Riviera Hotel pool, smiling.
He'd impressed the executives at NBC the week before. It was just a matter of working out the contract details now. He was to take over the late-night spot being vacated by David Letterman, whose first CBS Late Show was set to premiere in August 1993.
Booms was taking his agent's advice: relaxing and enjoying life. He'd earned it. NBC was asking for a contract proposal. They had told him he might need to fly to Burbank for a screen test. He was ready. He wondered whether it would be on a private or commercial jet. Until then, he was just floating, waiting for a phone call.
At one point during the weekend following his tryout, Booms' name blared over the pool speakers, the message repeating several times: "Chuck Booms, you have a phone call at the pool phone."
It was his parents. He'd already told them how he'd impressed the handful of NBC executives during a closed audition.
"They were in tears," Booms recalls of sharing the news with his family. "I was crying. There was no question I had gotten the job."
He had nailed the Ross Perot impression. He scored a few laughs, but mostly it was just the other comics paying attention. Booms remembers Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels, the new late-night show's producer, showing up after four of the comics had already performed.
"There were 10 comedians," he says. "Drew Carey Jon Stewart was there. Rick Reynolds."
NBC executives had approached Booms' agent at the end of the night. They had made it seem like he had the job, but Booms eagerly awaited the official word. He wondered if he'd be able to do some interviews immediately or if he'd have to wait until after the contract was finalized.
But the call from NBC didn't come that weekend. Or Monday. Or Tuesday. He thought Wednesday might be the day. After baking in the sun a bit, he headed back to his room to grab more sunscreen. And that's how he learned about it.
"I hear in the background, The new late-night successor to David Letterman has been named. We'll tell you about him next!' I'm thinking, How do they have stuff on me already? This is crazy. I didn't even do an interview yet."
He waited through the commercials, and then he heard the anchor say that Conan O'Brien had gotten the job.
"I went cold," Booms says. "I was so shocked that I didn't really know what to do. I was saying, out loud, This can't be happening. This can't be happening.' "
Booms was sure they had it wrong, but after some back and forth with his agent, he received confirmation that he was out. It was over. Just like that.
The New York Daily News later reported six people had been seriously considered for the job, including Chuck Booms. But in the end, Michaels chose O'Brien, who had worked for him as a writer on Saturday Night Live.
Booms didn't give up. He kept performing at the Hollywood Improv and the consideration for the NBC job had boosted his profile. He started landing national television appearances. There were comedy specials, including appearances on HBO and
In 1995, he was named the host of a new, revamped version of The Gong Show, which taped six shows but was never picked up for syndication. The same year, he landed a role on the prime-time soap opera The Monroes, which had critical acclaim but was canceled after just two months. Booms blames on it on the competition: It aired on ABC Thursday nights at 9 p.m — the same time as Seinfeld and Friends on NBC.
"There was only one f---ing hour in the entire seven-day week where you could have put this show and it wouldn't succeed," he says. "And they f---ing picked it."
In total, he has more than 300 national television credits, from Larry King Live to hour-long comedy specials.
Finally, in 1996, one of his pilots made it to the air. Comedy Central produced Comics On Delivery, a show Booms created and starred in, for two full seasons. It featured comics helping out regular folks in different situations.
The gag was that you could write to the show and ask that a comic be dispatched to aid you with a certain task. One bashful guy asked for assistance shopping for lingerie for his wife. Another woman asked for help getting on the air at a local sports-talk radio station. Booms helped her out and got her a one-day show on Washington D.C.'s WTEM.
It went well. So well, in fact, that the general manager called Booms up shortly after.
They didn't particularly like the woman. But they had loved him.
"HOW DO YOU CHARACTERIZE MY CAREER? HUGE SUCCESS OR UNBELIEVABLE OPPORTUNITIES THAT NEVER CAME TO FRUITION?" *
If it wasn't for a stack of clips from newspapers such as The New York Times and LA Weekly, you might doubt some of Booms' claims. His fame came before YouTube. His comedy career is nearly invisible on the Web.
Consider this: On the day I search, my name brings up nearly as many hits on Google as Booms' does. My 5,230 are mostly links to newspaper, magazine and radio stories I've done. Booms' 7,790 are mostly about his radio career.
Compare that to the 11.5 million Google hits comedian Dane Cook has. His career isn't longer than Booms'. It just happened to peak when the Internet made sure no one could ever forget you.
Booms' boss at 92.3 The Fan, program director Andy Roth, has an analogy that illustrates the idea of fame trapped in time. He was watching an episode of The Facts of Life with his wife this winter, when she asked him the name of the actress who played Tootie. He drew a blank on the actress' name, Kim Fields.
"I couldn't remember it," he says. "People have short memories. If you're not in the public eye, people forget you."
So, in a weird way, Chuck Booms is Tootie.
I tracked six veteran entertainment writers who penned stories about Booms. Three of them were dead. The other three have no memory of him.
Judy Brown, from LA Weekly wrote in an email: "Perhaps I did write about Chuck Booms in the '90s, but if so, I have no memory of having done so." As if that wasn't biting enough, she followed with: "Don't remember him, at all."
Frank Swertlow, who wrote a piece about Booms for the New York Daily News sounded confused when I reached him by phone: "Chuck Booms? Spell that for me." B-O-O-M-S. "Wow. Yeah. I'm sure if you have an article in hand, I wrote about him, but I don't even remember his name."
Like anyone, Booms wants people to know about his successes. He mentions it regularly on his radio show. All his best stories include the names of people you've heard of. But even in Cleveland, he's not a household name.
"I've had an awesome career," he says, "but the thing that bothers me the most is the lack of respect for what I have accomplished. And the lack of knowledge about what I've done nationally."
Kevin Kiley says he's never noticed that craving for recognition from his longtime radio partner.
"But if that's true," he adds, "that's very, very sad."
"NO JOB AGAIN. I WAS IN CLEVELAND. ANYONE WANT ME? NOPE." *
Some of this is probably Chuck Booms' fault, although one of the choices that forever altered the trajectory of his career is one so many others with strong family ties have made themselves out of loyalty and love.
It was 1998 and Booms still had his Comedy Central show. He was still the closing act at the Hollywood Improv. He was still in demand, and that's when he received terrible news.
"I found out my mom had Parkinson's and dementia. I had to make a decision," he says. "Do I sit there and wait to get a terrible phone call? Let my dad go through that himself?"
His confidantes in LA, Budd Friedman and several other comics, urged him to stay put. They told him he was so close to making it.
"I said, I appreciate that, but if I don't go home and try to take care of her, I'll never forgive myself,' " Booms recalls.
But once he returned to Cleveland, he was contacted by WTEM in Washington, D.C., the sports-talk radio station he'd visited while filming Comics On Delivery. The East Coast was closer to home than the West Coast, so he started at the station Jan. 1, 1999. It's also where he first met Kevin Kiley.
He was originally teamed with a different co-host, but the combination didn't work. After a few weeks, the station brought in Kiley, who had worked at WTEM before, and made him the dominant voice and shifted Booms to the role of comic relief, essentially the dynamic the duo has maintained to this day. "My ego took a hit, but from the first day, we hit it out of the park," Booms says. "The first show was funny. We had no practice shows, nothing."
But Kiley and Booms were let go after the first year. Booms returned to Cleveland, but he still traveled to Los Angeles to make appearances on Bill Maher's late-night ABC show Politically Incorrect — 17 in all, he says.
During one of those appearances in 2000, a Fox Sports Radio executive was in the audience and asked Booms afterward whether he wanted to hang around a few extra days and interview for a job that would also be based in Washington, D.C. He got it, and then convinced them he needed Kiley if the show was to be a success. They hired him, too.
After a few months, they let him return to Cleveland to broadcast the show from here. Kiley remained in Washington, D.C., while Booms worked out of an Independence radio studio. It was a risk, but it worked, even when they weren't in the same room.
Kiley and Booms started in 2000 with six affiliates. By the time their show was canceled in 2002, they had 118 affiliates. Their lead-in was Jim Rome, and despite good numbers, Booms says they were still let go.
"They told us if we could hold half his audience, they'd be happy," he says. "We doubled it, and we get fired. How's that for show business?"
What made it worse was Booms couldn't land a radio job in Cleveland.
"Nobody would hire me," he says. "I don't know why. I didn't have any enemies."
Clear Channel hired him afternoons on its flagship station, WOAI San Antonio. They also let him broadcast from Cleveland. "They allowed me to be there for my mom. I owe them for that," Booms says. "You hear about how radio executives are cutthroats and bad guys, but they weren't."
The station ultimately couldn't afford the show. This was happening just as his mother's health was worsening. She died in 2005, seven years after Booms left Los Angeles.
Following his mother's death, Booms took a job in Springfield, Mo., for three years, then came back to Cleveland for an Internet radio company that never paid him. He ended up unemployed.
"My agent said, If you're not going to pay the guy, I'm not sending him to work.' They said, If he doesn't come in to work, he's fired.' My agent said, Fired from what? Not getting paid?' I was on unemployment for four or five months, and I didn't know what I was going to do."
Then, in 2011, CBS Radio called. They were switching formats. Their Cleveland rock station Radio 92.3 was going to become Sports Radio 92.3 The Fan. They wanted Booms. They were aware of he and Kiley's previous national success and wanted them in Cleveland together.
"Chuck made me laugh," says Andy Roth, the station's program director. "He felt like the right fit for this station."
"YOU can't let the bumps in the road bother you or it would eat you alive. I have to take some satisfaction. I was good enough to do all that." *
Chuck Booms never sits still when the Kiley & Booms show goes to commercial. He's either running to the bathroom or grabbing another Cherry Coke Zero. (He drains about five per four-hour show.)
Then, he's off talking to someone in the hall. It's hard to tell the difference between the show and the hallway conversations. He breathes Cleveland sports. When he's off the air, he even calls in to other shows on the station to make a point.
And while the over-under on how many times he calls Kevin Kiley an idiot during the course of a single show must hover somewhere around a dozen, he makes it clear that he'd follow the guy anywhere to do radio.
"Some things just work. Kevin and I work together," he says. "I like doing radio, but I love doing radio with Kevin."
Local listeners have reacted positively since the show went on the air on Aug. 29, 2011. In its core demographic, 18-34 males, the show debuted at 3.7 percent of Cleveland radios listening to their show, according to figures provided by the station. Five months later, it had a 9.7 share — more than 2.5 times the initial audience.
"Hey, I couldn't be happier," Booms says. "I always wanted my mom to hear me on the radio in Cleveland. She was always telling me she wanted me to get a job here. She heard me on the national show here, but this is different. I think she'd be proud."
Kiley says he came to Cleveland because the national Fox Sports Radio show ended too soon. He says Kiley & Booms is still evolving and it's fun.
"I didn't feel like the show had run its course," Kiley says. "I wanted it to end on my terms, when it is ready to end. It's still getting better."
As Kiley and Booms come back from break, they're laughing at the previous night's Cavs highlights. Flash-in-the-pan star Lester Hudson just had another decent game. Kiley says he had the game on and he couldn't believe how many guys' names he didn't recognize.
"Who was that guy? Lester?" Kiley asks.
"Lester Hudson," Booms says.
"Never heard of the guy."
"Last week he was a bus driver on the RTA."
They laugh and move on to the Tribe. Booms is wearing an Indians cap and shirt.
He starts in on a rant about the Dolans, the team's owners — one of his favorite Cleveland sports gripes. You can hear his smile as he talks.
Chuck Booms isn't on the A-list. But don't tell him. He may never notice.