How to ring in 2017 with a laugh: A new beginning for Denver comedy
The Denver comedy scene is dead. Long live Denver comedy! Encouraged in part by the success of the Grawlix troupe and its truTV sitcom “Those Who Can’t,” some of the city’s best, most experienced comics have fled Denver over the past year for Los Angeles, New York and elsewhere.
That’s not surprising, given the lack of national entertainment-industry machinery here. But it has created a vacuum of veterans and a flood of farewell shows, as well as opportunities for young comics who have been attracted by the city’s vibrant, competitive stand-up scene.
“We already knew we were in for a lot of change,” said Karen Wachtel, executive producer of Denver’s High Plains Comedy Festival. “Everybody was holding their breath to see what was happening, and now it feels like the second wave is ending.”
To be sure, stand-up can feel like an insular club. Outside of “A rooms” like Comedy Works or The Denver Improv, many wouldbe fans know it only from Comedy Central and late-night TV.
But thanks to the stand-up and podcast boom of the 2000s, Denver comics have not only infiltrated the aforementioned venues and networks, they’ve also cultivated a sustainable crop of young, hip, local audiences who support live comedy the way they would live music or theater.
Wachtel’s festival, which was founded by Grawlix member Adam Cayton-Holland and Sexpot Comedy co-owner Andy Juett, will return for its fifth year Aug. 24-26 and likely feature another 100-plus national and local comics at venues along South Broadway.
But before that, Denver comics will assemble by the dozens on Jan. 7 to ring in the new year with “50 First Jokes,” based on a New York showcase of the same name. The third Denver version invites stand-ups to unveil just-written jokes in front of an audience in the spirit of loose, experimental camaraderie — as when Grawlix member Ben Roy led an audience sing-along (because he supposedly couldn’t write a joke under two minutes), or CaytonHolland smashed an apple, Gallagher-style, during the event’s first installment.
“Last year Ben Bryant just stripped. I forget what his joke was, but I remember what his abs look like,” said comic and producer Timmi Lasley, who will once again co-host with Mara Wiles at the Bug Theatre. “Audiences have been so receptive, so even if it bombs you’re still going to have a great time.”
Comics based in Denver — or at least proudly from Colorado — are not difficult to find on the national scene, from longtime acts like Phil Palisoul to Denver booster T.J. Miller, Ben Kronberg and Josh Blue. But until Cayton-Holland, Andrew Orvedahl and Roy turned their monthly Grawlix showcase into a marketable TV brand, few tastemakers and agents were looking at Denver for the next big thing in comedy.
That has changed in recent years — coinciding roughly with the High Plains festival’s 2013 debut — even as the city’s rise has paralleled the cultural fortunes of other young, progressive towns like Portland, Ore., and Austin, Texas.
Still, many of Denver’s most beloved, popular shows, including “Arguments and Grievances” and “Too Much Fun,” are no more. The former ended at Vine Street Pub in November; the latter will hold its final showcase at the Deer Pile art space on Jan. 4. (Incidentally, each ran for six years.)
“We have paid out over $15,000 to touring comics, 99 percent of it from crowd donations,” said Sam Tallent, co-founder of the Fine Gentleman’s Club troupe that hosts Too Much Fun, in a Facebook post. “We put on a show that was, for a moment, the best weekly show in the country if not the world. We had the best comics (including drop-ins like Dave Chappelle) and the best crowds and the best room. And it was always free.”
Truly, there is more comedy than ever before along the Front Range: 5280comedy.com lists dozens of weekly and monthly open mics, showcases, club dates, podcasts and other DIY events at breweries, music venues, galleries and restaurants from Fort Collins to Pueblo.
And Denver remains visible to national comedy fans. In addition to two seasons of the Grawlix sitcom “Those Who Can’t” on truTV (the most recent of which finished this month; no word yet on a third season), this year Viceland aired its “Flophouse” episode recorded in Denver and Jonah Ray’s “Hidden America” parody-travel show, also shot in Denver.
“Denver’s a place people want to move now, so we’ve gotten a lot of fresh, new talent,” said Lasley, who works as creative director at El Charrito’s Comedy RoomRoom and is producing Denver’s version of the What a Joke Comedy Festival, to benefit the ACLU, at Syntax Physic Opera on Jan. 19.
“It’s easier now to put on a show than it ever was,” added Lasley, who will retire her own free, long-running showcase “Epilogue Comedy” at Mutiny Information Cafe on Dec. 30. “But it’s tricky because you have a ton of work in earning the experience that made these other comics so successful.”
Lasley and Wachtel are excited about a new crop of female comics making headway at Comedy Works’ New Talent night and in smaller rooms, including the Pussy Bros., which includes Christie Buchele, Janae Burris and Rachel Weeks. (The late and beloved Jordan Wieleba, who died in September, was also a member of Pussy Bros. and will receive her own comedy/burlesque tribute at Lannie’s Clocktower Cabaret on Jan. 8.)
“The people who have been around the scene a long time are seeing a huge shift with everybody leaving town,” Wachtel said, citing comics such as Jordan Doll, Chris Charpentier and Troy Walker as big losses to the scene. “But in newcomers’ eyes the scene is just getting started, so it’s a weird dichotomy going on. The question now is, ‘Who’s going to step up?’ ”
Denver comic Stephen Agyei leans into a joke during the 2016 installment of “50 First Jokes” as co-hosts, from lower left, Timmi Lasley and Mara Wiles and other Denver stand-ups watch from the Bug Theatre stage. Provided by Carlos Madrid
Denver comic Josh Blue cracks wise during the 2016 installment of “50 First Jokes,” which returns to the Bug Theatre on Jan. 7.