How to ring in 2017 with a laugh: A new be­gin­ning for Den­ver com­edy

The Denver Post - - LIFE & CULTURE - By John Wen­zel

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: 5280com­ 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.

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