Comedy scene in Denver surges, is teeming with talented comics

While the Internet may have democratized comedy, it didn’t make everyone a genius. There may be videos and showcases being assembled all over the US, but only a few regional scenes (Portland, Austin) have risen above their less organized counterparts and created thriving communities of comedians that not only attract the big-wigs from New York and L.A., but in some cases are making their own industry – one that doesn’t require outside finance or attention.

Beginning with random, poorly attended open mics in forgotten bars a decade earlier, Denver, Colorado has built a community of a couple hundred comics and several packed shows every night of the week.

adam-cayton-hollandThis summer local comedy icon Adam Cayton-Holland (pictured), teamed up with Comedy 103.1 sales manager Andy Juett to launch the High Plains Comedy Festival – a Bridgetown styled, three day comedy event featuring local talent, with Reggie Watts headlining. “I’ve spent enough time in L.A. to realize that all people out there want is people to collaborate with and money to do their projects,” says Cayton-Holland. “And everything you do is just a hurdle to get that.”

Cayton-Holland is having a pretty damn good year. Not only was his festival a bigger success than anyone had anticipated (selling over two-thousand tickets), but his comedy team, The Grawlix, just received a hearty check from Amazon to write six new scripts for their series Those Who Can’t (which debuted a successful pilot on Amazon last summer) – not to mention Cayton-Holland’s debut on Conan last February. He is currently resting in the same chair he records his podcast, My Dining Room Table, which he has often described as “my choice to pursue fame, fortune, grandeur, within my hometown of Denver, Colorado, instead of moving to Los Angeles or New York, which would make far more sense.”

This journalist-turned-stand up is among the more successful comedians in his home-town, but he also has been in the business long enough to recognize that there is a treasure-trove of authentic comedy talent buzzing right outside his front door. “Watching this scene develop has been so satisfying,” he says, surrounded by high brow antiques and stuffed birds, as a Chesapeake Bay Retriever sleeps at his feet. “I don’t know if its the sunshine or the altitude, but something is working here.”

With several Denver stand-ups and comedy filmmakers being signed to L.A. representation, and High Plains Festival attracting Hollywood industry reps, the appeal of taking the money and running to the coasts is higher than ever in this land-locked mountain town. But at the same time, the security of staying has never looked better either, with Denver music labels like Hot Congress and The Greater Than Collective releasing comedy albums; and local entrepreneurial restaurant Sexy Pizza sponsoring dozens of comedy events and podcasts, while currently scouting a location for its own comedy club (which will be the first of its kind to allow marijuana to be freely smoked inside the club).

juett 175“Some comedy communities will be competitive and fight with each other, but Denver has such a tight-knit community,” says Charlene Conley, co-producer of Portland’s Bridgetown Comedy Festival. After making the acquaintance with several Denver comics who’d performed at Bridgetown, Conley flew in to Denver this summer to volunteer for the events produced by Cayton-Holland and Juett (pictured); she was not disappointed with the hype she’d been getting about this scene.

“There is some really hot talent in Denver. Since this was year one of the comedy festival, the bar was low, but since they killed it now they gotta work. To have the first year of a comedy festival be that well attended, while being done outside of comedy clubs, speaks volumes to what is happening in the scene.”

While it’s true that the most exciting elements of Denver comedy exist far outside the culture and economics of the comedy club world, most every comic in town owes a serious debt to the industry staple of Comedy Works. Not only did the 33-year-old comedy club survive the bubble of the 80s comedy industry, but it has established a reputation as one of the most sought-after rooms for A-list touring comedians looking to try out new material. Dave Attell recorded his album Skanks for the Memories at Comedy Works, and longtime Denver resident Roseanne Barr developed her early act while performing there. In recent years it has been the training ground for Last Comic Standing winner Josh Blue, and Comedy Central Half-Hour comedian Ben Kronberg.

jordan doll 175“Denver has been really good to me,” says Scottish born comedian Jordan Doll (pictured), shortly after winning the Comedy Works New Faces contest. Similar to Cayton-Holland, Doll looks pleasantly exhausted, having just survived one of those years where your career starts to move in fast-forward. His performances this summer at High Plains and the UMS festival have become one of the most talked about sets in recent memory. Though unlike Cayton-Holland, Doll has almost never performed comedy outside of Denver. Despite being hailed (at least by this writer) as one of the most original voices in modern comedy – weaving a prosaic, literary style with vivid imagery and existential humor, while still remaining accessible – his celebrity is one-hundred percent regional.

“I do really well with the younger, nerdy people here, but not so much on the road,” says Doll, a novelist turned comedian who often believes his talent is at the mercy of finding the right audience. “I’m still trying to figure out what it is about a room or a show that makes me feel like I’m at 100 percent. If I can find a place around the country, a place like Denver, then I’ll be alright.”

Charpentier 175“It’s taken a long time for comedy in Denver to get as popular as it is,” comedian Chris Charpentier (pictured) recently said in an interview that landed his comedy team, The Fine Gentleman’s Club, on the cover of Denver’s alternative weekly newspaper, Westword. “Now this is the place to be. There are so many funny people here. I’ve been to places like Atlanta, where there are a lot of comedians, and there’s a large scene that’s supportive. But there are like five funny people there — and we have like 25 really funny people. And it’s a smaller group here than there.”

With their weekly comedy show, Too Much Fun!, The Fine Gentleman’s Club raised the ambition bar for what is required of a respectable stand up in Denver. When they first began several years earlier, a comedian could catch maybe one or two open mics a week, and hope to get on a local showcase twice a year – but in delivering a show of new material every week, while maintaining a consistently packed audience, The Fine Gentleman’s club forced everyone in the Denver comedy scene to step up their game. Now being a mic-rat every night of the week isn’t the only prerequisite, you also have to host your own open mic, run a podcast, act in sketch videos, dabble in improv, and perform in contests just to keep up with the mid-level comics.

“In L.A. you’ll be forgiven for working on the same ten minutes for four months, because you’re trying to get something ready for TV,” explains Cayton-Holland. “But when I was doing The Squire open mic every Tuesday, people were coming out to see you each week, so you better have new material. In a scene like this, it polices itself real well. Everyone knows who’s writing new material and who isn’t.”

Considering that its where his management is based, Cayton-Holland is quick to point out that he doesn’t have a “fuck L.A.” mentality. He is happy to tour the country, accept funding from Amazon, and bring nationally recognized comedians like Jonah Ray, Sean Patton and (former Denverite) T.J. Miller to his monthly Grawlix show. While at the same time he, and many others, are waking up to the fact that they not only don’t have to choose between their hometown and the coasts, but by remaining here they stay creatively challenged in a way that might not occur in the meat-market of Hollywood.

“When I went to Just For Laughs in Montreal to do New Faces in 2012, Patton Oswalt gave this famous speech where he held up his iPhone and said ‘in here is more technology than Orson Wells had when he made Citizen Kane,’” Cayton-Holland remembers. “And then he said something like ‘the next really big thing is happening in Iowa, you haven’t even heard of it yet, they’re making shit with their cameras and having fun with their friends.’ And at the time, we were midway through season one of The Grawlix web series, and I was like ‘that’s exactly what we’re doing.’ And that’s when I was the most convinced that I should be staying in Denver.”

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Josiah M. Hesse

Josiah is a Denver-based pop culture writer for Westword and Out Front Colorado. You can follow him on Twitter by clicking his name above.

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