Ask the average person if they’ve heard of Troy Baxley and you're likely to draw a blank. But mention Baxley’s name to any comedian who's been in the game for more than a few years and you'll get a condescending, "Everyone knows Troy Baxley."
Essay: Enter Troy Baxley, the most-popular stranger in comedy
Sipping a Guinness inside the Illegal Pete’s on South Broadway, middle-aged Baxley is reflecting on his twenty-plus years as a stand up comedian, seeing the bubble of the 1980s scene burst, hacking it as a road comedian through the winter of the 1990s, and finally witnessing the Denver stand-up revival over the last decade -- which owes an incalculable debt to the Roadhouse-style open mic he began at The Lions Lair in 2004.
"When you're first starting out, it's really good for you to get your ass kicked," Baxley says, sitting inside the venue which was ground zero for last summer's explosive High Plains Comedy Festival, an event no one could have anticipated when he first began coaching Denver comedians a decade earlier.
He continues: "The people who performed at Lions Lair were serious about their jokes and about comedy. You could do an open mic at Comedy Works every five weeks, but those crowds would be so soft. The people who came every Monday night to Lions Lair would get their asses kicked, and I'd tell them 'this is what comedy is."
When he began his Lions Lair show, stand up comedy in Colorado couldn't be less popular. Eventually, a small handful of mid-twenties comedy upstarts soon began attending Baxley's show with a religious observance, learning from this grizzled, world weary host -- who by that time had spent over a decade of his life on the road. Soon this Monday night open mic began a kind of drunken classroom of stand up, where young comics got through their harsh lessons in bombing before a roomful of angry Colfax drunkards.
Today, dozens of weekly open mics have sprouted up around Colorado, many of them modeled after the rough and tumble, be-funny-or-be-gone style of Troy Baxley's open mic.
"He was my hero and mentor, and the guys I was coming up with felt the same," remembers comedian Andrew Orvedahl, who began performing with Baxley years earlier.
Orvedahl is now a nationally known act who’s currently working on an Amazon-financed sitcom with two other Denver comics that came up through The Lions Lair.
"Ninety-nine percent of my opening gigs were with Baxley, and they were awful. But I loved watching him work; as an up-and-coming comic, you need something to see ahead of you," says Overdahl.
Ambition has become a common denominator with Denver comics, many of them performing several gigs a night when they aren't touring across around the country. While Troy Baxley has become a universally recognized name in comedy circles around the U.S., he remains mysteriously disinterested in the level of success that many of his protégées are currently enjoying. He'll be invited onto hit podcasts like Doug Benson's Doug Loves Movies, achieving a notoriety amongst other comedians for his endless years performing around the country, but few comedy fans are anything more than vaguely familiar with his name.
"I don't have nineteen sitcom credits, so I don't play the big chain clubs," he says, adding that he prefers standalone clubs.
"Troy has always been an enigma to me," Orvedahl continues. "He's one of the best comics I've ever seen and is renowned as such across the country by other comics. But he doesn't seem interested in chasing success. With Troy's library of material he could make a push and be on any late night TV show he wanted. It's just an issue of wanting it."
Despite his lack of interest in a Tim Allen-level of fame, Troy Baxley can still be found performing around the country. He also regularly headlines at his home club, Comedy Works, where he often sells bizarre merchandise like strips of bacon, motivational rubber-band bracelets, and signed fax machines.
"Troy's always had this bizarre, intellectually silly approach to comedy," says Denver comedian Vince Curran, who came up as a writing partner with Roseanne Barr during her years in the Denver scene. "For whatever reason, he wasn't interested in playing the game, so he's enjoyed a little less success than I think he deserves, but he's one of my favorites. I've always thought he was one of the best around."
It's difficult to find a comic in Denver that doesn't owe some debt of style or opportunity to Troy Baxley. He may not be pulling in large audiences of comedy fans, but anyone who performs comedy themselves can often be found huddled in the front row when he's performing, studying the timing and inflection of a comic who has spent more time on stage than any of them combined.
Josiah Hesse is an entertainment and pop culture journalist whose work has appeared in Westword, Out Front Colorado, and comedy blogs Laugh Spin, Splitsider and The Spit Take. Follow him on twitter at @JosiahMHesse.