When “Film on the Rocks” opens its 15th anniversary on June 3 with a screening of “Caddyshack,” Denver comedian Sam Tallent will become the event’s new host.
The popular weekly outdoor film program at Red Rocks Amphitheatre isn’t just about movies: Colorado bands open each show and it’s the job of a host comedian to make the entire evening’s entertainment flow.
With the venue's seating capacity running close to 9,500, "Film on the Rocks" exposes many local entertainers to considerably larger audiences than they are accustomed to.
Most comedians are used to -- and often prefer to perform in -- intimate comedy clubs, where the audience's laughter can be easily heard from the stage. At the enormous Red Rocks Amphitheatre, the sound is designed to go out from the stage into the arena and doesn't bounce back, so a comedian performing there often doesn't even know if he or she is getting any laughs.
And considering that many audience members may have only come for the movie, they may not be in the mood for stand-up comedy.
For these reasons, the challenge of emceeing "Film on the Rocks" can be daunting.
“To be honest, I'm a little terrified,” Tallent says. “After the first show I'll be fine, but I've never been on stage at Red Rocks before. You want to go on stage in front of nine-thousand-plus people and figure it out?”
He may be anxious about his Red Rocks debut, but Tallent has a reputation in the Denver stand-up community for thriving in figure-it-out situations.
This is largely due to the fact that improvisation has long been a core component of the comedian’s work.
Tallent spent years as an improvisational comedian with the Bovine Metropolis Theater, an improv organization in Denver that teaches and performs spontaneous humor.
Improvisation has featured heavily in his work as a member of the Fine Gentleman's Club stand-up collective, as well in his role as the co-host of the weekly “Too Much Fun” comedy show at Denver’s Deer Pile venue located above the vegetarian restaurant City O' City. The intimate space seats just 100 people.
“Improv teaches you how to turn off the part of your brain that's afraid of failing,” Tallent says. “It's like if you're playing really good ping-pong: You're not thinking, you’re doing. You're not thinking about your next move, you're in the act.”
Unlike most stand-up comedians, Tallent often improvises the majority of his set, forgoing seasoned material in favor of bantering with the crowd and making up jokes on the spot.
"I engage with the crowd, and if someone is fun and interesting, I'll talk with them," Tallent says. "I hate anything that takes me out of the moment of being myself up there, that makes me put on the facade of 'performer.'"
Many of today's biggest comics and comedy writers, such as Stephen Colbert, Tina Fey and Steve Carell, have their roots in improv comedy.
In 1996, Chicago's Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB) improv group opened its own theater in New York City. There, a young Amy Poehler -- later to be known for her roles on “Saturday Night Live” and “Parks and Recreation” -- came together with three other comedians to offer classes on how to be funny without a script.
“One of UCB's mottos is ‘don't think,’” says UCB Theater graduate Lauren Bahlman. Bahlman, who now lives in Denver, currently performs in the improv groups Hot Nap and Jane's Addiction: Improvised Jane Austen.
British stand-up comedian Eddie Izzard praised the “don't think” method in the biopic “Believe: The Eddie Izzard Story.”
Izzard points to his days riding a unicycle as a street performer in London.
“Lads would walk by and go, 'Hey mate, you're gonna fall off!'” the comedian says in the film. “And you'd think, 'Don't fall off, don't fall off.' And you immediately fall off because you're thinking it. You have to just blank your mind, have no thoughts in there at all.”
While maintaining a blank mind is important, Bahlman says an improv artist has to keep one word front and center as he or she performs: "Yes."
“One of the first things you learn in improv is: ‘Yes and...’” Bahlman says. “If a character says, 'Let’s build an amusement park!' and you say, ‘No,’ you've shut the scene down and have nowhere to go. You have to relinquish control and go with the flow.”
“And saying ‘yes’ is helpful in life as well,” Bahlman says. “Coming at any situation with a 'no' mentality cuts you off from a lot of opportunity.”
Tallent and his cohorts in the Fine Gentleman's Club have a reputation for being hard-partying, off-color comedians in their “Too Much Fun” show. That style will have to take a backseat when performing cleaner material at “Film on the Rocks,” which often attracts families.
But with years of experience working different crowds, Tallent says he is well-versed in molding his act to fit the specific demands of each audience.
Tallent’s flexibility was recently tested during a performance the comedian gave at a preteen birthday party.
“They ate the first two comics alive,” Tallent says. “I didn't have a plan. I was just like, 'Let’s talk. What's an issue facing boys today?' And this kid yells, 'Girls!' I said, 'That's not going to change, brother,' and gave him a fist-bump. It's nothing I'm proud of artistically, but the kids laughed, the parents laughed. And later that night I went and performed at Lion’s Lair.”
Tallent says that his role hosting “Film on the Rocks” is a milestone that stands apart from other gigs for more reasons than just the size of the audience.
“I grew up sneaking into 'Film on the Rocks' as a kid,” Tallent, who came of age in the tiny town of Elizabeth, not far from the outdoor venue, says. “Now I have my own parking space there.”
Tune in to the Colorado Art Report on Friday, March 30, to hear Sam Tallent discuss his new role as host of "Film on the Rocks" and the impact that an enormous venue like Red Rocks can have on a stand-up comedy set.
"Film on the Rocks" 2014 Schedule:
June 3rd - CADDYSHACK with Ark Life and Covenhoven
June 10th - FIGHT CLUB with Flashbulb Fires and FaceMan
June 16th - LABYRINTH with Grizfolk and Total Ghost
June 24th - THIS IS SPINAL TAP with School of Rock
July 1st - THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS with The Yawpers and Native Daughters
July 8th - THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE with Boy & Bear and Inner Oceans
July 29th - PITCH PERFECT with The Messers and Tracksuit Wedding
August 25th - WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT with Chimney Choir and Jesse Manley
September 2 - THE BIG LEBOWSKI with The Congress and Tyler Lee Holter