Essay: Can Colorado comedy survive outside Denver?

Photo: Comedians Steffen Williamson, Chris Charpentier, Dan St. Germain
Steffen Williamson of Denver, left, Chris Charpentier of Denver and Dan St. Germain of New York.

Accompanied by his owner, a stand up comedian who arrived to perform at The East Coast bar Monday night comedy showcase, the border collie wanders around the bar for about twenty minutes, sniffing the crowd of drinkers who arrived for the show, before casually walking onto the stage.

“This is my dog, Jackson,” the comic says. “Everyone say hi to Jackson.”

“Hi Jackson!” shouts the crowd.

The dog’s eyes dilate to the size of frisbees, momentarily thrilled and terrified at the novelty of so many strangers paying attention to him. It was his first taste of fame, an experience not uncommon in the growing stand up comedy scene of small towns throughout Colorado.

“There are probably forty or fifty comics in Fort Collins now,” says Brett Crandall as he drives north on I-25, making his weekly trip from Denver to host the Monday night show he started two years earlier. “Fort Collins has its own comedy scene now. There’s a show almost every night of the week. Since it’s a college town, most of the comedians are young and have only been doing it a couple of years. Many of them have never even been to Denver.”

While Fort Collins has the strongest collection of comedy shows and performers in the state, other Colorado towns like Pueblo, Carbondale, and Colorado Springs have seen a surge of both humor-hungry audiences and young upstarts hosting weekly open mics.

There’s little doubt that the tentacles of this standup trend all lead back to Denver, where the comedy scene has grown to a nationally recognized level of fame and moderate wealth, climaxing in last summer’s High Plains Comedy Festival.

Over the last ten years, many of Denver’s most prominent comedians have been very vocal about their defiance toward leaving their hometown in favor of New York or L.A., where established comedy industries have existed for nearly a century. By now they have answered the commonly asked question: Can you build a comedy career while living in Denver?

And now the torch has been passed to a new generation of Colorado comics, who are similarly wondering: Can you build a comedy career outside of Denver?

Having little to compete with in the way of entertainment, many of these shows will draw relatively large audiences, leading James “Moose” Lundstrom to launch 2 For The Road Entertainment in 2011, a booking company that brings comics to the eastern plain communities of Fort Morgan, Sterling and Lamar.

“We’ve been very blessed,” says Lundstrom, who works a day-job as a delivery driver for Pepsi, and says he’s often approached in grocery stores by eager residents asking when the next show will be. “A lot of these people don’t want to drive to Denver for comedy shows. I don’t want to say they’re starved for entertainment. But they’re sick of going to bars and the movies, and this can be their date night where they see Denver comics that are playing Comedy Works and the Improv. And we can afford to pay the comics, feed them and put them up in a hotel room.”

Similar to the scene that comedian James Gold has put together in Boulder over the last year, 2 For the Road is enjoying healthy sized crowds for its small-town shows, but is relying on importing comedians from Denver as opposed to local comics to build a scene from the ground up like in Fort Collins and other communities.

And while having little else to do in town does cut down on the competition, it can also lead to an ingrained cynicism about local events.

“There’s a mentality in Greeley where if something is happening here, it’s not worth going to see,” says Josh McCannon, former co-owner of The Down Under comedy club in Greeley, which permanently closed its doors last fall.

A University of Northern Colorado alumni, McCannon used to frequent the club as a student in 1997, when the venue would be packed despite lagging national popularity in stand up. Purchasing the club in 2011, he now cites the decline of attendance (despite high regard from Denver stand ups who frequently performed there) to a lack of home-town support. “When people ‘go out’ in Greeley, they leave Greeley and drive to Fort Collins or Denver.”

McCannon says it hurts all the more that The Down Under closed just as the cold weather set in. Without the competition of Colorado summer, comedy shows thrive in the winter months, particularly in mountain towns like Glenwood Springs.

“There are a core group of comics that are keeping the scene going here,” says April Clark, a comedian and arts reporter from Glenwood Springs who belongs to the Comedy Mercenaries group. “Denver comics don’t come out every month, it’s more random,” she explains, saying that while there are many difficulties operating events out of bars and restaurants not equipped for comedy shows, the audiences in her town as well as nearby Carbondale and Basalt are typically excited for the events and come out in large numbers.

In addition to the challenges of hosting comedy shows inside restaurants and Bingo Halls, the arrival of urban comedy in small towns sometimes creates culture clashes.

“People in Denver go to these all the time, but in Pueblo it can often be the first time they’ve been to a comedy show,” says Brad Galli, who hosted two comedy shows in Pueblo (home of successful L.A. comedian Amber Tozer) before giving up and moving to Denver. “They appreciate good comedy, but don’t always know the proper etiquette for a comedy show. Lots of talking. It can be a rowdy audience.”

Denver comedian Kevin O’Brien is known for having little tolerance for talking during comedy shows, and wound up in an altercation at Galli’s event at a steakhouse in 2011 that resulted in the police preventing an assault, and Galli’s showcase being permanently cancelled.

“Just because you got knocked up in High School doesn’t mean you can get white-wine drunk and talk through my show,” O’Brien remembers saying to a particularly chatty woman -- referring to her as a homecoming queen that became a Denny’s waitress.

He recalls the crowd loving his roasting of this woman, until he lost them all when he said to her “stand up comedy is my dream, what’s your dream? Oh yeah, you don’t have any, because you live in Pueblo.”

Larry Lundstrom has dealt with similar challenges as the host of comedy gigs in small towns, noting that the often conservative audiences aren’t receptive to jokes about abortion or George W. Bush -- jokes that typically do well in Denver.

April Clark recalls a night when Denver comic Sam Tallent cracked wise about the homeless, which resulted in a table being flipped over by an angry patron that rushed the stage.

These incidents aren’t isolated to small-town comedy shows. If anything, they point to a trajectory that mirrors the early days of the Denver comedy scene, when the now-established comedians of The Grawlix and Fine Gentleman’s Club would deal with threats from violent drinkers at bars such as Lions Lair and The Squire.

“In Denver you may have more variety in the audience,” says Crandall, after closing up another successful night at The East Coast bar and making the drive back to Denver. “But they’ve seen and heard more and can be jaded and cynical. In Fort Collins its people that just want to have fun and see comedy.”

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.