Essay: Is Denver’s comedy scene too good for its own good?

January 29, 2014
Photo: Gothic Theatre
The High Plains Comedy Festival debuted in August of 2013, produced by Adam Cayton-Holland and Andy Juett.
While Denver isn’t yet synonymous with stand-up, as I travel to other cities I find that being from Denver actually carries more and more weight.
“Ah, one of those Denver guys,” comics say with a knowing nod. “Do you know Troy Baxley? Do you know Ben Roy? Do you know Sam Tallent?”
The word is out on Denver’s comedy scene, and with good reason. 
We have three ‘A’ clubs in the city (two Comedy Works locations and one improv) and a wealth of independent venues that are providing more and more comedy. When my comedian friends visit from Los Angeles, they express disbelief at the number of creator-produced, paying shows our city offers. 
But is Denver’s comedy scene too good for its own good?
Denver: a mid-market town with a difference
Comedians start out the same in all mid-market cities: working open mics, building material, earning spots at whatever clubs might be nearby, and so on. But in most mid-market cities, after a comic has a certain amount of experience under his or her belt, they decide to move on to a large-market city like New York or Los Angeles. 
A quick departure to define these cities: A large-market city is one with an entertainment industry infrastructure behind it. Comics in New York and Los Angeles are part of a pool of talent that is supported by this infrastructure. 
A mid-market city, like Chicago, Denver or Austin, for example, has a strong comedy scene but no entertainment structure behind it. 
A small-market city might be Tucson or Boise, with very small, insular comedy scenes.
The difference between Denver and other mid-market cities is that comics aren’t leaving Denver when they get good. 
They’re staying, perhaps for the wealth of stage time, the creative partnerships, the (albeit meager) money, or any combination of reasons. 
Of course, occasionally comics do leave. But it seems to be the rare exception. Former Denver comedian Rob Gleeson spent four years building experience and reputation in Denver and then moved to Los Angeles, where after three years of frustration and hard work, he landed a regular spot on the cast of Showtime’s “House of Lies” program.
The bulk of Denver comedians, however, are staying put, and getting better and better. 
Until what? 
The comedic glass ceiling
From a financial and career standpoint, the ceiling of comedy in Denver amounts to headlining an ‘A’ club. Even if a comedian headlines all of the clubs (which isn’t possible, per competitive clauses between them) and took advantage of every local show, he or she would be making part-time money at best. From that point, hitting the road is the only option, traveling from club to club to cruise ship to college to make a living.
I spoke with Deacon Gray, the new talent coordinator at Comedy Works. 
Deacon has held the position for almost ten years, and is responsible for shepherding the thousands of comics who choose a comedy club as the place to give stand-up a stab every year. 
Gray is also one of the very few headliner-caliber comics in Denver who spends the majority of his time in Denver, unlike some other veterans who spend most of their year on the road.
“I have cut my bills down to very little and exist very meagerly, so my monthly nut is low,” Gray says, and elaborates that his secret is diversification. 
In addition to his part-time salary at Comedy Works, he earns money producing shows (such as his creation Text-A-Saurus) and teaching comedy. 
The answer is clear: If you want to make a living doing comedy in Denver without becoming a road dog, your lifestyle had better be slim, or you’d better have an understanding partner who supports you.
Chicago, Atlanta and Seattle: comparable comedy markets
I looked to other cities -- first to Chicago, which in my opinion has the most comparable mid-market scene to Denver. 
Photo: Comedian CJ Sullivan
CJ Sullivan performing at the legendary, but recently deceased, Lincoln Lodge in Chicago.
When I asked Sullivan if he was able to make a full-time living based in Chicago, he replied:
“A full-time living is loosely defined by me. My fiancee would definitely say no. Gigs have to come in different ways, like writing, road work or colleges. None of them are lucrative.”
Sullivan considers the Chicago scene to be on par with those of New York and Los Angeles from a quality standpoint, but laments that the entertainment industry won’t take you seriously unless you’re living in one of those cities, a complaint I share myself. 
The running theme of meetings I have taken in Los Angeles is, “So when are you moving here?” 
This attitude is irritating but understandable: Moving to a major market shows the people who are looking for talent that you’re serious about going for it. 
I also looked south to Atlanta, which I heard had recently experienced an “exodus” of comedians. I spoke with Andy Sanford, a former member of the terrific Beards of Comedy collective, who left Atlanta for New York City in August of 2011. 
Sanford clarified that four or five comics had moved away, and more planned to. But this state of affairs was in contrast to how the scene had been before, when everyone stayed home. I asked Sanford when he could tell it was time for him to move to a larger market. He replied:
“I just felt like I had done everything I could do from Atlanta and needed to be in New York City. I love where I am from, but after a certain point, trying to go further from a non-New York or Los Angeles scene seems like trying to carry a city on your back.”
I have always been more familiar with the comedy scene on the opposite corner of the country, in Seattle. 
I’ve performed there numerous times, and count many of their current (and former) comedians among my friends. 
Six years ago I considered Seattle to be Denver’s chief rival in the mid-market scenes. Seattle comics regularly won comedy contests, and the city’s scene was exploding creatively. Then Seattle experienced its own exodus of comics, losing a crop of young talent to New York and Los Angeles. 
There are still great things coming out of Seattle, but the scene is smaller than it used to be. I spoke with former Seattle comic Andy Peters, who estimates Seattle has roughly 50 “active” comics, in contrast to the 150 Deacon Gray estimates are performing regularly in Denver.
Comics moving to Denver as a viable destination
What is the forecast for Denver’s comedy scene, as our ranks swell with talent, and new shows keep popping up? 
Denver isn’t just growing from within anymore, either. Comics are now moving to Denver as a comedy destination. 
One notable example is Ian Douglas Terry, who as a founding member of Omaha’s OK Party comedy group, helped revitalize the Omaha scene. Terry was considering Denver and Los Angeles, and decided on Denver because of his existing comedy relationships. 
Terry details his decision in this entertaining video, which is your reward for reading this far.
Denver’s comedy scene is packed with quality comedians and shows. But at some point this will sag and collapse under its own weight. 
Denver is an incredibly isolated city geographically, so the pool of potential audience members could fairly be called finite. The first challenge for Denver’s comedy scene is to keep cultivating demand by winning new audience members.
The second, long-term challenge is to actually create the infrastructure to support Denver’s comedy scene into the foreseeable future. 
While it is true that movies and television are currently produced in New York and Los Angeles, today there are more entertainment platforms than ever before that are accessible to users in any part of the world. 
More than one comedian has found fame through YouTube videos, and YouTube recently added a designated comedy channel to its site.
Collaboration: the holy grail for comedians
A key ingredient to Denver’s current comedy success is the strength of its partnerships. 
Comedians partnering with artists in other mediums, especially video, have transformed what might otherwise have come across as amateurish efforts into polished products. 
These partnerships can make the seemingly far-fetched idea of finding nationwide success from Denver a reality.
And the partnerships don’t end between artists, either. Collaborations with between comedians and businesses can go a long way too. 
In 2013 the comedy collective The Grawlix formed a partnership with local burrito chain Illegal Pete’s. Illegal Pete’s provides financial support for the monthly Grawlix show to up their game by bringing in a national act every month, in return for high visibility in the Denver comedy scene.
Photo: Denver's Fine Gentleman's Club
Denver’s Fine Gentleman’s Club - Bobby Crane, left, Chris Charpentier, Sam Tallent and Nathan Lund - recently celebrated the three-year anniversary of their hit weekly show "Too Much Fun."
Khalatbari, who has re-branded himself “The Laughing Sheikh,” estimates that he invested around $20,000 in Denver comedy in 2013, and plans on upping that to $50,000 this year. 
He was tired of seeing no return on expensive print ads. So when Denver’s Fine Gentleman’s Club approached him for sponsorship, he decided to put that advertising money into a more organic effort. 
I asked Khalatbari what his goals were for the Denver comedy scene, and how it interacts with his brands. He responded:
“My goal is to assist with the cohesion and and formalizing of the cultures that already have a strong base here in Denver.  Comedy and marijuana already have great foundations, but the best of both often gets lost in the noise of it all. We have an opportunity to showcase some amazing talent in such a small region and if my businesses can grow along with it and become synonymous with promoting talent and supporting community, the rest will fall into place.”
Is Denver’s comedy scene too good for its own good? 
Right now it feels perfect. 
But there are challenges built into that success for everyone -- comedians, venues, promoters, audiences and sponsors alike. 
If we’re all going to stay here, we have to build something new: a world of our own. 

Andrew Orvedahl is a stand-up comedian, actor and writer based in Denver, Colorado.

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