Denver comedian Adam Cayton-Holland starts his new special face down on the floor backstage. He has two kids and he is exhausted. “We’re husks of people,” he jokes in “Wallpaper,” adding that his wife Katie wants him to get a vasectomy. (He vows to turn it into new material if he does.)
Cayton-Holland founded the High Plains Comedy Festival and may be best known for his school-based sitcom “Those Who Can’t” on truTV. But fatherhood means fading into the background when he’s not performing. Thus the title of his special. “When you become a father, you drift into the background of your family and you become wallpaper. I think my dad had that experience, and it's this sort of martyr thing, but my dad always referred to himself as the ‘LVP,’ ‘I'm the least valuable player.’”
Cayton-Holland sat down with Ryan Warner at Denver’s Bug Theatre, where he cut his comedy chops in his childless salad days, and where he filmed this new special.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Ryan Warner: This new special is a slam dunk. Your timing is immaculate, but how many times have you bombed on this stage?
Adam Cayton-Holland: Great question. I do a monthly show here called The Grawlix with my friends and the three of us have to have 10 new minutes every month. Out of those 10, half kind of work. So every month I bomb a little bit at this stage, but that is the beauty of it, it's my workshop.
Warner: What does this theater, this stage at the Bug mean to you?
Cayton-Holland: This theater means everything to me. I can remember the first time I came here. My mom brought me. I was 16 and we saw the ‘Santaland Diaries’ by David Sedaris. I was floored and thought it was so funny. I had never been to this little theater. I grew up in Park Hill. At that point in my life, I was on the east side of Denver, I didn't even know this side of town. So, it really just opened me up to, ‘Oh wow, here's this literary titan, David Sedaris. Here's this great theater. Here's this whole other side of town.’ I could feel my brain expanding. Years later, when we started doing our monthly show here, it just clicked. It became the spot. And so I love the Bug.
Warner: To the topic of your special. It's the pandemic, wildfires are scorching the west, protesters are getting tear gassed outside the state Capitol. How do you decide to have a second kid, your youngest, Ellis, amidst all that turmoil?
Cayton-Holland: Yeah, it was kind of hard. We had gone and protested as well and brought our first kid and tried to socially distance while protesting, and it was just a really dark time. On the other hand, we also had planned to have a second kid and we delayed it as we watched the world burn, and then the world burned and we were still here. And my wife is, God bless her, an eternal optimist, and we just thought, ‘let's do it.’ There's this Wilco lyric by Jeff Tweedy, it's like, ‘Every generation thinks it's the end of the world.’ And I kind of heard that and thought, ‘Yeah, that's really true.’ I mean, our parents hid under desks because of nuclear annihilation. Every generation thinks it's the end of the world. And I kind of just thought, ‘Yeah, I'm going to go that way.’
Warner: Your kids are five and two and a half. Is this a special about fatherhood or parenthood?
Cayton-Holland: Great question. I think it is about fatherhood, and that's why I called it ‘Wallpaper.’ Because I have a joke in there that talks about when you become a father, you drift into the background of your family and you become wallpaper. And I think my dad had that experience, and it's this sort of martyr thing, but my dad always referred to himself as the LVP, ‘I'm the least valuable player in this family.’ And we were always like, ‘No, you're just a drama queen.’ But now as a dad, you're like, yeah, you get it, you get it. And you're fine with it, it's your role. But it is a weird thing to go from number one in your life to number four and view yourself as the fourth-most important person in your orbit. That's a huge change. So, it was more about that change in mindset. Being number one in my life, being the guy, being Adam Cayton-Holland on stage to being a background character in the story of me.
Warner: You talk a lot about how tired you are in this special. Is Wallpaper actually good birth control?
Cayton-Holland: Maybe. Wallpaper is what you need it to be. If you are looking for a reason to have kids, watch Wallpaper. If you're looking for a reason not to have kids, watch Wallpaper.
Warner: Adam, putting together this special, what if any rules did you make for yourself around material about your wife and kids? What's fair game and what's not? Anything off the table?
Cayton-Holland: I don't think anything's off the table, no. But I don't care about the kids yet because they're not old enough to watch it and police me. I want to make my wife happy. I want to treat her respectfully. And so, if ever anything is condescending or falling into hacky, ‘oh, my wife's annoying me,’ stuff, I avoid that. I want you to come away from the special being like, ‘This guy loves his wife and loves his kids.’ I don't want them to be the butt of any joke, I want them to be the influence, but not the butt.
Warner: How's your relationship with friends who don't have kids?
Cayton-Holland: Done. I don't have any time for them. I'm a bad friend and I don't care. I'm done doing things. I love the time we had together and I cherished it and it's over.
Warner: Is that true?
Cayton-Holland: No, but I do find it's easier with friends that have kids. I think it's why you find friends in the first place. I mean, obviously you have friends from every different walk of life, but commonality of experience often is what leads to deeper friendships.
Warner: Is there sadness there?
Cayton-Holland: Yeah. Definitely. And my wife and I talk about that. That's just middle-aged parent stuff. You sort of have to let go of the young you, where you're the protagonist and move into this shared version of you – while finding time for yourself. But it is a mourning of, ‘All right, that was one period of my life and it is decidedly done. And now onto the next one.’
Warner: Are your kids funny?
Cayton-Holland: Oh dude, they're hilarious. Malcolm, the oldest one, is more cerebral. He's very observant, and he wants to study a situation and learn it, and then he'll jump in. And Ellis…
Warner: Ellis likes meat.
Cayton-Holland: Ellis likes meat. Ellis is Chris Farley. He just rolls in and takes his shirt off and falls over and does it again for the laugh, again and again and again. And Malcolm thinks it's the funniest thing. So at dinner he'll be like, ‘Ellis, do goofy things.’ And Ellis stands on the table and spits food everywhere and burps and farts. And it's all very broad. But he loves that laugh. He loves it. It's scary to see.
Warner: So there's not a lot of discipline in the home?
Cayton-Holland: There's none. They're winning, like 1,000-to-zero.
Warner: Do your kids understand what you do for a living?
Cayton-Holland: They do, because I travel a fair amount. I try to do it less with them, but ‘Dad's going to tell jokes.’ And Malcolm really understands it because now he's seen clips. But Malcolm just says, ‘Go tell jokes dada.’ And he knows that that's the work.
Warner: What haven't you figured out about fatherhood yet that you wish you knew?
Cayton-Holland: In doing this album and this special, I really related to my dad a lot. I really understood my father a lot better. I've always had a close relationship with him, but now I'm like, ‘Oh, I get it, dude. You are your own guy. Propelling forward in a direction and then your family came along and it's great, but it altered what you are and how you see things.’ And you just don't think of that. You just think of your dad as like the dad. You never think of the origin story of the dad.
Warner: During this special, you have this imagined conversation with one of your sons, and he becomes a sage reflecting on your career and the meaning of life. It made me wonder how much your worries as a father are about what they're facing now versus what they're going to face as they grow up.
Cayton-Holland: Most of my worry is the future of the earth and what they're going to be able to do in that, and all the horrible things that are happening and how they're going to have to face it. Will they have water? But I think, as we said earlier, we're not the first generation to fear these huge apocalyptic themes. And while I'm a cynical, pessimistic guy, having a kid and then having another kid is the most optimistic thing you can do. It is a bet on life and on them and things moving forward. And so at some point (I'm not there yet), you have to take your hands off the wheel and say, ‘It's your turn little dudes. I'm going to arm you the best I can, but here's the planet, here's the world. And it's a gift you're in it. So, good luck to you.’
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