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"He was the guy who came up after my first few terrifying times on stage and said, 'That was funny. You should come back and do this more,'" recalls Reid Harrison, a comedian at the time. "I never became a very good standup comedian, but I knew what it was like to put yourself out there with the potential for complete humiliation. If I had bombed that first night, I might never have come back. But Don...Don made you feel like you wanted to come back and keep trying."
"It took me three years to get on because of him," laughs Lori Callahan, now a regular headliner at the Comedy Works. "He was such a pill. After I did become a regular, we got along fine. We became friends, but it was tough going at first. He was very, very smart. He didn't go for the cheap, easy laugh; he made you think about what you were doing as a craft."
"Everyone had much respect for Becker," agrees Louis Johnson, another nationally touring comedian and Comedy Works headliner. "He gave me one of my favorite jokes that I still use today:
I don't understand the Nazi supremacist skinheads. They claim to get all their inspiration from the Bible. What, do they have a secret decoder ring or something? See that bit where it says "Love thy neighbor"? Well, if you rub that with a magic ax handle, it says "Kill the niggers and Jews."
Don knew he couldn't get away with it, so he gave the joke to Louis, who is black.
A tape of Don doing a twenty-minute set at the Comedy Works in 1983 reveals him to be everything anyone acquainted with him at the time says he was: clever, caustic, political, absolutely polished. He's skinny, with a tie and glasses that he says make him look like Sherman from Rocky and Bullwinkle, and he delivers his material in a rapid-fire monologue that would seem perfect for a spot on The Tonight Show.
How many of you used to be left-wing radicals and are now involved in sales?
I went to a boxing match the other night. It was an amazing fight, even if you're not into anthropology.
I used to box. Golden gloves, two years. I was a cancer weight. They used to call me the Great White Blood Cell. At my weight, the only people I could fight were dwarf Chicanos. It's really hard to hit someone named Jesus.
Girl Scouts are weird. I wasn't one, though I ate a lot of Brownies as a kid.
I hate all holidays, because my parents are gay, so it was always really tough. My dad used to get drunk and beat up my father.
Westword voted him Best Local Comic two years in a row, in 1986 and 1987, each time over Roseanne Barr, who was exploding nationally at the time.
The early '80s were a boom time for American comedy, one that brought out the good and the bad. "Live comedy was an event in popular culture," Stajich says. "Cable TV — suddenly expanding and grasping for anything cheap to program — would put a camera on a standup and run with that for an hour at a stretch. Alas, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Brilliant, creative talent was given a path to find audiences and later success. Simultaneously, extroverts who had struggled with the rigor of high school would position 'Did you ever notice...' in front of everything and suddenly become standup comics."
McKelvey agrees, but insists that Denver was a sort of mountain oasis for smart humor. "You talk to anybody who was around the country a lot in those days. There were only about three or four hotbeds of what I call intelligent comedy. San Fran was one. Chicago was one. And Denver was definitely one," he says.
As a result, the Comedy Works became a frequent stop for top comics like Jay Leno, Dennis Miller, Robin Williams, Sam Kinison and Louis Anderson. And they all respected the hell out of Don. "He was the real thing," says Anderson, who worked regularly with Don and played poker with him whenever he was in town.
Anderson was so impressed with Don that he tried several times to set up industry auditions in L.A., but Don declined every time. "Don wanted to be guided and shepherded and assured in," Anderson says. "He was a fragile genius, but, man, he was good. Such a craftsman. He tried to smarten my act up. He would give me suggestions, and I would say, 'Don, thanks for the advice, but I don't need that. My audience won't get it.' At the time, I was still trying to get on The Tonight Show. I didn't need the smartest laugh, I needed the biggest. I was there to entertain. But knowing that someone like Don was even taking stock of your act really mattered to you as a comic."
But most of the people who knew him could also tell that there was something a little dark about Don, a little off — a remarkable statement among standup comics, who, for the most part, are all a little dark and a little off.