By Bree Davies
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By Jon Solomon
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Darrell Hammond says that regardless of their status — and after fourteen years on Saturday Night Live, his rep is strong — comics like to play a handful of comedy clubs around the country. Comedy Works, at 1226 15th Street in Larimer Square, is definitely one of them. In fact, the club, which is now celebrating its thirtieth anniversary, is Hammond's favorite — and he'll be performing there this weekend. "The Denver Comedy Works is absolutely unique in that audience members are literally sitting on the stage with you," notes Hammond. "It's layered so that it's not just a bunch of chairs so people can't see right. The seating is layered so they can see you as if they were in a theater. So there's never an obstruction of view. In comedy, the more specific you are, the funnier you are. If people can't see you properly, you're not as funny."
For Wende Curtis — who's been involved with Comedy Works for 25 years, the last decade as the owner of the downtown club, which got a sibling in October 2008 when she opened Comedy Works South at 5345 Landmark Place in Greenwood Village — there's something about the physicality of the downtown room that's magical. Comics love it, and so does the audience. "The laughter just hits them in such a way that it's amazing for them," she says.
The physical space also makes it an ideal place for comics like Dave Attell to record albums. Many young comics want to tape their first Comedy Central albums there, Curtis says, but there aren't enough weeks in the year to accommodate them all. "A lot of people would say we've got the best rooms in the country and/or the top two or three rooms in the country," she adds.
But creating that reputation involved a lot of hard work. Curtis never intended to run a comedy club; instead, she wanted to be an actress. In 1986, when Comedy Works opened a second location in Fort Collins, she was studying acting, directing and voice at Colorado State University, and got a job at the new club. After starting off as a cocktail waitress, she moved into management about a year later, then began booking both the downtown and Fort Collins locations. And when it looked like Comedy Works was going to open another club in Aurora, where the Stampede is now, she moved down to Denver.
But the Aurora spot didn't pan out, so Curtis worked out of the corporate offices for a while and then ran Jazz Works, which Comedy Works partly owned, under the Wynkoop Brewing Company, for a year and a half. When Comedy Works bought a club in Tampa, she moved there and ran it until it closed less than a year later. After that, Curtis returned to Denver and started managing the downtown club. In early 2000, she bought the entire company.
The comedy business has changed a lot over the past three decades. "When Comedy Works opened, they could just put anybody in and people would show up," Curtis says. "Build it and they will come. Don't get me wrong, there was marketing and promotion, and all that sort of stuff that had to happen, too, but as I began to do more big acts, then the marketplace began to be conditioned, and they wanted just big acts, it seemed."
She couldn't afford to pay big dollars for big acts, and had to cajole comics like Brian Regan and Carlos Mencia. "I remember quibbling with them about what would be nothing money now," Curtis says. "I'd say, 'I can't pay him that for a weekend! If I had children I couldn't feed them!' I was always giving that kind of line.... The same could be said for George Lopez, for instance, and those kind of guys that I used to pay nothing! Nothing! To come in and do a whole week, and I was bitching mid-stream about paying somebody $3,000 or $6,000 for a week and go, 'Oh, my God, that's so much money!' I've seen Pollstar. I know how much George Lopez can gross in an arena. It would pay for ten kids and their entire college education in one night. It's just amazing."
While Comedy Works has seen its share of comedy legends — and has increased their pay over the years — Curtis also books younger, hipper or edgier comics, particularly downtown, where the demographic appreciates those acts. At the Landmark location, she offers comics who are a little cleaner and older. It was tricky making that club work when it first opened, she says, but business is coming around. "I felt for a while like I had gone to Vegas and bet my entire life on 23 and gambled the entire thing very recklessly and lost," Curtis recalls. "That's what I felt like because I had such a great thing downtown. I could be debt-free by now, and I could be one club, and one club would have been easier in the recession and all of those things."
But she didn't get into comedy because she wanted to take things easy. And last year, she realized she'd spent more than half of her life in the business. "From the moment I was born until the moment I got that job, that's the first part of my life," she says. "This is the second part of my life, and it's longer than the first part of my life. So at 25 years, you go, 'Oh, my God!' I mean, that's remarkable to me. I don't have a resumé, so I'm really hoping this shit pans out."