But in the late '80s and early '90s, cable stations like HBO, MTV and, eventually, Comedy Central began regularly airing standup specials of their own, leading many comedy fans to get their laughs at home while avoiding the hefty financial burden of a night out at a club. The cash that had sent so many would-be rockers into standup comedy began to dry up. Where a mid-level comedian working in 1987 would be flown to a club first-class and paid $500 for a night's work, by the mid-'90s that offer would shrink to $175 and a bus ticket...if he was lucky.

This led to standup's "alternative" or "indie" phase, when left-leaning, DIY comics began organizing small shows in warehouses and rock venues, echoing the Greenwich Village culture that had birthed a similar movement decades earlier. The underground scene of the '90s mirrored its hippie progenitor with more than just the low-cost, pass-the-hat style of paying for entertainment. It also despised the generation of humorists that had gone before, seeing the misogyny, homophobia and '80s excess of comics like Kinison and Clay as ludicrously out of touch.

This new group certainly had no qualms about getting truly blitzed, however.

Micro-joke luminary Mitch Hedberg would duplicate John Belushi's heroin-cocaine heart-buster, as did SNL iconoclast Chris Farley (who died at the same age as Belushi, 33). The Elvis of alt-comedy, Bill Hicks, often made drug legalization a central theme of his act, and Mr. Show sketch-comedy legend David Cross achieved big-name success while consuming Herculean amounts of drugs and alcohol.

Yet this wasn't just a rehash of '60s hedonism: These comics were committed to breaking down the whole machine and starting again. Eddie Izzard could come out as a transvestite, yet do an entire act about world history; Jon Stewart could do a satirical news program, yet make it concise and earnest enough to be seen as a legitimate news source.

The first spark of what would become Denver's alternative-comedy scene ignited in a bar on — where else? — this city's meanest, dirtiest, most culturally rich and diverse street, Colfax Avenue. "The whole thing started at the Lion's Lair with Troy Baxley's open mic," recalls local comedian Jim Hickox. "This was about nine or ten years ago. Comedians would go to Comedy Works and kill — but that was easy as falling off a log. At the Lion's Lair, where everyone hates you, we learned what comedy was all about real fast. We had to work that much harder to win them over. We learned how to be playful with all these bellicose people who didn't want to listen to us. And when everything took off with Greg [Baumhauer] and his open mic at the Squire, we had to step up our game. Everyone gravitated there, and that's where we had to learn to deal with hecklers and have good material — because these Denver comedy fans are really smart."

"In the beginning, I didn't get it," says Wende Curtis, who started out as a waitress at Comedy Works soon after it opened in 1981, then became its owner. "I really thought, with some of the comics I was seeing, that 'alternative' was another word for 'bad.' I just didn't see a punchline. But that was my own naiveté; it's really grown on me." Traditional venues often warn comics to keep it clean, and Curtis theorizes that "out of any place where there are a lot of don'ts — like a household that has strict rules about watching TV and being to bed on time — there's going to be good stuff coming out of breaking the rules."

The scene quickly expanded beyond Colfax, with comics Andrew Orvedahl, Ben Kronberg and former Westword staffer Adam Cayton-Holland creating a monthly show at the now-defunct Orange Cat on Larimer Street. "Back then, that neighborhood was very different," recalls Cayton-Holland. "There was no Meadowlark, there was no Casselman's. There was nothing up there; it was dangerous. But the space was very cool, so walking into that place, you were like, 'I feel like I'm in on a secret just being here.' It was like a punk show. There was no bar. It was like an 'Our parents are away — house party!' kind of vibe."

"When there's no one above you, there's no booker or anything, you can kind of just say whatever you want," says Orvedahl. "You would think at Comedy Works the audience is pretty progressive, but I'll do a joke lightly making fun of Jesus, and people have walked out and complained. You would think a city audience would be cool about that, but a lot of the time they aren't. But at Orange Cat, I always felt like I could say anything. That crowd was my peer group."

******

My routines come out of total unhappiness. My audiences are my group therapy. — Joan Rivers

By early 2004, Ben Roy had started dabbling in standup comedy himself, entering a Comedy Works new-talent night at the urging of his wife's co-workers. His years of performing music gave Roy a confident stage presence to match his animated personality, impressing one Comedy Works manager so much that he snuck Roy into a professional contest a few months later, when he came in second behind Josh Blue, a local comic who was starting to hit nationally by putting the "cerebral" in cerebral palsy.

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