By Joel Warner
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If public speaking is the most common human fear — statistically, it ranks even higher than death — then Denver is chock-full of masochists these days.
On any night of the week, you can find dozens of nervous people hanging around outside of bars and clubs, anxiously smoking cigarettes or improvising jokes while waiting for their five or ten minutes on the stage — not just speaking in public, but trying to disarm that public with humor. They're competitive yet communal; often stoned, but never miss a gig. These are the mic-rats of the Denver comedy scene — and over the last decade, as this city's funny business has become an increasingly serious industry, they've become unstoppable, thriving and multiplying like, well, rats.
"When I started doing standup in 2006, there was nothing," says Sam Tallent, co-founder of the Fine Gentleman's Club comedy team. "There were about three open mics you could do in a week. Today you can do a few shows every night, and everyone's good now. You have to be good now. There's all these swords slamming each other, sharpening their blades. These guys make me a better comic."
As Tallent says this, he attempts to gather the three guys he's referring to in a giant, sloppy bear hug (which is almost possible, considering his Goliath-like frame). Sitting at the bar of City, O' City, Tallent is pleasantly exhausted and red-eyed as he sips a beer with his comedy collaborators: Nathan Lund, Chris Charpentier and Bobby Crane. Moments earlier, these four horsemen of the Fine Gentleman's Club had been entertaining comedy fans packed into Deer Pile, the venue directly above the bar.
The no-cover, DIY space had quickly reached capacity, with bodies sitting on the floor and standing on chairs in the back; heads leaned in through the doorway just to get a glimpse of the Too Much Fun show. The club's weekly event is Deer Pile's most popular attraction, and the collective laughter of the crowd often spills out the windows along East Thirteenth Avenue on otherwise quiet Wednesday nights.
At the far end of the bar, Deer Pile manager Jonny DeStefano is picking out songs on his laptop to play for the post-show crew that has filed downstairs for drinks. "They've created this incredible phenomenon," he says of the Fine Gentleman's Club, while absently selecting a Beastie Boys track. "In the last two years we've been doing this, they deliver at every show. They're hungry, and that comes across. You can feel a real connection between them and the audience."
"There's a real genius in the structure of their show," adds City, O' City owner Dan Landes. "They have a variety, but it's consistent. There's a formula, with the four of them introducing a show, peppering it with their own individual standup, then some locals like Dr. Kevin Fitzgerald and maybe an out-of-town or local headliner. People can grasp it. And they all have a very different comedy style, so it never gets stale."
The members of the Fine Gentleman's Club are not the progenitors of this new comedy scene, but they are the steroid shot that has given Denver its performance-enhancing edge over other cities' comedy scenes. Building on the efforts of earlier local comedians who are now gaining national recognition, they're helping to create a scene that can support performers pursuing comedy full-time — just as long as money and security can take a back seat to craft.
"T.J. Miller once said to me, 'If you take a night off, some guy out there is getting better,'" says Tallent, referring to the former Denver resident who's gone on to comedic fame in Hollywood films and with his own Comedy Central show. "So for years I never took a night off. I was a mic-rat, just taking every gig I could get."
This lifestyle, dedicated to constantly attending open mics, hosting local shows, touring whenever the opportunity arises and never half-assing a performance — essentially adapting journalist Malcolm Gladwell's ten-thousand-hours rule for mastering a craft — has set a standard for comedians in Denver, taking a new generation of comics to a heightened skill level and inspiring many touring comedians from New York, L.A. and other big comedy cities to include venues like Deer Pile and the Bug Theatre on their roster.
"It's taken a long time for comedy in Denver to get as popular as it is," says Charpentier. "Now this is the place to be. There are so many funny people here. I've been to places like Atlanta, where there are a lot of comedians, and there's a large scene that's supportive. But there are like five funny people there — and we have like 25 funny people. And it's a smaller group here than there."
Bobby Crane is slapping high-fives with the dozen or so comics hanging outside the downtown Comedy Works, Denver's thirty-year-old comedy club, on a balmy Tuesday evening. Many of them are waiting for New Talent Night to begin, but others, like Crane, have recently been promoted to the club's middle-tier level and are signing on for a possible slot on the headlining show later that night. If Crane gets the gig, it will be the fourth venue at which he performs tonight.