While cross-country tours are a cornerstone of comedian's dreams, they require a bit of quixotic insanity to attempt. Comedy competitions, a rare chance for fledgling comedians to stand out from their peers, are similarly stressful. So combining both the delirious highs and spirit-crushing lows of a tour and a contest into one event is truly a logistical nightmare. Comedy's Best Kept Secret Tour merges these two Herculean endeavors into one epic odyssey that features multi-day stops in nationally under-represented comedy towns to showcase local talent in the Make Me Laugh Contest. To make the tour happen, comedians Dan Frigolette and Erik Anker are traveling from Ohio to Anchorage, driving the entire way like a couple of madmen.
Anker, who honed his comedic chops right here in Denver during the scene’s hipster rise, met Frigolette, a journeyman performer who’s shown up on TV everywhere from Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell to HBO's Boardwalk Empire, when Anker won the Make Me Laugh Contest in Albany — and Frigolette decided to create more opportunities for promising comics like Anker. The result? Comedy's Best Kept Secret Tour, which lands in Denver tomorrow with Make Me Laugh Contest prelims at the squire. In advance of the four-day funny extravaganza, we caught up with Frigolette and Anker over the phone to discuss the contest, their long car journey and creating their own opportunities.
Westword: So, Erik, were you involved with the decision to bring the tour to Denver? You know the scene. I doubt anyone else booking a national tour would stop off at the Squire.
Erik Anker: Yeah, the fact it’s in Denver and the fact that it’s at the Squire are both my ideas. If I have any control over it, I want to do anything I can in Denver at the Squire. I love that place so much.
Have you been back here since they remodeled? It may break your heart a bit.
Anker: Maybe it will, but I’m all about change and growth. Sometimes you’ve got to change to stay relevant.
Or hygienic. Anyway, it’s still a tough room, but in a different way. Maybe you could make that round a kind of widow-making gauntlet before the big show at the Oriental.
Anker: Well, I’m excited to see the new place and not finger anybody.
What was the impetus to bring this tour through Denver? It looks like before this the Make Me Laugh contests were all on the Eastern seaboard.
Anker: We’re pretty much making a beeline to the West Coast. We start in Ohio, then our second show is in Chicago, then we’re doing a little contest in St. Louis, we take the winner of that contest to Kansas City and then back to that Festus, Missouri, show you did, then we go up to Omaha and Lincoln and then into Denver. After that it’s up the West coast into San Francisco, up to Eugene, then Portland, then Seattle and Vancouver, then all the way up into White Horse in Yukon, then back down to Anchorage for another contest.
Anker: There’s a little scene there now. They just do it because they love it, so it’s going on up there.
It’s an interesting retrospective of places you’ve lived.
Anker: Yeah, we’re basically visiting every place I’ve lived.
I had no idea that there was a scene in Anchorage. What’s the next step up there? Maybe the cruise ships?
Anker: I think the scene is so young that maybe not even that. I think it’s only been like two years, maybe, that they’ve had open mics every week. Maybe less than two years, so I don’t think that anyone up there has the experience to try anything like that. I imagine some of them will leave if they get good. If they can get the city behind them, like in Denver, and make comedy a cool thing to do, maybe it can sustain itself.
I think we need to branch out a bit more if we’re going to really sustain ourselves. I think it will actually be good for the scene the people are starting to move on, because it will create new opportunities for the people who stayed here and hopefully draw some national attention back to Denver as a place to mine for talent.
Anker: I do hope that Denver could become a place where movies and TV shows are filmed, and I think it could partly turn into that. I don’t think it would make the comedy shitty, either, because in Denver there are already so many other industries.
How did you organize this tour in conjunction with the Make Me Laugh Contest? Or should I wait until we call Dan Frigolette to ask that? He organized this with you, but he’s also a comedian, right?
Anker: He’s primarily a comedian. Most comedians pop by just performing over and over, so hopefully they’ll have a good set in front of the right person one day. Dan’s taken the approach of like,“I’m going to be a comedian and my own agent.” He knows how to get press and every little aspect of putting together a cross-country tour. He’s a grinder man; it’s impressive.
I think that may be the new paradigm.
Anker: It is a full-time career to build your career. We’ll be on the phone for like six hours some days. I think it’s definitely something more comics should try to get good at. The reason we’re doing this is so that we can give other comics opportunities and bring it to them. I’ve driven all over this fucking country going to contests. All the time. I lose contests constantly. I submit, I get in, I drive and I lose. That’s the way it goes, but you keep doing them because you might win and something like this could happen. That’s how I got hooked up with Dan: I won one of his contest and now I’ve got all these opportunities.
Right on, let’s call him.
Anker: I’ll buzz him now.
So Dan, how long have been running these contest and what have your observations been from doing it so far?
Dan Frigolette: I started Comma D Productions —which is the head of the whole thing— in 2005. The initial reason was that I got to New York City wanting to do comedy and I really wasn’t excited for the opportunities that existed for me to do so. It was all these sort of pay-to-play, or doing favors for people instead of about being funny. That kind of upset me and my entrepreneurial attitude took over, so I started finding guys who I thought were funny and putting them on shows. My big motto for my first five years in New York City is that I believed every show should be free. I couldn’t even comprehend the idea of charging for a comedy show, not even the audience.
We’ve had various levels of shows since then. We did something called “The Italians of Comedy,” which was just Italian comics. We did another thing before the Obama election called “the Two Faces of America” with Republican Nate Bargatze and Democrat Yannis Pappas, and we took that show on a college tour. Eventually we had the Hoboken Comedy Festival, which started out as a headliner festival for a weekend in Hoboken and it grew so fast that I just added a submission portion to the website, thinking that would quell the emails and conversations I was getting into with people about how to get on this thing and out of nowhere 100 people submitted for thirty spots. The next year it was 200, and it just keeps growing. Going through videos and deciding who should become the new talent is now a whole other aspect of the festival, deciding who should be one of the four or five comedians getting on these larger showcases, so I wanted to break that off and create Make Me Laugh to be completely about finding new talent.
What made you decide to look westward in that search for new talent?
Frigolette: Talking more with Erik, and breaking down some of the cities we knew comedians in, we thought Denver would be perfect for this. We had submissions coming in back in February.
Local comics rarely have the chance to prove themselves to anyone outside of Denver because it's so geographically isolated from the rest of the country.
Frigolette: Yeah. We also want to make sure we make it fair. We’re trying to come up with some nice surprises. We got Kurt Metzger to headline the showcase and judge the contest. Beyond that, yeah, you do get the opportunity to perform for people who put shows together all across the country.
So, was planning this tour with you part of the terms of Erik winning the contest?
Frigolette: That was just an organic interaction. Erick won and I just started putting him on shows. He won two spots in Albany and another one on the Hoboken Comedy Festival and some headshots. We just got to talking and he told me he was going to be in New York, so I got him as much stage time as I could in New York because I think he’s funny. Just through hanging out and talking, the blueprint for this kind of fell into place. I had six cities that I needed to hit this year, and I was really super-interested in the fact that he had some Anchorage connections. Then he started telling me about Denver and St. Louis, and it became a map across the country. It went from me and him doing a couple shows to “Let’s drive across the country, all the way to Anchorage, like a couple of lunatics.”
Anker: The gap in logic is so obvious it’s funny. We’re driving to Alaska!
Frigolette: It doesn’t make any sense. We’ve been trying hard. In Denver, we’ve been trying to get some justifiable names involved. We’ve got Dave Caldwell and the Nix Brothers involved.
Jesus, that's a lot of time on the road.
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Anker: I feel like this is an unprecedented amount of travel. We're going to listen to nothing but heavy metal —the Nordic shit. Just epic questing music. It's going to be fucking insane.
In general, why do you think it's important to break out of the coastal binaries and look into the talent in these smaller markets?
Frigolette: It's funny to me that you would say Denver is a smaller market. Form everything I'm hearing and the more research I do, it seems like it's really not. It's incredible. You've got a couple rooms, you're way ahead of most cities. The business end of comedy doesn't take it into account whether or not someone's actually funny. They're trying to sell as many $12 drinks as they can and get the guy from TV to appear there for as little money as they can offer. We're trying to create opportunities.
The Make Me Laugh prelims are at 8 and 10 p.m. on Thursday, March 26, at Su Teatro. The semi-finals are at 8 and 10 p.m. on Friday, March 27, at the Squire Lounge and the finals are at 8 p.m. Saturday, March 28, at the Bug Theatre, followed by the Comedy's Best Kept Secret show at 10 p.m. Then the Comedy's Best Kept Secret Tour will present a farewell show, complete with a headlining set from Kurt Metzger, at 8 p.m. Sunday, March 29, at the Oriental Theater. Get tickets for that show, $15, at theorientaltheater.com. Check laughusa.org for a full list of rules and tickets to the prelim and finals.
Follow Byron Graham on twitter @ByronFG for more mildly amusing sequences of words.