As Denver’s scruff-speckled comedy scene prepares itself for something like a changing of the guard, some of the more hysterical corners of the blogosphere have bewailed and bloviated about a “Denver comedy exodus.” Biblical hyperbole aside — a half-dozen comics departing for Los Angeles is about 600,000 Hebrews short of a true exodus — this reaction is grounded in a fundamental misunderstanding of how the scene works. While these comedians and the shows they ran will be missed, the city is bursting with talented comics who've already begun producing great shows and filling leadership positions among the stalwarts and scallywags of Denver comedy, and there's a new crew eager to take their place on local stages. And while the Grawlix’s friends and fans rightly mourn the loss of their monthly shows at the Bug Theatre, the comics themselves will remain integral to the fabric of the scene they helped pioneer, even if from afar. But the fact that some of our city’s finest and funniest are seeking fortune in the paradoxically drought-scorched land of opportunity is not a threat to our local scene. For all the pomp and puffery of the doomsayers and the tide of reflexively snarky comments they inspired, there’s really nothing more to all this hubbub than hype and humbuggery.
That well-established industries in coastal cities draw local talent away from their small but supportive arts communities isn't news. Colorado simply lacks the infrastructure to support full-scale television production on a level commensurate with Los Angeles, and generations of comedians have built their acts here before finding greater success in show business. “I don’t know if it has to continue being discussed,” says recent Los Angeles migrant Kristin Rand. “There are no winners and losers. All this analysis is so not art. We've all chosen a path where there are a lot of other people who've been working very hard for a long time. There's a tremendous risk of failure.”
For comics like Rand, Troy Walker, Haley Driscoll and Chris Charpentier, L.A. represents the best opportunity to capitalize on their Denver-honed skills, but it also means starting over in an unfamiliar and unforgiving city. Equating their relocation with glamor and success overlooks the struggle ahead for those who make the bold move west without employment already in place. Even the Grawlix trio of Andrew Orvedahl, Ben Roy and Adam Cayton-Holland, the co-creators and stars of the TruTV series Those Who Can’t, face a different kind of pressure moving forward into the daunting realities of producing ten episodes of quality television.
Conflating a few individuals’ respective decisions to seek better jobs in another city with the end of some kind of golden age is as myopic as it is insulting. Sounding the death knell for comedy in Denver is an obliviously reductive gesture, not only to those who remain but also to the legacy of great comedians who’ve called Denver their current or former home for decades. Exodus hysteria overlooks the formative efforts of our scene’s blazered and mulleted forefathers, who were essential in building a community that could support two comedy festivals and three nationally-acclaimed comedy clubs. Even while he's writing in L.A., Cayton-Holland's High Plains Comedy Festival will march onward into its third year this August and Omaha's Crom Fest will expand into Denver in late May. Meanwhile, both Comedy Works locations and the Denver Improv continue to attract nationally renowned headliners and nurture local standups through their first emcee and feature sets.
“Denver has always had a vibrant comedy scene,” contends Comedy Works New Talent Coordinator Deacon Gray. With an authority rooted in decades of experience on local stages, Gray has witnessed boom-and-bust cycles before, and recognizes that the so-called "exodus" won’t have much impact on the scene itself. “Sure, five comics are chasing their dreams in L.A., and that's awesome,” he continues, “but it's nowhere near the exodus that happened when Roseanne got her sitcom. She took about a dozen of Denver's best comics with her. And what happened to Denver's comedy scene then is what will happen now: We will root for our friends' success while we continue to put on the best comedy shows in the country. That is the Denver standard.”
Though the hard-won success of the Grawlix trio certainly provides an aspirational model for new comics stammering through their first sets on the very same stages where their hometown heroes began, their absence is tantamount to one fewer show on a calendar packed with dozens of them. It may take time for another night to develop the prestige of the monthly Grawlix show at the Bug Theatre, but what most locally produced shows lack isn’t talent to fill the lineup — it’s an audience to fill the seats.
Much of the “exodus” hyperbole comes from the mouths of loyal scenesters who took a chance on a Los Comicos Super Hilariosos or nascent Too Much Fun! showcase back when they debuted to ambivalent crowds in sparsely populated dive bars. Now, by taking a chance on any one of a multitude of inventive new comedy showcases in town, those same scenesters could help lay the groundwork for comedy nights that could even outshine their predecessors. The options include intriguingly novel formats like Lucha Libre & Laughs and Amuse Booze, where they may find themselves sitting beside recent transplants. As long as Denver remains an appealing destination for young weirdos from across the country, the comedy community will have a bounty of opportunity to build new followings.
What really threatens the comedians here is the creeping gentrification that’s been steadily displacing many working-class Denverites; its impact reverberates through every arts community. The Queen City of the Plains is rapidly becoming too expensive to foster the creative development that allowed the scene to thrive. The grim possibility of artists being priced out of the city is frightening: More and more artists are deciding to struggle in an industry town rather than a city so often hyped for a "livability" that recedes further into memory with each rent increase. While Denver remains fertile ground for humor for now, that could easily be stamped out by economics, particularly if venues and audiences continue to expect their comedians to perform for free.
If Denver wants to maintain its comedy scene, the first step is simple: Go see some shows instead of overreacting to these few departures. While you’re at it, take a look at this photo of my dog Ashby. Look at him! See that adorably sleepy little fella? See? He's not worried about this "exodus" at all. He knows comedy is going to be just fine.
The Grawlix, along with special guest Kyle Kinane, have two farewell shows planned for 10:30 p.m. Friday, April 24 and Saturday, April 24 at the Bug Theatre. Tickets cost $10 at the door. For more options in the area, check out 5280 Comedy.
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