Everybody Loves Ben Roy: Denver comics weigh in on their longtime colleague
Ben Roy, the subject of this week's cover story, has worked hard to establish himself as a unique voice in the growing Denver comedy scene. We recently spoke with several local comics who have a relationship with Roy both on and off the stage, some of whom were there at the germination of Denver's underground comedy scene, telling rough jokes to the Colfax drunks of Lion's Lair. Keep reading to hear what Jim Hickox, Adam Cayton-Holland, Kevin O'Brien and Andrew Orvedahl have to say about this celebrated comedian, who will be performing at his monthly Grawlix show this Friday, February 22 at the Bug Theatre.
A longtime friend and collaborator of Ben Roy (The Grawlix), Adam Cayton-Holland recalls first meeting Roy in the now defunct Red Room, and watching him grow as a comedian and a person.
Westword: What do you remember about the first time you met Ben?
Adam Cayton-Holland: It was at a bar that was called the Red Room at the time. He was waiting for someone, I was waiting for someone, and we just struck up a conversation the way two heterosexual males never do. He told me he was a comic, and I wasn't yet a comic but thought it was really cool. I'd been doing some comedy writing and he said I should go to an open mic at Lion's Lair, and that changed my life.
Ben Roy hadn't been doing comedy very long at that point, right?
No. And now that I know him so well it's really fucking funny that he would've called himself a standup comic. Because it was like, no, you're not, you've been doing it for six months! But I love that he said that.
Is it that a comic needs to wait a period of time before he knows if he's any good, or if he wants to continue doing it?
Absolutely. You know, dress for the job you want and all that, but it wasn't until I started declaring it on my taxes that I called myself a comedian.
What do you remember about his early attempts at standup?
When they first start, most comics are awful. I think Ben was clearly quite talented, even in those early days. I thought he had a rockstar vibe, he was like an angry minister, leading people from the stage. He was also pretty volatile, too. I remember the second or third time I saw him, he was super-drunk and he yelled at the host and made a scene, and I was like, "Whoa, okay, keep an eye on this one."
How long was it between then and when he started working with you guys?
Probably about two years. I got to know him real well, and then he started doing shows with us at Los Comicos. When Andrew [Orvedahl] moved to Los Angeles, we had a big hole in our roster, and we asked Ben to fill it, and that's when the shows started to get real good. They were good before, but Ben certainly brought something special.
He was still drinking heavily at that time;did that get in the way of working with him?
Not really, he was always professional on stage. Maybe he had a stupid open mic, he'd unravel, scream at the audience and storm out, but at Los Comicos or a booked show, he was always hilarious on stage. He kept it together. And his drinking could lead him to dizzying heights, he could be transcendently funny. But then he'd always reach a point where he'd turn and it'd be like, now the Hulk's coming out.
So it never really affected his comedy, but then afterward the ugly side would come out. And it'd be like, "Okay, Ben, we're not hanging out anymore."
There are polarizing viewpoints on being a parent and a comedian: Some argue it can kill your career, while others see comics like Louis C.K. and think it's the best source of material. Do you think being a dad has helped or hurt Ben Roy as a comedian?
I think it certainly had a grounding affect on him. Ben was always a really good comic. And he's always been a really good dad, and I think he gets some interesting material from it. He sees things through a fucked-up lens. But I think Ben's the type of comic who could be on heroin and still show up and deliver interesting, intelligent stuff. His comedy lens is always placed over whatever he's doing.
Bonding not only through standup comedy but heavy drinking followed by heavy drying out, Jim Hickox and Ben Roy have a collaborative relationship that runs deep.
Westword: How did you and Ben Roy first meet?
Jim Hickox: Through comedy. Years ago, Ben was still on the outside of the group, because the original Wrist Deep group was Ben Kronberg, Greg Baumhauer, Adam Cayton-Holland and myself -- and then as it evolved into Los Comicos, Ben Roy joined.
Had you been doing comedy very long when you first met him?
Not very long, no. Thankfully, I was around when the whole thing started, which was a pretty cool goddamn time. The whole comedy scene started at the Lion's Lair, probably ten years ago. Troy Baxley hosted it, and from there sprouted the Squire. Baxley wanted to give people a picture of what comedy was really like, because everyone went to Comedy Works and killed -- but that was like falling off a log. When you perform at Lion's Lair where everybody hates you, we all learned what comedy is all about real fast. It was the place to cut your teeth.
I didn't really know Ben very well for the first couple of years. He was that guy who was hysterically funny, but who would show up, kill a set, and then leave.
Was he intimidating at that time, both as a comedian and as an unpredictable guy who drank a lot?
For me, when I was younger, yeah. Ben's got that heart of gold that you can't rip out of him, even with all that alcohol. He kept himself pretty isolated. I never really had too many episodes seeing him completely out of control, there were only a few times when he became that pissy little drunk. No one really ostracized him for it.
There was only one time I can remember when Ben was on stage and really lost it. It was one of the first Los Comicos shows at Old Curtis Street, he went on stage and threw all these pennies everywhere, and then dropped the mic and left.
Ben and I both have alcohol problems. When I first met him I'd been sober for five years, and he was struggling to get out of alcohol. Then he started drying out, and that's when I slipped because my life went to shit through heartbreak and losing my dad at the same time. When you see someone fall off the wagon people lose a lot of respect for them, and I didn't do myself any favors. Ben was there, he was supportive, but it's tough love with Ben. There's a unique understanding, a brotherhood, that comes with people with substance-abuse problems. We hear the same sort of voices, experience the same urges. I'm glad I was able to help him out of the woods before I took my own nosedive.
I imagine you two could also help each other as sober comics, since drinking is not only a huge part of comedy culture, but it's a part of the industry with two-drink minimums.
It's a booze-centric industry, absolutely. What I've realized, and I think this generation of comedians have realized, is that you can't drink like a celebrity for your whole comedy career. I know a lot of people who are drying out. And once you do you realize how easy comedy is without it. From a performance standpoint, you see how booze can mute creative energy. When Ben was running clean, he was running on all cylinders, and that's where the energy should be going, instead of going through the filter of alcohol.
But, as you know, so many comics deal with insecurity and anxiety issues, and when they first start performing, a few drinks can be a way to steady the ship.
I think drinking is fantastic. But not for everybody. I treat it like a food allergy, for me. But Ben had a strength of character that allowed him to transcend that first stumbling block that so many comedians can't get over, that necessity to medicate or tranquilize yourself in order to be on stage. Ben is 100 percent present on stage: I've seen him at open mics where no one is there, but he's performing as if he were in front of 2,000 people. He's just on in that way.
What are some of your fondest memories about working with Ben Roy and Wrist Deep?
The first thing that pops into my mind is more of a feeling. I still believe that Ben is my biggest fan, that's the way he makes me feel. I wonder if a lot of people feel that way. He's always been so encouraging of my weird little style. Whenever we were working on Los Comicos or anything like that, he'd encourage every little whim, no matter how weird or capricious.
My favorite thing I've ever done with them was a video called "The Talk." It was an idea Ben had at a meeting about giving his son the talk [about sex], and I just lit up, full inspiration. We followed through with it, and it turned out to be one of the stupidest things. Ben just crushes it.
A longtime admirer of Ben Roy's standup comedy, O'Brien hosts the monthly Arguments and Grievances comedy debate show at Vine Street Pub the third Sunday of every month.
Westword: What do you remember about the first time you saw Ben's act?
Kevin O'Brien: The first time I saw Ben perform outside of an open mic was right after he got sober in the summer of 2010. Bobby Crane was running a monthly show in Boulder at the Southern Sun Pub at the time and Ben was the headliner. To say the show was poorly attended would be an understatement. At one point the comics outnumbered the audience. After five or so of us ate it, Ben went up to close out the show. I remember sitting and watching in awe. His material and energy blew me away. All of the comics on the show watched Ben and we were loving every minute of his set. Unfortunately, the table of Boulderites that made up the "audience" found their game of Scrabble more interesting. Ben finished his time in a fury and then essentially stormed off the stage. I wanted to tell him how incredible of a performer he was, but he was too pissed about the lack of response from the "audience."
What bits of his stand out to you?
I remember when I saw him do his bit about family for the first time at Grawlix. If it wasn't already established that Ben was operating on a higher plane than most of us, it was apparent that night. He had just gotten back from seeing his family in Maine so everything felt very raw. He unleashed this ten-minute bit about how you should move away from your family and craft your own identity. At the end he had an analogy about when cells in the body clump together like families they create a tumor and that essentially family can be a cancer. When he finished I remember thinking that Ben could do a one man show in a theater with honest, insightful, and hilarious material like that.
Do you think Ben is intentionally offensive?
I think offensive isn't the right word for what Ben does. Sure, some things he says may be shocking to squares or people who enjoy "good, clean fun." But I think Ben does what we should all aspire to do as comics, challenge boundaries. One of Ben's most popular jokes involves cuddling with his wife because she swallows. There is nothing offensive about a man calling out short-sighted husbands that complain about their relationships and then explaining why he loves his wife. The graphic details he uses may be off putting to some, but what he says resonates because we can relate to his point of view. There might be a lot of talk of cum and "German shepard thrusting," but the joke is pro-women.
What are your thoughts about being too drunk on stage?
There are few things more frustrating as a comic and fan than watching someone talented let their recreational habits get in the way of that talent. Some guys like Stanhope can drink heavily on stage and still blow it up. Most others can't. Ultimately, the most important thing is, can you do your time and make people laugh?
Like Cayton-Holland, Andrew Orvedahl has been working with Ben Roy on the Grawlix comedy team for two years. Here he recalls how Roy went from an angry, drunk yet talented comedian to one who convinces the audiences to take a ride on his vulnerable rants.
Westword: How did you and Ben Roy first meet?
Andrew Orvedahl: I'd just started doing comedy, and my friend Ravi Zupa was working with Ben at Independent Records, and he was like, "He's the funniest dude, you have to see him perform." I think Ben started comedy a month before I did, and one night we were both at Comedy Works, and I remember thinking he was funny right off the bat. Very unpredictable. He was doing his own thing, just like he his now, very genuine.
It's pretty incredible that you, Adam Cayton-Holland and Ben Roy all got into comedy around the same time without even knowing each other.
Yeah, it was a random fluke, like a bunch of good quarterbacks all coming out in the same year -- every now and then you get this bumper crop and all of a sudden there are all these good comedians. It was a great time, it was like all the conditions were right to develop as comedians.
Was Ben Roy more into music at that time, with comedy being more of a side-project?
It seemed like that for quite a bit of the early time that I knew him, he was more into music and he wasn't going to auditions like we were. He was really unpredictable, you wouldn't know if you were getting red-hot Ben, or drunk, unintelligibly angry Ben. It was a dice-roll.
Then I moved to L.A. for two years, and when I came back Ben had done the greatest 180 I've ever seen anyone do, in comedy or in life. Going from someone who was pretty self-destructive -- but who had undeniable talent -- to just focusing on his talent. Before he would take out his anger on the audience, and now they're coming along with him, instead of being attacked by him. And it's electric. He's still angry, but the crowd is a part of that, instead of being a victim of it.
He's powerful and angry on stage, but he'll be vulnerable, talking about his life in a way that a lot of people wouldn't, problems with alcohol or details with his sex life. So when you're in the audience, you're getting this honest, genuine experience.
Ben Roy will be performing his monthly Grawlix show with Andrew Orvedahl and Adam Cayton-Holland this Friday, February 22 at 10 p.m. at The Bug Theater, located at 3654 Navajo Street. Click here for more information.
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