Sam Tallent gave up the daily grind four years ago to focus on comedy. A full-time comedian since that jump-off, Tallent co-founded the Fine Gentleman's Club comedy troupe, a group that offers its Too Much Fun show every Wednesday night at the Deer Pile community space above City, O' City. In addition, Tallent hosts an open mike every Monday at the Lion's Lair and every Tuesday at the Squire Lounge; he's also a resident opener at the Comedy Works.
Tallent recently released Joke Life, a live album of his work -- or a mixtape, as he prefers it be known. Westword caught up with the local comic to find out more about how it came to be; in the interview below, Tallent talks about the support system that Denver comedy has created, how booking DIY comedy tours is a lot like being in a band, and why it's so great to be a possession-less man in a material world.
Westword: Can you talk a little about who you are and where people can see you perform?
I started doing comedy in Denver in '06, and I've been doing it professionally for four years. My home club is the Comedy Works downtown. I perform there on the weekends. I run the Lion's Lair on Mondays, the Squire Lounge on Tuesdays, and I also host the Fine Gentleman's Club show, Too Much Fun, on Wednesday nights at the Deer Pile, above City, O' City. I do that with three other guys: Nathan Lund, Bobby Crane and Chris Charpentier. I'm also on the road a lot on the weekends.
You recently released a live comedy album of sorts, Joke Life, through your Bandcamp page. Why did you decide to offer it for free, or pay-as-you-wish?
That record is more of a mixtape, actually; it's none of my written material. I have over an hour's worth of jokes I've smashed together over the last four years, but I didn't want to use that. I want to put out a real, honest-to-God comedy record on vinyl eventually. I didn't want to burn all of my good material, so I went on the road with three of my friends -- the nine tracks are taken from shows in eight different states -- and recorded crowd work and riffing. General shenanigannery.
As a piece, Joke Life is just about a place and time -- where I was and what I was doing. There are three tracks that are part of a whole two-man improv set I did with T.J. Miller, and that was recorded in Denver. He's from Denver; he grew up here but didn't really do comedy here, but he's a great guy. He's a big-shit deal, I guess. For being some mouth-breather from Capitol Hill.
Whenever T.J.'s in town, I try to do work with him. He's been a great boon to the Denver Comedy community. And that's something I also want people to know, that Denver has the best comedy community. I mean, I think it's the best -- as far as "unity" and "strength" and other Operation Ivy lyrics go. I think we do a good job of taking care of each other. We have a football game every month, we put on Too Much Funstival (a music and comedy festival) each year, and we run the Squire. All of the guys we have are great, and I think you're only as good as your community.How did you start working with Comedy Works? There's a bit of a hierarchy when it comes to comedy clubs, correct?
Luckily at Comedy Works, I feel like it's a meritocracy. But it's really weird in that at other clubs, it seems like you have to know the right people. But Comedy Works has the New Faces Contest every year, and, like, the fifth time I ever did standup was during the finals of that. I got through the first two rounds -- I don't even know how I did it. Then I got to the final round and I totally blew it.
But there's a whole system at Comedy Works where you have to do two-minute set, and if you're good, they'll bump you up to three minutes. But that happens, like, once every fifteen weeks. But you have to get on this list by calling in every week, and there's 200 people doing it. A lot of these guys are "hobby" comics; they don't do real comedy, they just go to the club so they can tell their friends about it. So you have to go through those two- and three-minute hoops, and eventually you get a four-minute set. But I got lucky and got to skip all of that as a contest finalist, and went straight to four minutes.
Then, last May, they did bump-ups, where Comedy Works moves newer comedians up to the weekend list. The club goes to guys like Chuck Roy, Hippieman, Adam Cayton-Holland and Ben Roy and asks them if they trust any of the new (possible comics). It's sort of like 'Do you trust this guy to open for you? Would you trust him not to blow it, to host the show, and do seven minutes?' If they get behind you, you get bumped up. This happened to me, along with my buddies Brent the Great, Nathan Lund, Chris Charpentier and Bob Meddles. Now I get to work weekends for free at Comedy Works. Unless I keep not blowing it. Then I might get paid.So it's worth being invested in the community.
You're going to work with a lot of guys, and you know, the more you work with them, the more work you get. Here's something weird about Denver: In LA, there are a lot of people with a really great seven-minute set. But I had to learn how to do half-hour sets in bars in Wyoming and South Dakota and Kansas and New Mexico. I had to learn how to do my time in front of oil workers and people who English wasn't their first language. I've done comedy at weird casinos. Denver is, like, the only city around here. We're it. So I've had to go far.
We also have a lot of great clubs. Comedy Works is one of the best clubs in America; it's beautiful and great and I get to meet all types of people. It's one of three clubs Dave Chappelle will still work. There are also a lot of alternative comedy rooms here -- bookstores and bars where comics run their own rooms.
I have my show (with Fine Gentleman's Club) at the Deer Pile, and that has a really young, creative crowd. It's young artists, painters, musicians and poets. It's people who are interested in doing cool stuff. There's a lot of cool people who are into the same stuff I'm into, so I can make them laugh. But working on the road and doing hour sets somewhere like Greeley -- it keeps you honest. You have to make everyone laugh. Unlike in somewhere like L.A., where you get to make the "cool" comedy nerds laugh.
I'm lucky to do jokes for a living, so if someone pays to get into a show, I'm sure as shit going to make it worth their while. It's something I've always respected about punk-rock bands -- the Minutemen and Black Flag. Those bands understood people paid to be there, and even if there are only three people (in an audience), it's not their fault one hundred people didn't come. They paid to see Black Flag, so they gave them Black Flag. I take that kind of ethos about it.
I'm making T-shirts right now to sell on the road. That's something I've learned from being on the road with Red Vs. Black (Tallent's own band). I don't have a manager, I don't have a booking agent. I do it all myself and I love it that way. It's the same ethos I grew up on (in punk rock.)
Being in a band helps you operate as a comedian?
Oh, for sure. Understanding promotion, booking and how to do it yourself. My album is all handmade -- I burned the CDs myself, and (the cases) are made from old LIFEs and National Geographics. My shirts are all made myself. I definitely learned all of that from being in Red Vs. Black. You can spend money to make money, or you can spend almost no money and make money on a smaller scale. If I can sell five CDs, that's fifty bucks, and, Jesus Christ, that's a boon for me, you know?
I just booked us (Fine Gentleman's Club) our first non-stop, no-nights-off comedy tour and, man. We slept in a coffee shop in Amarillo. It was exactly like being on the road in a band.
On a DI- venue level, was it hard to book four out-of-state comics?
The weird thing about comedy, as opposed to music, is you can't really hit someone up and tell them who you've opened for. But in comedy, you can hit up (a venue) and say, hey, I've opened for Reggie Watts, T.J. Miller and Joe Rogan, and that kind of lets people know that you don't suck. And comedy is such a different draw than music. People are inundated with bands. Everyone is in the band, everyone is on the road, and everyone wants to play the cool place in Amarillo. So when we hit them up, we say, 'Hey we're four comics, we've opened for these people, and we're not asking for a guarantee.'
But booking a comedy tour this way is similar to music in that you may know other bands in other towns who you can do show trades with. I know comedians in cities like Oklahoma City, Albuquerque and San Francisco. When I'm on the road, those comics understand that we need to make some money, so they'll book us a show and promote it and we'll have a great time. Comics are really good about making sure guys on the road make some money: They'll feed you, let you sleep on their floor, take care of you. And I do the same for them. People either get it or they don't. I try to work with comics who do.
In music, there's still the idea of "the music industry." In comedy, some of my biggest heroes in contemporary comedy -- Louis CK, Jim Gaffigan, Kevin Hart -- they sell out huge theaters, but they put out their own CDs. They sell them from their own website, and it's a great way to get their work out there. They record their own specials and then sell it to HBO or Comedy Central. They just have to generate content. Look at Doug Stanhope: He's the most punk-rock of comics out there. He plays bowling alleys because he doesn't want to play comedy clubs anymore. He works for his crowd, only plays places he likes. He does whatever the hell he wants. That's the life I want. So comedy is your full-time job?
Yes. Comedy has been my only job for four years. My last job was driving an ice cream truck. I drove around in swim trunks and flip-flops, and it was a great, cool, crisp ride everywhere I went. Do you think it's that idea that other people don't want to take the leap and do comedy full-time that keeps them from succeeding?
Oh, man. There is so much fear. How many people do you know who are trapped in some shit job they hate? It's like, you ask someone what they do and they say they're a painter -- but they work at Panera Bread forty hours a week. On the weekends, they go out and get trashed because that's all they have. This, like, four hours of animal, where they just want to go out and find someone to penetrate. It's strange. It's like they're fiddling. They hate their job, and when they get home from work, they're tired, and all they do when they is watch TV and complain.
But my friend and fellow comic Nathan Lund just quit his job and decided to commit full-time to comedy. You realize it's possible. I don't need as much shit in my life. I don't own anything. You have to be responsible for your life, and that's a frightening thing. But what's more frightening to me is hating waking up at 6:30 every morning. I don't even have an alarm clock, and I love it.
It just seems so silly to me that people complain about their lives. I'm like, why don't you just commit? What are you more afraid of? Hating the present or failing? Take advantage of the chaos. Freedom has no purpose. Just do it.
Those are your tattooed toes on the cover of this record. What does "Joke Life" mean to you?
Oh, I don't know. It's a tattoo. There are either really great stories about comedians having a great time (on stage) and they crush it, they make some money and it's just the best thing ever. Or they go and they do a gig and it's the worst and it's in a Tuff Shed and there's no microphone and they get paid in gift certificates or something. So it's a great life to be able to make people laugh; it's a great thing. I love being in front of people and being a goofball, so it's kind of a joke being told on life. Sometimes it's fucking sad and really lonely and I just want to go home to someone and not be out every night at 2 a.m. shilling beer. So it's also a joke of a life. I don't know; it's a weird dichotomy that I was aware of and decided to get tattooed on my body.
I'm trying to pitch A&E on this reality show -- they're flying me out in October. They bought a seven-minute reel off of me. I don't really want a camera crew following me around, but hopefully it will become a pathway to doing more comedy for bigger crowds. Selling out is such a bizarre concept to me; I mean, every Kia Sedona commercial that I do, or whatever, just means more headlining dates in clubs because people will know my name.
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Ben Kronberg is one of the funniest guys I've ever watched, and I came up watching him. He was on an episode of Wipeout, which is the dumbest thing ever. But college kids watch Wipeout, and he got a bunch of gigs from being on it, which is great. And now he gets to buy more tiny little shorts.
Tallent is on the road for most of May, but Fine Gentleman's Club still hosts its Too Much Fun show every Wednesday night at The Deer Pile, 206 East 13th Avenue. The all-ages show begins at 10:30 p.m. and is free (donations are welcome). To keep up with the Fine Gentleman's Club activities, follow the group on Twitter.