Kind of Blue
Fifteen minutes before Friday's eight o'clock show at the Comedy Works, the line stretches nearly to Larimer Street. Tammy Pescatelli from Last Comic Standing is in town, and she's attracted a sell-out crowd of primarily white suburbanites excited about a night out in the city. Pascatelli travels with no openers, so several comics from the club's lineup are in the green room, waiting their turn to warm up the audience and optimistically discussing the inevitable re-emergence of the sitcom, since reality TV doesn't work in syndication. And then Josh Blue ambles in, wearing his #5 U.S. Paralympic soccer jersey.
"Ladies and gentlemen, the Josh Blue," says John Novosad, aka Hippieman, taking a loving crack at his friend, who in the blink of an eye has gone from being as ubiquitous as cigarette smoke on the local comedy scene to a rare sighting between prime spots around the country. Josh smiles off the comment and starts talking with Jake Sharon, another comic who's manning the camera this evening, about filming his eight-minute set. When Josh did a spot for Comedy Central's Mind of Mencia several weeks ago, comedian Carlos Mencia introduced him to a few network bigwigs, and they've requested an eight-minute video of material that could get Josh a spot on Premium Blend, maybe even his own half-hour Comedy Central Presents special. So he wants to make sure things run smoothly.
"Well, if things don't go well, there's always the second show tonight," Sharon points out.
"I'm a one-take kind of guy," Josh replies, then coughs. Since he arrived back in town less than 24 hours ago, he's done two photo shoots and two interviews. He's sick with exhaustion, but as he paces in the back hallway looking over his set list, he can't help but be excited at the size of the crowd. MC Phil Porter warms up the audience, and then Josh takes the stage.
As Josh begins his set -- which now includes a Mind of Mencia-dropping intro -- a woman in the fourth row regards him with sad concern. Josh was born with cerebral palsy, and his right hand doesn't fully open; on stage he has a tendency to cock his right arm behind him at an awkward angle, and his speech is somewhat slurred. "You guys better laugh," Josh says. "Because this is my make-a-wish." While the rest of the audience roars, the woman recoils in shock.
"To tell you the truth," Josh continues, "I feel a little ripped off. I should have said the Olsen twins." At that, the sensitive woman laughs.
She stays hooked as Josh starts telling a joke about cops thinking he was drunk and throwing him in the drunk tank. "I kept saying, 'I'm not a drunk, I have cerebral palsy,'" he says. "They were like, 'That's a pretty big word for a drunkass.'"
Two applause breaks and several hyena-shriek rounds of laughter later, Josh finishes his routine and heads back to the green room.
The press on Josh Blue tells you that he puts the "cerebral" in cerebral palsy, that he helps listeners laugh at their own stereotypes and corrects misconceptions about people with disabilities, which is all true. Local TV stations have run feel-good spots on Josh and how he doesn't let his disability get in the way of his dreams -- he's also an athlete who traveled to Greece last year to play soccer in the Paralympics -- and that's well and good, too. But here's the thing you really need to know about Josh Blue: He's fucking funny. Period.
"I have the common sense to know that my disability is what makes me stand out," the 26-year-old explains. "But I don't want to be thought of as just 'the comic with cerebral palsy.' I want people to think I'm funny, and to make them laugh. A lot of my set is about having CP, but it's not like I can't address it -- plus, most comics do a lot of talking about themselves. If I didn't talk about it, it would be uncomfortable and weird for everyone. What am I going to say -- 'Well, I fucked the cat today'?"
Josh got his start at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, at a coffeehouse-style open mike that was primarily "poetry and love songs," he recalls. Josh performed off the top of his head and got a raucous response from the thirty people in the room -- an early indication of his skill at making comedy out of nothing. By the next open-mike night, the audience had doubled. Fans kept multiplying until Josh had a night where he "ate shit" and quit. "People were laughing and everything, but in my mind, I wasn't happy with it, so I stopped," he explains.
He went to Senegal for an internship at the Dakar Zoo, but thoughts of comedy lingered. When he returned to school, he convinced an advisor to let him focus on standup comedy as part of his major. In addition to studying and writing about the great comedians, Josh performed on a consistent basis -- and so was born the "Josh Blue Comedy Hour," with Josh facing the hellacious task of coming up with a new hour of material every seven days. "I have no idea how I did it," he says. "I wouldn't want to see any videos of those sets."
In 2001, a job as an Easter Seals camp counselor brought him to Colorado, where a clueless-in-the-ways-of-local-comedy Josh wound up at the Mercury Cafe for more "poetry, love songs, then my 'What's-up-motherfuckers,'" as he puts it. Walking down the 16th Street Mall one night, Josh heard comedy being broadcast from the Supreme Court bar in the Adam's Mark Hotel. He listened for a few minutes, then walked in and demanded that the emcee put him on stage. The emcee refused, but took Josh to another club where he ran a contest that Josh won.
Josh soon started performing at the Tuesday New Talent Nights at the Comedy Works, but didn't get much stage time. "The head of new talent hated my guts," he says. "He didn't like me because I wouldn't kiss his ass. He didn't want to hear that."
"Our new-talent guy didn't like him," acknowledges club owner/operator Wende Curtis, who has since found a new new-talent guy. "But I heard the rumblings around him. I could tell this guy had some heat."
Josh won the 2002 Comedy Works New Talent Search and followed that up with several more high-profile victories, eventually earning a spot at the 2004 HBO Comedy Festival in Aspen. Last fall, Las Vegas's Royal Flush Professional Comedy Contest came scouting for talent, and though Josh lost to Steve "Mudflap" McGrew in the Denver showcase, organizers were so impressed that they invited him to Vegas. There he beat out sixty professional comedians, including McGrew, and took home the $10,000 prize.
When Mencia recently came to town, he caught Josh's set and immediately took him on the road to Improvs in California and Texas. He also offered him a spot on his new show -- a short-but-sweet few minutes in a sketch that aired August 24. Josh handled it with grace and humor.
"We've been telling guys about Josh for a year," says Curtis, whose Comedy Works Entertainment also represents him. "We'd make cold calls, saying, 'You've got to take a look at this kid; he's great.' They wouldn't take our calls, or they'd set us up with bogus sets. Now it's a different game: They're calling us. We have comment cards to see who people want to see at the club, and the intensity of requests for Josh has been out of control. They're mostly in his handwriting, but there's still a lot. Seriously, though, we're getting as many for him as for Chappelle."
"People ought to be ready to be amazed continually by this guy," says fellow comic and friend Chuck Roy, who co-produced the Comedy Works series "Bobo and Blue" with Josh and served as the warm-up act for The Craig Kilborn Show. "He's one of the funniest guys I've ever hung out with, and I've hung out with a lot of comics. But he also has this sincerity about him that's endearing. Any person who's not just dreaming but actively pursuing his dream, it makes people want to be around him. He's someone who just refuses to be put on that short bus. You know, he wants a tour bus."
Helping fuel that bus will be Josh's appearance at a National Association of Campus Activities showcase next month in Chattanooga, Tennessee, a sort of South by Southwest for comedians. NACA books the bulk of college shows across the country, and they've served as a launching pad for many top comics. "It's big," Josh explains. "I love doing comedy, and I'd love to ride this into television, movies. I'd love to see a sitcom about someone with cerebral palsy. No one's ever done that."
After a solid Pescatelli set highlighted by the comic pausing for a bathroom break -- food poisoning -- the audience shuffles up the stairs while the Comedy Works staff furiously cleans the room for the next show. The comics who've already performed hover by the exit, receiving props for their sets, scanning the hordes for groupies. Sitting on a bench, Josh accepts his praise politely, thanking people and shaking hands. A woman crouches down by him and starts speaking extremely slowly, apparently having forgotten that annoyance with such condescension was part of his set. He thanks her and extends his clenched right hand -- which she squeamishly accepts, clumsily trying to make an appropriate grip.
"Sometimes," Josh says with a grin, "it's fun to make them feel a little awkward."