If public speaking is the most common human fear — statistically, it ranks even higher than death — then Denver is chock-full of masochists these days.
On any night of the week, you can find dozens of nervous people hanging around outside of bars and clubs, anxiously smoking cigarettes or improvising jokes while waiting for their five or ten minutes on the stage — not just speaking in public, but trying to disarm that public with humor. They're competitive yet communal; often stoned, but never miss a gig. These are the mic-rats of the Denver comedy scene — and over the last decade, as this city's funny business has become an increasingly serious industry, they've become unstoppable, thriving and multiplying like, well, rats.
"When I started doing standup in 2006, there was nothing," says Sam Tallent, co-founder of the Fine Gentleman's Club comedy team. "There were about three open mics you could do in a week. Today you can do a few shows every night, and everyone's good now. You have to be good now. There's all these swords slamming each other, sharpening their blades. These guys make me a better comic."
The Fine Gentleman's Club
As Tallent says this, he attempts to gather the three guys he's referring to in a giant, sloppy bear hug (which is almost possible, considering his Goliath-like frame). Sitting at the bar of City, O' City, Tallent is pleasantly exhausted and red-eyed as he sips a beer with his comedy collaborators: Nathan Lund, Chris Charpentier and Bobby Crane. Moments earlier, these four horsemen of the Fine Gentleman's Club had been entertaining comedy fans packed into Deer Pile, the venue directly above the bar.
The no-cover, DIY space had quickly reached capacity, with bodies sitting on the floor and standing on chairs in the back; heads leaned in through the doorway just to get a glimpse of the Too Much Fun show. The club's weekly event is Deer Pile's most popular attraction, and the collective laughter of the crowd often spills out the windows along East Thirteenth Avenue on otherwise quiet Wednesday nights.
At the far end of the bar, Deer Pile manager Jonny DeStefano is picking out songs on his laptop to play for the post-show crew that has filed downstairs for drinks. "They've created this incredible phenomenon," he says of the Fine Gentleman's Club, while absently selecting a Beastie Boys track. "In the last two years we've been doing this, they deliver at every show. They're hungry, and that comes across. You can feel a real connection between them and the audience."
"There's a real genius in the structure of their show," adds City, O' City owner Dan Landes. "They have a variety, but it's consistent. There's a formula, with the four of them introducing a show, peppering it with their own individual standup, then some locals like Dr. Kevin Fitzgerald and maybe an out-of-town or local headliner. People can grasp it. And they all have a very different comedy style, so it never gets stale."
The members of the Fine Gentleman's Club are not the progenitors of this new comedy scene, but they are the steroid shot that has given Denver its performance-enhancing edge over other cities' comedy scenes. Building on the efforts of earlier local comedians who are now gaining national recognition, they're helping to create a scene that can support performers pursuing comedy full-time — just as long as money and security can take a back seat to craft.
"T.J. Miller once said to me, 'If you take a night off, some guy out there is getting better,'" says Tallent, referring to the former Denver resident who's gone on to comedic fame in Hollywood films and with his own Comedy Central show. "So for years I never took a night off. I was a mic-rat, just taking every gig I could get."
This lifestyle, dedicated to constantly attending open mics, hosting local shows, touring whenever the opportunity arises and never half-assing a performance — essentially adapting journalist Malcolm Gladwell's ten-thousand-hours rule for mastering a craft — has set a standard for comedians in Denver, taking a new generation of comics to a heightened skill level and inspiring many touring comedians from New York, L.A. and other big comedy cities to include venues like Deer Pile and the Bug Theatre on their roster.
"It's taken a long time for comedy in Denver to get as popular as it is," says Charpentier. "Now this is the place to be. There are so many funny people here. I've been to places like Atlanta, where there are a lot of comedians, and there's a large scene that's supportive. But there are like five funny people there — and we have like 25 funny people. And it's a smaller group here than there."
Bobby Crane is slapping high-fives with the dozen or so comics hanging outside the downtown Comedy Works, Denver's thirty-year-old comedy club, on a balmy Tuesday evening. Many of them are waiting for New Talent Night to begin, but others, like Crane, have recently been promoted to the club's middle-tier level and are signing on for a possible slot on the headlining show later that night. If Crane gets the gig, it will be the fourth venue at which he performs tonight.
But for now, they joke and wait, sipping coffee and discreetly passing a joint. "Up until recently, before I quit my job, I was only doing two or three shows a week," the 27-year-old Crane explains, holding a hit of smoke in his chest as he talks about giving up a Vine Street Pub paycheck in order to work on his craft. "But Sam was doing like seven shows a week. He was already good, but he just kept getting better and better. I knew that if I wanted to get better, I needed to do more shows. I'm not rich, but I'm supporting myself on standup comedy now."
When he was growing up in what was then a Latino neighborhood in northwest Denver, Crane's only exposure to standup comedy was on family vacations, when the novelty of cable TV in motel rooms introduced him to the sinful world of Comedy Central. "After my parents went to bed, I'd watch standup and think it was the coolest thing in the world. I remember thinking, 'This is like a sitcom, without any boring lesson.' Years later, when I went to college, I got really into it and started buying comedy albums. But I didn't realize there was local comedy that you could go see."
Walking down a hall at the University of Colorado Denver in 2005, Crane came across a poster displaying a pantless Santa Claus sporting a snug thong. It was promoting Los Comicos Super Hilariosos, an underground event featuring a group that would come to be seen as the senior class of Denver comedians.
"There's something to be said for a live performance," Crane says, remembering his first Denver comedy show. "You can listen to an album and chuckle, but when you're seeing it live, it hits harder."
After catching that show, Crane learned of an open mic that Los Comicos member Greg Baumhauer hosted at the Squire Lounge. The Colfax bar's weekly show had developed a reputation as a no-mercy boot camp for would-be comics, a place where, if the drunk, distracted, often heckling crowd didn't crush your will to ever stand on a stage again, Baumhauer's unforgiving jabs as the emcee might.
"Comedy is not a nice business," says Baumhauer. "And comics need someone who is honest. The Squire was a mean environment. It was a battle, and if you could last there, it got you ready for what was to come."
Baumhauer explains this while sipping whiskey at the weekly open mic at the Matchbox, a less harsh but widely respected comedy show where a good portion of the audience is made up of local comics. Dressed in a red velvet suit with a ruffled white shirt and sporting a pencil-thin mustache, he is currently in his Bobby Valentino character, a crude-talking lounge singer with the mouth of Tony Clifton and the antiquated style of Gomez Addams.
The Squire's legendary status as an unforgiving gauntlet intimidated many young comics, but it also weeded out the meek from the strong. Los Comicos members Adam Cayton-Holland, Ben Kronberg and Ben Roy (who have gone on to perform on Conan, Comedy Central and Just for Laughs, respectively) would hold court in their own booth at the back of the bar — and an invitation to join them after a good set was the Denver equivalent of being waved over to Johnny Carson's desk.
"I went to the Squire every night for a year and a half before I ever signed up to get on the stage," remembers Crane. "I was only nineteen at the time, but I got a fake ID so I could go every week, just to watch Kronberg, Baumhauer and people like Chuck Roy and Josh Blue, who would drop in. I couldn't believe comics this good — at times as good as the albums I was listening to — were performing a half-mile from my apartment."
And once he did get on stage, Crane started delivering conceptual material that often confused audiences — either temporarily, with a joke that needed time to sink in, or permanently, with one that would simply bomb.
"I knew he would be good after the third week he was up there," says Baumhauer, taking a heavy pull on his cigarette. "For being so new, he was pretty impressive."
As Baumhauer says this, Crane's voice rings out from the back of the bar, where he's performing his third set of the night: "The difference between a rich kid and a poor kid is what they mean when they ask the question, 'Do you know who my father is?'"
It takes a good ten seconds before the entire crowd begins laughing.
Sam Tallent has been known to compare standup comedy to wrestling, explaining that "it's you against another guy, which is the audience, and you have to best them." But Nathan Lund is the Fine Gentleman's Club's real professional-wrestling aficionado.
Tonight the husky 31-year-old is delivering a comedy commentary at Lucha Libre & Laughs at the Oriental Theater. Combining standup comedy and pro wrestling may seem bizarre on the surface, but the two aren't all that different: Both are steeped in villainy; both involve stage characters and prearranged dramas that require a suspension of belief; both are dependent on rhythm and invoke heckling from the audience. And both were forever altered by Andy Kaufman.
After riffing on Brokeback Billy delivering a power bomb to Kiki Rose, then Fuerza Chicanana laying a cross-body block on Delta Junior, Lund retires to the alley behind the Oriental to smoke more weed and reminisce about meeting Bobby Crane at the Squire.
"That was about five years ago," he recalls. Lund had just moved to town with his girlfriend, who was working on Barack Obama's first presidential campaign; back in his home town of Las Vegas, he'd been performing standup for a few years. And he was surprised by the growing interest in comedy he found in Denver.
"There was a good scene at that time, but it got better," Lund remembers. "Suddenly you could go and find a mic most every night. And when that started to happen, Bobby and I started hanging out more and more. Usually I wouldn't say more than 'Good set' to a comic at an open mic, but after hearing someone really good — like Bobby — I'd be like, 'Man, that was really fucking good,' and I'd tell them why. He had a real creative spark."
While Lund had enjoyed performing in Vegas, in Denver he felt challenged to step up his game, making every show count and building a reputation for himself. And he quickly found like-minded entertainers who had no interest in a Plan B outside of performing.
"All I want to do is comedy," says Lund, who took a job as a manager at the Mayan Theatre, then quit in order to free up his nights for performing. "It sucks having a job you don't want. You have to either get comfortable with the situation you're in, or you have to change it. I haven't had a day job in a year, and I haven't regretted it once."
Of the members of the Fine Gentleman's Club, only Charpentier still has a day job, at a local architecture firm. Lund had completed his bachelor's degree in psychology by the time he got into comedy, while Crane and Tallent both dropped out of school once they knew there was a possibility of making a living in standup. "I moved into Mouth House after I quit my job," Lund says, referring to a riff-raff punk house in Five Points that often hosts comedy and rock shows. "I split a room with Sam for $150 a month, and when we weren't staying with our girlfriends, we'd have to share a bed."
The comedy lifestyle is not always pretty. Plump eyesores like Sam Kinison and Zach Galifianakis have achieved pinup status, and Lund often prides himself on his grizzled, Bukowski-like appearance of drunken dishevelment and extra weight. But as he notes later during the night's comedy set, this image can come with its own random moments of judgment from unlikely sources.
"I ended up downtown the other night and got made fun of by a homeless guy. He was, like, ten-homeless on a scale of one to ten. And he was getting arrested. I was like, 'Oh, shit, look at this guy.' But then he looked at me and his eyes lit up, and he started laughing and said, 'Lordy, lordy, look who's 240.' And I'm like, 'Hey, wait, I'm not supposed to make you feel better about your life.' I saw him and I thought, 'Well, at least I'm not that guy.' But he saw me and was like, 'Well, I may be ten-homeless and getting arrested, but at least I'm not that guy.' What am I supposed to do with that?"
Chris Charpentier is leaning against a refrigerator packed with row upon row of green apples with the name "Ed" written on them in magic marker.
At 5' 5", Charpentier is the antithesis of Tallent and his imposing frame, but his smug wink at comic Kristin Rand exudes a charm and confidence that belies his bantam stature. And, like Lund, he's always the first to mock his physical shortcomings.
"I've heard all the jokes, and I understand," he says during a gig at the Meadowlark. "I get it, I'm pretty short.... Did someone just say 'Aww'? You know, I have a job, I feed myself, I drive a car. I'm doing all right. But I'll admit, if I witnessed some of the things I go through in the third person, I'd laugh at it, too. Any job I've had that required me to wear a uniform, it looked like I was going trick-or-treating. My feet have fallen asleep while I'm trying to take a shit because they don't touch the ground."
But today Charpentier is not performing standup. Today he is an actor making a comedic short film with the Nix Brothers for the 48 Hour Film Project. The team has been assigned a genre (romance), a character (Aunt Vanna), a prop (apples) and a piece of dialogue ("Why don't you do it?"), and has two days to write, film and edit a story. A handful of other local comedians are helping out with small roles and as extras, with Charpentier and Rand as the central characters stuck in a hate-filled office romance. Sexy Pizza, which sponsors many comedy events in town, is providing lunch. The atmosphere is very casual, but since most of these comedians perform almost every night of the week, they can switch on their funny faculties at a moment's notice.
"I have friends who don't do comedy, and they're great, but I don't understand that lifestyle anymore," Charpentier says, taking a break from shooting to step outside and get high. "I don't relate to not performing every night. Why would you not want to get on stage and bring out a thought you had earlier that day and find out if people like it, immediately?"
Charpentier began performing standup around the same time that Lund and Crane began showing up at the Squire every Tuesday night. But the freshman, straight-outta-Broomfield comic was far too timid for the inquisition-like atmosphere of that particular open mic. "The Squire was super-scary," he remembers. "I didn't know anybody there, and I didn't like Greg Baumhauer being a dick to everybody. I get it now, more than I did then. But I was just so scared; I still get nervous before I go on stage."
Still eager to get some stage time, Charpentier would head to the now-defunct Club 404's open mic. That's where he met Tallent, who had been a mic-rat-about-town for a year by that time. The two bonded over their backgrounds in improv comedy, which Charpentier had found was a helpful resource for getting over his insecurities when facing a crowd of strangers.
"In time, you learn how to use the nervousness to propel you instead of holding you back. And that's the difference between people who want to be on stage and people who need to be on stage," he says. "I used to get nervous days before I'd perform, then it would be all day, then noon that day. And now it might be when I get to the venue or before I go on. I get a tight stomach and feel like I have to pee twenty times."
Marijuana has been a faithful ally for calming Charpentier down before a show. But while today pot and cigarettes are, for the most part, his only vices (he occasionally drinks and very rarely takes other psychotropics), when he was a teenager, his drug use had reached gonzo levels, leaving him in a state of constant mindlessness. This led his parents to enroll him in Cornerstone Drug Abuse Program in Westminster, overseen by controversial rehab figure Bob Meehan.
Meehan was the subject of several investigations over the last three decades, his tactics compared to cultish indoctrinations that teach patients to despise outsiders. First gaining national recognition for treating comedian Carol Burnett's daughter in 1979, Meehan would go on to be one of the most recognized, and notorious, icons of the sobriety business, opening several clinics and training disciples who have gone on to open their own practices. While Charpentier was in Cornerstone's outpatient program, from the age of 16 to 21, he was kept on a tight schedule, mostly going home only to sleep.
During his stint in rehab, Charpentier discovered his love of the stage, putting on comedy shows for the rest of the 150-plus patients. "There was a lot of wasted time in there," he adds. "Mostly I just smoked cigarettes, drank coffee and learned how to breakdance." Once out of the program, though, he quickly returned to smoking pot.
"I had to unlearn a lot of things after that," he recalls. "Like, you're going to die if you do drugs. I had a sponsor when I got out, and he said he didn't think I was an addict. But there were real alcoholics in there who had real problems."
"These days I like to talk about getting fucked up more than I like doing it," he continues. "I can't do drugs like I used to. I'm thirty now. I don't do drugs to see how high I can get anymore; I just want to enhance my experience a little bit."
Sam Tallent is shouting, but everyone is smiling.
"All these girls are into cats, and I'm jealous," he says, leaning forward on the mic stand like a Viking on a crutch. "If I'd known that girls like emotionally distant loners who shed everywhere and poop in a box in the corner...I wouldn't have changed a thing about myself."
Even though Tallent is loud, looks like he fell out of the Book of Enoch, and often puts images of revolting terror in your head with what he says on stage, he has a genuine warmth that puts the audience at ease. Unlike many standups, he doesn't shield himself with an air of superiority; instead, he immerses himself in the fans, giving them the feeling that they're in on the show.
"Sam is a loved person," says Charpentier. "That's the kind of person he is. You want to be around him. He's magnetic."
Tallent was the final cog in the Fine Gentleman's Club machine, and at the fresh-faced age of 26, he is the group's youngest member. By 2009, the division between Squire and 404 comics had begun to fade, and during many late-night post-gig smoke sessions, this quartet of comics began talking about creating a new kind of comedy team.
"We collectively came up with the name Fine Gentleman's Club," says Lund. "We thought it would be great to have a fancy-sounding name for four shabby goofballs."
The idea was to combine forces as a four-man comedy team with its own regular show. It was an idea inspired by — yet very different from — the Los Comicos show (which by this time had evolved into a new team named the Grawlix). "We love the Grawlix, and they've been good to us," says Charpentier. "But their on-stage personas are all dickheads and snooty. Which is fine. But we wanted to be different; we wanted to have a we-are-you, come-hang-out vibe. So while they're called Grawlix — which is basically a swear word, like 'fuck' — we called our show Too Much Fun."
And the fun hasn't stopped since. "What I really like about their shit is that it's a party," says Baumhauer. "It's not a show; we're just hanging out. And there's just a funny guy talking. It's in the name itself: Too Much Fun."
The very first Fine Gentleman's Club Presents Too Much Fun show was held in a shed in Boulder. It was attended by about a half-dozen people, many of whom were comedians on the bill: Someone had put the wrong address on the fliers posted about town, and even though they'd posted a sign at the incorrect address pointing people toward the right one, nobody had followed the trail. The club soon moved Too Much Fun to Denver's Rockaway Tavern, where it garnered a decent following — until the night the comics found a note on the door explaining that the venue had unexpectedly shut down.
Meanwhile, ten blocks away, in Capitol Hill, Jonny DeStefano had begun hosting a standup-and-music event called Laughs & Beats at City, O' City; a few members of the Fine Gentleman's Club were usually included on the bill. This show had also caught on with the crowds catching the comedy fever sweeping through Denver — which became a problem one night. "We didn't have a cabaret license for City, O' City," remembers DeStefano. "And five hours before the show was supposed to start, Dan Landes didn't feel comfortable doing it."
But then someone remembered the vacant space above the restaurant. During City, O' City's renovation, Landes had purchased the entire building and was renting out small rooms on the second floor as studios for artists. The rented spaces had all been remodeled, but one large room had been neglected for years by the previous tenants. "It was a mess," DeStefano says. But with the help of a few fellow comics, he whipped it into shape and went ahead with a show that night.
The Fine Gentleman's Club moved Too Much Fun there soon after. Today Deer Pile is a multi-functional venue that hosts events almost every night of the week, avoiding the cabaret-license issue by keeping the space a not-for-profit venue that does not sell alcohol. Too Much Fun fills the space every Wednesday.
"None of us wanted to do a weekly show," admits Lund. "We wanted to do a monthly, but Sam was the one who said we should do it every week."
Other than open mics, there had never been a comedy show in Denver presenting fresh material every week. Even the most popular bands will only play two or three shows a month — anything more brings up concerns of oversaturation. And unlike musicians, comics can't get away with having "hits" in their repertoire; rarely do people want to see the same comedy act twice. So in committing to a weekly comedy show, the members of the Fine Gentleman's Club were challenged to come up with new material every seven days.
Tallent says that schedule has forced them to become better comedians. "These guys have gotten stronger and stronger — and they've made me a better comic," he explains. "Over the years we each have had to come up with a new ten minutes every week or we're going to bore our crowd. They press me to be better. And we get to collaborate on shit. If Charpie has an idea for a sketch, he can call me up and bounce it off me. It keeps you honest, having such great comics in your group."
The other three members are quick to credit Tallent. Beyond his amicable personality and his ambition to host a weekly show while still touring and performing around town, he also has a background in improv theater that helped shape the group's standup performance.
"We have all been influenced by him," Lund says. "We didn't know a lot about improv when we began doing standup, and he started there. It made him able to be super-comfortable on stage. You can get away with almost anything if you command the stage and exude an aura, or a feeling, of confidence. But at the same time, Sam will always devote part of his set to doing crowd work and showing a bit of vulnerability. So they know he's not just up there reciting jokes. He's showing them who he is and asking who they are — and people fucking love that."
"If you're doing improv right, you're not thinking; you're just reacting organically and honestly in the moment," says Tallent. "It's Michael Jordan in the zone, seven out of seven three-pointers in a row, or the pianist who blacks out during the concerto and wakes up to a standing ovation. It's that zen, that being in the middle of the moment and being okay with the moment."
On August 21, the Fine Gentleman's Club will release its debut live album on vinyl; it was recorded at Comedy Works last Halloween. The album was produced by local indie-rock collective Hot Congress, and while this marks the label's first venture into the comedy world, it's hardly the first overlap between rock music and comedy.
The Beatles were signed to what was then mostly a comedy label; Woody Allen and Joan Rivers performed on the same bill as Bob Dylan in Greenwich Village. Beyond those historical connections, though, the modern comedy explosion has been fueled by the combination of melody and humor. Patton Oswalt's standup tour/documentary The Comedians of Comedy became the blueprint for comics hitting up rock venues over comedy clubs while on the road. Some of Denver's best shows and releases come out of the Illegal Pete's-sponsored Greater Than Collective, which has both the Grawlix comics and several well-respected bands on its roster.
Musical comedy has also experienced its own revival, though instead of 1980s solo acts like "Weird Al" Yankovic, today's satirical songsmiths often come in pairs, like New Zealand's Flight of the Conchords, giddy sexpots Garfunkel and Oates, and Denver's Euro-trash duo Total Ghost.
If there's any consistent thread in modern comedy, it's collaboration. The digital revolution may have been a holocaust for music sales, but it was a virtual renaissance for humorists on podcasts, with small groups of comics geeking out over a buffet of topics fit for the appetites of the Internet. Unlike the solitary crafts of writing or painting, standup comedy has become a team sport in the 21st century, a dynamic that often leads to the kind of Dionysian revelry favored by the decadent world of rock and roll.
And revelry has always come easily to the members of the Fine Gentleman's Club.
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The Club has plenty to celebrate. After the album release, the third annual Too Much Funstival will blast off on the last weekend of August; the four comics are still pulling together the lineup for their festival of shows. While the upcoming High Plains Festival — co-produced by Squire/Los Comicos/Grawlix stalwart Adam Cayton-Holland, on August 23 and 24 — will be Denver's first national comedy festival, Funstival has become a three-day monument to the union of rock music and standup comedy in the Denver entertainment scene. And then there are the weekly Too Much Fun shows, after which these jesters will lead their enchanted followers downstairs to City, O' City, accepting offers of drinks, conversation, marijuana and favorite comedy anecdotes from strangers.
"The traditional model for entertainment has been broken," says Dan Landes, just as last call at City, O' City is announced. "All of these comics are picking away at making a new path for themselves. I think this younger generation has a lot more options than the one that came before them. There's been a lot of heavy lifting by those older comics. And both have a rawness to them that is very Denver. Since there haven't been traditional avenues out of Denver to the coasts, you really have to hone your craft here."
As the last sips of beer are swallowed and DeStefano plays his final song on the stereo, the comics make plans to keep the night rolling at someone's house. The show hasn't really ended — just as it never really officially began. The members of the Fine Gentleman's Club are constantly spending time with one another, consuming bushels of marijuana and bouncing ideas off each other as though performing for an invisible crowd.
"These guys are at pallbearer status with me," says Tallent. "I would do anything for them. I look forward to watching them fall in love, toast at their weddings, and fucking raise families. Comedy is great, and it brings us together to work toward a common goal of survival — but at the same time, if you get to work with your best friends, that's it, man."