Bars are a common venue for Denver comedy shows, and they're definitely a birthplace for great ideas. One night this past February, local comedians Meghan DePonceau and Anthony Crawford went for a drink after performing at a bar on South Broadway. They headed for a speakeasy in Five Points; DePonceau, who is also a bartender, had brought along a few bottles of booze. Behind that bar, she mixed Manhattans for a small crowd while Crawford was on the other side of the bar, performing some impromptu stand-up.
“We were all in this big cluster of people,” DePonceau says. “Crawford was just spitting jokes to everyone and having a good time. We both made eye contact and it just hit: there’s something here. There’s a pairing between comedy and alcohol.”
This was the birth of the idea for Amuse Booze, a monthly cocktail and comedy event run by DePonceau and Crawford at the Savoy Events Center. They've already pulled off two shows; the next Amuse Booze is set for June 14, with comedians Adrian Mesa, Bobby Crane and headliner Elliot Woolsey.
DePonceau and Crawford's idea is to bring comedy and alcohol — specifically a bartending competition — together. “I was looking for a crowd that would always show up, which is the service industry,” Crawford says. “I just didn’t know much about the service industry.” That’s why he saw DePonceau, a bartender at Tables in Park Hill, as the other half of the project.
DePonceau looked around town for a venue, and settled on the Savoy, which has a stage and a barroom — perfect for what they had in mind for their fusion of comedy and bartenders.
Then, Crawford came up with the idea that would combine both groups in a unique format: the comedy showcase would include a cocktail competition, featuring local bartenders. He mentioned it to DePonceau, who loved the concept.
“She said give her a week so she could come up with something,” Crawford says, “and in that week, she got the Savoy, she got sponsors, she got bartenders. None of this would have happened without her.”
DePonceau named the show Amuse Booze, a playful take on the French phrase amuse bouche — a playful bite of food sent from the chef to the dining room. Amuse bouche are complimentary morsels of food offered to delight a customer before a meal while offering a glimpse of the chef’s talents.
The first Amuse Booze took place on April 12, and the reception was strong: 45 people came out to the show, which featured comedian Nathan Lund. Luke Paddy Ramos, a bartender at Ste. Ellie, won the competition. The second show, on May 10, brought together bartenders Jessica Wilkinson (Euclid Hall Bar & Kitchen), Haylee Ortiz (Session Kitchen and OAK at Fourteenth) and Carly Reimer (Golden Moon Speakeasy). Comedians included Stephen Agyei, Jordan Wieleba, and headliner Sam Tallent.
Amuse Booze works like this: before the show, each comedian chooses a classic cocktail, and the bartenders are tasked with coming up with a version of that cocktail. The best one wins. Admission to the show ($10) includes one free drink, and all cocktails in the competition are available at the bar for purchase. At the last show, comedians chose the Daiquiri, Bloody Mary and Cosmopolitan. The three bartenders came up with new versions of each, and brought the ingredients to the show.
“I know that trying to start something takes sacrifice and takes a little bit of time,” says DePonceau, about putting the new show together. Amuse Booze is not a typical showcase of comedians — the bartending aspect requires lots of coordination and physical work.
But DePonceau, a Buffalo native who relocated to Denver in October 2013, believes that her new city is the best place for her new show. “There is a great underground scene here,” DePonceau says. “It has all of the resources it needs to thrive immensely. It needs people to take charge. I think there are a lot of people trying to play with themes and ideas, mixing and matching. I love that ingenuity. I think there’s a lot of things that are going to take off.”
Comedian Anthony Crawford, on stage at The Savoy, sampling a cocktail created by a local bartender.
“Thanks to how well she’s doing with the bar side,” Crawford says, “I can shoot for the moon on the comedy side. We’ve got some amazing lineups that are coming up.”
Crawford hosts the comedy portion of the show, while DePonceau makes all the drinks at the bar, showing up early to learn how to mix the cocktails for that month’s show. There were nine new cocktails at the May 10 show — cocktails that she had never made before.
“It’s going great,” Crawford says of the show’s current success. “It’s perfect, because the bartender doesn’t outweigh the comedy, or vice versa. You almost kind of forget that there’s a bartending competition going — but you can’t forget that there’s one going on.” Crawford believes there a lot of bartenders that don’t get the recognition he feels they deserve, and that Amuse Booze is a great to give them that, but also to get restaurant employees to support their bartenders by attending the show.
“People who drink — they like jokes,” DePonceau explains. "And people who like jokes — they like to drink. That should be a pairing.”
“Hopefully, the comedy show itself will justify the cover,” Crawford says. “The comedy itself should pay that for you. It should be worth it. And on top of that, you get a free drink, and then you get to taste the bartenders’ creations. I’m hoping that when most people come to the show, they feel like they robbed us a little bit, like we should have charged more.”
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“No one is doing a show even close to this,” Crawford continues, “not that I’ve heard of. I feel like we’ve got the inside track with that.” The concept behind Amuse Booze is so unique, that after only one show, it’s been picked up for inclusion in the Savage Henry Magazine Comedy Festival in Humboldt County, California in August. Both Crawford and DePonceau are currently scouting out comedians and bartenders in that area for the show.
DePonceau is enthusiastic about the possibilities of bringing the bartending and comedy communities together, and hopes that Amuse Booze will inspire similar shows that do the same thing. “If there’s nothing else I can do for this scene,” she says, “it would be to connect those two things no matter what small cost it is, or what effort it takes. That’s what I want to do. If I could be that one bridge, that would be the effect I left on Denver comedy.”