Denver comic Sam Tallent, an off-the-cuff kingpin of the local comedy scene and a member of the Fine Gentleman’s Club, probably exited the womb cracking wise. When he’s not on the road, he frequents several stages — tag-teaming with the Fine Gents at Deer Pile’s Too Much Fun, hosting the Squire’s notorious open mic and commentating with Nathan Lund at Luche Libre and Laughs at the Oriental Theater, to name a few. But there’s more to Tallent than the nonstop jokes: He’s also a decent drummer with a literate streak that shines through in his answers to the 100CC questionnaire, which turn out to be part autobiography, part diary and possibly the beginnings of a few routines.
Westword: Who in the world interests you and why?
Sam Tallent: People interest me. All people. Humans, specifically Americans, are endlessly fascinating. The choices they make and don’t make, what they do with their lives and why — if they have even thought about why. Americans make me proud and they make me nervous and they break my heart when they try and convince me of things. They are hopeful. They are in love. They all matter as much as anyone else, and thinking about that can send me into a panic attack. Making them laugh serves a bigger purpose in me than it did when I started. I need them as much as I hope they need me, and it hurts to know that in a perfect world, they wouldn’t need my services.
Initially, I got off on being the funniest, wittiest, often smartest guy in the bar. I liked being treated like a small-town celebrity and drinking their booze and banging their chicks before I rode off like a pirate in the morning. Now, I’m in it for the audience. They are the only barometer in this game that matters. How many laughs did you get tonight? Did you do your job? Comedy is the most legitimate art-form, because it is either good or it is bad — it was funny or it wasn’t. Comics try and blame the crowd, but it is never their fault, and we all know it. You have to be funny for anyone if you want to be a comedian. Small town bigots and urban farmers both have to laugh, at least if you want to be a real comic. People want to know why I work small towns. My answer is: Why wouldn’t you? They are people who want to laugh, too, and their laughs are just as valid as the laughs of someone that bought tickets for the new Star Wars. Comics want to do safe shows for safe people. I want to do comedy for anyone everywhere. The snobbery of some comics drives me insane the same way my anarcho, for-the-people, trite, up-the-punx, been-said-a-million-times gibberish drives other comics insane.
Comedy has taken me to big towns and small towns and all towns in between. I’ve met all kinds: Dudes who use racial slurs in polite conversation. Women who want to know if you’re really engaged, even tonight. Day drunks and pill heads and sober freaks with gel-spiked hair and Bible-verse tattoos. I work small town: Tama, Iowa; Skokie, Oklahoma; Gulf Shores, Alabama; Dickinson, North Dakota. After a show, I’m just as likely to smoke a joint with a teacher or a dude who works at Meineke as I am with the mayor or the mayor’s son. We are intimate: I make them laugh, and they buy me drinks and we tell each other secrets and lies because we know we will never see each other again.
I’m obsessed with Americans and contend that they are a hard-working, optimistic, kind, hospitable creed capable of all manner of awfulness and hypocrisy. They are unrepresented and frustrated. Capitalism has used them as guinea pigs for generations, and most of what is wrong with them is not their fault. The same blood that brought the pioneers to Kentucky and the farmers to Idaho and the panhandlers to Utah now sits idle in bartenders, station attendants and Postal Service employees. American are wild, and I want to spend time with them.
If you could collaborate with anyone in history, who would you collaborate with and why?
Noah Van Sciver, because he’s the current reigning champ of his industry and I admire him, plus he is alive. He’s so good. We’ve drunk beers together a few times. We came up in the same punk-rock shows as kids — Rhino and the Fallen Warehouse and shit-me taking drugs and playing drums and him looking anxious but always with a hot chick. He is arguably the coolest thing Denver has produced. I want to court him as a homie.
There is no one doing what he does better than him. Whereas Jason Aaron is the king of violence comics and Matt Fraction reigns over weirdo comics, Noah is the crown bearer in deeply personal, sad, bleak comics. Everyone needs to read Saint Cole. It’s one of the best books I have ever read, with or without pictures...he’s always been a killer illustrator, going back to the gnarly weirdness of Blammo towards the insane intricacies of The Hypo, his art was ahead of his stories. But Saint Cole is a dark portrait of the modern male fuckup, where defining healthy masculinity is very difficult unless you watch UFC. It’s the comic book Joseph Heller would have written instead of Something Happened, it’s just as heavy and grim and the end is HOLY SHIT.
When I was thirteen, my parents told me I could have any book on the Barnes & Noble bargain table, and I found the entire run of Peter Bagge’s HATE. It changed my life forever and nothing in comics has been as good as that book was until I read Saint Cole. Noah: Work with me, bud! I have a short story, and I want you to panel it out and draw it because I think it would be rad as hell and, hopefully, lead to some more work together. It would at least be cool merch.
What’s one art trend you want to see die this year?
Lazy art from people who have been told they are special and have never known failure. I see so much shit trying to be passed off as art by the uninspired and entitled. I wanted very much to be a comic-book artist when I was a kid. I took classes, drew all the time — I even had an electric eraser. Luckily for me my parents told me when I was bad at something. Not that they took joy in the activity, but art school was never entertained by either them or me, and thank goodness, because then I would have wound up one of these kids glueing books to owls or hanging poorly rendered paintings in Pablo’s, asking illegitimate sums for something I’m not really good at. You’re not special: You have a hobby and no one told you the difference.
I like art, but comedy has ruined me to bad art. I work in a medium that is as real as art can be. It’s ethereal and no two sets are same, even if the words used are verbatim from night to night. We can’t hide behind symbolism and interpretation. Our art is appraised nightly by the audience, and it is either valuable or crap.
You can’t practice comedy. There are people at open mics to make you feel terrible as you learn your craft. We are closer to alchemists than artists. No one has any fucking clue how laughter works, yet we strive to manifest it nightly. Comedy is pure, and I don’t know how people can put up with half-assed art. Lots of people want to be renowned and revered, but they don’t want to put in the work. I played in a band that no one liked for five years, but at least we tried really hard. In fact, by the end, I think our work ethic is what made me go all in on comedy. People can be funnier than you, but never let anyone out-work you. TJ Miller once told me, “Every night off is a night you’re getting worse,” and I didn’t skip a night for years.
What’s your day job?
Depends on the day, typically involves travel. Some days, it’s locating the Biloxi, Mississippi, Greyhound station. Other days, it’s driving from Casper, Wyoming, to Rapid City, South Dakota. Often it’s figuring out a local, foreign public transit system on the fly. I regularly thank the Google Maps app aloud to my personal assistant: a suitcase on wheels named Roland T. Baggs, named so in a fit of Gulf Coast “bus frenzy.” He keeps my weed dry and my clothes warm. Securing the safety of myself and R.T.B. is always top priority, as he also houses my merchandise. That’s right. I also hand-make CDs, which I then package and sell at live shows. I’m a Merchmonger, Momma.
My co-workers are always changing, and I don’t always respect or like them professionally, but I always try and get along and make friends. They are typically deviant madmen and perverts. Sometimes there are quiet geniuses. They all Tweet way too much. We spend time on our workdays together in silence, listening to podcasts, punk rock, Southern rap or, when driving in the desert, Tuvan throat singing.
When not traveling, my day jobs include: taking my hero fiancée to work at 6 a.m., regardless of how late I stayed up drinking how much bourbon; e-mailing bookers; cooking meals; maintaining something my management calls “a solid web presence”; reading gritty novels (Barry Gifford and Denis Johnson most recently); doing personal training for my dog, Gordy “Reigns” Oprish; house cleaning; e-mailing the same bookers again (subject line: “Just checking in); writing short stories that I overvalue; losing to Aaron Urist in Settlers of Catan; dirtying Nathan Lund’s dishes; dreading whatever I have to do that night; getting worked up on Facebook comment wars; blasting Lighting Bolt super loud; picking up hero fiancée from work and practicing the triple C’s: constantly consuming cannabis.
As for generating income, I do comedy.
A mystery patron offers you unlimited funds for life. What will you do with it?
Blow it on booze and weed!
After rehab, I’d try and figure out a way to make sure everybody eats and try to bring everyone with me, creating the record label: $AMMY TRILL PRE$ENT$.
When that fails, I would free myself from societal pressures and clear up debt for me and mine, put the old lady through med school and give my family access to the account. Then I would purchase houses in Denver and Pensacola Beach, farmland in Vermont and a secret apartment in New Orleans only I know about. I’d employ and house my friends at the farm (weed and honey and hogs and goats and veggies, complete with salami and cheese cave), leaving them self-sufficient and me with lot of killer produce. I’d swim in Pensacola, going to New Orleans to write and be decadent. My heart will live in the house in Denver, as will rich DU freshmen, and I will profit off them as I have always dreamed.
I would cook every meal my soon-wife or I ate.
I would tour small black-box theaters in a grease-fueled bus I owned, working and traveling with my best friends and, eventually, my kids. All profits would go towards a fund that helps comics when they are broke. I’d funnel the patron’s cash into it, as well. It would be the beginning of the great comedians’ union. Finally, comedians would have health insurance and power of litigation and collective bargaining. New members could be added by current members and, for once, we’d be united and strong, and no one would ever have to get stiffed for a gig again.
I would do an art project where I wheat paste all denominations of currency — one dollar bills to hundreds — across the city, then employ videographers to clandestinely record the footage as people tear at and ruin the currency.
I’d write short stories and eventually a novel that is heralded as genuine genius, and I’d retire to teach at Old Miss, as the world’s preeminent Larry Brown scholar, or maybe I’d go to Iowa, where I’d establish a Flannery O’Connor scholarship.
I would buy Rhinoceropolis and Glob and sign them over to the current inhabitants under the stipulation that they use my produce to Food Not Bombs local hungry people here in Denver.
I would do stand-up until I died.
What’s the one thing Denver could do to help the arts?
Denver has forgotten that human beings live in apartments, not burlap sacks stuffed with money labeled “$.” Housing is gross right now. Mouth House got shut down by an elaborate police sting operation that cost the city literally tens of dollars. Rhino is most likely going to be destroyed so that Brighton Boulevard can finally blossom into more overpriced housing for lames and squares. I don’t know where the kids are supposed to live any more, and I certainly don’t know where they are going to see a house show in the future, which would be a bummer seeing as house shows are an integral part of any arts scene where the bars aren’t all-ages. Also, I’m not one of these ridiculous “artists are special and therefore deserve special housing” people. I don’t think simply wanting to be an artist makes you one, and I believe that people should have to work until their art is good enough to support them (get a grant if you want to live for free, turd). But no apartment on Cap Hill is worth $1,500, and no one should ever have to live in Globeville. Not unless they really fucked up.
Who is your favorite Colorado Creative?
I’d like to mention two artists from two different fields.
Itchy-O is as powerful, disorienting and, honestly, scary as mercury poisoning. They are like a herd of elephants in mariachi gear, punk as fuck. They are to be feared and revered. When I was in REDvsBLACK, the bass player and one of my best men, Clay DeHaan, used to play Crash Worship videos for people when they asked about Denver music, and it would pop skulls, so I’m glad to see that that heavy strangeness has survived in a new form. Nothing is like Itchy-O live. And double respect for turning groupthink and teamwork and sweat into high art.
Shouts to some other great bands: Chase Ambler, Jack’s Smirking Revenge, Rootbeer and Mermanteau, I Sank Molly Brown. My crew (the Fine Gentlemans Club) used to collaborate with Harpoontang a lot. Those ladies were a sexy forest fire of talent, and I had crushes on all of them, but for the right reasons (and their rocking butts). I’d mention Dirty Few here, but their filthy Lake Charles swampcocks have to be chapped from everyone sucking them already.
And there’s a lot of Denver comics who are insanely talented, but I want to throw some light on a dude who doesn’t get as much sunlight as everyone else. Anthony Crawford moved here from North Carolina after having done comedy longer than some of these little mic rats have been alive and totally started over, and he did so without any chip on his shoulder whatsoever. He knows he’s funnier than everyone else, but he doesn’t say shit about it, just hits every mic he can hit, and no one who’s been doing comedy as long as he has wants to do mics unless they love love love comedy, and he loves comedy, and I love him. He came in and started a show called Talkin’ Shop, which is now a podcast, where comics come in and talk about comedy for young comics. It’s really good. He’s had lots of great locals and some out-of- towns on, all of them just expounding on what they have learned and done wrong and what they still want — it’s a perspective factory, and it needs to be applauded, just like Crawford. Other local rippers: Jordan Doll, the Agency, Ben Bryant and Alan Bromwell each seem to be growing a pair, Hippieman.
What's on your agenda in the coming year?
In the immortal words of RiFF RAFF: I’m trying to blow up and act like I don’t know nobody. Kidding.
I honestly have no idea. It’s hard to know when you’re doing anything correctly in stand up. My top priority is to continue to outwork everybody while balancing my tour schedule with my soon-wife’s needs. I love her a bunch and want to spend as much time as I can with her and our dog, but these streets aren’t going to run themselves. I love America — I’ve been pouring myself all over it for the last ten years, and now there are small bastions of sweethearts who love me, too. In the past, I wanted to spend all my time on tour, sleeping on floors and avoiding the hassle of rent and girlfriends, but now I am fully in love and about to be married. I actually like being home these days. This next year will be about finding that middle ground.
Standup is my favorite thing, especially the current model of alternative/independent standup touring (defined by myself as shows run by comics outside of comedy clubs), which I believe to be the fourth wave of American punk rock. It’s kids who put down the Stratocaster and picked up a pen, and they are throwing shows because no one else is going to do it. They’ve created sanctums in their towns where people can go see this pure, immediate, visceral art-form performed by other kids who are just like them. It’s as real and pure as anything Black Flag did, and the booking model is the exact same: friends and strangers honoring promises for friends and strangers.
I love this circuit, and just like punk rock, it doesn’t pay very well and no one in the community wants to talk about money. I have the constitution for the road and genuinely enjoy the travel, but the days of 36 shows in 34 days, no-nights-off hellruns are done. I think my max is two weeks straight now. At least at the money I’m getting currently. I can justify to myself driving thousands of miles to perform for tens of people for one hundred dollars, but being away from my honey that long isn’t worth it. I need a TV credit so that I’m easier to book and I can ask for more money as venue owners assume that a TV credit will bring people out to the gig. So I need a Conan appearance or the like to take the next step. I need to get on TV so I can do stand up for more people and receive more money for it.
I’d also like to get a cooking show online in 2016. I love to cook, and if the show takes off, I can achieve the dream of having an official bacon sponsor. I also want a book deal, because I write fiction, and I think that what I write is quality, or at least it rips off quality writers effectively.
Who do you think will get noticed in the local art scene this year?
I think that the women of Denver comedy are going to rise up and become the quite the talking point, as they continue to be a shining example of what this city does different from other comedy scenes. Our ladies are less catty than our fellas. In most of the scenes I’ve experienced, there is a lot of animosity between women. Our girls seem to get along pretty well, or at least they don’t let the arguments get out. They have a great camaraderie and support network, from what I have seen — they even have monthly brunches for all the ladies!
Old favorites like Timmy Lasley, Mara Wiles and Christie Buchele are working their tits off, and they regularly put both male and female out-of-towners to shame. And I’m grateful that they are here in our city to shepherd and steward our new does. Jordan Wieleba, Georgia Rae, Meghan Shaha, crafty veteran Janae Burris, Cody Spyker, Ben Bryant — there’s too many new gals to mention, but the hard work is next level, and I’m proud of our community here for sidestepping all the petty bullshit that bogs down a lot of creative energy in other cities.
I think that speaks to the fact that you have to be funny to be a comedian in Denver. Regardless of gender, you have to be funny to get showcases and work here. Funny isn’t the number one priority in other scenes, which leads to a lot of frustration over lack of merit. Not in the Mile High. When a young comic sees a poster and their name isn’t on it, it’s easy to tell why someone else got booked: they are funnier than you. No politics involved. There’s just too many rippers in the 303. You can’t cash a bowl in this city without ashing on a crusher. New comics know here that all that matters is be funny and get funnier and you will get booked. Denver comics are good at paying dues, as its extremely hard not to be humble when you grow up having to follow Ben Roy into Aaron Urist into Nathan Lund into Stephen Agyei at open mics.
I hope that Denver continues to get its national shine on (we produce the best comedians in the country, with a tip of the hat to Atlanta), and I hope the women start to glow a little brighter, or at least they mention women who still actually live in our city. (Kristin Rand, while a hilarious angel, moved to L.A. a while ago, Splitsider.)
Sam Tallent is out there all the time. Catch him with the Fine Gents Wednesday nights at Deer Pile’s Too Much Fun, guesting at the Oriental Theater's monthly Lucha Libre and Laughs and sending hopeful comics to their doom at the Squire’sTuesday-night open mic.