He's gay, he's Republican, and he's one of Denver's greatest standup comedians. Talk to anyone who's been in the scene for more than a few years, and they'll tell you: Chuck Roy has been instrumental in creating what is now known as Denver comedy. After years spent warming up crowds for Craig Kilborn in L.A., Roy relocated to the Colorado capitol and began emceeing open mics; hosting a pot-themed, Wall Street Journal -style sketch series, and eventually got on the list as a regular at Comedy Works. Lately he's been working on establishing a LGBT comedy scene in Denver, pushing boundaries within a medium that's been awash in homophobia.
Chuck Roy will be headlining Comedy Works on July 28, and in anticipation of the event he invited us to spend an afternoon with him, checking off the list of his favorite things to do in downtown Denver: renting B-cycles, smoking pot on the Platte River trail, and eating a brownie sundae at the greatest laugh factory in town, Comedy Works.
Meeting us outside the Westword offices, Chuck Roy suggested we check out B-cycles from the station just up the street. An avid fan of the civic cycling operation, Roy can often be seen riding one of those red beasts on his way up the bike path to Comedy Works whenever he's scheduled to host or headline an event.
As someone accustomed to feather-light road-bikes, riding one of those monsters was somewhat of an awkward change of pace for me. The heavy, cone-shaped basket on the front of the cruiser -- not unlike Rick Moranis's headgear in Space Balls -- nearly caused a few spills for me on the way down to the Platte River trail. But Chuck Roy's patience and amicable company made for a pleasant ride as we talked about how his life has changed since moving to Denver. Here's the interview:
Westword: Did you ride a bike very much when you lived in L.A.?
Chuck Roy: No, not at all. I used to take the 405 freeway in L.A. whenever I'd go to auditions. It was the same site of that public service announcement with the Indian crying hen he saw all the trash and pollution. And traveling through that was an average day, chasing down a sitcom or a movie role or whatever, driving through all that traffic. That was my path to get to work then, and now traveling on a bike along a creek is how I get to work.
Does the B-cycle keep you in shape?
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Not really, because I walk less and it's a downhill ride. My boyfriend just bought a B-cycle pass and he rides it all the time. Maybe if I went out with him more I'd get skinnier, but I don't think he'd like that.
Do many other Denver comics regularly ride bikes to the clubs?
Andrew Orvedahl. When he arrives at Comedy Works I know it's him at the back door, all out of breath. He's a real cyclist: He'll ride in the middle of winter.
Pulling over at the Larimer Street exit, Chuck Roy and I sat down by the river, putting our feet in the water while he pulled out a ziplock bag and a pipe. I don't smoke nearly as much pot as I used to, and keeping up with Chuck Roy was like a St. Patrick's Day drinking game with Bukowski. Roy is an easy-going conversationalist who loves to argue when he gets stoned -- as do I. So our conversation -- which drifted into the topics of marijuana legalization, the merits of today's Republican Party, and being openly gay while performing "clean comedy" -- wasn't nearly the awkward mess of hysteria it could have been with some more shortsighted stoners.
Westword: Is there something about being a comedian that lends itself to regularly smoking weed?
Chuck Roy: Pot's a thing with everybody. . . . Well, maybe not everybody. But pot's probably the next thing to come out of the closet in America. There's been an incredible amount of shame associated with it. You can be gay all you want in Indiana, but smoke pot and they'll kill ya.
But is that more of a geographical thing? Because it's certainly not the case here.
I'm stereotyping Indiana off of experiences I had eight years ago. But I do think if people live in places where pot is freely used, they can go into dispensaries and see that it's not teenagers and stupid stoner people.
I remember you told me a while ago that you hate performing for stoned audience.
Oh, god, no. They're lethargic. You never hear a room full of stoners cheering and guffawing. A stoner laugh is "heh, heh, heh." A bunch of drunks? At 2 a.m. you don't hear a bunch of stoners coming home -- you hear a bunch of happy drunks. It's something specific to the fuel of alcohol. Alcohol makes for good times; pot is more of a reflective, take in the scenery kind of thing -- you're more contemplative. Listening to a comedy album while you're stoned is terrific. To record a comedy album for a bunch of stoners? What are you gonna get for laughs?
You bring a bowl to go snowboarding and then take it all in. Or at a concert you light up and get into it for a couple hours. You smoke a bowl at home with your friends and watch a comedy special. You smoke a bowl before you go on stage and tell jokes. But for some reason, it doesn't work when you're a comedy club audience.
So you like to smoke before you go on stage, and I've known others like Chris Charpentier or Sam Tallent who do the same. But Greg Baumhauer -- who likes to get high -- doesn't smoke before stage-time. And whenever I'm about to do any kind of public speaking, pot is the last thing I want. Even doing this interview high is pretty weird. Was it always so casual for you?
I guess I've had a lot of practice being stoned in high-pressure situations. I used to do warm-up comedy for Craig Kilborn's show. There was one day when were going to have Snoop Dog on the show, and I wanted to be stoned for it. So a few days before, I got stoned and practiced doing comedy while high. It's a little embarrassing admitting that I practiced getting stoned, but whatever.
You referred to marijuana being the new "out of the closet" for America. And that makes me curious: You're an openly gay man, and I imagine you do a lot of shows where you're asked to "keep it clean." Now that we've had so many advancements in gay rights, can you do a "clean" show while openly referencing that you have a boyfriend?
No. Not at any venue in America. Not even Red Rocks. Comedy Works is the only place that lets me do that. They'll put me on the family shows, and only this last month did I start doing jokes where I reference my boyfriend.
It hasn't been very long that standup comedy has had this progressive leaning. In the '80s it was wildly homophobic, and there are definitely still large swaths of social conservatives that go out to comedy shows. Do you see a strong undercurrent of homophobia in the industry today?
Yes. Although a lot of that stopped with Todd Glass.
And he only came out about two years ago.
Yeah, and it made people think. It made some of my friends go, "I've said things around you that I owe you an apology for." And it took a lot of courage for Todd Glass to do that. I didn't necessarily feel the need for an apology from anyone, but Todd woke up a lot of my friends. He should be thanked for what he did, and acknowledged that he changed the mindset of his peers.
And yet at the same time, you identify as a Republican.
Way old-school Republican. So whenever you ask a me a question about gay rights, you're asking an old-school conservative gay Republican. That floats less in a Hollywood room than it does in a North Carolina room.
What part of the GOP is it that you identify with?
Conservative constitutionalists. Conservative spending. I've been against civil unions for the same reason that Sonya Sotomayor is: They're unconstitutional. People call them a "half step in the right direction," but I see them as a half-step in the wrong direction, toward discrimination.
I was into Obama when he said he was going to build an educational infrastructure, but he never did. I am convinced that that is where the future of economics is. Look at this river -- kids should be going to school to learn how to make this river clean, and generate power.
Yet if you were to make that argument at a Republican convention, that would be shouted down.
If you want to stereotype Republicans, go ahead. But real, on-the-street Republicans are different. It's all about getting things done, and one side is more utopian, and the other is more pragmatic. Take gay marriage: One side argues that civil unions are one step toward it, while gay Republicans are like "I"m only going to argue for my marriage." And that's what the deciding votes on the Supreme Court did: They argued for the marriage. Sufficiently stoned and sunbleached, Chuck Roy and I dropped our B-cycles off at a nearby station and walked over to Comedy Works. Hanging out in the CW green room, Roy ordered a brownie sundae for himself and a round of beers for me and our photographer.
Westword: What's always impressed me about you as a comedian is your presence. I know I've seen more than once -- and other people have said the same to me about you -- a show where the crowd was talking amongst themselves during comic after comic's set. And then you came in and turned a large portion of it around. Did you work with a lot of rowdy crowds in the past to develop that skill?
Chuck Roy: Again, working with Craig Kilborn. You do not talk during Craig Kilborn. It's live, it's on tape. He was an ESPN sports anchor, so he had no crush-a-heckler skills. So every skill that I have when it comes to controlling a crowd was sharpened during that time. I know how to handle a crowd thanks to my time working there. You do not talk during Craig Kilborn.
What would be the consequence of talking during the show?
A very large bear would come down into the crowd. . . . And you wouldn't win a T-shirt. The threatening could go on any different level, but the biggest consequence for a TV audience would be not giving them a T-shirt.
That sounds so juvenile, like telling a boy if he's not good he won't have any ice-cream when he gets home.
There isn't a TV warmup act that I saw that doesn't use the T-shirt line in the first three minutes of his act. He panders with "Just so you know, I'm the guy that gives away the free T-shirts," and the crowd goes apeshit. Don't blame me for it, I didn't invent it.
I suppose they're all tourists, and a free T-shirt to tourists is like the feeding pellets at a petting zoo.
In Hollywood, on that gig, yeah. Here at Comedy Works, that's not really the case. There's no free T-shirt to be gotten here. At Comedy Works it's just don't interrupt me and my friends; if you talk during one of these shows I'm going to nip that in the bud. But I hate that part. It is nice when you get a new zinger out of it. Once you've done warm-up for two years, it's like any other craft you've done for two years: it becomes routine. But wrangling in a crowd is not my favorite part of doing standup. Once Chuck Roy finished his dessert, we headed back down to the B-cycle station for some more sunshine and chatter. He would be emceeing a show down at Comedy Works South that night and would be taking his red rider down to the light-rail station. Meanwhile, I needed a nap.
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For more comedy commentary, follow me on Twitter at @JosiahMHesse.