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Chris Baker on Childhood Nostalgia and Two Years of Cartoons & Comedy

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Cartoons & Comedy is a purely fun shows for crowds and performers alike, a rare glimpse into childhood from the safely ironic distance of years past. The show offers a way to bond over shared memories and laugh at the absurdity we used to innocently accept at face value, all leavened by cheap beer and sugary cereal. Keeping a comedy show going, particularly one that requires such elaborate pre-planning, is impressive feat; in its two short years, Cartoons & Comedy has changed time slots, venues and formats, while retaining its childlike bonhomie and essential spirit and presenting the nimble riffs of Denver's funniest locals and drop-ins from comedy nerd heroes like Ron Funches and Rory Scovel. At the helm of this monthly endeavor is Chris Baker, who hustles his cherubic ass off cutting together a video package of old cartoons, wrestling videos and '80s toy commercials, and booking a lineup of quick-witted comics every month. In advance of the second-anniversary show on January 29, Westword caught up with Baker at Fifty Two 80s, a local retail outlet and archivist of half-forgotten treasures from childhood, to discuss the enduring appeal of nostalgia and coked-out wrestlers.

See also: Denver Sexpot Comedy Awards

Westword: So, when did you first hear about the Fifty Two 80s store, and why did you think it would make a good spiritual companion for Cartoons & Comedy?

Chris Baker: I feel like some people told me about it; they asked me if I'd heard of the store, like they'd found something really cool. Anyway, it was kind of just tucked away in my brain and then the other day I was thinking, "I really want to get down there," and then when I looked it up, I realized, "Oh my gosh, this is a perfect combination. How have I not been coming here? It's my show in a physical format."

Why do you think that the call to nostalgia is so strong among people our age?

You know, I think it's because we're the first generation that has most of it available still. If you were a kid in the '70s, maybe not the late '70s, but if you were a kid from before the mid-'70s, VCRs weren't really prevalent, or even around. So footage of those shows doesn't exist and a lot of that stuff is just gone. But now that most of us are '80s and early '90s kids, that stuff is still there. I've been saying to friends lately, we all had that tape that our parents recorded for us by just hitting "record" on like six-to-eight hours of Saturday morning cartoons or Nickelodeon shows, and you'd take that tape with you and watch it over and over whenever you were staying at your grandparents' house, or whatever. It's been this weird thing as I've been putting my show together; I've been finding those tapes that people put on Youtube.

I had one of those tapes. I remember because it had both version of the Ghostbusters cartoon on it.

Sure. And sometimes, they'd have it so the commercials were cut out, but sometimes, they'd all be there. For me, it's a gold mine to find the ones with the commercials. That's where most of my content comes from. It's just wild to see that stuff. It's even weirder now being at this store and seeing these objects, like the Fashion Plates -- these weird things you sketch over to make fashion models. I never had that toy.

I always wanted one, but it seemed too girly at the time. My brothers would have definitely made fun of me.

For sure. It's just one of those things that I've showed commercials for, but I never had them and I haven't seen them in years. So being there and being able to touch and see them just reminded me of how much I've forgotten about.

It's cool that so many of the toys there are out of their original packages, so you can touch them. That's a huge part of the appeal of this store; playing with the stuff I wanted but never got.

Yeah. There's some stuff in there that I didn't even know existed. Like these Growing Pains trading cards. Who had those? I've got them in mint condition now. They were still in the package, which is nuts. It's like that scene from Garden State, with the Gulf War trading cards -- which I had by the way. It was also just as weird to see the toys I did used to have in there.

Oh, yeah. All the he-man toys?

Yeah, and those giant rubber wrestling figures? They had no articulation to them at all! It was weird to see them with the paint still on them, because it had worn off of all of mine. They looked like they were just generic naked men dolls.

Those things were just as much of a melee weapon as they were a toy!

Yeah, it was really neat to see that stuff. I think I'm going to try my best at getting something from that store every month to give away, because I'd rather support a local Denver business than just order something from a stranger on eBay. It'd be fun to get a field trip together before the show and all meet up there and buy some stuff to bring to the show and play with. That's where I'd like to shoot a commercial for the show, and just have someone like Sean Patton riffing on all the cool stuff here. Some things just sell themselves. Keep reading for more from Chris Baker. So this is the two-year anniversary. How has the show changed since you started?

It's changed a lot. When I first started, I was sticking to what I had done just for fun with my friends before it was an actual show, so I'd actually have it on Saturday morning, which is a horrible idea. No one is awake in Denver on Saturday morning. The first show I tried to do was at 11 a.m. It was Nathan Lund, Sam Tallent and Jim Hicox, and then Greg Baumhauer was there pretending to be my dad, coming out in his robe and yelling at me for having kids over without asking He hit me with a newspaper, it was pretty funny, like he asked, "Sam, how's your mother?" But no one even showed up until noon, and then there were only like twelve people there. I didn't really know anyone back then. So there was no one at the first few shows other than a handful of people, mainly my co-workers and close friends. The first three or four shows were in the afternoon, and the Deer Pile is a strange place in the afternoon. The way the light comes through those curtains is like a weird David Lynch movie. It feels very odd, and it's an oddly lit room to begin with.

It looks a lot like a school.

Yeah, for sure. It's like an old room you'd go into for art class.

Yeah, like that one weird old building on campus?

Yeah, so I think it was around the fourth or fifth show that I moved to the evenings. It went way better in the evening. Then I was at Voodoo for a while before I came back to the Deer Pile. But Thursday evenings have worked out pretty well for me. People tend to show up to that. It's a good night. It's always nice to get a little bump from Too Much Fun! the night before. In terms of the actual show itself, it's also changed a lot. Initially, the show was an hour and a half of material, which is way too much. It became a hard thing because I wanted to show entire episodes, but I only really have time for two full-length episodes and then maybe some five-minute Looney Tunes-type thing. I think you were on one of the shows where I had a bunch of short clips of stuff that I cut together to look like you were flipping through the channels. That was a lot of fun, but I think it became a little hard for people to follow. Those shows are so weird that they barely make sense when you watch the whole thing, so when you watch few seconds out of context before cutting away to another thing, it really doesn't make sense. But I've finally got it down. One of the things I started early was the commercials. I've always had them there, but I used to just cut to it, there was nothing special. So I put in the effect when I edit the video of the fuzz and static from a channel changing and just doing two full-length shows along with full eight-to-ten minute commercial breaks. I feel like it's just gotten to a nice, streamlined position now.

So the vintage commercials were always a part of the show?

They were always part of it, but they weren't what they are now. There have been some shows where there were equal amounts of commercials and cartoon shows because sometimes, the commercials are way more fun to riff on than anything else. It's been talked about to death, but there are gendered toys like crazy. You know, just, "boys, here are your guns..."

"Girls, here are your ovens and simulated children to raise."

Yup. The other thing is, how many of those commercials were produced by people who clearly did a lot of acid? Or were still on something? I don't feel like cocaine was necessarily the inspiration -- maybe in the energy -- but visually, they were nuts. It makes total sense that people in our generation have done so many silly drugs when you see what we were watching as kids. We grew up to act with our eyes shooting out of our heads and our tongues waggling. But it's neat because now I've got it streamlined, and what I've got better at, especially over the last six-to-eight months, is having an intro video. I have my intro, it's a bunch of cartoon segments cut together with the song "Breakfast Club" by Z-Trip. It's just one of those things, it's a song about eating cereal and watching cartoons, so it's always been my theme song. So I always had that, but I tried to create a video before the intro that's about one or two minutes long. It always starts with the CBS special engagement logo, and then something weird. Keep reading for more from Chris Baker. A couple months ago, we started off with an anti-drug commercial with Clint Eastwood talking about not doing cocaine, being real serious, like all those commercials with actors in a dark room lecturing you about drugs. Then it cuts like the channel is changing to a promo from wrestling with Hulk Hogan and Mach Man Savage talking to Mean Gene Okerlund. The segment is kind of popular on the Internet because they're clearly coked out of their minds, just moving around all silly. And that hit so hard, I just loved it because there's other stuff from that time period that I like to throw in when I can. Something weird, like even old sports clips.

Those anti-drug commercials would always come on to bum you out in the middle of your cartoons.

Or if you were at home watching cartoons, it wouldn't be unheard of for your dad or somebody to flip over to the baseball game for a minute before going back to what you were watching. I did that on the show once; I showed a clip from an old, old Red Sox game and Chris Charpentier knew the game and what was about to happen next. I couldn't believe it.

That's a totally different type of childhood from mine.

Yeah, he didn't get the cartoons at all. He'd never seen Ren & Stimpy, but boy, did he know baseball.

I just soaked in all the pop culture I could.

Yeah, that was life for me. i remember when I was a kid, on Saturdays and Sunday, I would take the TV guide grid from the newspaper and make my own schedules and sit to watch all day like a real crazy person. I don't know if this show is more about nostalgia or realizing my childhood dream of being a TV producer.

You usually coordinate some of the programming with your guests, right?

I try to do my best. When Ron Funches was on, we had a lot of wrestling. When Jordan Doll was on, I had all these Scottish commercials and cartoons. In general, I like to ask everyone for a handful of suggestions from stuff they remember, so there's at least something. I'm always going to hit. My odds are really great. I've never shown something without someone on the panel remembering it and coming up with a joke. It's even better when it's something that they had or they wanted. You'll find that you have a very strong opinion about it, even though this is an opinion you haven't had since you were eight years old. But you immediately revert back to being a kid, like, "This is bullshit! I should've had that!" Maybe this also training for me to never have Alzheimer's. But, you know what'll end up happening is, I'll get old and only be able to remember my childhood memories.

You'll think it's the '80s still?

Because that's what I've spent so much time doing and remembering. But it's really exciting to have done two years of something. There's The Grawlix and Too Much Fun!, which have been going for five-to-six years, but then there's a couple in that two-to-three year range, where we are, that people are finally starting to take a little more seriously.

Two years is a big milestone.

I feel like once you get there, people start changing their mind about it, or at least I hope so. The impossible thing about doing shows like this is that there are only so many things you can do to try and bring people in. I don't really know what else to do. Getting on Sexpot helps, getting mentions helps and getting big guests -- like when I got Rory Scovel on -- that was unbelievable. I'm hoping it'll be like that with Sean Patton this month. That's such a fun get for this show. What I like to have on the show are at least one person who's done it and knows the format, and then people I think will be really funny. Jim's done the show the most, this'll be his seventh appearance and I think it's Aaron's fifty time. It's been really fun to see some Denver comics shine.

Anything big you want to mention before we wrap up?

Just mainly that it's the two-year show; that's it's a big one with Sean Patton on the panel. Next month, I'm pretty excited, I can already announce that I've got Ben Roy, Zach Reinert and Adrian Mesa on the show. I feel like it's a perfect lineup. Oh, I was one of the first Sexpot shows, like maybe the third or fourth. So it's been fun to see what they've become in the past year. I was ready to give up on the show, I was so stressed that I was just done with it. Then I ran into Kayvan at a party, back when Sexpot was still just doing private shows, and asked him if I could do it at Sexy Pizza. We did at the new location in Jefferson Park before the place was even done being built and that when I was like, "Okay, I should still do this." That helps so much, Sex Pot helps me put on the show and pay for cereal each month. The big plans for this year are trying to get into some festivals, whether it's just an after-party or a brunch show, but how fun would it be to get the show out there on the road?

Cartoons & Comedy celebrates its two-year anniversary at 10 p.m. on Thursday, January 29 at Deer Pile.The lineup includes perennial C&C favorites Jim Hicox and Aaron Urist and headliner Sean Patton. Admission is free with a suggested donation. Find ore information here.

Follow Byron Graham on twitter @ByronFG for more mildly amusing sequences of words.

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