Despite All, Comedy Works Owner Wende Curtis Clutches to Optimism

Wende Curtis is striving to stay optimistic.
Wende Curtis is striving to stay optimistic. Comedy Works
After a year of shutdowns, reopenings and more shutdowns, Wende Curtis, the owner of Comedy Works, is having a hard time staying optimistic — but she's trying.

Comedy Works South, in Greenwood Village, has been open for six weeks, with upcoming shows from Taylor Tomlinson, Chad Daniels and more. So far, the reopening has been a success for the club.

"It's full all the time," Curtis says. "There's very little that hasn’t been full. It’s a small capacity, and people are very, very anxious to get out. They’re very gracious and grateful. I think everybody involved, we’re all grateful. There’s money coming in. The staff’s making money, and they’re working. Customers are coming in, and they’re happy. And the comics are coming in, and they’re happy because they’re working."

Through it all, customers have willingly obeyed the various pandemic rules and regulations. While some people express their disbelief in masks or the virus itself, even they are agreeing to follow the policies designed to keep patrons and workers safe. And the shows have been warmly received — no matter the talent — because after more than a year of being cooped up, people are desperate for a laugh.

"They’re just anxious and happy to be doing anything," Curtis says. "Live entertainment is such an essential part of our culture, and it’s so important. There’s nothing like it. I’m sorry. Zoom stuff and concerts we can watch on television and comedy specials...they’re great. But it’s not the same thing, and it will never, ever replicate the live performance. That is the ace in our pocket, isn’t it? Thank God! You can buy the album, but it does not compare to seeing the Rolling Stones in person, right? I really think that we just have to do whatever we can do to hang on."

Curtis is weighing when to reopen her flagship downtown club soon, but it will be tougher to bring that room in compliance with current Denver regulations. And staffing up both venues has been a challenge. Kitchen workers have taken jobs in the construction industry, and many of the clubs' waiters and bartenders have moved on to other fields. But while there is a shortage of people ready to work for venues that are facing endless uncertainty in the next few months, Curtis is confident that they will eventually return.

Then again, she's been pivoting since March 2020, when regulations shut down the entertainment industry. Now, with a fourth wave hitting Colorado, she's skeptical that the pandemic is being effectively managed, and has turned to friends and colleagues for support when despair threatens to overwhelm her.

"I was speaking to Steve Simeone a little while ago," she says, adding that the comedian "is one of the most generous people I’ve met in my life, ever. We were going to have a quickie call, and in that conversation, I really realized...I really do have to let go of, 'Yeah, but what if? But what if? But what if? But what if?'

"I have to take the facts as we have them now and move forward with those facts and stop really making myself nuts about the what-ifs," she continues. "But I tell you, it scares the daylights out of me to think we rebuild all summer and something happens in the fall."

Like many in the entertainment industry, Curtis has been eager to receive emergency money from the Save Our Stages Act, which was rebranded the Shuttered Venue Operator Grant, which calls for $16.25 billion in aid for theaters, clubs and venues like hers. But the billions earmarked to save venues have been held up by the Small Business Administration, with that entity recently bungling its April 8 grant application rollout. Given other website issues, venue owners who have survived this long wonder if the emergency funds will ever come. (SBA claims the grant applications will finally be accessible this week.)

Despite that mess, Curtis has managed to dredge up some empathy for the workers at the government agency who have fumbled the rollout. "They’re trying to be prudent so fraudulent organizations aren't formed and don’t take all of the money — all of that," she says.

Finding grace in others is helping Curtis to accept that most of the issues plaguing the country are out of her control, and she has to accept them for what they are.

"I think I stopped going, 'Fuck everybody. Fuck the government for letting this happen. Fuck the people that don’t wear masks and don’t believe,'" she says. "It is what it is. I’ve got to accept it and stop being such an ass or such a brat about it. It’s not going to change it. I can change my perspective about it, because the situation is not going to change. It’s just fucked for everybody. It doesn’t matter what side of it you’re on."

Despite her uncertainty, she plans to push forward.

"Is this it?" she asks. "Are we really on our way back? ... I hope so. I hope we don’t have to work all summer and we get to open up and get to build and rebuild and then we have to clamp back down. Can you imagine? I think I’ve got to let that part go. I’ve got to live for now and today, and I can’t project into the future."

Need a laugh? Go to the Comedy Works website for a full schedule of upcoming shows.
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Kyle Harris has been Westword’s Culture Editor since 2016, writing about the arts, music and film.
Contact: Kyle Harris