Comedian Sam Tallent has one condition for talking about the dire state of Denver’s comedy scene during COVID-19: “Whatever you do, don’t call the story ‘No Laughing Matter.’ Everybody does it.”
He’s not wrong, but neither are the news outlets that describe the state of comedy during a pandemic that way. People are sick and dying. Venues are closed. Bar staff, managers, security and others who work the clubs are on unemployment or fleeing the crumbling industry; some face eviction and homelessness. Meanwhile, comedians are out of gigs. In mid-November, all indoor shows were prohibited. A couple of venues tried to host performers outdoors, but it's getting cold.
And while a few comedians are still trying to get laughs online, largely live-streamed comedy shows without an audience are torturous to watch. They're probably harder to perform — a guaranteed bomb.
Nathan Lund, a seasoned Denver comedian, puts it succinctly: "COVID has fucked comedy." And that's about as optimistic as anyone in the industry is feeling these days.
“Right now, there is no Denver comedy," explains standup Christie Buchele. "Dining, bars and comedy kind of all go hand in hand. So other than a couple Zoom shows, I don’t know of anything going on. The [COVID-19] numbers need to go down, and we need to get this vaccine rolling. This is the darkest-before-the-dawn moment...I hope. Comics, venues, waitstaff are all just standing at the starting line, waiting for the gun to go off. But the infrastructure is still here. It will bounce back quickly.”
Comedy Works owner Wende Curtis isn't so sure. Since the shutdowns, she’s been brooding and wondering what would become of her life if her two clubs had to close for good. “I stomped around for a very long time,” she says. “This is all I’ve ever done. I don’t have a résumé. I started when I was in college as a cocktail waitress. I don’t know what else I would do.”
She blames the Republican administration’s failures to lead on a COVID-19 strategy for the country's current sorry state.
“It’s the right thing to be closed right now,” she says. “I get it. But I didn’t do this. You didn’t do this. That fucking idiot in office that I didn’t vote for — he didn’t act. He didn’t lead. He lied to the American people.”
While the clubs have been shut down, Curtis has been keeping busy with some upkeep and renovations. One day, focused on work, exhausted and riddled with rage, she fell from a landing and fractured two of her vertebrae. The accident was a wake-up call.
“I got back into therapy and got a life coach,” she says. “I think I have made some adjustments mentally. What can I do? I can’t control the outcome of the election, and I can’t control what that motherfucking idiot says via Twitter, and I can’t control when we’re going to be allowed to come back.”
When she does come back and her clubs reopen, she’s skeptical of how many on her team will be left. Some longtime loyal employees who have been out of work for months are leaving town to live with family or shifting to other industries.
“I started out the year with five operational managers just in the clubs,” Curtis says. “When we reopened in July, I had three. At the end of September, I had one. To the best of my knowledge, these people aren’t going, ‘Fuck you, you’re an idiot. I hate this place.’ These are managers who had worked for me five to seven years. One had moved out here to work for us. Two of them were interns. Their lives changed.”
Even comedians are moving, she says. Lund is headed to Trinidad, motivated less by COVID-19 and more by the development boom, high rent and endless construction in Denver. “I’ve been here since 2008, and this growth is gross,” he says. “This is too much for me.”
Janae Burris, a mainstay of the scene, moved to Los Angeles earlier this year to be with family. And Tallent, who has been on-and-off in Denver for years, is now in Fort Collins — not because of the pandemic, but because his wife, a first-year doctor, accepted a medical residency there.
Though he’s aware that a few people have left, Tallent doesn’t buy that there’s an “exodus” from Denver comedy, as Curtis fears. People come and go, and there will be plenty of comedians to perform on the Comedy Works stage when it's back in business, he says. If anything, Denver had too many comedians and comedy nights for its own good before the pandemic, he adds, explaining that people are too nice and don't tell each other when they're flopping.
And some terrible comedians were booking their own shows by doctoring their résumés and convincing gullible brewery owners to launch comedy nights starring their friends, he recalls. “There are a lot of people lying about their credentials,” Tallent explains. “Once you do that and have eight people show up to your show and the bar manager is like, 'Jesus Christ, we could have had karaoke,' they’re so much less inclined to have another show in that room. And that crowd member is like, ‘I thought comedy was good in this city.’ You are literally fucking over other comedians because you were so eager to have your own show, even though you weren’t ready for it.”
But the problems didn't end there. According to Tallent, once comedy was canceled after COVID-19, a flood of inexperienced comedians who weren’t paying the bills with their gigs before the pandemic faked economic woes and started throwing GoFundMe campaigns. They weren't making money on their comedy before, so they shouldn't cash in on the crisis now, he says: “There was a lot of gross, icky behavior."
Tallent himself turned a self-published book, Running the Light, into a profitable venture with merchandising, so he didn't have to ask for help.
Like Tallent, Buchele doesn’t see much of an exodus. “If anything, I know of people coming home [to Colorado] because it’s not worth paying rent in L.A. and New York right now,” she says. “If people left Denver, I think it was already part of their plan. No one left because of COVID.
“Denver has always been the best city for doing standup and getting paid, and that hasn’t changed,” she adds. “And even at its worst, it’s still the best. I don’t understand moving right now unless you are going somewhere where the cost of living is cheaper. There is no escaping COVID just because you move to Austin. I think there is going to be a lot of room to grow and advance when things come back. It’s just about being patient right now.”
Nick Armstrong, a Los Angeles-based actor, was one of the new owners who took over Voodoo Comedy in 2019. After the stay-at-home order and uptick in Black Lives Matter protests, they renamed the venue Rise Comedy. He says the club will likely make it, thanks to the grace of his landlord and some income still coming in from online classes and corporate rentals.
“The Denver community is going to be fine,” he says. “Their comedians are hustling still and doing things online and doing things in person in the summer. In L.A., it’s a shit show, to be honest with you. In L.A., a lot of people are leaving. ‘I’m going to the Midwest to be with my folks. The dream is over.’ There is a mass exodus in L.A. I think there is a bigger chance that a lot of clubs fold. I think Colorado is positioned pretty nicely. Colorado takes care of artists a little better than L.A.”
Even so, Curtis responds, “people’s lives changed during this. My life changed. I became more bitter." She's envious of people who say they've spent the pandemic mulling over life's big questions. “I haven’t had time for reflection, other than when I was laying there and saying I broke my back," she recalls. "I hope that people have found their silver lining. I’m still looking for it. I feel like there is no end in sight.”
And while there are vaccines coming, those won't be enough to heal broken venues and cure a moribund comedy scene. “If we were lucky enough to get a vaccine by the end of the year, it’s going to take six months,” Curtis says. “Six more months and no more stimulus? No more stimulus for small businesses, and no more stimulus for people unemployed or partially employed? No more stimulus.”
Instead of offering help, “I feel like the government has abandoned us,” she concludes. “They were working on this goofy election. It’s over. They still went away for Thanksgiving break. They’ll go away for Christmas break. We’re sitting here saying, ‘Is there anyone who’s going to come? Is there anyone who comes to save us?'”
And that's no laughing matter.
Correction, December 15: An earlier version of this story misattributed a quote from Christie Buchele to Janae Burris. We regret the error.
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