Arts and Culture

Denver Comedy Mourns the Loss of Deacon Gray, Friend and Guru

David "Deacon" Gray, 1964-2018.
David "Deacon" Gray, 1964-2018. Jeff Nicholson
Denver's creative community is reeling from the loss of David "Deacon" Gray, a friend, mentor and shining example for anyone who watched or performed comedy in the Centennial State for well over a decade.

Born David Allen Gray in Oklahoma City on December 29, 1964, he graduated from the University of Oklahoma, but a penchant for comedy ultimately led him to Denver, where he adopted the nom de mic "Deacon Gray" and forever changed the local scene for the better. In 2014, Gray was diagnosed with throat cancer, which seemed like an unreasonably cruel twist of fate for a generous man who rode his bike everywhere and didn't drink or smoke. After a round of early and aggressive treatment, Gray went into remission and returned to the stage as a cancer survivor who emerged from the chemo ward with a fresh batch of jokes. After a few years, however, what had initially appeared to be a hopeful prognosis took a tragic turn when tests showed that the cancer had spread. After a long struggle that permitted him enough time to say farewell to his biological and comedy families, Gray died in his home on Saturday, November 17, attended by a watchful and caring group of people who loved him. He is survived by his brothers Neal, Randy and Rick. 

The generic-sounding professional title of "New Talent Coordinator" belies the profundity of Deacon's influence on the Denver comedy scene. He was our guru, and his guidance extended well beyond his role on the Comedy Works staff. Though countless fledgling standups have benefited from Gray's thoughtful and unsparingly honest feedback —and most of them, myself included, have tagged their jokes with his suggestions — Deacon's weekly notes sessions were only a fraction of his contributions to the lives of comedians and comedy fans. Along with creative inspiration, he was a steadfast source of support for his peers, always ready to let fellow comics share their successes or vent their frustrations.

Gray was unfailingly diligent in his mentorship. Even in the midst of chemotherapy treatments that ravaged his voice box, he rarely missed Tuesday nights at Comedy Works, encouraging new comics even though he was too sick to take the stage himself.

Gray's mentorship might have rung hollow, though, if he hadn't been such a brilliant comedian in his own right. One of Denver's sharpest and most prolific joke-writers, he worked harder at his craft than many of the comics under his stewardship, developing a facility for winning over cold crowds that few could hope to match. Winner of the inaugural Great American Comedy Festival in 2007, Gray was blessed with the sort of precise wit and avuncular mien that the clean-comedy circuit demands, yet there was a considerable comedic bite to even his most inoffensive material, and he loved a well-placed profanity as much as the rest of us. A textual retelling can't possibly do the bit justice, but Gray's human insight and mastery of language are on full display in the following joke:

"If you're talking about literal distance, it's pronounced farther. If you're talking about metaphorical distance, it's pronounced further. And if you're talking about emotional distance, it's pronounced father."
Another testament to Gray's tireless ambition survives with Revival of the Fittest, a comedy album that blends standup with formally experimental religious satire. Mostly recorded at his Comedy Works home club in 2011 —aside from Christian radio-parodying interstitial sketches added in post-production — it's an hour of Gray reckoning with his churchy upbringing through the prism of jokes, to the delight of the live audience and future listeners alike. The matter of Deacon Gray's spirituality is deeply nuanced: While he remained skeptical of organized religion — refer to the tweet below — Gray maintained an almost monastic dedication to his chosen medium.

"Creativity is my God," Gray concluded during his final days, thereby consecrating his tenure at the temple of comedy. Even before facing a grim diagnosis with uncommon grace and good humor, Deacon followed a Zen-like path through the struggles of life and show business; his counsel and practice inevitably led toward self-improvement. He endeavored to look beyond the peaks and valleys of a comedy career for the sense of fulfillment you can only find in the process of perpetual invention. Gray carried that philosophy into his waning days, which were lightened by a steady parade of his fans, friends, family and disciples. He confronted his mortality with serenity and gratitude for his numerous loved ones, including his brothers, fellow comics and even a kind-hearted waitress at Steuben's, his favorite restaurant.

Deacon Gray was one of the first people I met when I started doing standup comedy, and he was unquestionably the person who taught me the most about the art form. He engaged with newbies as a fellow comic rather than an authority figure, so it didn't take long for me to feel comfortable hounding him for every bit of wisdom he'd be willing to share. His patience was truly boundless.

When I saw the announcement that Deacon's day were numbered, I was grateful for an opportunity to pay my respects to my friend and mentor. Despite the shock of Gray's gaunt and bedridden state, he quickly put his visitors at ease, holding court from his hospice bed with mordant jokes and profound musings. Even in his enfeebled state, Deacon maintained his prime punchiness, riffing with his visitors about the hilariously devastating possibilities of a roasting from the great beyond.

click to enlarge One of Gray's favorite creative endeavors was portraying Aristocratic Southerner Alabaster Cain on Lucha Libre & Laughs - GEOFF DECKER
One of Gray's favorite creative endeavors was portraying Aristocratic Southerner Alabaster Cain on Lucha Libre & Laughs
Geoff Decker
I was steeling myself for heartbreak when I went to see Deacon shortly after Comedy Works owner Wende Curtis revealed that his health was irrevocably failing, but the hours I spent with him and my mic-wielding peers were nothing short of revelatory — an affirmation that a life on stage is a life well-lived. Even though Gray was so weak that he asked me to flick the lighter and hold the carb each time he needed the comfort of a tiny hit from his pipe, his mind was more abuzz with ideas than usual and he was every bit as eager to discuss the future of Denver comedy as he was to dispense with the earthly business of passing on his most prized possessions. After that, the window for visiting hours shrunk day by day, and Deacon was looked after by a core crew of supporters that included Curtis, his brothers, and — to name but a few — local comics Derrick Stroup, Lizzy Wolfson and David Rodriguez, as well as Nancy Norton (who put her nursing expertise to helpful use in tandem with Gray's Denver Hospice caretakers).

Though it hardly alleviates the core-shaking sadness of losing him, Gray's awareness of his limited timeline presented a silver lining that allowed him to chart a course for Denver comedy's future and make his last wishes known. For example, he told me that he'd like his memorial service to include the songs "Let Him Fly," by Patty Griffin, and the Mary Chapin Carpenter edition of John Denver's "I Guess He'd Rather Be in Colorado."

This isn't the first time I've blinked away tears, searching my brain for the right words to memorialize one of my friends and comedy heroes, but it may be the hardest. Until now, I've always had someone to turn to for advice, someone to remind me that emotional truth is more important than syntax, that grief should be embraced rather than intellectualized. That someone was Deacon Gray. 

Gray's loved ones can be forgiven for thinking that his absence has cratered Denver comedy. After all, grief is a void, and the community will certainly never be the same without him. What Deacon truly left behind, however, is not a crater, but a foundation of wisdom, memories and — most important — jokes that everyone who loved and admired him, or even just caught on the stage, can build upon. Deacon fervently believed that a standup's foremost calling was to spread joy, and he spent every possible moment of his life following through on that belief, while encouraging countless others to do the same. His legacy lives on every time we laugh, write a new joke or remember to move the mic stand.

UPDATE: Deacon Gray's biological family will hold a memorial service at Empowered Church in Mustang, Oklahoma, on Saturday, December 29. His Denver comedy family will convene for a wake at Comedy Works South at 2 p.m. Sunday, January 27.
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Byron Graham is a writer, comedian and gentleman thief from Denver. Co-host of Designated Drunkard: A Comedy Drinking Game, the deathless Lion's Lair open mic and the Mutiny Book Club podcast, Byron also writes about comedy for Westword. He cannot abide cowardice, and he's never been defeated in an open duel.
Contact: Byron Graham