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Deacon Gray on the Comedy Works New Faces 2013 finalists

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It's been a long ride since last spring, when the Comedy Works New Faces Competition 2013 began. And now, with 130 comics eliminated, we're down to the final ten, who will compete tomorrow night for a cash prize and the prestige of joining the ranks of previous winners, including Ben Kronberg, Josh Blue and Adam Cayton-Holland. The finalists: Aaron Urist, Christie Buchele, Derrick Rush, Jordan Doll, Kevin O'Brien, Mike Hammock, Nichole Mccormack, Patrick Hesse, Tim Messenger and Zachary Maas.

Comedy Works New Talent Coordinator Deacon Gray has been documenting the Denver comedy scene since 2004, keeping stats on each comic's every move within the walls of this legendary comedy club, as well as producing the New Faces Competition. We recently sat down with this 27-year veteran of the standup industry, chatting about the boom and bust of the '80s club circuit, how the Internet has changed comedy, and why New Faces became a measuring stick for ambitious young comics.

See also: Greg Baumhauer recalls busting out of the hospital for New Faces comedy competition

Westword: You've been performing comedy much longer than most in the Denver comedy scene. When did you first begin doing stand-up here?

Deacon Gray: I've lived in Denver since 2001, but I started coming to Denver in '88. I'd been performing comedy since '86 in Oklahoma City, and at that time there were more clubs than there were comedians. There was this huge boom with clubs opening up across the country, and anyone who could piece together a set could get work. So I got hired as an emcee about two months after I started -- and I got paid. I got paid more than they pay us now, even.

So you saw the comedy explosion in the '80s, and then its downfall in the '90s. Do you see any similarities in the rise of comedy we're seeing now?

What I'm seeing is that the paradigm is changing. The media that is delivering the message is different. It used to be that there were four guys in suits who decided what comedians got on, the people from the networks would decide who got on the Tonight Show. Then cable came along, and that changed everything, because there were so many hours to fill. But even then you were still dealing with networks like Comedy Central, which would decide what happens.

But now with the Internet, anybody can do it. The artist decides. So as long as you find your audience, it doesn't matter what that guy in the suit thinks.

I imagine that's changed the content of the comedy, since comedians in the past would sometimes cater their work to fit what that guy in the suit wants.

Oh, yeah. It's changed the content, and it's also changed the way in which it's delivered. And I think that paradigm shift is one of the reasons you've seen a surge of women in comedy. It's no longer necessary to do these horrible, dangerous road-gigs anymore. You can do comedy and stay in one place, while still being seen across the country.

And it's changed the content. In the '80s it was all [Jerry Seinfeld voice] "Guys do it this way, and women do it this way!" "People in New York do it this way, and people in Los Angeles do it this way!" It was that observational humor: "What is the deal with glove compartments!" In the '80s, comedians felt everything needed to be examined, and I think we've evolved past that. It's like, we get it, everything has humor in it, but show us where that's going. Everything got all hacky and schlocky.

Eventually you began working with Comedy Works, and what I'm curious about is with all those comedy clubs closing in the '90s and early '00s, what was it about Comedy Works that has allowed it to sustain itself since 1982?

Well most of the clubs that closed were not well-run clubs. What happened with the comedy boom in the '80s is that these club owners didn't care about comedy, that was just the hot thing at the moment. So guys who owned strip-clubs were like, "Oh I got an extra room, I can put a comedy club in this strip mall." And people were flocking to those.

Cable also really hurt the industry, because it became over-saturated everything. I remember in the early '90s every night there was a four-hour block of stand-up on A&E. It would be Live From Carolines, Comedy on the Road with John Biner, A&E Presents an Evening at the Improv, and then some other shows. It got so over-saturated where people were like, "Why should I go out to a club?"

Comedy Works took a different approach. Most clubs across the country were B clubs, and that refers to the way they do business. Comedy Works is an A club, and they'll bring in somebody famous that people know, and we're going to try not to give tickets away, and they make their money at the door. And since it's a premium night, they charge people premium price at the door.

The B room has a set budget each week for the comics, and never go over that. And anyone who will work for that, that's what they'll put on. So they don't need to make very much at the door, they make their money selling buckets of beer. The quality of the comic doesn't matter, it could be lesbian poetry so long as they can do their two-drink minimum. And those were the clubs that were closing in the '90s.

Comedy Works used to have a B room in Fort Collins, and I got a job there as an emcee. And that coincided with [current Comedy Works owner] Wende Curtis getting a job working the door there. She was a theater arts major at Colorado State. This was in 1988. Eventually she got a job booking gigs there, and she booked me for gigs from time to time. So when I moved here in 2001, I had that connection.

And now you're the New Talent Coordinator at Comedy Works.

I basically created that position. This is the seventeenth year of the New Faces Contest, so it was going on before me. It used to have a lot of sponsors like Frontier Airlines, so the winner would get some cash and two roundtrip tickets to anywhere in the U.S. Which to a comic is not bad. But it was treated as an open mic, and the judges were the sponsors. It was weird.

What stopped it was, one of the sponsors one year was Budweiser, and they brought in a bunch of their clients and got so drunk, and the contest was being heckled by the sponsors.

It sounds like the contest wasn't being taken seriously.

It wasn't so much that it wasn't being taken seriously, it was that the woman who was running it had so many other obligations. And what happened is the number of comics grew, and it became more of a big deal than it had in the past.

When I took it over in 2004, I kind of modeled it after the structure of the Final Four. I spread out the the more seasoned comics, and the more unknown comics. Before names were just drawn out of a hat, so you might have ten great comics on one show, and only three advance, and then the next week you have ten awful comics, and three still advance.

And are you also a judge on the shows?

I am never, ever a judge. Please make that clear. I don't want people to ever think I have a bias; I just gather the ballots and punch the numbers in. The judges are always at least one professional comedian, but usually two or more. There's always a staff member, and then the rest are the audience. What is the criteria the comics are being evaluated for? The ballot is very specific. There's five different things: stage presence, audience response, originality, timing and likability.

How important is New Faces competition for mid-level and beginner comedians?

Well, for more established comedians, it is a wonderful bragging point -- and it does carry some weight if you go to L.A. or whatever. "He won New Faces, he must be good." And for godsakes, when these guys win, they could use the thousand dollars.

It's important for young comics to do the contest, because show business is an endless procession of auditions. You have to learn to perform under pressure. Someone will be like, "Hey we want you to come in and try out for this TV show." And you come in, do five minutes, and no one's laughing. The New Faces contest teaches you how to do that, how to put together a set for a specific audience, in a specific situation. When I was younger I used to hate these contests, I'd be like, "Comedy's subjective, man," and that's true. But once I got more involved in the business side of things, I saw how important contests are. There's no difference in preparing a five-minute set for a contest and a five-minute set for the Tonight Show. The Comedy Works New Faces Competition finals begins at 8 p.m. Wednesday, October 16 at Comedy Works, 1226 15th Street. Tickets are $12; for more information, visit www.comedyworks.com.

For more comedy commentary, follow me on Twitter at @JosiahMHesse.

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