For any local comic who has yet to appear on Conan or negotiate a sitcom, the New Faces Competition at Comedy Works is the ideal way to gain recognition and earn some cash with your humor. Winning first place in the four-month tournament not only puts a thousand bucks in your pocket, but often leads to a comic getting "on the list" at Comedy Works -- a coveted position that provides a regular paycheck as the opening slot for high-profile national acts.
"It's really stressful for all of us," remembers comedian Greg Baumhauer. "But you have to do it, because you have to get on the list." Now definitely on the list at CW, Baumhauer was just another hopeful back in 2007. He'd come close three years in a row, and was motivated to the point where hospitalization, extreme physical pain and the risk of hand-amputation wasn't going to keep him from competing in the final round.
If Denver comics were divided by age and experience, Baumhauer would definitely be in the senior class. Once a member of the now-defunct Wrist-Deep Productions, he was involved in many of the early underground comedy shows at Old Curtis Street Tavern and Orange Cat Studios, working alongside natives like Ben Kronberg and Adam Cayton-Holland. His biggest street-cred, though, comes from being the seven-year host of the open mic at the Squire, a show so raw and ruthless that even a seasoned comic like Josh Blue will wince at the mention of its name.
Developing a crude, anti-PC persona, Baumhauer stood out amongst other comics who also enjoyed pushing the envelope, but perhaps weren't brazen enough to make jokes about slipping bleach into the drink of a one-night stand who refused an abortion. In 2007, Baumhauer was in the "almost famous" category of Comedy Works performers, a second-tier designation that he describes as "the house-negros of the comedy world."
"If you're a Denver comedian, your options are to move away, be on the road all the time, or get on the list at Comedy Works," he says. "And the easiest way to do that is to win the contest. If you have a good showing, people from the club will remember your name and you'll get some notoriety."
As with the three years previous, Baumhauer once again was in the final rounds of the competition in 2007. But a few days before he was to give his final performance, he found himself in the hospital with two broken hands after a bike accident. "I had some complications during the surgery and ended up with compartment syndrome, where one hand swelled up so much it was crushing the bones. It was awful," he remembers. "I was in so much pain, and they wouldn't give me more medication because they thought I was a drug addict -- which wasn't far off."
The doctors drained fluid from Baumhauer's hand on Sunday, with a second surgery scheduled for Tuesday. Lying in a hospital bed and suffering intense pain, the young comic could only think that Monday was the final New Faces competition.
"I had a great chance of winning," he remembers. "I was probably the favorite going into it. So I was lying there thinking, 'Fuck it, I'm doing this.' So I called the nurse in and explained to her the contest and said, 'Here's what I'm going to do: I'm leaving, and I'll come back in a couple hours. If you want to keep my room for me, that's fine. If not, I'll just go to the emergency room when I come back.'"
Naturally, the nurse called Baumhauer's doctor, who was livid. "He started saying, 'Do you know how serious your injuries are! You're lucky you didn't lose your hand!' But I was like, 'Man, I gotta do this.'"
Sporting two blood-soaked casts around his hands, Baumhauer was driven to Comedy Works by a friend. His head was dizzy and his body numbed due to an exceptionally high dose of pain medication (the doctors had relented on this after discovering how serious his condition was), but somehow he found the moxy to cheat when drawing lots to see which comic performs first.
"So I reach into the jar, and I pull out number one," he recalls. You might think this was good, since Baumhauer needed to return to the hospital as soon as possible -- but every comic hates performing first. The audience isn't ready to laugh, and even in his condition Baumhauer knew it could be a death sentence for the competition. "So I throw it back into the bucket," he continues, "and the guy says, 'Hey what'd you draw?' And I went 'seven.' So he reaches in, finds number seven, and throws it in the trash."
Years later, Baumhauer would admit this scandal to fellow comic Sam Tallent, who was in the finals with him and became enraged at the confession: Tallent was the poor sap who ended up drawing number one.
"So I go up there, and I absolutely destroy it," Baumhauer says. "I had such a great set. I remember I joked about my cast, saying, 'A lot of my friends are asking, how are you going to jerk off with those things on your hands?' And I'm like, 'Whatever, I've got a girlfriend, the only thing I have to worry about is how I'm going to get this cast out of her pussy. . . . Oh I'm kidding: I can't get it wet.'"
After delivering a memorable performance, Baumhuaer was then rushed back to St. Joe's hospital, where his bed wasn't the only thing waiting for him. "When I got back to the third floor, all the nurses were crowding around me, asking, 'How'd it go? How'd it go?'" Raising his injured hands into the air, the young comic exclaimed, "I fucking won!" And the hospital staff erupted in a standing ovation.
The truth was, Baumhauer had actually tied for first place with Troy Walker. But the win was enough to grant him on-the-list status, a role he often enjoys today within the context of his alternate persona, Bobby Valentino, a crude lounge singer accompanied by a piano player referred to as The Mexican Fuck Machine. Since making it on the list, Greg Baumhauer has opened up for big-name comics like Dave Attell, Louis C.K. and Bobcat Goldthwait. And he still has two hands.
The Comedy Works New Faces Competition, which started May 22 at the downtown Comedy Works, 1226 15th Street, continues every Wednesday at the club. Tickets are $12; for more information visit comedyworks.com.
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For more comedy commentary, follow me on Twitter at @JosiahMHesse.