Jake Browne on Walking Crowds, NerdMelt and the Future of Uncalled Four

Uncalled Four is a diabolical comedy game show that blends Mad Libs-style prompts with standup comedians indulging their very worst impulses. While navigating their way through legal snafus, changing staff and venues and releasing a Colorado-themed expansion pack, co-producers and engaged couple Jake Browne and Samantha Sandt have continued to put on great shows across the country, including at the prestigious Bridgetown Comedy Festival two years in a row. They'll be back at the Bug Theatre on Saturday, May 21, when local comics Don Morgan, Alison Rose and Adrian Mesa, along with Brooklyn-based Adam Mamawala, square off in a race to the very dungeons of propriety and compete for the proud dishonor of being crowned "Denver's Worst Person." Westword recently caught up with Browne (who also writes reviews for the Cannabist) to discuss Uncalled Four's recent travels, The Worst Card Game spin-off and how making offended crowds walk out is a badge of honor.

Westword: The Uncalled Four team ran into a bit of a legal snag not too long ago. What was the issue there, and how did you resolve it?

Jake Browne: No comment [laughs]. There isn't much I can say because of a very generous agreement that was offered to us. We're going to be changing our packaging, though, and we're lucky in that regard, because I'm a shitty graphic designer. So now we'll be featuring an embarrassed Statue of Liberty that will be drawn by a different comedian for each deck. Since comics write the cards, it feels like even stronger brand synergy, which is important for us at The Worst LLC. 

What's the status of the play-at-home version?

Raising almost $10,000 on Kickstarter was an amazing experience, and right now we have fewer than ten decks in inventory, but we also want to be careful with our next steps. Releasing a Colorado-themed set around the holidays was shooting fish in a barrel. Will people buy John Elway dick jokes? Of course — but not in Georgia. Now we're focused on coming up with a solid set that works nationally so we can start making all of that Amazon money. After we've wrapped up our spring dates, we'll start the arduous task of picking which Donald Trump card will go in our 2016 expansion, because we easily have twenty to pick from.

You're fresh off an East Coast tour; I heard NYC was a little rough. What were your impressions of performing for unfamiliar audiences? Do people generally catch on to the conceit of the show quickly enough?

Fuck, man. You heard about that? It's rough because we can't go out and open up for another comedy game show, so people aren't always familiar with us. That said, the cards in NYC were tremendous, and that takes a lot of pressure off. I filled cannoli shells live on stage in NYC, and people were taking mouthfuls halfway through. With the energy of our show, it's easier to fill the room because the audience is so involved in the outcome. On the road, we've started putting the worst cards we've ever seen out there in the first five minutes, so if people want to walk, they know what they're in for. When "Captain Sandy Hook" (a bunch of dead children dressed in a trench coat trying to pass off as a sea captain) pops up on the screen, people are either in or out. We haven't walked anyone in a while, so I'm starting to worry we're not pushing the envelope enough.

How much can you say about the pitch meetings you took while you were out there? Any exciting developments?

Honestly, I'm not sure we'll ever be a TV show at this point. It's been over a year of pitching. You never want to say anything is dead, especially when you see a story like Those Who Can't with the Grawlix, but we're so dirty and crowd-based that we haven't been able to crack the code yet. For example, Amy Miller had a winning card in NYC that was "Rubbing my period pussy on Steve Harvey's teeth," and then we put fake Steve Harvey red teeth on pictures of all the contestants. Who the fuck is going to put that on TV? 

You got in to Bridgetown again, you son of a bitch. What do you think makes Uncalled Four such an ideal format for festival programming?

Yeah, but then we didn't get into Crom Comedy Festival in our own city because we're kind of not an ideal format. Most fests need to be able to get a ton of people on shows, so only having four comedians compete screws us. To Bridgetown's credit, they've fully embraced the idea of inviting a bunch of alt shows out — over thirty — so there's enough room for everyone. The bottom line is that people who buy a festival pass have a sense of humor; they're not like a crowd of bachelorettes who are seeing comedy on a lark. We give them a chance to put that to the test: "Write something funny in five minutes, and the best fifteen get a prize." I think that appeals to real fans of comedy.

There have been some behind-the-scenes changes. What does that mean for the show?

And on-stage changes! Zac Maas had an extraordinary run as our referee, but he's on the road all the time now, and something had to give. He's at Cape Fear Comedy Festival right now, another fest the show didn't get into, and has a pretty busy summer ahead of him. He's also filming a comedy show he wrote called The State of Colorado. So he's still helping produce the show and advising on all the bad decisions I want to make, and I'm flying solo on stage. I miss having him to lean on as the funniest guy on stage, but I took some improv classes, so maybe by level four I'll be close to filling that gap.

Are you planning to move to the Bug Theatre, or is that a one-time thing?

The Bug and Alex Weimer have been a dream to work with, because he's letting us try some insane stuff there, so we hope it'll last. Last month we did a $20, all-you-can-drink show with kegs from Call to Arms Brewing. This month we're doing a pay-what-you-want show that benefits the Rocky Mountain Deaf Theatre and ImaginASL. Since our show is so visual thanks to our producer, Samantha Sandt, it's a no- brainer. We'll have an interpreter at the show, too, who will probably be making lots of jerking-off motions. For the record, I tried to verify that a jerking motion is the ASL sign for male masturbation and only found a Jehovah's Witness telling people not to pleasure themselves set to R. Kelly's "Ignition (Remix)," because the Internet.

How about that NerdMelt show?

Is it weird that out of everywhere we've done the show, probably fifteen different venues, I'm most intimidated by the back of a comic-book store? NerdMelt has become this alt-comedy CBGB, with less beer and puke, and I try to catch at least one show there every time I'm in L.A. The eminently cool Allen Strickland Williams helped us get a foot in the door, and Sexpot Comedy's Andy Juett put together a bonkers lineup. Andy moving to L.A. and giving Sexpot a bigger presence there has been instrumental in us getting guys like Jonah Ray to even consider doing our show.

What else do you have in the works? You mentioned a Kickstarter, what would that be funding?

We're figuring out if there are another 108 cards about Colorado right now. There are only so many legal weed and MallRide jokes you can make. We'll definitely be using it to launch our national deck, though, and see if we can draw interest from outside the state. We're also looking at expanding to other cities, similar to shows like "Arguments & Grievances" and "Late Late Breakfast," but it's an intense show production-wise, and Samantha is proving to be the hardest part to replicate.

Uncalled Four: A Comedy Game Show, presented by Sexpot Comedy, kicks off at 10 p.m. Saturday, May 21, at the Bug Theatre. Admission is free with a suggested donation;  a percentage of the proceeds will go toward the Rocky Mountain Deaf Theatre.  Find out more here.

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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