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Lori Callahan was the heart of the Denver comedy scene -- until her own heart failed her

People would laugh until they cried when Lori Callahan took the stage at Comedy Works South. And on April 13, both laughter and tears poured out as friends, family members and Callahan's fellow comics gathered in the room where the redheaded comic had slung jokes for years, taking their turn at the microphone as they honored the woman whom many called the "den mother of Denver comedy."

This city's comics fight every week to stand before a Comedy Works microphone, telling their stories to the crowd. But on this day, they were all telling Lori stories. How she had taken them on road trips around the country to tiny venues in one-horse towns. How she had gotten them gigs they never would have come near otherwise. How she would take them in her arms and tell them that they did great, that they killed, that they would make it one day. See also: Denver comics remember Lori Callahan

From the rise of Denver-bred superstars like Roseanne Barr to the amped-up hipster antics of the Grawlix group, Denver's comedy scene has always had a distinctive culture, a community of funny men and women who support and value each other. Now up-and-comers and old hands alike testified that Callahan had helped define that culture during a career spanning nearly three decades.

"The genuine openness and the real generous spirit of Denver comedy -- I think Lori had a big hand in the creation of that back in the day," says Nora Lynch, one of the many comics who stood on that Comedy Works stage two months ago to remember Callahan as both a friend and a mentor.

"She didn't just jump onto anybody's bandwagon who needed support; she built it," adds Wende Curtis, owner of the two Comedy Works clubs. "She was that kind of a person for everybody."

"She was the constant," says Lynch. "I left town, a lot of people left town, went on to other things. Or they just dropped out here and did other things. But Lori, from the time I started comedy to when I came back here, she was always there. You might even say in some way she was the heart of it, the heart of that Denver comedy mojo."

Callahan always called herself a Colorado girl. She grew up in Cañon City, where she attended Cañon City High. "She loved to play with the boys. She was always out there playing in the dirt with the guys. She could throw a football and a baseball. She loved golf," says Terri Barton Gregg, a friend, fellow comic, and Callahan's partner in the local production company Hold Please Productions. "We were all raised in the '70s, and we were all a little wild back then."

The wackier aspects of Callahan's family were often fodder for her on-stage routine, but there were parts of her life that few people knew about. "Lori presented herself as a very happy and positive person, but she had a very difficult, challenging personal life. She had come from a lot of dysfunction in her family -- which is not at all uncommon with comedians," says Lynch.

She also had a lot of humor in her family, passed down by her mother, Verna, or "Boots." While her daughter's world was the stage, Boots's is the beauty shop. Barton Gregg once worked with Boots at a salon for a couple of weeks and recalls that she "was so funny that I literally had to move away from working next to her and go next to the bathroom, because she made me laugh so much." A faded photograph from 1965, when Lori was five years old, shows Boots and her daughter in matching powder-blue dresses -- Lori with a brown pageboy and her mother with a towering scarlet pouf.

Callahan's biological father and Boots divorced not long after Lori was born. When her mother remarried, the girl born Lori Bloom changed her last name to her stepfather's and put that part of her past behind her. (When they married, Lori's husband, Mike, also took Callahan as a last name.) Many of Lori's friends never even knew her birth name. "And they never talk about it. She changed her name and that was it," Barton Gregg says. She had a brother who died young, and her surviving brother, Brooks, has struggled with addiction; he had to be bailed out of jail to come to Lori's memorial.

The spotlight first shone on Lori Callahan when she became, in her words, "the little beauty queen," 1976's Miss Colorado United Teenager. Yet according to Barton Gregg, her stage debut was less than auspicious. "She choked on stage when she had to do the talent portion. She completely froze," Barton Gregg says.

"I walked out there, saw the cameras, the 4,000 people," Callahan told the Sioux City Journal in 2012. "And I said, 'Ladies and gentlemen, I'm speechless!' and walked off the stage. I could see my mom and her best friend sinking down in their seats."

"I did everything before I did comedy," Callahan told the Denver Post in 2000. "I was in surveying and banking, and I just couldn't find really what I was happy at. I wanted to go into acting right out of high school and go to L.A. But my father, who was a state patrolman, discouraged me from doing that. I was too 'naive,' and I was too 'nice.'"

She was working as a bank teller when radio station KOOL 105 announced a competition asking people to send in audition tapes of their standup-comedy routines. Callahan did, was selected, and got a one-time spot at George McKelvey's comedy club in Aurora, the home turf of the legendary comic who helped found the original Comedy Works and put Denver's comedy culture on the map. (Callahan hosted a tribute to McKelvey at Comedy Works after he died, in 2009.)

"I was so scared, and somebody heckled me," Callahan told the Journal. "And my mom stood up and said to that person, 'That's my kid there for the first time, and I will have you shut up!' I said to the crowd, 'That's my mom -- the bouncer!' I won. I won $100 for that."

In the late '70s, standup comedy found a place in seedy San Francisco coffee shops and posh New York nightclubs alike. Clubs like the Funny Bone, Catch a Rising Star and Comedy Zone popped up around the country, and comedians were multiplying like bacteria under a microscope. These people -- they were mostly men -- showed that all you needed to draw a crowd was a microphone and ten minutes of material. "Comedy was the rock and roll of the '80s," comedian Susie Essman told Yael Kohen for her book We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy. "I mean, every weekend, lines around the corner to get in for every show. You could feel it. It was a hot, hot, hot place to be."

Still, it took both talent and stubbornness to make a living out of comedy -- two things that Nora Lynch says Lori Callahan had in spades. "She was a road warrior, Lori was. Because that's really how you did it back then. There were chains of clubs, like the Funny Bone, and if you could get in with one of those, you could book twenty weeks in the year and it'd be great," Lynch says. Headliners were pulling down two or three grand a week plus airfare -- a princely sum for performers used to cracking gags for peanuts.

Comedy Works got its start during the first comedy boom, and somehow managed to survive the subsequent bust. In the early '80s, McKelvey, the ironic folksinger of tunes like "My Teenage Fallout Queen," had gotten the idea of creating a club in Larimer Square. "In 1981, two musicians and a comic got together and went downtown to Larimer Square," Curtis recounts. "Dana Crawford, the developer who was really instrumental in bringing back Larimer Square and a lot of other downtown areas, helped them. They were in the space for about a year, several nights a week across the street, then they got their own space in the basement, and she financed them." Curtis started her time at Comedy Works as a cocktail waitress at the club's now-closed Fort Collins location in 1986. From there, she started booking comedians at Comedy Works downtown, and eventually became the club's owner, cementing its legacy when she opened the 450-person Comedy Works South at the Landmark in Greenwood Village. By then, the Larimer Street club had become a favored stage for traveling comics and hometown darlings alike.

Callahan got her big break at New Talent Night at the original Comedy Works -- even in a land of new opportunity, a comic had to pay her dues. "That's where everybody starts -- I don't care who they are," Curtis says. And that meant Callahan had to go through New Talent Coordinator Don Becker, the caustic one-handed comic who was the man standing between the Comedy Works stage and the horde of comics beating down the doors. "Don Becker was really hard on people; he had a reputation," Curtis says. "There was a certain level you needed to be at before you were really on our stage and getting anything but new-talent time. And that's still the way it goes.

"Roseanne Barr was the most famous comic to come up through New Talent Night. "It was very loose fun, actually. It was just so exciting as a comic to see other comics get up there and push it as far as they could push it. We loved pushing the boundaries, and seeing each other push them, too, and just having a blast before it got so corporate and Dane Cook-ized," Barr remembered in We Killed. "I did great the first time: I just talked about the sexism in standup comedy. 'How to Become a Stand-up Comic' was my first routine, and I was mostly making fun of men comics. The first time it just really killed, too, 'cause I had followed so many of them doing the penis jokes and fart jokes and body-fluid jokes. But the second time I think they all had their hackles up and it didn't go so well, and I got banned from that comedy club."

Barr left Denver in 1985, and four years later her revolutionary sitcom, Roseanne, was pulling record ratings for examining the life of a bold and uncompromising family woman. By then, Lori Callahan was carving out her own niche in Denver. "At the time, that's when standup comedy was just booming. She made the jump from emcee to headliner really fast," says Stephanie McHugh, another comic who rode to gigs across the country with Callahan. "She was funny and female, and they just needed comics." Zaftig and brassy, Callahan rose quickly in a comedy scene with room for new and unconventional performers -- and anyone handy with a dick joke.

"I was in Utah -- you ever been there on purpose?" Callahan asked the crowd. This was a gag she'd used many times to warm up a room. A hardass Utah cop pulled her over and found she had a suspended license, and "he said, 'I'm going to have to place you under arrest. Anything you say can and will be held against you.' So I said, 'Dick.'"

"That was a true story!" Barton Gregg says, laughing. "[Denver comics] Jodee Champion and Heather Snow were in the car. They got pulled over going up to Gillette. She was just real silly with the police officer, that's how she was."

Callahan clearly relished her self-appointed role as a dirty dame. She had a sing-song voice that contrasted delightfully with her punchlines, and a no-nonsense stage presence that put the crowd at ease even as she was picking on them. She was a "quick thinker. Funny. Flirty," says comic Sam Adams. "She'd been doing it so long, she just had it. It didn't matter what situation you put her in. You could put her in the comedy club or you could put her in front of 2,000 people at the Greeley Stampede, and she could find her way to get people to just take to her and get her humor."

"Lori was very personable with comedy, and so smart -- a lot of smart, smart jokes," Barton Gregg remembers. "She taught me this little trick: You go into a city and find out what the name of the hardware store is and what the locals do, and find out who the sheriff is and who the politicians are. Then you bring them into your act." She adjusted her shtick to the room -- not just geographically, but to handle the cheers and/or drunken abuse thrown at her on stage.

Her exploits bordered on the legendary. There's a story about the time she had the National Council for Jewish Women going insane with laughter as she riffed on a man who had fallen asleep in the front row. There's another story about how she stepped on stage to help John 'Hippieman' Novosad sing "Puff the Magic Dragon" in front of a boorish crowd.

"I used to throw up before shows, I was so anxious. Today, I'm still anxious -- but more so, I look forward to having fun with the crowd," Callahan confided to the Sioux City Journal.

"One night she'd go up and do her material. The next night she'd just take off on the crowd. Start talking -- 'What do you do, sir? Who are you? What is that? Oh, my God!'" recalls Adams, taking on Callahan's tweeting voice. "And she'd still be just as funny. By the end of the night, you were going, 'That was a great act.' But it wasn't even her act. She was just up there being herself."

Barton Gregg's Lori stories began a decade ago, when her late sister, Kacey Fine Furniture president Leslie Fishbein, was a guest emcee at a show at Jazz@Jack's. "That was the first night I ever saw Lori Callahan on stage," she remembers. "I have never laughed so hard in my life. She had everybody eating out of her hand. And I thought, 'I want to do that. I want to be her.'"

Later, as Barton Gregg was learning the ropes, Callahan provided the support that kept her going. "I had just started comedy, doing my second set at Comedy Works. And I blew it worse than anybody else had ever blown it," Barton Gregg says. "I turned my own microphone off for two out of three minutes and didn't know it. Somebody yelled out, 'Turn your mic on!' And I thought it was so funny I never said a word. All I did was laugh.... I came off stage, she grabbed me in her arms, and she said, 'That was the most fun I've ever had. It's okay, honey.' I said, 'Well, I got it out of the way, now, didn't I?'"

Most Denver comedians were touched by Callahan, and they all have Lori stories. Beyond gabbing in the green room and throwing back shots at the bar, Callahan connected with her fellow standups on long road trips to one-night gigs throughout the Midwest. Stephanie McHugh often played featured comic to Callahan's headliner, riding with her to perform in North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa and the Ozarks, a few of her regular stops. "When I was starting out, my girls were young, and it was hard to have anyone to take you out on the road. She's just, 'C'mon, you're going with me,'" McHugh recounts. "You just get to know someone when you're in a car for that long."

A car ride with Callahan to some Midwestern honky-tonk was a rite of passage for Denver comedians. "When you first get started, and you get past New Talent Night, you're starting to get your wings and starting to fly a little," Adams says. "If you get lucky, you might get a bar gig in Wyoming. And you're telling your friends, 'Yeah, I'm on the road this weekend.'"

Callahan was fiercely protective of her charges, a stance that earned her the nicknames "Mama Callahan" and the "den mother of Denver Comedy." Adams tells one Lori story about a gig in Wyoming not long after he had graduated from New Talent Night: "I'm on the dance floor with three women. And if we need to get Technicolor in here, I'm the only black dude in Riverton, Wyoming. And I'm surrounded by three white ladies dancing. I'm having a good time, and I happen to look up and see Lori...giving me this look, like she has morphed into my mother."

"Do you know how much trouble you could get in, messing with three girls from Riverton, Wyoming -- and you're the only black man?" Callahan scolded.

"I mean, really? You just took me away from my most glorious moment as a comic?" Adams says, chuckling at the memory.

Callahan had a few bright spots of nationwide exposure -- she won an Emmy for work on ESPN's The Lighter Side of Sports and was featured on the now-defunct Showtime program Comedy Club Network -- but she really made her bones running to gigs all over the country when she wasn't headlining at the Comedy Works or clubs like the East Coast in Fort Collins. "Lori made a living off of comedy for 25 years, and not many people can say that," says Lynch, who accompanied Callahan on a USO tour in 1990. And on top of that, every Thursday she volunteered at the veterans' hospital, taking vets to Rockies games and putting her famous baking skills to work on their behalf.

Sure, she had moneymaking schemes on the side -- McHugh recalls going to Callahan's house for regular spray-tanning sessions -- but the fact that she largely lived off laughs made her unique in a comedy scene full of hungry kids with day jobs.

"I think it's very hard unless you're a cruise-ship comic. And she had an opportunity to become a cruise-ship comic, but she didn't want to leave her mom," says Barton Gregg.

After her husband passed away, in 2011, Callahan's mother became the center of her life. "When there was nobody else to take care of, she turned a lot of her attention toward her mother. But I don't think it was the same," Lynch says. "And I wish she could have turned that attention to herself. Her demons ran pretty deep."

A YouTube video shows Callahan knocking back a shot of Fireball whiskey on stage at Buckin' Harley's during a female comedy showcase. "I love how you all cheer for drinking," Callahan teased the crowd. "I should have a standing ovation every night." Tipsiness was not just part of her act, it was a big part of her appeal: Audiences appreciate someone they can laugh at and drink with. "One of the things that is really good for those one-nighters is getting people drinking, because then they want you back again," Lynch points out. "The bars are like, 'Yeah, get Lori Callahan, our receipts go up 20 percent every time she comes in.'"

Her tipple of choice was the "duck fart": a bracing shot layered with Kahlúa, Baileys Irish Cream and Jack Daniel's. She'd take them down on stage during her set, prompting smitten audience members to buy her even more. "We were in South Dakota at this show...and she could put the drinks down," McHugh remembers. "But this time, it was like, 'Oh, my God, how is she still standing?' People bought her eleven shots that she did on stage. I was like, 'How are you doing?' She goes, 'Oh, honey, those were not all really shots. I set it up with the bartender ahead of time.'" After the first four, Callahan said, she had the bartender fill the rest with juice.

Alcohol played a prominent role in Callahan's life, both on and off the stage. After a characteristically madcap wedding -- which the bride walked out of the hospital with an IV in her arm to attend -- the marriage between Lori and Mike was a tumultuous one. Nicknamed Moose, Mike was a veteran and an artistic sort, who broke out the harmonica at parties. But he struggled with his own demons: He sustained head injuries in a car accident that left him in serious pain, and he suffered from hepatitis and diabetes. Mike landed in the hospital for the final time with liver failure complicated by both, along with alcohol consumption. "I thought he was twenty years older than he was. When I found out he died at 57, I was like, 'Good grief, that is a man who rode his body hard,'" Lynch says.

Curtis calls Mike and Lori "partners in crime." Even as addiction drained Mike, Lori was there to help him until the end.

"But I was surprised when he passed," McHugh says. "And it seemed like it broke her heart. I talked to my mom about it, and she said, 'Sometimes, people just love someone. We may not understand it.' I think she just loved him, regardless of his troubles or anything like that. And I respect her for that. I think Mike passing was the turning point. And I hoped she would have grieved and then had the chance to take care of herself a little bit more...but [she] seemed to spiral down more."

"I am both heartbroken and profoundly lost, because my best friend is all but gone," Callahan wrote on her Facebook page shortly before Mike died. "I wish I had better news. You can honor him by doing something nice, and pay it forward. Even though we had a two-week directive, he declined within hours. So please remember him and laugh. Trust me when I say to remember him as he was. There is not a band-aid to make this better."

Callahan kept on performing and plugging away, though her own health was declining. She had undergone gastric bypass surgery in 2009, and managed to shed 150 pounds in a little more than a year. But she had trouble recovering from the surgery and keeping the weight off. A practitioner of holistic nutrition, Lynch saw the changes in Callahan with alarm. "I talked to Lori at length about the bypass," she remembers. "Your digestive system is completely rewired. You cannot process alcohol the same way you used to. And it's not uncommon at all for people with gastric bypass to succumb to addiction."

Friends recall her growing distant, unwilling to accept the help they wanted to offer in the wake of her husband's death. "I remember having that 'Whoa, wait a minute' moment with her about then," says Curtis. "And then it became more apparent. I can see her in my mind's eye, just standing there before me, having a conversation with a happy-go-lucky disposition, just chattering away and not really saying much. And not making eye contact. She was just kind of floating up here, la-la-la-la-la."

Comedy Works bartenders eventually stopped serving her, but prescription drugs of all kinds would still pour out of Callahan's purse. "She told me that she got them from a friend. If anybody had a sniffle or if anybody had allergies, or if anybody had pain, she'd open up her purse and have bottles of pain pills. That disturbed me greatly. Like, how can you possibly get these? Who is giving you this stuff?" Curtis says.

"She was just, 'Everything is fine. I'm fine.' She would tell me she was sober when I could tell she was drunk," Lynch says. "'I've been sober for three months!'" she recalls her saying, to which she responded, "'Lori, I love you, but you're drunk now.'"

Chipper as Callahan was in the face of sickness, it was painful for her friends to witness. "I had a conversation with my husband," Lynch recalls, saying, 'I just gotta call her and say, look, do you wanna die? Because you're gonna die.' And then she did."

At the end of February, Lori Callahan passed away from heart failure at the age of 54. The news sent waves of grief throughout the comedy scene she'd been so instrumental in shaping.

Lynch and the rest of the tight-knit group of comics who'd hung around Callahan held tight to memories of her bright personality, which shone through every performance and photograph. "She was, without question, one of the most loyal and generous people that I've ever known," Lynch says.

"When I think of Lori, I just think about how big her heart was. She would drop everything and come. It didn't matter if it was personal or a work thing -- she was one of those true friends to the very end," says Comedy Works' Susan Collyar, a friend of Callahan's for decades.

Callahan had a direct influence on three generations of Denver comedy: the comics who honed their craft during the first boom, the bold female comics who emerged from the alternative scene after performers like Barr and Callahan blazed the trail, and finally, the modern crop of smartphone-waving comedians using jokes in ways that were impossible when Callahan was coming up. "When she passed, there were so many comments on Facebook from comics who said, 'I got my start with Lori Callahan.' I'm one of those people, but I didn't realize how many there were," McHugh says.

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Everyone has a Lori story. And the tributes to her life that followed her death are the best way to understand her influence. "The outpouring that you can see before your eyes, I don't think she knew that. I don't really think she understood that," Lynch says. "I'm not sure any of us do. You never know when you put the pebble in the water where the ripples are gonna go. But she was a pretty big pebble. A lot of ripples." Lori Callahan's friends and family have set up a fund to benefit her mother; learn more about the Lori Callahan Memorial Fund here.

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