Rise Comedy Festival Showcases Denver Talent for Two Weekends | Westword
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Rise Comedy Festival Showcases Denver Talent for Two Weekends

“Last year, Ryan Moran, who's the head of development for comedy at Comedy Central, even gave out his email to let people contact him and send him their stuff.”
Denver-based improv troupe, The Basement Doctors perform at Rise Comedy, where the group plans to return for the festival.
Denver-based improv troupe, The Basement Doctors perform at Rise Comedy, where the group plans to return for the festival. Courtesy of Rise Comedy

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For Rise Comedy co-owner Nick Armstrong, Denver is an unrecognized comedy capital, equivalent to Los Angeles, New York or any other belly-laugh big city.

“The thing that kind of makes me mad is there’s not enough press about it,” he jokes. “I mean, on any night, Monday through Sunday, you’ll have probably five or six standup shows or even more on the weekends going on at any particular time. That’s a huge scene.”

And with the club's second annual Rise Comedy Festival, he and co-owner Josh Nicols will show off Denver's talent. For the last two weekends in July, audiences can enjoy performances from both local and renowned comics as well as take classes and attend panels with industry veterans.

Armstrong speaks with fatherly pride about the bustling standup and improv scene in Denver, but he is originally from Sacramento, where he developed an impressive résumé: alumnus of the iconic L.A. improv school The Groundlings, artistic director of the Westside Comedy Theater, creator of the Orange County Improv Festival and founder of Improv Utopia, an educational summer retreat for nascent comedians.

After meeting at one such retreat, Nicols and Armstrong immediately connected and eventually settled in Denver, taking over Voodoo Comedy Club in 2019 and changing its moniker to Rise Comedy. However, co-owning Rise has not always been a barrel of laughs for the pair. In fact, balancing the roles of manager and comedian can often be a crack-up, according to Armstrong.

“It's tough, because sometimes you have to be the bad guy when things aren't going right for certain things, and that's hard to do when you're a comedian, because you don't want to be mean, you know?" Armstrong says. "Your whole life is to make people joyful, so when you have to let someone go or do something, it's like for two weeks I'm depressed.”

Armstrong is able to take that imbalance in stride, given the passion he has for his work. “I uprooted my entire life to come here, so that's how much I love Denver and the community here. And hanging out at the club, it's not a bad job,” he says with a chuckle. “I'm hanging around nice and funny people constantly and laughing — dream job, right? But every dream job also has its hard things, too.”

A year into the club's opening, Nicols and Armstrong's plans for Rise were thrown awry by the COVID-19 pandemic. But the two have adopted an attitude of resilience, fully aiming to churn out some lemonade from the sour circumstances. “It makes everything else feel easy, I can tell you that much," Armstrong says.

With the comedy festival going into its second year, Armstrong feels surefooted. The purpose of the fest, which is on track to sell out for the second year in a row, isn't just to entertain audiences, but to support the careers of the participating local comics by hosting panels with big names in the business.

“We'd love it to be more of a resource. It's a festival, but also we're trying to get people resources for standup. We have Comedy Central, and we have the biggest bookers from late-night TV shows coming to do panels for [the comedians],” Armstrong says. “Last year, Ryan Moran, who's the head of development for comedy at Comedy Central, even gave out his email to let people contact him and send him their stuff.” (Moran is among the returning panelists for this year’s festival.)

Harking back to his experience with Improv Utopia, Armstrong is like a camp counselor, preparing to lead the group of performers on a romp through the city he loves. “We're gonna go on a hike. We're taking them to Meow Wolf. ... We're showing them the city, too," he says. "It's all about community. In a way, that's what we celebrate.”

Meow Wolf is a sponsor along with other local organizations, including the Great American Beer Festival for the second year in a row and fellow comedy club and bar Wide Right. One of the festival's feature acts is Jet Eveleth, an L.A. comic who practices clown comedy, taking the Rise stage with local clown-prov act Juls N’ Lis on Thursday, July 27. “It's not what you think, where they're painting their mouth like John Wayne Gacy or something, but they do very expressionistic comedy,” Armstrong explains.

Drew Droege, a Groundlings alum-turned-instructor, is known for his drag re-creation of The Golden Girls — “one of the best shows you will ever see in your life,” says Armstrong — and will be a featured instructor at one of several classes, along with Armstrong and Eveleth.

After two nights of standup on Friday, July 21, and Saturday, July 22, Armstrong will take the stage on Friday, July 28, with Karen Graci for some long-form improv under the moniker Shrimp Forks. The same night will comprise a showcase of other local Colorado acts, such as Big Ol’ Mess and Hit and Run: Musical Improv. The local lineup for the festival is strong, with many Denver acts included alongside the national crowd: The Basement Doctors, BENT, Mouse Couch, Mockumentary Now, Barkley and Snack Table.

Speaking to the venue’s name and mission statement, Armstrong says he looks forward to Rise Comedy Festival’s potential to uplift and unite patrons and performers.

“I think people listen more when they laugh; it's not so strict to them. They're not being yelled at. They're not being told what to eat, what to drink, what to do. They're just listening," he says. "And that's a huge thing that art has the advantage of — people will listen, they won't argue with you. So it's a nice power to have.”

Rise Comedy Festival, Thursday, July 20, and Saturday, July 22, and Wednesday, July 26, through Saturday, July 28. Tickets range from free to $18. Find more information at the Rise Comedy website.
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