Like an infant growing into an Olympian athlete overnight, this weekend the Denver comedy scene went from an impressive-but-small collection of local talent to a nationally recognized force with its own annual rendezvous. The High Plains Comedy Festival was more than just a killer weekend of ab-crunching hilarity; the heavily attended event was also a kind of state of the union address for Denver comedy, showcasing the strengths, progress and future options of a once-unacknowledged slice of the entertainment industry.
Reggie Watts's festival-headlining performance brought out the big numbers, surely exceeding everyone's expectations of what this festival could draw -- but the dozens of shows along South Broadway throughout the weekend were delightfully stretched to capacity. Treasured locals like Jim Hickox, Jordan Doll and Kristin Rand were introduced to many comedy fans unfamiliar with the local scene, who came out only to see Comedy Central stars like Kyle Kinane and Sean Patton. Now they all have some humorous homework to do in the weeks to come, learning more about all the talent that's been right outside their door.
"I live, like, literally 75 feet from here, and it's so awesome to be able to leave a comedy show and go use your own bathroom," Grawlix comedian Andrew Orvedahl said from the 3 Kings stage Friday.
I also live only a few cartwheels away from these venues, and after bouncing in and out of rock shows at UMS a few weeks earlier, it was surreal to find these spaces equally full of bodies, yet completely silent except for one single mouth speaking into a microphone.
Apparently the open mic show at the Hornet as the exception to the rule, and didn't enjoy the same social graces afforded the other venues. I was at Hi Dive watching Troy Walker at the time, but open mic host Brent The Great later informed me that a woman was removed from the Hornet for accusing a neighboring table of two adults and a young teenager of being pedophiles. According to Brent, the woman shouted the accusation at the couple repeatedly, and when the table attempted to leave, she followed them out, turning heads with her bizarre indictment. The police were called, and the woman was restrained while the couple exited with the teenager.
Other than this one incident, any High Plains weirdness on Friday night was mostly contained to the monologues of comedians, with Louis Johnson explaining when it is necessary to decapitate a hooker, Andrew Orvedahl's giving tips for terrorists, and Andy Peters offering geography lesson on Hitler Road and Hitler Pond being actual locations in Circleville, Ohio.
The night took a turn from freaky to geeky during the These Things Matter podcast taping at Mutiny Information Cafe. The theme was "favorite comedy writers' rooms," and guest Sean Patton was taken aback by the standard of nerd-specificity that co-host Kevin O'Brien displayed, at first thinking O'Brien was making a joke with his selection of "Saturday Night Live, 1986-94."
But even at a comedy festival, the TTM crew doesn't make light of their pop passions, getting their dorky hands dirty on topics like Mr. Show, Monty Python, Parks and Recreation and The Simpsons. Matt Braunger was clearly thrilled to show off his comedy-nerd merit badges, while Beth Stelling and Patton expressed feeling a bit intimidated by the varsity level trivia of the show.
Over at 3 Kings, it was wondrously bizarre seeing the stylized misogyny of Bobby Valentino assaulting the crowd of Tegan & Sara sycophants who had come out to see the lesbian-flavored comedy of Cameron Esposito, who went on directly after the insult comic. Esposito delighted her fans with anecdotes about Portland strip clubs (apparently they're less sleazy up there) and why lesbians always make eye contact during sex, "even during doggy style."
Similar to the last time he was in town, David Gborie killed with his bit about the pretense of Facebook stalkers: "If you're a real stalker, you at least have to leave your house. Because there are real stalkers out there. Right now, there's a guy in Luxembourg, in the bushes outside Lady Gaga's hotel. And he's there because it's the 23rd of the month, and he knows that that's when she menstruates. And when the housekeeper takes out the trash, he's gonna rifle through that trash, and he's gonna take that tampon, fly back to Cleveland, melt it down, and shoot it into his fucking veins. Because he knows that's the only way he's gonna have a piece of her with him wherever he goes. That's a real stalker."
There were plenty of local fans, journalists and comedy groupies (or "chuckle-fuckers," as they're sometimes known) out at the festival, and for many of us there was little novelty in the Denver comics who used only their A-material on stage. It made sense for the comics to do this, but after enduring the same routines countless times at Comedy Works and Deer Pile over the last year, I sometimes forget that there are still people in Denver unfamiliar with these jokes.
Though as many times as I've heard it, I have yet to get sick of Jordan Doll's set. There is a real temptation to spend the rest of this review transcribing Doll's monologue in its entirety, but I'll resist -- partly because it will make the wait for his inevitable comedy album all the sweeter. For now, I'll leave you with Jordan Doll's story of cheering on a man riding a penny-farthing bicycle (big wheel in front, little in back), only to receive a smug look of disdain from the cyclist:
"Little did I know he was some crowned-prince of hipsters. Playing a joke on the world by daring to ride such a silly contraption. 'Oh, am I riding a weird bike? I didn't even notice. This is the only bike I could afford with my job at the antique soda factory.' And that's wrong! The only way to ride a penny-farthing bicycle is by first stealing a pie from a windowsill, but oh it's hot and it escapes your grasp. So you jump on the nearest conveyance, which, wouldn't you know it, happens to be a penny-farthing bicycle. And you ride after your pastry while holding your hat on and snapping your suspenders while shouting 'gaaaaadzooks!'"
The following morning all of the High Plains comedy junkies nursed their hangovers at Hi Dive during the live taping of Adam Cayton-Holland's My Dining Room Table podcast. Cayton-Holland explained the theme of his podcast as being "my choice to pursue fame, fortune, grandeur within my hometown of Denver, Colorado, instead of moving to Los Angeles or New York, which would make far more sense."
In pursuit of this goal, Cayton-Holland (along with festival co-producer Andy Juett), momentarily brought the coasts to Denver, evidenced in part by WTF host Marc Maron making a surprise guest-spot on the My Dining Room Table podcast. Maron was already in town to do a handful of weekend shows at Comedy Works, so while High Plains organizers didn't necessarily bring him to Denver, they did bring him into a venue and a scene that he would most likely have been ignorant of. And then we would've all missed out on Marc Maron's love advice.
According to Maron:"The game is: She yells, gets her feelings out, makes her point, then you come up top and make her cry with something really fucking hurtful, then you wait ten minutes and say ,'I'm sorry, baby, you want some ice- ream or something?' . . . How much fighting is really just foreplay? There is no kind of sex better than on a pile of clothing originally taken out of drawers to leave you with."
The communal aspect of hosting Denver's first comedy festival on the same South Broadway pedestrian strip that holds the annual UMS and the monthly First Friday artwalks came to a close when ticket holders briefly sobered up and drove themselves down to Englewood for the Gothic Theatre's headlining shows.
The Grawlix comedians are by now very comfortable performing in a theater setting. And while the Gothic is significantly larger than the Bug Theatre, their material and presence has reached a level of sophistication that easily projected itself across the sold-out venue. To anyone familiar with the monthly Grawlix show, the return of Andy Juett, Andrew Orvedahl and Robert Rutherford as the world's first a cappella dubstep group, the Mouth Steppers, was a delight. Though having to clear out the venue between this show and Reggie Watts was a bit of hiccup, considering that the line to get back in for the headliner had, by this time, stretched down the street and around the block.
Typically the Gothic Theatre has a capacity of 999, though for a seated comedy show that number shrinks to 500, according to Juett. The following morning Juett informed me that they had actually sold 550 presale tickets to Reggie Watts -- and those, combined with the weekend-long wristbanders who were already at the venue, made for a slow-moving python of comedy fans making its way through the front doors. Unable to get everyone back in fast enough, the show was significantly delayed, and was still a good twenty minutes in before everyone made it through security.
When I'd originally heard about the venue choice for Watts six months earlier, I was convinced the Gothic was much too ambitious a size for Denver's first comedy festival. Now, looking out at the vast honeycomb of eyes overfilling the space, it appeared that the Ogden or even Fillmore may be an option in future years.
After sitting on the stairs with a dozen other seat-less comedy fans, I was surprised to see a front-row chair completely abandoned, despite the show being an hour in. Quickly snatching it up, I realized why the seat had been vacant: it was positioned directly below an industrial size air-conditioning vent. I honestly have no idea whether Denver's comedy scene has a significant number of Jews in it, but the fact that in a packed house -- where anyone standing under 5'9" can't even see the stage -- not one person takes this front row seat because the air-conditioning is pointed straight at it is the ultimate embodiment of the most cliched joke ever told about Jews and central air.
This made me think about all of the other consistent themes I'd heard in the jokes told over the last two nights. While Sean Patton was on stage explaining that in the South, a colloquialism for rain on a sunny day is "the devil is beating his wife," I took the time to write a list of the most popular joke topics at High Plains Comedy Festival. And they are:
Jokes about Denver
Kyle Kinane: I showed up here because I heard that Denver was running short on opinionated white guys with beards.
[Kinane the following night] A comedy festival in Denver: so many white guys being honest it's like a camping trip.
Marc Maron: Denver is so amazing in how intensely drunk it is. It's brain-bending drunk. Every time I come here and walk down the street, I see some guy without his shirt on screaming "WHAT'S UP MAN?!" What is happening here?
Troy Walker: I was at Red Rocks recently, and the woman on stage was like "it's hard to breathe up here in Colorado." And everyone cheered. They were celebrating someone not being able to breathe. It's like, "yeah! We live on the moon, bitch!"
Deacon Gray: Whenever I'm on the light-rail and the PA says, "Next stop, Broadway," I always do jazz-hands.
Jokes about smoking weed:
Adam Cayton-Holland: Back in college, my dad and I engaged in a little misguided attempt at father-son bonding. We decided we were a couple of cool cats and and would smoke some weed together. So we went on a camping trip up into the Rockies; we did some hiking, came back, built a fire and smoked some weed. And, true story, we got so paranoid we left the campsite and stayed in a hotel. Didn't even pack up the tent.
Deacon Gray: Recently, I saw a Girl Scout selling her cookies in front of a dispensary. That's a smart fucking Girl Scout. She really wants to go to camp.
Kids today: you give them an eighth and they take an ounce.
Jordan Doll: I just found out today that my new book is getting picked up. It's called Cooking With Peyote. It's one recipe and then 64 pages of hand-drawn pictures of wolves with human faces. [Okay, that's a peyote joke. Close enough.]
David Gborie: I get real paranoid when I'm stoned. I recently took a lot of bong rips, and then I had to set down my sudoku puzzle, because I thought I was writing code for The Matrix.
Beth Stelling: I don't smoke pot anymore, but I always end up dating stoners. Because they can't leave you if they're already gone, am I right?
Matt Braunger: At least three-fourths of this audience are as high as giraffe pussy right now.
Jokes about the sponsors:
Matt Knudsen: I want to give a shout out to some of the sponsors of High Plains. Illegal Pete's burritos, Denver Pain Relief medicinal dispensary and Odell's brewery. I'm sure there were nay-sayers that were like, "Whoa, whoa, whoa. Burritos, pot and beer, are you sure that's the same demographic?" Oh, and there's Sexy Pizza. I haven't seen Sexy Pizza yet, but I hear it's got a great ass.
Kurt Braunohler: Drambuie Ice? It's so fucking bad. "If you thought Drambuie was disgusting, try it frozen and sugared up!" What the fuck, Adam?
Jokes that leave you with an unwelcome sexual image that won't go away
Matt Braunger: Ned Flanders's dick is huge. It's like a tube-sock full of mud.
Kyle Kinane: I had just started to feel good and charming enough about myself to take a Viagra before I left my hotel room and go to the bar. But defeat left me returning alone to the hotel room to eat a French-bread pizza, positioned on my lap in a way that it wasn't knocked over by the bulge in my pants, screaming like a "Mission Accomplished!" banner on George W. Bush's aircraft carrier. "We did it!" "No we didn't. Shut up and eat your goddamn pizza."
Brendon Walsh: Let's give it up for our moms, wouldn't be here without her. Give it up for your dad, too; whether or not you know him, needed him too. Give it up for your dad's hard dick. Give it up for that magic night, nine months before you were born, when your dad laid your mom down on that bed. Give it up for the 69 action they did. Dad on top, 69 action. Dad on top, 69 action. Give it up for your mom choking your dad just a little bit, ensuring an extra powerful dad-orgasm deep inside your mom's vagina. Dad-jizz fertilizing mom-eggs. Give it up for your grandparents, they got the ball rollin', am I right? Grandma and grandpa, their untrimmed, un-photographed grandparent pubes.
And the Kurt Braunholer joke about fucking a McDonald's apple pie that is too much like the Jason Biggs movie to be worth your time.
It would be difficult to place the Reggie Watts set into any kind of ven diagram connected to the other sixty-plus comics on the festival (except for maybe the Mouth Steppers). More of a performance art piece than a standup routine, a Watts performance requires little cerebral activity except to know why it's funny. Dressed in a "MOIST BEATS" T-shirt, suspenders and an absence of facial hair, Watts gave manic twitches and squeaks from the stage, looking like a chocolate marshmallow man on benzadrine. Silly, not smart. Childish in a delightfully playful way. His monologues were mostly useless gibberish, valuing goofy inflection more than the actual words. But if you judge him as a musical comedy act like "Weird Al" or the Bonzo Dog Band or a music act that's funny, like Ween or Peaches, he can be a lot of fun.
Though by the end, while Watts was the biggest pull of the festival, the mid-level comedians like Jordan Doll, Troy Walker, Beth Stelling and upper echelon comics like Kyle Kinane, Sean Patton and Andy Peters far outshone him. Watts was a smart choice economically as the High Plains headliner, but the real gold of the weekend was found in the lesser-known entertainers who brought their top-shelf material out of a once-underground scene and into the ears of Denver's mainstream comedy fans. Who will most likely be spending the time between now and High Plains 2014 checking out the plethora of local shows that feature many of these comedians every night of the week.
For more comedy commentary, follow me on Twitter at @JosiahMHesse.