Before forming LadyFace with friends Melanie Karnopp, Kristin Rand, Timmi Lasley and Mara Wiles, Chella Negro had never done comedy. The musician had clocked thousands of hours on stage as a singer-songwriter, though, and after hanging around the comedy crowd and hosting Denver's Ladies Laugh-In stand-up night, she was ready. Though stand-up wasn't her thing, the theater major found a place to write, create and star in several sketch-comedy shows a year with the other members of LadyFace.
In advance of the troupe's one-year anniversary show, LadyFace Presents: A Year Of The Face this Sunday, November 18 at Comedy Works South, the multi-tasking Negro talked with Westword about LadyFace's inception, her compartmentalization as a performer, and the death of the dick joke.
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Westword: A lot of people know you for your music. How did you get into sketch comedy?
Chella Negro: I just started hanging out with stand-up comedians. My best friend wanted to do stand-up and asked me to go with him to some open mics. At this point, I was pretty heavily into the Denver music scene, so I thought, why don't I see what everybody else is doing?
We went to the Squire and at first, watching all of these people do stand-up, I was like, I can do this. I talk on stage all the time -- it's no big deal. I can do it. Then I started hanging out more and getting to know everybody and seeing the real craft behind what they do and realized, oh, I can't do stand-up. I can do a lot of things, but I can't do stand-up. (Laughs.) So I've never actually done stand-up.
I started hosting Ladies Laugh-In at Beauty Bar, and that got me more involved in the community. I made some great friends: Timmi (Lasley) and Mara (Wiles, both of LadyFace) spent a lot of time together. One day, we were just sitting around talking about how everybody's got a show, and we thought, we're funny -- we can do a show.
We thought about what was missing in Denver, and there isn't a lot of sketch comedy here. So we thought, let's do a sketch-comedy show. We asked Kristen (Rand) and Melanie (Karnopp) to join up, too, and there you go.
My background is actually in theater, music and voice performance; that's what I have a degree in. That doesn't pay the bills. You have to do other things. (Laughs)
Do you feel like what you do with your music and what you do with comedic performance are two separate projects?
I think one helps the other, immensely. I'm a folk singer: I have a band, The Charm. But sometimes I play shows, as I started out, by myself. It definitely helped me to be around comedy; I [learned how to] make transitions between songs. It made entertaining smoother, not just like, this is a song about a guy I hate. (Laughs.) You have maybe a minute between songs to say something quick and clever and get people engaged, and that's what comedy is all about. It's been really helpful.
It's also been interesting, dealing with the two worlds -- you're introduced as a comic in some places and introduced as a musician in others. The comedy world here is close-knit and really supportive. But it can be dicey when you're hanging out with eight stand-up comics and someone introduces you as a comic and the rest of them go, (whispers) she's not a comic. I have to be really careful with how I word it.
I think there's this thing where the word "comic," it can mean different things. To a lot of people here it means stand-up, and people are protective of their stages. So I say, I do sketch comedy. I'm a sketch comic, if people need to put a label on what I do.
I want to be the Dean Martin of Denver: I can sing, I can be funny, I can get silly and I can host a show. Basically, I just want to get paid the most possible. Get the most stage time as possible. (Laughs.)
Stage time is money.
Well, and it's fun. It lets me do what I went to school for, what I actually paid money and put time into. I get to perform, I get to act. And I don't do that when I play music. When I moved here, straight out of school, all I was thinking was, I need to get a band here. I need to play music and I need to sing. That was my focal point for, god, I've been here for thirteen years? It seemed really hard to get into the theater community without having any credits here. And for so long I worked on establishing myself musically that I didn't even think about it.
It's so funny: I've never felt more compartmentalized than I do when I'm introduced to people. All it does is make the other person comfortable in dealing with you. I've just decided, if that's what you need, that's okay. If you need to say, she's not a comic, then fine. You'd never heard someone say, she's not a musician because she does comedy. You know? It's really weird. Without giving away too much about this anniversary show, what should someone who's never seen a LadyFace performance expect?
The cool thing about this show in particular is that it's sketches from all of our past shows -- it's kind of like a "greatest hits" compilation show. We let our audience give us suggestions of what their favorite sketches were of the last year. I don't know what makes us different; I mean, we're all girls and there's nobody really doing that. I don't know if you know much about Denver comedy, but it's pretty much a sausage party.
That and, a lot of people don't know what sketch comedy is; we always have to reference Saturday Night Live. It's not super political or overly feminist; we're all very different women, so we all have a different sense of what we think is funny. It all works together. We're bringing back a lot of guests that we've had from the previous year: Jordan Doll, Chris Charpentier and Nathan Lund. We have a couple of special guest appearances -- but I can't talk about that. It's the element of surprise. (Laughs.)
It's going to be fun. I don't know, we're a hard-working, loose group of women - god, did I just say that?
Don't worry, I won't spin off of that and make it some archaic joke about a "wild comedy troupe of loose women!"
Thank you for that. Anyway, we work really hard to put this show together. We write all of our own sketches. Sometimes, guests write sketches, but I don't think so this time around. The guys write sketches, but they just aren't funny enough. I'm kidding. We have eighty sketches to weed through and had to pick twelve that we thought were the best ones.
When LadyFace got together and talked about the lack of sketch comedy happening, how did you approach venues about bringing LadyFace to an audience?
In a clichéd world, it is all about who you know -- all of us were coming from different places, so we all had resources to draw on. Timmi is a trained actress as well as being a stand-up comedian, and she had worked with Spark Theater. She was like, I know this space. Let me pitch it.
When she pitched it, she said, five girls, one hour of sketch comedy. It was like, yep. Done. They believed in us right away.
Otherwise, there aren't a lot of places to do that kind of stuff. I mean, you try to do sketch comedy in a bar? We lucked out because Bender's had the side room. There was no way we could pull it off in the main room, you know. We're going to show up at like the Marquis and be like, ta-da!
We've moved venues a couple of times -- we were at Spark, then we got too big for the space, which is a great problem to have. Then we found the space at Bender's (Tavern) through Melanie. She hosted an open mic there. Bender's is now Quixote's, I guess? Because we need more of that. (Laughs.)
We were kind of scrambling, but ended up getting Comedy Works South Club to let us do it there. It's a nice big room, big stage. It already has a rep for comedy, which is nice. People already kind of get it.
Totally -- it's a balance of understanding that you have to start somewhere. But you're not going to start out trying to win over a room full of people who are facing the bar with their backs are turned to you.
Right. And Spark was perfect -- it was like a little launching pad for us. It's small -- the newer theater is bigger -- but the older place sat maybe thirty people. We started off doing two shows a night because the Spark was so small. And it just ended up working out that way.
Do you write your own sketches, or does LadyFace write collaboratively?
We do work together, but a lot of the time we'll have a meeting after a show and (each) have a new sketch written. We'll go through them and see what will work best with the group. For me, I just think of things I think are funny or weird and try to figure out what's funny about the situation.
The girls always say that my sketches are wordier; I don't do a lot of physical comedy. I've never been a fan of physical comedy, so I don't write that way. I write my sketches how I write my songs -- if I think it's funny and clever, maybe you will, too?
The girls know where to put the prop line in, they know where (the sketch) goes too long. They know how long the set-up is before there's a pay-off, and they can help me clean it up because that's what they do onstage. They whittle it down to a set-up and a punch, and I take longer to get to that punch than is necessary sometimes. Being women shouldn't matter in terms of what you do as comedians -- but you definitely stand out because of it.
My very first month at the Squire while I was watching my friend learn to be a comic and stuff, everybody went up and told dick jokes or rape jokes. It was just dick jokes and rape jokes, dick jokes and rape jokes. It's weird -- that collective consciousnesses where people will, in a group, get on that train and ride it together, even if they aren't friends or even consciously doing it.
It's like, can everybody just get off the rape train now? It's not funny. Unless you have something clever to say about it, I don't want to hear about it.
And as a woman doing what you do, you totally have the ability to blow the lid off of that. Like, not only is that stuff not funny -- it's dated.
Even when we do stereotypical "girl" stuff, sketches about dating and stuff -- we have this sketch called "Romanticore," it's about relationships -- this thing just comes in and fucks everything up, and that's what real love is like. I don't think women are more inventive than guys, but I think that we are able to see more sides to something. We may be able to see more sides to a joke.
I don't know, I'm glad people have moved on from dick jokes and rape jokes, for now. I'm sure there will be a renaissance in like, a year.
We could have another era of Andrew Dice Clays in the world.
Every hack comic just crawls out of a dumpster somewhere with a dick and rape joke.
A zombie situation of total shit comedians.
Zombie comics. Oh, god.
LadyFace Presents: A Year of the Face is this Sunday, November 18 at 7 p.m. at Comedy Works South, 5345 Landmark Place in Greenwood Village. Tickets are $5 available at the door, or in advance online. To keep up with LadyFace, check out the group's Facebook page.