Kayvan Khalatbari bankrolls Denver comedy with marijuana and pizza

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UPDATE: After investing in pizza, pot, and Denver's comedy scene, Kayvan Khalatbari's next stop may be local government. The ganjapreneur will run for an at-large seat on Denver's city council in May 2015. We talked to Khalatbari about his campaign to find out why.

While the national media may know Kayvan Khalatbari as a thirty-year-old wunderkind of cannabis, with a consulting firm that takes him around the country, many in Denver just know him as the guy who pays them to talk on stage. Khalatbari also owns a couple of Sexy Pizza restaurants, and significant portions of the profits from that business go toward bolstering Denver's comedy scene -- an artform that has seen immense popularity here over the last decade, particularly with the Sexy-sponsored Too Much Funstival and High Plains Comedy Festival this summer.

We included Khalatbari in this week's cover story, Meet three ganjapreneurs in the brave new world of weed. Here's more from Khalatbari about what first sparked his interest in comedy, why philanthropy makes business sense, and what the future holds for public pot smoking.

Westword: When was it that you first became aware of the comedy scene in Denver?

Kayvan Khalatbari: That was through the Whiskey and Cigarettes podcast guys: Jake Becker, Jake Browne, Zach Maas. I knew Jake through Colorado Dispensary Services, and then he signed on with Denver Relief when they closed down. We'd all been hanging out for a while, going to shows and talking comedy, then we decided to do a comedy show of our own at Sexy Pizza.

And that gave us the idea that we should have these events where people are allowed to smoke freely.

Do you think that legislators will eventually warm up to the idea of allowing marijuana smoke at a bar or comedy club?

With the passage of Amendment 64, I know what's going to happen: There's going to be all of these out-of-towners coming here and getting busted for smoking in public, or getting kicked out of their hotel room. You can't tell people they can smoke pot and then give them nowhere to do it. So I see marijuana clubs as something of a necessity.

Marijuana is obviously going to be huge here. And we have probably the best local comedy scene in the entire country. The talent, the collective nature comics have here -- it reminds me of the marijuana industry.

You've been involved in Denver comedy far more than just Sexpot, though. I see the name Sexy Pizza on almost every stand-up poster in town. How many shows and comedy teams are you involved in?

Sexy Pizza and Denver Relief both sponsored High Plains. We sponsor Too Much Fun, These Things Matter podcast, Narrators, Lucha Libre and Laughs, and we sponsored the Improv Comedy festival last fall.

I feel lucky to have come along when I did. I don't know how it snowballed, but it did. I didn't really do very much to Denver comedy except help promote people who were already doing it. These were people who knew what they were doing, were smart as shit, they were funny as hell, and they already had a community here that were supporting each other. Everything was there, and I was very fortunate to come along when I did and induce a little money and some marketing.

I'd love to help more. I've worked with a few comics on setting up a business and how to deduct expenses related to shows. Just helping with their financial situation, because that's what often hinders them the most, their inability to manage that.

Illegal Pete's launched its comedy-sponsoring Greater Than Collective around the same time that you began helping out the comedy scene. At that time, did you feel that you were once again, like marijuana, witnessing an industry in its infancy?

I'd been going to a lot of Comedy Works and Fine Gentleman's shows, and I think that's what did it for me. I saw what a large draw they had, and how good it can get. I'd been to comedy shows in different places like Nebraska or California, and they just don't compare to what I've seen in Denver. I knew that this scene was something special.

But at the same time I was seeing so many people with a lot of talent that they weren't able to showcase or live off of. Comedians don't always have business acumen; they don't necessarily have all the money they need to get these shows on, or manage that money. So I've been trying to help them out wherever I can. It's just something I want to do, there isn't really anything behind it.

Though I imagine there's a brand-recognition happening when Sexy Pizza sponsors these shows.

Yes. People think it's all about print advertising. Get a print ad and see how many coupons you get turned in. We've done the coupon thing; we did twenty-thousand of them in a publication and got ten of them turned back. So what did that thousand dollars get us? I could take that thousand dollars and sponsor Fine Gentlman's Club for two-and-a-half months and probably get many more people coming through the door that way. Even though I can't trace it.

A lot of people corporatize their business. If they can't trace where the business came from, then they don't want it. But people think too rigidly in business. They don't realize that if you give to your community through sponsorship or volunteering, your community will give back to you.

Do you think that exposes you to a different demographic?

It does. I think now that we're getting into different kinds of comedy, like sponsoring the Improv Festival, it's exposing us to different parts of comedy culture. The people who go to an improv show are entirely different than the ones who go to Fine Gentleman's Club.

We're also branching out into film. We sponsored a couple of short films this year. Bucky O'Connell recently filmed Me and My Friend Alfred at my house, which I lent out to them for three weeks. Andrew Orvedahl was in that one. And we sponsored the Nix Brothers 48 Hour Film Festival project last summer.

I've always felt the need to give back. I've just found that being a good person pays back exponentially. I have a plethora of awesome people around me, and I'd like to think that they'd do for me what I've done for them if the need arose.

With sponsors like yourself and Illegal Pete's, it seems that there's a different economic model forming within the comedy industry; one that doesn't apply to the old rules of comedy clubs and advertising. And that also must be changing the content of the comedy as well -- performers will take more challenges because their fanbase is tied to a regional economy and culture, instead of out-of-touch share-holders of a comedy club chain.

That's a good question. First of all, I think that's the natural progression of a lot of businesses these days, being more grassroots. Giving these comedians the ability to be locally funded, and collectively working with people like Michael King, who designs beautiful posters for the shows. It's similar to what Louis C.K. did in 2012 with his tour, saying fuck off to Ticketmaster, handling it himself, and he sold out every show at a cheaper price while still making money. I think a lot of these comics are learning to be more autonomous with the whole process.

As far as comedy style goes . . . I think Denver comedians are allowed to be a little more, I don't know, off the cuff, a little more wild, more honest. They aren't so polished as performers, they seem like real people. I think that's why people like the scene here so much.

Follow me on Twitter at @JosiahMHesse. From our archives: "Ten best comedy events in Denver this January."

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