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Denver comics and producers, eager to meet skyrocketing demand for shows, face tough questions this summer.
Do they pick up where they left off, carefully rebuilding Denver’s reputation as one of North America’s finest stand-up scenes? Or do they seize this moment to reconsider their identity — as well as stand-up’s much larger diversity problem?
“When I book shows, I want to be sure it’s not all one perspective,” said Boulder comic Zoe Rogers, whose motto is “Don’t punch down; lift up.” “And when I first started booking shows at the Dairy Center (in Boulder) I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to do a festival like this?’ “
Rogers’ inaugural Boulder Comedy Festival, June 4-7, with outdoor shows in Boulder and Louisville, is choosing the latter by rebooting the scene as Rogers would like to see it. A veteran of festivals in New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta and elsewhere, she’d already played events with “18 guys, one Latin comic, and me as the token woman.”
When she lived and produced stand-up showcases in L.A. — one was called Token Straight White Dude — she competed head-to-head with other women to be that token performer. She vows that won’t be the case with the Boulder Comedy Fest, which has booked a variety of women, LGBTQ comics and, yes, a few white dudes.
“It’s not just racial or sexual orientation, but diversity in terms of material,” Rogers said. “It’s vulnerable personal issues instead just a lot of, ‘Women are crazy, right?’ “
Rogers’ Boulder event, which features local and national comics, isn’t the only Colorado comedy festival this summer. Denver’s High Plains Comedy Fest, arguably the region’s biggest and best stand-up gathering, will return Sept. 16-18 for its eighth annual collection of showcases, live podcast recordings and open-mic nights.
The lineup has not been announced, but previous years featured headliners such as Maria Bamford, Karen Kilgariff, David Cross, Reggie Watts, Anthony Jeselnik and dozens more, drawing visitors and thousands of dollars to local bars and restaurants. Clearly, that kind of spending is more important than ever.
On Wednesday, High Plains organizers announced The Dollop podcast, hosted by Dave Anthony and Gareth Reynolds, as 2021’s headlining show. Tickets for the recording, at the Paramount Theatre on Sept. 18, are on sale at 10 a.m. Friday, June 4. Also on sale Friday: festival passes, for $150 at highplainscomedy.com, which include entry to all High Plains shows plus a commemorative T-shirt.
“This year’s lineup — while absolutely featuring some up-and-comers who Denver audiences haven’t seen before — is largely a ‘best of’ of the comedians Adam and I want to see perform and hang out with again,” said executive director Karen Wachtel.
Given all of the full-capacity improvements at outdoor venues this week, Wachtel expects a normal festival in September — “normal” being a relative term.
“At this point, we’re planning a good old-fashioned High Plains at the South Broadway spots we’ve called home for seven years,” Wachtel said of Mutiny Information Cafe, The Hi-Dive and HQ (formerly 3 Kings Tavern). “I’m sure there are more challenges to come as the climate in Denver continues to shift, but at this point it’s feeling more and more like planning a classic High Plains.”
Founded by Denver comic and author Adam Cayton-Holland, High Plains usually takes place in crowded venues and theaters — the ideal conditions for stand-up. However, small, enclosed spaces with low ceilings have until recently been verboten as comedy shows moved to Zoom and outdoor spaces.
Now, comics are scrambling to get back inside. Cayton-Holland’s Grawlix trio, which features Denver’s Andrew Orvedahl and Ben Roy, already has booked a comeback show at the cozy Bug Theatre on June 26. RiNo’s Denver Comedy Lounge has partnered with the Kimpton Hotel Monaco Denver to host free stand-up shows and ticket packages, while offering a “Get Roasted in the Mile High City” program.
“Groups can come in and work with comics at Denver Comedy Lounge so you can roast your friend, boss, buddy, foe — whatever you like,” said Haroon Chaudhry, director of sales and marketing. “We just did one last Sunday, and it was good for comedians because they can practice while getting pics and video.”
The Aspen Laff Festival, which will not return until 2022, represents a blank spot in the state’s comedy-festival map. But like Boulder Comedy Fest, others have popped up to compete for the “Colorado destination-fest” title. This year’s Chief Comedy & Bicycle Festival, which took place in Trinidad April 29-May 1, was a much-needed reunion of the Colorado comedy scene, said Denver comic Andie Main, whose PETA podcast (People Enjoying Terrible Accidents) was one the highlights.
“At one point, Sam (Tallent) fell out his chair and had to run to the trash can because he was dry heaving from laughing so hard,” she said.
Main, like other comics, benefited from the pandemic in some ways. The switch to Zoom shows last year allowed her to book bigger guests for her podcast. Now, she plans to record it at Front Range venues where she’s performing or producing, such as LoDo’s Black Buzzard (below Oskar Blues). Her monthly Slaughterhouse Five showcase returns there on July 9, with a half-dozen more planned through December. Fort Collins’ Comedy Fort, which comic and owner David Rodriguez bravely opened earlier this year, also may host “happy hour podcast recordings,” Main said.
“Comics are under-practiced right now, so I’ve stopped being so married to the idea of remembering my lines,” she said. “That’s led to a really inventive place, although one out of desperation. It’s like, ‘I forgot how this joke goes, so we’re just going to see how it ends together!’ “