Kill or Be Killed: Can comedian Adam Cayton-Holland take his Denver-based routine national? - Reverb

Can comedian Adam Cayton-Holland take his Denver-based routine national?

It’s just after midnight on Tuesday and comedian Adam Cayton-Holland is presiding over a packed, sweaty Squire Lounge, a microphone in one hand and a beer in the other.

The riff turns personal:

“If you had told me when I was 24, ‘Adam, for the next seven years of your life you will spend the bulk of your Tuesdays in a Colfax dive bar constructed from three-quarters bum feces and prostitute tears, and one-quarter solid gold heart,’ I would have said, ‘Yeah right. What drug was I addicted to?’

“And then you’d say, ‘Adam, you were addicted to the drug called stand-up comedy. And possibly alcohol.'”

Once again, the joke’s on him. But there’s some truth in the bit, which the bearded, and beer-loving,
30-year-old is cranking out on the seventh anniversary of the bar’s open-mic nights. The bare-knuckled Squire is a cage match for aspiring comics and one Cayton-Holland long ago conquered on his way to becoming one of Denver’s stand-up stars.

Only a comic can really understand how demanding comedy is. Audiences want you to make them laugh, but they also want be comforted and enlightened. Every single night.

Cayton-Holland delivers on this night by silencing the unruly crowd — whom he lovingly refers to as Phil Spector’s “wall of idiots” — with his sharp, commanding voice. He’s risen fast since getting into stand-up, besting nearly 200 others at Comedy Works’ scrappy New Talent showcase after only two years in the game.

But suddenly, the stakes have skyrocketed. He’s hitting the road and generating buzz at hip L.A. and New York appearances, taking meetings with Comedy Central and MTV, all while auditioning for sitcoms and late-night shows. He snagged a powerful manager in Josh Lieberman of 3 Arts Entertainment, who handles Aziz Ansari, of NBC’s Emmy-nominated “Parks and Recreation,” and national headliner Moshe Kasher.

He’s doing all the right things. He hopes. But showbiz is fickle — one minute you’re hot, the next you’re leftovers. Even with momentum and experience, Cayton-Holland may not get where he wants to be in five or 10 years: a comedian with a national following and screen credits under his belt.

“Stand-up comedy either takes possession of you, or it doesn’t. And it took me over years ago.”

The entertainment business is a lunatic gamble, and Cayton-Holland has lately gone all in. But can he get it done in Denver?

Moment of truth

If ever there was a time for a comedian to have a killer set, this would be it.

It’s Feb. 16, and Cayton-Holland is on stage at The Lab, a dim, claustrophobic room connected to the legendary Hollywood Improv on Melrose Avenue in L.A.

He’s not doing so well.

The space has all the warmth of a muffler-repair shop. A bar stool, a microphone stand and a red velvet curtain provide the only touches of humanity. The show is packed with hard- to-impress industry folks and serves as an audition for the Just for Laughs festival in Montreal — the World Series of stand-up.

A hopeful named Jessi Campbell had just taken the stage with jokes about the metric system, Coke, video games and her obesity. It was gimmicky stuff, but it absolutely killed. And Cayton-Holland, whose style is less cartoonishly in-your-face, more storytelling, had to follow.

He has only 6 minutes to win over the crowd — he’s the third of 11 comics — so he whips out some road-tested bits. One involves an awkward speech to middle-schoolers on Career Day (hint: Stand-ups don’t have a lot of kid-appropriate material). Another is a signature joke about a “liberally be-Spandexed” woman pumping nacho cheese into a Big Grab of Doritos at a 7-Eleven.

Her query to the store employee: “Do y’all charge cheese?”

It’s an efficient bit of observational humor that neatly weighs the pros and cons of consumer culture, at once celebrating our generosity and damning our hideous excess.

“And I thought to myself, that is America right there,” he bellows, winding up for the big finish. “Because on the one hand, America kicks ass! Look at us, we don’t charge cheese, we’re all right. But on the other hand, America has a very real problem, which is that WE DON’T CHARGE CHEESE.”

The punch line grabs a respectable amount of laughs, but Cayton-Holland wants more than that when auditioning for the world’s most prestigious comedy festival. He wants to kill. To flatten. And since he didn’t do that, he retreats to the hallway after his set, silent and stone-faced, to stew.

“If I couldn’t do better, then it wouldn’t have been a problem,” he later says. “But I could have. Auditions for fests and competitions are so painful and awkward. Comedy should never be a competition, but sometimes it is, and it’s such a stilted, unnatural, tense environment.”

Bright lights, small city

The show is an unusual one for Cayton-Holland, whose smart, often hilariously harsh jokes work easily at an array of venues, from Denver’s Comedy Works — which he headlined Thursday — to buzz-worthy bar shows in Brooklyn and Hollywood.

“Not only does he perform with people like Zach Galifianakis (of “The Hangover” I and II) and Aziz Ansari, he holds his own,” said Jeremy Levenbach, who runs the ultra-cool Whiplash comedy show in New York. “Adam could definitely move to L.A. or New York and do wonderfully.”

And he knows it too.

“I look at some of the phone numbers in my cellphone now, and I can’t believe the names that are there,” Cayton-Holland says. “Guys who just a few years ago I considered heroes I now consider friends.”

But living in Denver may be holding back his career.

“If I contented myself with just being one of the best comics in town here and involved in a good scene, I think it would be a different story,” he says. “But I want that, and then I want to go out into the huge markets and regularly compete and hang out.”

He’s waiting to hear back about what could be career-making TV spots on “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” and Comedy Central, so why not stage his vigil at the source?

That’s the idea, anyway. Denver is a supportive comedy town with three A-list clubs and numerous bar-comedy nights, but it’s geographically isolated. Nobody here makes TV shows and movies from which the average comic might get famous.

“I’m making enough money to support myself here doing club work and college work,” says Cayton-Holland, who gets up to $250 for headlining club shows and $800, plus travel expenses, for college gigs. “I just don’t want to jump into the L.A. scene and be like, ‘Me! Me next! Me next!’ “

He would be giving up a lot to move there. He loves his two-story, 1890s house in South Broadway’s Baker neighborhood, which he bought in 2006 and shares with his laconic roommate, Monty, a friend since preschool. He loves his Chesapeake Bay retriever, Annabel Lee — named after the “awesome, super-depressing” Edgar Allan Poe poem.

L.A. may not be so kind to his twin obsessions with the Colorado Rockies and birdwatching. His walking-distance bars and stand-up friends. His family, which supports his comedy career without question, and his hard-earned reputation as one of the Mile High City’s most formidable comics.

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