Adam Cayton-Holland and Andy Juett talk Denver comedy - Reverb

Why So Serious, Adam Cayton-Holland and Andy Juett?

Does the Denver scene deserve a comedy festival? Adam Cayton-Holland and Andy Juett think so.

Does the Denver scene deserve a comedy festival? Adam Cayton-Holland and Andy Juett think so. Poster by Michael King.

It only makes sense the High Plains Comedy Festival is the work of Adam Cayton-Holland and Andy Juett.

The comedian/writer and comedian/producer, respectively, are two of Denver’s most passionate stand-up boosters and two of its most experienced DIY comedy show runners. Throw in Juett’s radio background and Cayton-Holland’s constant touring and you’ve got a recipe for a jam-packed yet palatable comedy festival that aims to put Denver on the same plate as scenes in Portland, Ore., and Austin, Texas.

The festival, which runs today (Friday, Aug. 23) and tomorrow (Saturday, Aug. 24) at the Hi-Dive, 3 Kings Tavern, the Hornet and the Gothic Theatre on South Broadway, will feature a mix of local and national comics such as Reggie Watts, Matt Braunger, Christie Buchele, Adrian Mesa, Chuck Roy, Kyle Kinane, Bobby Crane, Jake Weisman, Timmi Lasley, Sean Patton and dozens of others.

We caught up with Cayton-Holland and Juett at Charlie Brown’s on Capitol Hill a few days ago to talk festivals, Denver’s exploding comedy scene and why this could happen anywhere — but doesn’t.

Everyone loves to say what a great comedy scene Denver has, not just in terms of its size but also its quality and energy. How did we get here?

Andy Juett: I think the spirit of Denver is pretty independent and art-focused, and the Grawlix guys and their earlier incarnations have shown you can be successful working that way. Comedy Works has already been a great base, but all the independent shows that have grown out of the success of other independent shows are also (part of it). Some people had to take some first leaps. Everyone seems to have their own show now, which is good.

Adam Cayton-Holland: A truncated history is that Comedy Works, being one of the best clubs in the country, trained this city to expect the best out of comedy for 25-odd years. Then cue comedy renaissance, alt-comedy movement, get-out-of-clubs, get-into-theaters, cue me and my friends starting Los Comics (Super Hilariosos, Wrist Deep Productions’ old monthly show) and the Grawlix. Meanwhile, the podcast revolution happens at the same time, and out of that sort of tentative step into alt-comedy birthed this scene somewhat. I hate taking so much credit for it, but we (Cayton-Holland, Ben Roy, Andrew Orvedahl, etc.) had a major part in it, and under us because it was a success I think a lot of young guys looked to us as a model as well. So now it’s this great, flourishing scene where we have two Comedy Works, an Improv, some shitty B and C clubs for all those comics to work out (material) and a flourishing alternative scene that’s taken their cues from the music scene. So it’s all happening at the same time. I feel like it’s the perfect microcosm for what comedy could be in the U.S. right now.

Besides the grooming from Comedy Works, what specifically about Denver lends itself to being a good comedy town?

ACH: It’s not so precious here, like, there’s not going to be an alternative scene where kids can start out in only that and only exist in that. The goal is always in this city to headline Comedy Works, so even if you are being a little indie, alt-room darling you still have to write jokes because you want to become a headliner at Comedy Works and that’s always the goal. So both sides of the coin are flourishing in this city.

If these are the ingredients, could pretty much anyone cook up a scene at any time in another city?

ACH: I think it could happen in any city, and it has to some extent happened in Portland and Austin and Atlanta and Minneapolis, but it happened here because of a serendipitous turn of events. I’m biased, but I think there was a really good crop of comics that came out the year I did. Like the rookie NFL class of ’83. We were all good and pushing each other to get better. Denver had a large crop of comics who came out in my era that were DIY-driven and good.

And obviously there’s an audience for it here, which is another essential ingredient. As many shows as there are, they still manage to draw pretty respectably without cannibalizing each others’ crowds. You see some of the same people at them, which is inevitable, but overall it’s impressive how varied it is.

AJ: Those shows and the heritage of those shows, depending on what week it is, I think (audiences) know that the quality will be there. It’s more of a pull versus pushing people to go to these shows.

ACH: Comedy Works is this jewel, so I think people just take it for granted in Denver. But in the same effect, it’s been good for us because it has trained the city to at least know of comedy as a thing you go out and do, and more often than not it’s a pretty damn funny thing.

You’ve both been to some comedy festivals in the past, and Adam, you’ve specifically performed at probably a half dozen, at least. What things did you like from other fests that you drew from in setting up High Plains?

ACH: We took the continual running open mic from (Portland, Ore.’s) Bridgetown (Comedy Festival). I just knew going into this that people were going to be butt-hurt not getting into the fest, and that’s inevitable, but I hope, like in Portland, that famous people will hop on that mic too.

AJ: Even comics from out of town want to be on the mic whenever they can. One thing we did want to emulate was Bridgetown’s comedy summer camp feel. You might do 10 or 20 minutes each night and be done, but then you’re going to hang out with their friends in a fun town an be a part of something really cool.

Right, like you might only present your summer-long project for 10 minutes, but you’ll always have the campfire singalongs and three-legged races to remember. Or in Denver’s case, eating pizza while stoned out of your mind.

ACH: Exactly. “We’re always goona stay in touch! Let’s meet here every year!” I want to show off Denver. In the year to come hopefully we’ll have more time. We’ll take the comics to a Rockies game, do brewery tours, that kind of thing. Right now, they’re all staying this year on the 16th Street Mall. I want to avoid other fests I’ve been to that are like, “Come to show, and after that we don’t give a shit about you!” I want (the comics) to feel welcomed and loved the whole time, which is how everybody feels after they leave after the Grawlix run. They’re like, “That all goes away when we leave, right?”

Why does a good comedy scene need a comedy festival?

ACH: I wave the Denver flag everywhere I go, and people are hearing us more than ever, especially people who do the Grawlix do the run of shows we set up for them, like the Fine Gentleman’s Club (“Too Much Fun” at the Deer Pile), Chris Miller’s show (at the Voodoo Comedy Playhouse), Matt Monroe’s “Propaganda” or the Greater Than Social Club (at Lannie’s Clocktower Cabaret). So now the word’s getting out. I have a waiting list of comics who want to get on the Grawlix at this point. And I think pound for pound, we’ve got one of the best comedy scenes in the country. And I’m tired of Denver being overlooked because it doesn’t have a festival to elevate it.

There’s also the bonus of exposing national comics to Denver comics and vice versa.

If some of our Denver comedians can’t always go out to New York and L.A. and make impressions with the industry and other comics, then New York and L.A. can come here. You can put our guys alongside them and have Kyle Kinane sit there and watch how funny Jordon Doll is and be like, “Yeah, Devner just continues to churn them out!” Everyone knows Denver didn’t have a marquee comedy event and I wanted that event to be a festival. Like, “Not only is it a very good scene you’ve all heard about, but there’s also this dope festival annually, so come check it out.”

AJ: And credit to the Nix Brothers for doing the Laugh Track Comedy Festival, and to the Fine Gentleman’s Club for the (Too Much) Funstival. The next stage is having a homegrown festival in the spirit of building it yourself but also highlighting amazing comics — some of which Comedy Works or the Improv are bringing in, but also a good chunk that they’re not. You put them right on the same stage with guys that are on the almost-famous list at Comedy Works that are really good and maybe doing a bunch of second or third-tire fests but have first-tier shows here. And those other regional fests are great, but we have more resources and funding with this.

Right, because Illegal Pete’s is basically bankrolling this and helping you fly folks in. Can you talk a little bit about that?

AJ: The comics are not just doing favors for us and coming here on their own dime. We want them to feel like this is a whole experience, like there were fun, weird activities and parties and people they’ve never met and venues that are interesting.

So what’s success for you in terms of selling tickets? I expect you’ll be measuring attendance by the hundreds, not the thousands, given the capacity of these venues.

ACH: There’s not a lot of festivals that start with the backing we have off the top. Virgil Dickerson (of the Greater Than Collective, Cayton-Holland’s record label) and Pete (Turner, owner/founder of Illegal Pete’s), they put all the initial funds for hotel, venue rentals, flights. So Andy and I, Pete and Virgil are all one-third owners. None of us know what to expect, but you’ve seen the lines down the block for the Grawlix. This town has proven time and time again it supports comedy.

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John Wenzel is an A&E reporter and critic for The Denver Post. Follow him @johntwenzel and @beardsandgum.

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