As both a fan and critic of comedy, I’ve been accused over the years of either being too much of a Denver comedy booster or too hard on certain performers. With that in mind, you’ll either scoff or feel like applauding when I say that the inaugural High Plains Comedy Festival was a smashing success.
The Aug. 23-24 event aped The Denver Post’s own UMS in the fact that it took place at 3 Kings Tavern, the Hi-Dive, the Hornet, the Gothic Theatre and Mutiny Information Cafe on South Broadway over a summer weekend. But it also took cues from Portland, Ore.’s Bridgetown Comedy Festival, which does the DIY, multi-venue comedy thing right and really knows how to cultivate a comic-friendly feel.
The event began with a surprisingly large 4 p.m. Friday crowd for Andrew Orvedahal’s “The Narrators” storytelling-podcast recording at the Hi-Dive, then found its stand-up footing when the first of the weekend’s two-hour stand-up blocks began at the Hi-Dive at 6 p.m. Host Christie Buchele mockingly damned festival organizers Adam Cayton-Holland and Andy Juett for putting her on a stage with such steep steps, since Buchele has cerebral palsy and needed to navigate them each time a comic finished.
Despite the venue not knowing exactly what to do about the bright lights in the back (at first) and the crowd noise at the bar (throughout), comics like “Propaganda” host Matt Monroe and “Arguments & Grievances” host Kevin O’Brien whipped up the audience with bits about dads and Elmer’s glue before Comedy Works headliner Troy Walker flattened the crowd with his jokes about food purses, “magic Negroes” and his Colorado native status.
Before catching any more of that set, I walked a block north to 3 Kings Tavern to catch “Delusions of Randeur” host Kristin Rand introduce Louis Johnson’s typically relaxed, conversational set, followed by Grawlix troupe member Andrew Orvedahl delving into positive urinal feedback, bomb shoes and yoga farts. The gloriously unhinged Andy Peters slayed the crowd with his spittle-flecked energy, while Comedy Central’s Brendon Walsh closed out with a “Give it up for…!” running joke that grew progressively dirtier, more ridiculous and sublime as it unfurled.
I walked into the Hornet’s running open-mic apparently right after a woman had been restrained by the cops for harassing a table of people with a teenage kid (accusing them of being pedophiles). Brent “the Great” Gill then handed over emceeing duties to a portly, razor-sharp Aaron Urist (sporting a sweet “Have Too Much Fun!” T-shirt). I had never seen Urist before, and his spot-on set was one of the highlights of the night for me. “I just got out of an abusive relationship, and boy are my arms tired…” he said to hoots and groans. “Hey, you don’t know the context!” He also had some of the choicest words of the fest with deadpan lines like, “We can’t govern our intake of things like hot-dog-crust pizza.”
Back at 3 Kings Tavern, Las Vegas native and Fine Gentleman’s Club member Nathan Lund plied his relatable, self-deprecating humor and did a fine job hosting comics like Stephanie Hasz, Ian Douglas Terry, Denver favorite Bryan Cook and Greg Baumhauer’s sleazy lounge lizard alter ego Bobby Valentino. While the comics were uniformly solid and often sharply funny, Lund’s opening set was the best thing on the bill until Denver legend Chuck Roy brought his agreeably gruff “bear” act on stage (which included a giant, and I mean giant, pratfall).
David Gborie’s short, overweight stage presence and quip that the he had been “drinking cough syrup since noon” belied his incredibly quick mind and verbal gymnastics as he discussed drugs and Sudoku, magic vs. science, and Facebook stalking. Jordan Doll, who’s very likely Denver’s most original comic voice of the moment, had another predictably excellent set with his love of antiquated weirdness. Amber Tozer’s confessional, hyperactive bits didn’t fare quite as well, but the block ended incredibly strong with Cayton-Holland and our-generation’s-Louis C.K.-voice Kyle Kinane owning the crowd.
The daytime events during the Saturday festivities were apparently well-attended, as Marc Maron — in town for a Comedy Works gig and not an official part of the High Plains — stopped by Cayton-Holland’s “My Dining Room Table” podcast recording at the Hi-Dive the next afternoon, bringing large crowds with him.
Down the street later that night at Englewood’s Gothic Theatre, the Grawlix hosted a stellar lineup of local and national talent including surprise guest Dave Stone (from The Beards of Comedy), Kinane, Matt Braunger and Kurt Braunohler. As great the national names were — and they really are some of the funniest people working today — it was Ben Roy’s mostly-seated, edge-of-the-stage set that got the most points for poignancy. Extra credit to Roy for going all-in with a highly physical pre-show bit about yoga vs. CrossFit while suffering from separated ribs and a broken voice.