With 65-plus premier alt-comics from around the nation swarming around South Broadway over the weekend for the second High Plains Comedy Festival, the attendant perks were vividly apparent.
The festival, co-founded in 2013 by local comics Adam Cayton-Holland and Andy Juett, has the vibe and mounting recognition of an event primed to give Denver the last push it needs to establish itself as a major-league comedy destination.
For fans and performers, weed and craft beer were as varied and plentiful as one would expect from our modern-day Mile High City (weed was not smoked openly inside the venues, for the record). And for however stoned and drunk festival-goers got in the dank crypt of the Hi-Dive, or the sterile minimalism of the McNichols Building, many in the ensemble they came to see were unabashedly going tit-for-tat.
Comedians, after all, unless in treatment or rehabilitated from years of substance abuse, tend to have the consumptive appetites of rock stars and emotionally withdrawn blue-collar fathers.
In a sea of tremendous sets across roughly 48 whirlwind hours Aug. 21-23, comics Pete Holmes, Cameron Esposito, Ben Roy, Kumail Nanjiani, and a current lesser-known name like Mike O’Connell stood out.
Holmes, of the recently axed TBS late-night vehicle “The Pete Holmes Show,” kept the rather awe-inspiring Civic Center crowd in hysterics on Saturday night despite having introduced a previously foreign element into his system before show time. But nothing, it seems — not even high-grade 303 that would reduce most of us to bed wetters — can make a Holmes set lag.
Roy, a member of Denver’s alt-comedy three-piece the Grawlix, deserves a special shout-out as well for again rocking the mic like a man possessed. Sharing (among other bucket-list action-items) his wish to “take a clown pounding” — shorthand for having sex with a clown, and one “in full clown makeup,” no less.
All told, the High Plains experience was a memorable one due, naturally, to the caliber of talent on hand. But also in no small part to the intimacy, affordability and accessibility of the select host venues, which also included 3 Kings Tavern, Mutiny Information Café, TRVE Brewing Co. and a popular open-mic at Brendan’s Pub.
Locals are advised to lock-on to our little-festival-that-could ASAP in the event that the aforementioned virtues start to wane in concert with High Plains’ inevitable growth. For now, however, this sweet child of ours is about as painless and rewarding as the festival experience gets. –Russ Espinoza
A YEAR OF WEED, INDEED
by John Wenzel
My second experience with the High Plains Comedy Festival was similar to the first: smooth, reminiscent of other well-run comedy fests, and full of so many twisted thoughts that I left feeling both inspired and exhausted.
Without repeating what Mr. Espinoza noted above, the event took place Aug. 21-22 along the hip South Broadway corridor with showcases, podcast recordings and open-mic spots, followed on Saturday, Aug. 23 by the marquee shows at the renovated McNichols Building in Civic Center park (which was surrounded by security gates and tents in anticipation of Sunday’s USA Pro Challenge Cycling Race).
Any event with a dozen discrete showcases, a half-dozen stacked-lineup podcasts, and numerous side events, after-parties and open-mics is bound to feel sprawling. But as popular as the event has become — this year saw more capacity shows and long lines — its curation and organization exhibited a deep experience with the comedy-fest scene.
That’s not surprising, given that co-founder Adam Cayton-Holland has performed at Bridgetown Comedy Festival (in Portland, Ore., probably the closest corollary to High Plains, albeit much bigger), Just for Laughs in Montreal, South by Southwest and many others over his career. But it’s also not inevitable. It was clear that the people running the event were working mightily to keep things humming.
Thursday night’s shows, which were added late, were as solid as anything throughout the fest, including Bryan Cook’s hilariously gut-churning “Competitive Erotic Fan Fiction” and Mike O’Connell’s “Drunken Tales of Glory and Shame Showcases.” Both gave a mix of local and national stand-ups a chance to embarrass themselves for the audience’s delight. Friday’s sets were the meat of the festival, with showcases at the Hi-Dive and 3 Kings Tavern drawing lines and packed houses to see Nick Thune, Ben Kronberg, Pete Holmes, Kate Berlant, T.J. Miller and Beth Stelling.
Kumail Nanjiani appeared prominently on fest posters thanks to his rising rep from “Portlandia,” HBO’s “Silicon Valley,” and his new Comedy Central show “The Meltdown” (with producer/wife Emily Gordon, who was also here this weekend). His fans were clearly out in droves, giving him a hero’s welcome each time he took the stage. Among other subjects, his bit about passing out while masturbating nearly destroyed the late show at 3 Kings Friday.
Saturday night’s McNichols shows began with Holmes’ “You Made It Weird Podcast” recording, which exhibited his ability to veer from profane, squishy topics to entirely serious, spiritual ones at the drop of a hat. It was also heavy at times with a dude-bro vibe, comic Kate Berlant (the sole female guest) looking on as the guys discussed their ejaculate, kids and wives with a tone that wobbled too close at times to a drive-time radio crew.
The Grawlix showcase rolled along agreeably as a hometown beacon, co-founder Andrew Orvedahl getting in some of the best lines of the night while talking about “stress marinade” (during a failed nap) and hipster fetuses. His cohort Cayton-Holland delivered another typically commanding set that played to the locals with bits about the aging tourist pit that is Denver’s 16th Street Mall.
After a deafeningly-approved set by Nanjiani, rising Denverite Kristin Rand hosted the finale, which was supposed to feature Pete Holmes at the end. Instead, Holmes surprised Rand (and many other comics who grumbled privately about it to me) by going on first for a much shorter set, given that he had apparently consumed some weed soda and couldn’t handle his buzz (having never performed stoned before, he admitted from the stage). Still, it was a solid set and one that kicked off arguably the strongest show of the entire fest.
Nate Bargatze’s low-key Nashville style perfectly complemented his tightly edited jokes. Howard Kremer’s impromptu experiment in smoothie-making was dumb but funny. Beth Stelling’s practiced sheen expertly sold her faux-bitchy observations about her family and friends, owning the stage with an intoxicating confidence. Ian Karmel’s bit about getting angry for waiting too long in a Taco Bell drive-thru — and what a horrible person that made him — was both laugh-out-loud funny and something that has stuck with me consistently since.
When Denver’s Josh Blue took the stage to finish he declared himself, “A headliner who can handle their weed!” to which the crowd (more than 600 strong at that point) roared with knowing approval. Last year’s High Plains ended with a fizzle as headliner Reggie Watts was too stoned to deliver an engaging set at the Gothic Theatre. This year avoided that in the form of Blue’s irrepressible energy, but organizers would still do well to note how much weed their comics are consuming, especially if they can’t deliver the goods while they’re on it. –John Wenzel
Russ Espinoza is an Austin, Texas-based journalist and recent contributor to Reverb. Check him out on Twitter.
Evan Semón is a Denver freelance writer and photographer and regular contributor to Reverb. See more of his work.