What About Meow.
Mar 25, 2018 11:05PM ● Published by Jake Browne
In the first of a three part series focused on independent art scenes here in Denver, we give you a behind the scenes at the comedians who are working on the fringe to make the city laugh.
When music giant Live Nation acquired both the Marquis Theater and Summit Music Hall in January, it felt as if The Loraxes were decisively losing the indie battle in Denver. DIY spaces Rhinoceropolis and Glob were both still shuttered for code violations in the wake of the Ghost Ship fire in Oakland that claimed 36 lives. Meanwhile, the Denver airport spent $11.5 million on malfunctioning LED poles that drew the ire of many who thought it was a waste of money or flat out ugly.
It’s easy to see why many in Denver heralded the paint-splattered rags-to-riches story of Meow Wolf, one of the most successful interactive art collectives in the country, announcing it would be opening shop here as a boon for the independent art scene. It was a rare case where both developers and creators lauded the news—the former knowing the tourist revenue they’ll draw with the latter hoping for more creative opportunities after watching corporate entertainment entities swallow up outlets around them left and right.
In the first of a three-part series focused on independent art scenes here in Denver, we give you a behind-the-scenes introduction to the comedians who are working on the fringe to make the city laugh.
The Little RoomRoom That Could
“It was just a stack of booths and tables and chairs and an old bar thing, and they just threw a microphone in there.”
Timmi Lasley’s memories of Comedy RoomRoom’s early days often return to the clutter that’s now absent from an ever-evolving, ever-more-polished venue. That makes sense when you consider the now creative director—a title she insists is hardly official—had to carve her way into it, starting as the unpaid host of a weekly open mic. In fact, the RoomRoom didn’t exist in name; El Charrito’s owner Matt Orrin, was using the space connected to his bar for storage.
“I kept harping on Matt that if he really wants this to be a space for comedy, he needed to start clearing out some of the noise,” she recalls. As layers of old furniture left, it became clear there was a slightly larger space adjacent that could hold the bigger crowds that were showing up on Thursdays to either crack jokes or watch young comics bomb. Consistency is key with alt spaces, and Lasley built up the trust of the community as a steady force at the helm, growing far beyond the dozen or so regulars she had when taking over the gig.
Still, there were growing pains. The pressure is always on to keep pushing, and early experiments with larger “showcase” shows were initially rough as the space was still coming into its own. “We didn’t have much of a following, and we hadn’t made a name for ourselves yet, so getting butts in seats was a big challenge,” Lasley admits. “It just wasn’t ready yet, and you have to admit it when it’s not and go back to the drawing board.”
Cabaret tables were pulled to bring the audience closer together. A fresh paint job fixed the beige walls. Theater lighting was made less dramatic. The stage was relocated away from the distracting kitchen doors. It wasn’t until one-liner comic James Draper’s ironic “Story Time” moved to Friday night’s in October 2015 that it finally worked, nearly three years after Lasley began transforming the former diner into a full-fledged home for comedy.
Leaving the open mic in the hands of local comic Preston Tompkins in May ’16, Lasley was already focused on curating content for the space to give audiences something to see most nights of the week. A few months earlier, Tompkins and his writing partner Zach Reinert pitched her on a show where comedians would roast each other as different characters from pop culture.
“For people to put the time into costumes, affectations, props sometimes, it’s a lot more work than showing up and doing the act you’ve been working on for five, six, seven years,” says Lasley. Comics were up to the challenge and “Nerd Roast” was born and remains one of the most popular shows on its lineup to this day. In fact, Comedy RoomRoom plays host to a variety of nontraditional stand-up shows: from the shameful storytelling show We Still Like You to the subversive puppet show No Gods No Masters.
There’s a constant process of adding shows and balancing bookings, and Lasley notes, “It’s a community-driven thing with young comics pitching shows.” With the recent addition of Wednesdays to the comedy lineup, Lasley has ambitious goals for 2018. “If I really work it, I think we can hit 180 shows this year.”
Still, with the specter of three massive comedy clubs that book national acts looming over her and more alt-comedy spaces popping up every week, Lasley remains humble. “I still, in a lot of ways, don’t know that we have made it yet. If I’m honest, I think there’s so much further that we can go.”
Mutiny Is In The Eye Of The Beholder
If 25 years in the music business taught Jim Norris anything, it’s that he likes an underdog. “I’d always rather work with the guy living out of his van than living in a bus, you know? I’d rather get the best out of somebody when they’re starting out than the worst of somebody later when I have to start picking out the green M&M’s.”
You can tell the co-owner of Mutiny Information Cafe on South Broadway has seen it all; Norris looks like the grizzled punk uncle you drink a PBR with while the rest of the family watches the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in the living room. After dealing with bands for years, you can tell that he savors providing a space for young comedians to hone their craft. “It’s been great for me. As a promoter, comedians make far more sense, right?” he says. “Put five comedians on a bill and they’re all fucking stoked that you pay ‘em ten bucks and give ‘em two beers.”
He wasn’t sure about comedy until local jokesters Nathan Lund and Sam Tallent approached him about hosting their weekly showcase called The Fine Gentleman’s Club when he was booking the Rockaway Tavern. “I could count on those guys to show up and I’d let ‘em smoke pot on the back patio and those things, and it was a real cool, loose atmosphere,” says Norris. “That was a real DIY space, really hand-to-mouth.”
While Norris continued to bring in comedians while in charge at the Rockaway and Three King Tavern, it’s taken on a life of its own at Mutiny. Now hosting multiple monthly shows, highlights include J.D. Lopez’s Video Killed The Comedy Star, where music videos get a TRL-esque treatment from a rotating lineup, the guys from Videogames hosting live e-sports tournaments rife with smack talk and quipping, and Talkin’ Shop where North Carolina transplant Anthony Crawford interviews creators on how the sausage gets made.
Not to be missed, however, is Comedy Super Jam, hosted by next-generation crushers Georgia Rae and Miriam Moreno on the last Friday of the month. Entering its second year, they quickly owned the space and never fail to score solid headliners along with some of the top young talent you’ll be hearing from in the future.
It doesn’t hurt that almost every show is free to attend. Outside of when the space is hosting shows for the High Plains Comedy Festival, you’ll rarely see a cover attached and never a two-drink minimum. “I think why we do well with the music and the comedy here is those aren’t my revenue stream,” Norris says. “I’m not just a comedy club. I sell books and records and comic books and coffee and (people play) pinball. I have stuff going here 14 or 15 hours a day.” If someone is walking by and sees his giant neon signs that say “BOOKS” then he figured he’s attracting the right crowd, noting that most of what he sells is retro.
You get a sense that Norris appreciates an old-school approach to most things when he talks about how shows find a home there. “I don’t like to book online or over the phone,” he says. “You have to have your shit together enough to be confident in what you do and come and show it to somebody and ask them to their face if they’ll support you. It takes a lot of guts to do that.”
Hearing the old rock and roll soul talk about what he gets out of the venue makes it clear he’s aware he’s closer to the end of his career in entertainment than the start. “I want someone to invite me backstage at the Pepsi Center because I booked your first gig when no one had heard of you, when I sat here and laughed at your same jokes for a year because I’m here all the time.”
When you listen to the reverence he has for the talents cracking jokes there, though, it becomes clear that some of his best times are sitting around and shooting the breeze with the often liberal, quick-witted kids that pass through the space. “It’s about comedy and not money. I’d rather have a good life than the money that goes with it.”
Goin’ to Town
“It was our second show and a guy showed up covered in blood, and no one knew why or how he got there,” recalls Meghan DePonceau, cohost of Shanty Town. “I asked him what I could get for him and he said he had lost his dog. Only, he couldn’t remember the name of his dog.”
These things are bound to happen when you throw a comedy show in your backyard.
After a trip to Chicago and seeing the show Shithole (pre-Trump meme, by the way) along with the improvised mics/house parties Ft. Collins comics had been throwing when shows fell through, DePonceau was set on throwing down in the great (urban) outdoors. It didn’t hurt that her new backyard had been the set for a taping of Viceland’s Flophouse episode in Denver.
“We decided we always wanted to do comedy and music together because we thought it was really important to have two scenes that would support each other,” she says. Of course, even in the often raucous Capitol Hill, being able to pull off a band in a dense residential area takes some skill. “The biggest thing early on was noise complaints and finding bands that could play after a certain time knowing the neighborhood. And, ‘Drums or no drums?’”
That made singer-songwriter Emily Frembgen a no-brainer for their first show, along with a band she had worked with at a past bartending gig. She and co-host Jeremy Pysher were ready to go before the plans changed that afternoon. “The day of, Ben Kronberg showed up and they grilled from 2 o’clock on and it turned into an all day party,” she remembers. “All of a sudden we had a national headliner on our first show.”
From that warm May evening, the show continued to evolve over the summer, embracing a somewhat “white trash” vibe that DePonceau admits serves a bit of a function, too. “When things wouldn’t run perfectly or we’d have to use duct tape or slap things together, it was part of the charm and the feel. Or that’s what I’d tell myself.” It also gave her a chance to flex some of her mixology muscles, passing off batched craft cocktails as hooch to unsuspecting backyard revelers.”My favorite one was this basil, strawberry, white vinegar punch, and it was awesome.”
Put enough liquor in a yard party with a PA and there’s bound to be trouble, though. When things ran later -- and louder -- than expected, DePonceau says she was basically gambling by letting a show finish for 20 minutes so people “didn’t think we were total narcs.” The show takes pride in working with landlords and neighbors to make sure they understand what’s going on, though. “We have gotten one noise complaint,” she says. “I’m from Buffalo. I thought it was going to be a $75 ticket. I looked it up and it could be up to $1000,” she says with a nervous laugh.
If DePonceau is the one keeping the trains on time, her partner Pysher is the one keeping the train conductor from veering off the rails at times, “It was nice because I do love the idea of having a partner and being able to depend on them. I’m all logistics, planning, and the day of I have little meltdowns,” DePonceau admits. “And he has my back, hundred percent”
Now, as she gears up for 2018, they’re looking at new spaces—really, whatever people suggest. She and Pysher keep an open mind and want to fit their show to the space it inhabits, as well as the vibe of who’s hosting. “I want to have a seamless transition from outdoor shows to indoor shows next fall to be able to keep it going all year long.” It’s a sentiment that would make Andrew W.K. proud.