HOME   BACK to the Columnist INDEX NOVEMBER 2007

DOUG HECOX is a comic and an author. His website is


New Developments in American Humor

The Monkey On Your Back Isn't Funny

Four Minutes To Fame


Mile-High City Makes Comedy Look Easy

Dying is easy but comedy, as the old saying goes, is hard.

It is especially hard for the new comedian. Relegated to handfuls of open-mike shows, which rarely - if ever - pay, in a rainbow of unforgiving locations - coffee shops, microbreweries and even Laundromats. Like water does with stones, it takes the roughening influence of audiences to polish jokes… and it doesn't happen overnight. Comedians endure it as part of the natural challenge we all know. It doesn't kill us, but it makes our acts stronger.

Many clubs avoid new comics, making it tough for novices to get stage time anywhere but back-alley clubs or coffee shops, or having to share mikes with poetry slams and spoken word venues. Jokes die a thousand deaths as they mature - and some don't survive into adolescence. Frustrated with everything from bad audiences to bookers who "forget" to pay you and a lack of positive reinforcement by other comedians, many comedians' nascent careers follow suit in the face of such indomitable odds. It's a rough business.

Which is why the energy and enthusiasm for new comics in Denver's legendary Comedy Works, now in its 26th year, is so refreshing.

There may be other clubs who do as Comedy Works does, but I have never seen anything like the attention given to new comics by seasoned professionals in Denver. The Mile High City is peppered with a robust collection of venues, ranging from small ones for traditional open mike shows to Comedy Works with its competitive approach to giving new comics time before forgiving, if not wholly enthusiastic, audiences.

Each Tuesday, new comics are given 2 or 3 minutes - but not more than that - to perform, while headliners are given 5 minutes to try out new material. The show is a cavalcade of different comedy styles but, despite nearly 18 comedians, the Denver crowd keeps pace and applauds as loud at the end as at the beginning. Indeed, so high-quality is Comedy Works' "New Talent Showcase" that the show has its own devotees - people who choose it over more traditional bills featuring national acts.

Much of this success is due to Comedy Works' commitment to only allowing on stage people who are capable of it. They may be young and inexperienced, but no one is on that stage without at least 2 minutes of material that has worked elsewhere. It epitomizes the meritocracy Chris Rock described in Jerry Seinfeld's 2002 documentary "Comedian."

So competitive is the roster of talent at Comedy Works that new comedians register and wait weeks before being called. In mid-November, I was at Comedy Works and met a new comedian - Ben Lee - who was very nervous backstage. He had performed there a couple of times before and would be doing 2-3 minutes that night. He also told me that, because he was only 17, his parents had to accompany him to every show in clubs serving alcohol.

I didn't have the heart to tell him I'd been performing longer than he'd been alive.

Regardless, his nervous energy backstage became an enthusiastic schoolboy charm on stage and, for those 2 or 3 minutes, Ben Lee got big laughs - even out of a joke about Arbor Day.

David Gray, known on stage as Deacon Gray, is Comedy Works' new talent coordinator. Maybe it's his Oklahoma roots or maybe it's his naturally genteel nature, but he provides not only a very supportive, very positive atmosphere for the performers. He also takes the time to meet with them en masse after the show to give his notes on their acts - to suggest new ways of fine tuning their delivery, their jokes, or what-have-you. It's very academic, I suppose, but the rigors he employs have the desired effect: the audience gets a good show and the performers get constructive analysis by their peers.

Undeniably, part of the success is also due to Denver's population of comedy fans. Scientists can argue whether it's the city's high altitude that forces people into hypoxia-induced laughter or not, but the audiences there are consistently fun. This may be part of the reason New York's Dave Attell taped his first CD there, and why Jake Johannsen and Kathleen Madigan count Comedy Works as among their favorite of clubs. Roseanne Barr, Tim Allen and Josh Blue all started in Denver, and it's safe to say the city will produce more big names soon. It's got a lot going on right now, and is as thriving a comedy market as ever I've seen.

Watching Gray and his brood of young comedians actively engaged in the process of learning how to be better rather than being forced to learn independently as many of us did, was strangely reaffirming. Comedy Works, located in downtown Denver near the city's famous 16th Street Mall, has recently opened a second room - four miles south of the original room, near the Denver Tech Center. To the north, the city also recently saw the opening of a Denver Improv. For the touring road comic, Denver offers great audiences but, thanks to Gray and Comedy Works' militant attention to quality, it is also a great proving ground for new comedians.

For more information on Comedy Works' new talent night, visit here. For additional information on Denver's stand-up comedy scene, visit HOME Back to the Top