Can a Mid-Sized City’s Thriving Comedy Scene Survive the LA Exodus?

Grawlix’s Adam Cayton-Holland (Photo by Ryan Brackin)

If you’re a mid-level comic with a few credits under your belt, at some point you’ve probably been asked the question: “So, when are you moving to LA?” The person asking was likely from Los Angeles, and didn’t ask in the neutral tone of a guidance counselor “have you thought about moving to LA?” It’s always when are you moving. For many in this business, your hometown comedy scene is viewed as the high school of your career, with road-gigs and festivals as your bachelors degree – followed by the inevitable move to Hollywood to begin your masters.

And just as every comic has to decide when (and if) they want to take the big leap to Hollywood, their hometown comedy scene of Austin, Portland, Boston, Denver, or wherever, has to restructure itself in their absence, either dealing with a flood of talented performers clamoring to fill the newly open gigs, or shutting down clubs and canceling mics because because half the people moved away and the other half are jaded.

“I think it can be a healthy thing,” Denver comedian Adam Cayton-Holland says of the fact that several local comics are currently migrating to LA. “It’s like a minor league baseball team, with the talent moving upward… I keep hearing in Denver that currently the same ten or twelve people are getting all the great shows. So if half of those people move, then there’s six more spots for the on-deck young guys.”

Cayton-Holland’s sketch and standup group, The Grawlix, recently landed a ten episode deal for their sitcom, Those Who Can’t, with the network truTV in LA. This is one of a few factors that have helped fuel the embers of exodus that have been simmering under the Denver comedy scene for the last year or two.

Currently, there are five comics and two sketch comedy filmmakers from Denver who are all moving to LA within a few months of each other, with a handful of others strongly considering it. This may not sound like a lot, but Denver comics are notoriously stubborn about leaving; particularly since more and more national comics like Dave Chappelle or Andy Kindler have been spending long periods of time in Denver performing at local shows.

Cayton-Holland says that while he will spend this summer in LA writing and shooting the first season of Those Who Can’t, he will remain a Denver resident. Fellow Grawlix member Andrew Orvedahl has also made tentative plans to stay in Denver for a year, but at the moment Ben Roy, the third member, plans to relocate to LA.

“LA is amazing, but it also makes me agro,” says Cayton-Holland. “I kind of hate Los Angeles. I like it here, it’s more my speed. I want to live in Denver, that’s the first thing, and make everything else conform to that.”

It’s a common sentiment from both Denver residents and outsiders that the Grawlix guys should’ve headed to LA many years ago. But it’s impossible to overstate how much impact them staying – and spearheading the most popular comedy show in town – had on building this city’s massive standup community. It’s difficult to imagine the unprecedented success of Denver’s High Plains Comedy Festival (which is only now entering its third year) or the fact that there are several popular comedy shows on any given night of the week, if Grawlix had moved away in 2010.

Often Denverites can get a bit punk-rock contrarian at the suggestion that they have to move to LA or New York to work in the entertainment industry, as if there is nothing of substance sandwiched between the continental coasts.

“When a plane from Los Angeles flies over Colorado to New York, we all run outside with our ski equipment to try and deflect the sunlight and get the plane’s attention,” Cayton-Holland says on his latest album, Backyards, parodying the snooty image some may have about Denver. “And then we yell ‘throw something down that we can worship, like the Coke bottle in The Gods Must Be Crazy! What is the Internet?!’ But then they’re gone, so we just go back to bludgeoning each other with craft beer bottles and wiping our asses on the ground like dogs.”

Last Friday Cayton-Holland held a release party for his new album at Denver’s Hi-Dive rock club, with nearly every recognizable face from the scene in attendance. With it’s 225 person capacity, Hi-Dive was so crammed with bodies that it often became difficult to even know what was happening on stage, which served as the ultimate metaphor for the Denver comedy scene: Very popular, but lacking an infrastructure to support that popularity.

“Denver is a really perfect example of a local scene that’s thriving,” says Samantha Pitchel, a comedy show producer who has worked for SXSW and Bonnaroo festivals. “They’re highlighting local talent while also becoming a destination for national comics. And that the Grawlix guys are able to write and sell a show from Denver is pretty crazy.”

While Denver has no shortage of talent – and is building an economic structure for that talent through production companies like Sexpot Comedy and the Greater Than collective – it doesn’t have the entertainment industry for movies, TV and commercials that LA has. And it’s this pursuit of work outside of standup that is drawing many Denver comics to LA.

In her latest AV Club column, Cameron Esposito described her experiences with this very familiar path, having once been a Chicago comedian who was repulsed by the idea of moving to LA, but after getting some success under her belt she began to see her hometown options as a little lacking.

“I began to imagine myself at 50, living in a city that just didn’t have any jobs in my field outside of live performance and scraping rent together with live show earnings,” Esposito writes. “I imagined myself having to go out every night for a set at some bar and having to drive to Milwaukee or Peoria or Madison every weekend and missing all the events my not-yet-existent kids would ever have and never sleeping in the same bed as not-yet-my-wife. It was when I knew what I didn’t want that I was finally ready to move.”

Denver comedian Troy Walker has pretty much relocated to LA (he divides his time between both cities), and describes feeling the same itch as Esposito when it comes to your hometown prospects.

“When you’re just a Denver comic it’s hard to conceive, but once you start doing festivals and stuff, you start to see the landscape more accurately,” Walker says of his comedy career. After doing well at Portland’s Bridgetown Festival, Walker found himself getting some attention from LA management and took a few trips out there. Last January, he rented an apartment in LA and did the rounds as an actor during pilot season. While there, his agent got a call from a Late Late Show producer one night, saying they had a cancellation and needed a last-minute standup comic.

His agent sent the producer a tape of him, and in a matter of hours, Walker had a major TV credit to his name.

“If I wasn’t in LA, the likelihood that my agent would even submit me for that is low,” he says. “Because you’re out of sight, out of mind. That was a ‘who’s here?’ situation. If I was in Denver, and even if they liked the tape, why would they risk me having a flight delay or something, when there’s a thousand comics down the street they could use?”

While it’s unlikely to get booked as a last-minute act on TV from Denver, many comics have proved that it’s not impossible to get TV work in LA or New York while living in Colorado. Last October, Andrew Orvedahl performed on The Tonight Show, while Cayton-Holland has appeared once on Conan and three times on @Midnight. Admittedly, though, attempting this does put a sizable speed bump in front of your career – and in an industry littered with failed ambitions, you want to remove as many obstacles as possible.

“It’s not weird for comics to move up to a bigger market like LA, what’s weird is that so many comics have stayed in Denver,” says Chris Charpentier, who is one of several comics moving from Denver to LA next month, including his girlfriend and fellow comic, Haley Driscoll. “Denver is very top-heavy. Some people need to leave so others can fill those roles and become stronger themselves.”

Charpentier’s comedy team, Fine Gentleman’s Club, helped spearhead a second generation of comedians in Denver with their weekly comedy show Too Much Fun. Though like Cayton-Holland’s release show, TMF has become so popular comedy fans often have to show up early to find a seat.

While Fine Gentleman’s Club will continue as a trio without Charpentier, the Grawlix monthly show will come to a close next month. It’s possible that their absence – along with comedian Kristin Rand, and comedy filmmakers the Nix Brothers, who are leaving to film Those Who Can’t with the Grawlix team in LA – will free up space for other shows, projects and mics, as well as spreading out the audience into new avenues.

Many of the comics leaving for LA are confident that their departure is not a threat to the health of the Denver comedy scene. Though it can be argued that Boston once had a standup community that was equally as rich and celebrated as Denver’s (if not more), but is now only a memory.

In the 2003 documentary, When Stand Up Stood Out, Boston is said to have experienced a comedy renaissance from the late seventies to the early nineties, bringing comics like Paula Poundstone, Lenny Clarke, Colin Quinn, Steven Wright, Dennis Leary, Janeane Garofalo, and Bobcat Goldthwait to national attention. Though due to drug abuse, jealousy, the collapse of the eighties comedy boom, and many comics moving away to New York or LA, the scene quickly fizzled out. Over the last decade or so, Boston has had a difficult time even hosting nationally touring comics, which removes opportunities for younger comics to open for a big-name headliner, thereby crippling the ability to start a local scene.

“I grew up in Boston, and am visiting here now, and every time I come home and I’m looking for something to do, it’s really hit or miss,” says Pitchel. “It’s a really inactive scene right now. I think it’s hard for [comedians] in Boston because they’re like ‘I’m just going to go to New York.’ I saw Marc Maron here last night, and he was talking about how he used to live here, but everyone moved away from Boston around the same time he left. Boston really hasn’t had a strong scene since the mid-nineties.”

It’s worth noting that Denver comedy’s economic structure is much different than the eighties comedy boom, and that comics here don’t have the same proclivity for cocaine that the Boston comics did (large swaths of them have even sworn off alcohol; though marijuana is still, predictably, very popular).

There is the concern, though, that if too many comics move to LA in a short period of time, and the comics coming up behind them (many of whom didn’t have to build a scene from the ground up like their predecessors did) don’t come in and fill the gap with as much optimism, energy and talent, it’s not inconceivable that twenty years from now someone will be making a documentary on the golden years of the Denver comedy scene.

Though comics moving away is certainly not a guaranteed death sentence for a comedy community.

“Within the past few Portland has lost Ian Karmel and Ron Funches, who both immediately got jobs on TV when they got to LA,” says Pitchel. “These things tend to go in cycles. Comedy scenes tend to have a class of people who come up at the same time, and when one of them leaves they tend to all go together.”

There is also the silver lining that comics like Cayton-Holland can set a template for comics looking to work in LA, but remain connected to Denver comedy scene – both allowing room for younger comics to grow, but keep institutions like High Plains Comedy Festival (of which Cayton-Holland is an organizer and co-founder) alive.

“Every one of my friends in LA, all they want is to make a TV show with their friends, and we got that,” he says. “I spend about twenty days of each month in Denver. We’ve gotten a lot of shit for not moving, and we’ve wondered if it was a good choice. But we’re making funny videos, people are liking them, we’re getting good meetings, we’re getting on [JFL] Montreal, we’re getting on TV – and doing it all from here. And now, in my humble opinion, we’ve won the lottery.”

Can a Mid-Sized City’s Thriving Comedy Scene Survive […]