Denver has been in desperate need of a national-quality stand-up festival for years. The explosion of open mics and alternative showcases, plus the city’s growing reputation as an incubator of new talent has nevertheless failed to put it on the same footing as similar scenes in Austin, Minneapolis and Portland, Oregon. Newer events like the Laugh Track Comedy Festival or the punk-rock Too Much Funstival are stacked with talented locals and a few out-of-towners, but neither have the resources or attention to compete with something like Portland’s Bridgetown Comedy Festival.
Cue the High Plains Comedy Festival, a two-day event run by Adam Cayton-Holland and Andy Juett. Cayton-Holland and his Grawlix troupe buddies Andrew Orvedahl and Ben Roy are not just at the top of the Denver food chain, they’ve been dining out at festivals like Just For Laughs Montreal and flirting with fame via Conan spots and the Amazon Studios pilot “Those Who Can’t.” The relationships they’ve built touring nationally have given them a chance to book solid out-of-town talent for the first year of this mostly-DIY festival (as did, of course, the bankrolling of its sponsors).
High Plains unfolded like a hybrid of Bridgetown—with its hip music venues and audiences—and The Denver Post‘s Underground Music Showcase, which takes over the same stretch of South Broadway annually. The first day of High Plains drew crowds to a podcast taping and happy hour showcase at indie club the Hi-Dive, where Denver’s Christie Buchele joked about her cerebral palsy while struggling to navigate the stairs to the stage. Matt Monroe, Kevin O’Brien and Troy Walker, all of whom run their own shows or headline locally, warmed the crowd up for headliners Beth Stelling and Kurt Braunohler.
Across the street at 3 Kings Tavern, Comedy Works regulars Louis Johnson and Orvedahl discussed decapitating hookers and unwanted urinal conversations. Andy Peters’s agreeably neurotic set disarmed the crowd with a bit about his phone substituting Hitler for hotel in predictive text, and wholly unnecessary slogans for things like milk and gasoline. A running open mic at bro-dude bar The Hornet allowed shut-out locals and anyone else a spot to try material. Kudos to hosts Brent Gill and Aaron Urist for keeping the loud, drunken crowds under control.
Fine Gentleman’s Club member Nathan Lund’s self-deprecating set kicked off another round at 3 Kings, which comic-for-comic hosted the best stuff of the night. From the bearded, articulate whimsy of Jordon Doll to the perfectly calibrated David Gborie and always-brilliant Kyle Kinane, it was an example of how to do comedy right at a music venue (hint: folding chairs with ample aisle room and a bar staff that didn’t try to yell over the comics certainly helped).
Marc Maron, who wasn’t officially on the roster, popped over from Comedy Works for a recording of Cayton-Holland’s My Dining Room Table podcast the next day, setting the stage for the crowds that would rule the rest of the night. The main events shifted down South Broadway to the Gothic Theatre, which sold out its Grawlix and Reggie Watts showcases quickly and reverted to standing-room-only tickets to accommodate lines down the block. Room-owning sets from Dave Stone, Roy, Chris Charpentier, Braunohler, Kinane and Matt Braugner were topped off with Watts’s oddly clipped performance, which found the musical-comedy improviser admitting he’d eaten some incredibly powerful cannabis edibles earlier (and it showed, disappointingly).
It’s easy to envision the fest getting bigger and buzzier next year, since it so easily hit the mark in giving Denver the marquee comedy event it’s been missing.