High Plains Comedy Festival
Multiple venues
August 21-23, 2014

By John Wenzel

Rating: ★★★☆☆

Denver’s second annual High Plains Comedy Festival was heavy on stand-up staple subjects: race, gender, relationships, kids, masturbation, getting sober (or not). But since this was Denver, where cannabis is recreationally legal and has long been woven into everyday life, the pot jokes were not only plentiful but diverse. Most bits went beyond the fact that some of the event’s 65 comedians were fans of the stuff and into a more nuanced portrayal of the drug’s integration into the social fabric.

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This wasn’t entirely a fluke. The name “High Plains” gets a lot of knowing chuckles, but the festival and Denver’s comedy scene at large are increasingly inextricable from the marijuana industry. More than a dozen of its local showcases and podcasts enjoy sponsorship from entrepreneur Kayvan Khalatbari, who owns the Denver Relief dispensary/pot shop and whose Sexpot brand combines his love of pizza (he also owns the Sexy Pizza local chain), comedy and weed.

High Plains co-founders Adam Cayton-Holland (of Denver’s Grawlix trio) and Andy Juett, both comics, neither hide nor overemphasize the weed connection (its presenting sponsor is also a burrito chain, Illegal Pete’s, which owns Cayton-Holland’s record label The Greater Than Collective). But only a scent-challenged person could miss it at the shows.

The fest kicked off August 21 along the hipster-laden South Broadway corridor featuring Bryan Cook’s L.A.-by-way-of-Seattle show Competitive Erotic Fan Fiction, which encourages comics to flex their creative vulgarity. Mike O’Connell played “Moonlight Sonata” on electric guitar over a pre-recorded tale of perverted dolls, the NPR-like authority in his voice selling every squishy detail. Denver’s Ben Roy (also of the Grawlix) ranted about Rancid, a perfect marriage of subject matter and crowd at punk/metal venue 3 Kings Tavern. People toked openly outside throughout that and the next showcase, O’Connell’s Drunken Tales of Glory and Shame, which featured T.J. Miller, Amber Tozer, Nick Thune and David Gborie, among others.

After an early podcast recording of Cayton-Holland’s My Dining Room Table that included Beth Stelling, Thune, Nate Bargatze and Emily Gordon, Friday night expanded to a quartet of venues (including a surprisingly popular open mic at Brendan’s Pub) that veered from the energetic embrace of absurdity from Sean Patton, Adrian Mesa and Mara Wiles to manifest absurdity in Kate Berlant’s impossible-to-classify act of theatrical language molestation.

Pete Holmes headlined a show at the Hi-Dive rock club to a capacity house, kicking the tires on new material about the virtues of having sex with one’s husband every day. Across the street at 3 Kings’ late show, Billy Wayne Davis (who, along with Bargatze, was the rare Southern accent at this fest of mid-level, alt-friendly comics) delivered the best indirect Jeff Dunham slam of the event: “He’s not racist. The puppet is!” Chris Fairbanks and Andy Haynes both noted how high they were in their contrasting sets, capped off by a Kumail Nanjiani fretting about his blood pressure with the phrase, “We dig our graves with forks and spoons” at 3 Kings.

Long lines led to set times lagging by 15 or 20 minutes at a couple of Friday night shows. But Saturday’s offerings — a trio of mellow, mid-day podcast recordings, followed by marquee showcases at downtown’s echo-laden McNichols Building — offered a chance to catch every angle of the fest while not missing overlapping performers, from Holmes’s vaguely bro-ish You Made It Weird to The Indoor Kids and These Things Matter.

The Grawlix showcase packed out the top floor of a building that Andrew Orvedahl compared to “a clan Olive Garden,” given its Greek architecture and heritage in a town whose political structure was once heavy with KKK members. A manic story about haunted hayrides by the Walsh Brothers was followed by a low-key, winding, slightly deflating set from Cameron Esposito. But it was Nanjiani, whose appearance received a deafening welcome from the crowd, who ruled the hour.

The night wound down with a surprise early appearance by Holmes on what was supposed to his own headlining show, Holmes sheepishly admitting he’d had too much marijuana (from a weed soda, apparently) and deciding to go on early because he’d never performed high before. The set was solid, if clipped from what people were expecting, which meant Denver-based headliner Josh Blue took his place at the end. “They needed a headliner that could handle their weed!” Blue screamed, and he wasn’t wrong. (A few other comics complained privately about Holmes switching up the order).

In between, Ian Karmel – he of the “if a trumpet could be Jewish” voice – flattened with a story about his rage in the Taco Bell drive-thru line, Howard Kremer fumbled through an awkward but endearing experiment in real-time smoothie-making, and Bargatze brought his measured lilt to brilliant tales of growing up in the South. Host Kristin Rand maintained impressive momentum, and the standing-room-only crowd, more age-diverse than the previous couple nights, laughed at even the mildest jokes.

Even in its infancy, High Plains’ booking and organization already feels tighter than the similar-in-tone Bridgetown Comedy Festival in Portland, Oregon, living up to its name by balancing giddy, explosive crowds with half-lidded stoner grins. Denver’s still hungry, it seems. 

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