Whether it’s Austin, Seattle or Detroit, every non-coast comedy scene deals with the same conundrum: You build a community of talented standups, and just when things are looking good, the scene’s most prominent comics ditch their home-town for the sink-or-swim world of L.A. or New York. Though Denver’s comedy trio, The Grawlix, are seeking to break that tradition, and with a highly successful monthly stage show, a hilarious web series (often featured on Funny Or Die) and their new, Amazon funded sit-com pilot, Those Who Can’t, they’re chances of remaining land-locked funny-men are looking pretty good.
“By the standards of any scene, we all should have left Denver four or five years ago,” says Grawlix’s Adam Cayton-Holland, who was named one of Esquire’s Best New Comedians in 2012 and enjoyed a standup spot on Conan last January. “You hit a glass ceiling in a smaller city, and that’s when everyone moves. But we’re a test case that asks: What if a group of comics became good, and stayed in their scene?”
The Grawlix pilot for Amazon not only features three inept Denver high school teachers (who engage in termination-worthy behavior too juvenile for even the students to consider), but was also filmed in Denver, an endeavor that’s looking more attractive to outsiders with new state-sponsored incentives. With Ben Roy as a Henry Rollins-esque “people’s history” teacher, Andrew Orvedahl as a lovable yet thoroughly disrespected gym teacher, and Cayton-Holland as the witty straight man, the show has been garnering some enthusiastic customer reviews (which is the process Amazon has pioneered for deciding which of their eight comedy pilots will see another episode).
Yet when The Grawlix were first tapped to film Those Who Can’t, the Denver comics were seen as somewhat of the underdog when placed next to anticipated shows like Alpha House (starring John Goodman) and Onion News Empire. “The ten seconds that Bill Murray was in Alpha House probably cost as much as our entire budget,” says Evan Nix of Denver’s Nix Bros team, who filmed TWC as well as The Grawlix web series.
It will be interesting to see how Amazon’s democratically elected pilot system will pan out in terms of quality (it could be argued that classics like The Office and Breaking Bad would never have made it through such a process). Cayton-Holland is thankful for the opportunity, yet feels the tsunami wave of customer feedback is potentially threatening his creative confidence and prefers not to read them. While the high-strung, rant-tastic Ben Roy — his debut album I Got Demons landed on Laughspin‘s top 10 albums of the year — has read every single review: all 1,023 of them. “There’s nothing wrong with gaging people’s reactions, and looking for trends,” says Roy. “Many people have wanted a funnier, stronger female-role, which is something we’d brought up before we even started filming.”
This process, while cruel and unusual, is relatively tame compared to the comedy world that Roy, Orvedahl and Cayton-Holland came up in — which wasn’t comedy-based at all. “Comedy wasn’t very ‘cool’ when we started, there was no hip scene,” says Cayton-Holland. Outside of the now-historic club, Comedy Works — which mainly focused on national acts — there were almost no options to perform or see standup comedy when these three began in 2004.
This pre-dated Patton Oswalt’s Comedians of Comedy film, yet the demand for DIY standup was already in the air, leading the Grawlix comedians to begin hosting their own variety shows in Denver’s seediest dive bars, performing conceptual sketches and amateur standup for patrons unaware they’d stumbled into a comedy venue. “That made us all tougher,” says Cayton-Holland. “It was all very Road House, and taught us how to corral a drunk crowd. And it was a blank pallet, we could do whatever we wanted, because the stakes were so low.”
Primarily due to The Grawlix’s decision to remain in Denver, a whole new generation of comics have been sprouting up all across Denver like flannel-clad rock-martyrs in ‘90s Seattle. Comedy Works now has a local pool of talent to pull from for opening acts and occasional headlining spots, and there is at least one comedy show every night of the week in random bars, community spaces and punk houses. Not to mention Denver locals-turned-national acts like Josh Blue, Ben Kronberg and Comedy Central’s T.J. Miller, who are turning eyes inward from the coasts onto the mile high comedy scene.
“There really isn’t the same temptation to leave Denver for the coasts that there once was,” says Andrew Orvedahl, who actually did sail toward the sirens of L.A. years earlier, only to return to Colorado. “You do still have to travel to the coasts, though. Adam just did Conan while based here, and Ben’s done the Montreal [Just For Laughs] festival a bunch. But now that there are so many shows going on here, and we’re doing the pilot here, I think we’ll be staying in Denver for a while.”