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Stress and Sociopathy at Denver’s High Plains Comedy Festival

In its second year, the event is already looking like a success, giving once-marginal comedians access to the national spotlight.

Josiah Hesse

Josiah Hesse

Denver comedian Kevin O'Brien hot-boxing his lion-mask. Photos by Ryan Brackin unless otherwise noted

Comedian Ben Kronberg is telling a story about performing fellatio on a dog. Large swaths of the audience at Denver's High Plains Comedy Festival are feeling awkward, and their discomfort drives many of us to laugh still harder. The show is called Competitive Erotic Fan Fiction, a Nerdist Industries podcast that is kicking off this three-day festival with lewd short stories involving Rancid and The Goonies. Before the weekend is over, 3000 people will filter in and out of the bookstores, bars, DIY venues, and a black-metal brewery that host the festival, enduring ab-crunch laughter from comics like Pete Holmes, T.J. Miller and Kumail Nanjiani.   

Kronberg was supposed to have written a carnal story about Woodrow Wilson, but he characteristically twisted it into a cringe-worthy erotic nightmare involving incest and beastiality. This Denver-native-turned-New Yorker has made a career of awkward silence, driving Roseanne Barr to shout "go fuck yourself" at him when he appeared on Last Comic Standing in May. Kronberg attracts the kind of people who enjoy being an artistic minority, as does this Erotic Fan Fiction show. In the other words, the kind of people who fetishize uncomfortable public situations.

"My Dad asked if he could smell my fingers." Ben Kronberg exploring the audience's boundaries

But it's more than just Kronberg's story—particularly the part where the dog ejaculates into his mouth and his father hands him a knife, telling him to murder the beast—that has so much of the crowd squirming in their seats. This is hour one of 72-hour comedy odyssey, and many of the 65 comedians performing are in the audience. There's no shortage of laughter, flirtation and intoxicated merriment, but running through it all is a thick tension with both the comics (who have a marathon of performances ahead of them) and the audience, whose expectations for this festival and this scene couldn't be higher.

This is only High Plains' second year, and yet it already feels like an institution on par with Portland's Bridgetown or Austin's Moontower Comedy Festival. High Plains' 2013 debut exceeded expectations by making a profit (virtually unheard of for first-year comedy festivals), with Reggie Watts headlining and an unscheduled appearance by Marc Maron. This year's festival has been expanded from two days to three (well, four, if you count the set T.J. Miller headlined on Wednesday at Deer Pile, a DIY venue above a vegan restaurant), added 25 percent more comedians, and is hosting the final night inside a newly-renovated arts venue owned by the state of Colorado.

In the last three years Denver's stand-up scene has developed a bit of national relevance, while also maintaining the regional economy of countless standup shows sponsored by local businesses. Many of these comics have spent years doing open mics, perfecting their craft while observing one another's progress—thousands of hours whittling down the art of talking. Industry attention has flanked festival co-founder Adam Cayton-Holland, landing him on Conan and @Midnight. His comedy collaborator, Ben Roy, recently performed a one-hour set at Montreal's Just For Laughs—arguably the rough equivalent of a top-billing slot for a musician at Coachella.

Things are going pretty well in Denver, a state of affairs that usually terrifies comics. For the local veterans—and supporters of Denver comedy—much is riding on this festival being a sustainable success. But acording to headliner Pete Holmes, there's nothing better for the cause than a little bit of tension.

Pete Holmes

"It's good to be a little bit anxious before going on stage, a little hungry and horny," Holmes tells me when I ask him about a comment he made (on his recently-cancelled TBS talk show) about no longer meditating before going on stage because he needs to be stressed to be good. "Anxiety is a bell-curve: Too little is no good, and too much is no good. You want to be just a little nervous. It's a pilot light that takes you onto the stage."

Chuckle-fuckers (comedy groupies) line the sidewalks outside of the multi-venue festival, spreading rumors about a secret Dave Chappelle show (his birthday performance was the following Sunday at Red Rocks, and he's known to drop in for stage-time at small shows when he's in town).

Stars of HBO's Mike Judge comedy Silicon Valley T.J. Miller and Kumail Nanjiani signed on to the festival before their sitcom became the network's second-biggest hit of 2014 (just behind Game of Thrones.) The two of them receive a lot of points and stares from starstruck fans over the weekend—though, like Kronberg, Miller is a Denver-native who achieved mainstream success after leaving his hometown.

There's some (largely unspoken) resentment floating around toward those who abandoned the pot-haze firmament of Colorado for the escalators-to-the-stars that are Los Angeles and New York. But there isn't a soul here who hasn't considered leaving, particularly after seeing Kronberg on late night TV and T.J. Miller in a Transformers movie. This sophomore year of High Plains Festival is a kind of State of the Union for the Denver comedy scene, a moment of validation for all of those who begrudgingly refused the dangling carrots of the coasts and held tight to the mountains.  

"It makes me feel more justified [for staying] every time my friends come and experience this scene and tell me, 'I get it. I'm jealous of this,'" festival co-founder Adam Cayton-Holland tells me. "At High Plains I get that all weekend long. I think people are starting to realize the scene is strong, so Denver is a bit more on the comedy radar."

The necessary ribbon of tension throughout the comedy shows is eventually snapped by German-satire electro-trash band, Total Ghost, performing within Mutiny Information Cafe bookstore. Partying in a bookstore at 3 am is pleasantly surreal, somewhat like the Barnes & Noble scenes in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. My friend Taylor Gonda from the "These Things Matter" podcast is nervous about her DJ set following the show, wondering if there's style of music universally appreciated by comedians and comedy fans. She's prepared a set centering on David Bowie and The Smiths, but after some rumination she throws the gameplan out the window and improvises two-hours of vintage hip-hop, which appears to be the great musical unifier of the comedy scene.

Total Ghost at Mutiny Information Cafe bookstore

High Plains is a festival run by comedians, and if there's one tool most comics know how to wield, it's improvisation. Minutes before the headlining sets (hosted by Kristin Rand) are supposed to begin, festival co-founder Andy Juett is riding in a pedicab down the Sixteenth Street Mall, a margarita blender from the Hard Rock Cafe resting in his lap. The appliance is for comedian Howard Kremer, who broke the one he'd planned to use in his set—a bit of prop-comedy where he makes a smoothie for the audience. Juett visited a half-dozen bars, offering cash for their blenders, before Hard Rock agreed and he was able to rush it back to the venue.  

The bit ends up falling on its face when Kremer can't get the blender to work on stage, but he turns the awkwardness to his advantage, gaining the audience's sympathy before skewering them with a bit of wit and charm. That kind of setback might've buried a less seasoned comic, but Kremer knows how to dance with that devil and turned it around.

"For me, it's not so much the jokes or the punchlines [that make a show]," Pete Holmes tells me later. "It's me exposing my soul, or my essence, to people. There is something mystical about it. It's sexual. It's an exchange of energy that results in people's brain chemistry's changing and causing them to make involuntary noises. A male's sex drive is often tied to tension and anxiety. The audience is also usually a bit anxious; they paid for a ticket, they might be fighting as a couple... I often will feel horny before a show, and then not horny afterward."

Andy Juett attempting to troubleshoot Howard Kremer's blender

Aside from not masturbating, Holmes says he never drinks before a show and rarely gets high even offstage. Though this is Denver's first major comedy festival since our fully-legal cannabis laws went into effect last January—and while I don't run into anyone smoking anything more than a pen vaporizer inside venues, a surprising level of restraint—there are certainly a fuck-ton of marijuana edibles and tinctures bandied about.

Just before Saturday evening's headlining show begins, Holmes hosts a live version of his podcast "You Made It Weird," where fellow comedian Nick Thune offers him a taste of some THC-infused soda. "I only took the babiest of sips," he tells me after, "and it hit me really quickly."

Holmes is scheduled to close the festival that night, but the pot-soda gets so on top of him that he asks to open the show instead. He explains that the tension of watching set after set while the Tetrahydrocannabinol fairies dance in his skull (paraphrased) might've tipped him over the edge and turned him into a crippled, unfunny bag of nerves.

Holmes says as much on stage, giggling his way through an impressively freewheeling set that crushed. This no doubt provides a bit of tension (healthy or otherwise) for the remaining comics who didn't anticipate following the biggest name on the bill.

"I wasn't expecting to be your headliner tonight, but it seems like some people can't handle they shit," Denver's Josh Blue jokes in his festival-closing set. Like every other night of the weekend, the festivities on Saturday jitter on past 4 am. Once all the comics have fulfilled their duties to Andy Juett and Adam Cayton-Holland, a narcotic wave passes over the lot of them. Around 1 am, an improvised baseball game breaks out in the green-room, with a hacky-sack serving as the ball and a rolled-up pizza box as the bat. The rules are loose and the game devolves into a kind of dodgeball with bases, and the crowd of off-hours comedians exudes a childlike enthusiasm for every play, falling apart with primal merriment. They know that the clicking ascension of the festival roller coaster is behind them, and there's nothing but a duty-free playground of fun stretching into the horizon.

Comedians Chris Charpentier (right) and Sam Tallent (left) playing green-room baseball. Photo by Kevin O'Brien

Follow Josiah M. Hesse on Twitter.