As the heady age of legal weed takes root, a pot-fueled stand-up comedy scene is bringing tokers and jokers together in California and Colorado. So what's it like to work the smoke-filled back room of a 420-friendly comedy club? Only one way to find...
SexPot comedy show in Denver. Photo by Cannabis Camera
I don't know my way around Los Angeles, but the cracked pavement of the dingy corner I'm standing on clearly isn't where gorgeous young starlets sip Cristal. Still, once I find the place and step inside, I'm in a well-lit headshop, with a wide array of herbal accessories on display, including dozens of elaborate glass bongs specially designed for smoking dabs.
I subtly drop the name of the guy who referred me and suddenly I'm whisked, Goodfellas-style, into a small stock room that's blocked from view by hanging tapestries. Then a secret door hidden in a false wall opens onto a long narrow hallway lined on both sides by even more impressive art glass. Until at last I'm ushered into a surprisingly swanky little lounge space in back, featuring waiters in crisp white shirts and black bow ties, plus a "bring your own" policy on marijuana in all forms that makes this members-only club one of America's few full-time smoke-easys. I can't disclose its location, because it's a secret.
"This is not an original idea. It's something people have always wanted," The proprietor offers, once I make my way through the crowd, and find an open seat at the specially designed hash bar. "Our community deserves a place to socialize, so we're providing a safe, discreet space for that. By now, the local authorities must be aware of our existence, but as it stands, we're not a priority."
I'm here for the unnamed, underground club's increasingly high-profile weekly comedy night. The show's been up-and-running less than six months, but headliners have already included Erik Griffin (Workaholics), Donnell Rawlings (Chappelle's Show), Anthony Jeselnik (The Jeselnik Offensive), and Charles Fleischer (the voice of Roger Rabbit).
"Most comedians smoke weed, so that gets them interested right off the bat," My host, who I agreed not to name in this article, explains. "A lot of them also think it's going to be an easy gig to come in and try out new jokes, when in reality this is probably the toughest room in all of LA. We're actually a great place to draw the line between the pros and the amateurs. Because if you need to work on your set, this room will tell you. Lose people's interest for even a second, they'll go right back to rolling up joints, or doing whatever."
Just under 100 people show up on a random Tuesday night, with no promised headliner. Approximately 95 percent of the crowd work in the local cannabis industry, and have a T-shirt on that proves it. So any thought that this audience will start cracking up at the drop of a hat because they're totally baked should be rapidly reconsidered.
That's amateur-hour stuff. These folks puff tough.
A "smoke-easy" in Los Angeles
And they ain't drunk, or even drinking. Which actually presents something of a challenge. Because while I haven't frequented many comedy clubs, I've been to enough to know that a few well lubricated tables generally serve as grist for the laugh mill, especially for borderline talents willing to work blue. Tell a few off-color jokes, get a sloshed dental assistant and a plastered plant manager guffawing, and the crowd just might follow along.
Deprived of those easy laughs, however, many of the comedians seem off-balance. The smart ones take the crowd's occasional stony silences to heart, then employ the old Letterman bit of winning them over with jokes about how badly the last joke bombed. The bitter comics, meanwhile, blame their audience by insisting that inhaling massive amounts of highly concentrated cannabis oil—often literally during the delivery of the punchline—somehow renders the audience unable to mentally process a bunch of lame-ass fart jokes.
Overall, the night's entertainment runs the gamut from jittery newbie to washed-up old timer to exciting young talent working out the kinks. I blaze a joint (or three) with local herb legend Dr. Dina, the self-described real-life Nancy Botwin, and discover that even the particularly unfunny acts hold my interest. On some level, being stoned makes me feel incredible empathy for the terrible predicament they find themselves in, put literally on the spot and expected to make everyone laugh.
"The smokeasy is generally in much higher spirits than typical comedy club crowds, which can get drunk and rowdy," Lauren Brenner, one of the evening's bright spots, tells me after her set. "I've actually never seen a heckler in here. And I'm no scientist, but my intuition tells me that's closely related to the cannabis."
Brenner confirms using marijuana as a creative tool while writing jokes, and even occasionally before performing. Her best line of the night, naturally, played right to the crowd:
I used to work at a medical marijuana dispensary but I had to quit. Because I started taking my work home with me every night.
Does Something Smell Funny?
My visit to the smoke-easy had the unexpected side effect of awakening my long-dormant desire to do standup, a bucket-list experience I've so far avoided largely due to the omnipresent threat of drunken heckling. But what if the wonderful new world of barely legal weed has opened up a more enlightened comedy club experience, not just for the audience, but for the performers as well? Would that be enough to get me on stage as a 38-year-old stand-up virgin?
To find out, I traveled to Denver the week leading up to 4/20 for an inside look at the Mile High City's cannabis-fueled comedy boom. And quickly discovered that if you smell weed, and hear people laughing, Kayvan Khalatbari must be somewhere nearby.
"I've always been a supporter of the arts, and this is my way to help promote an art form that I truly appreciate and enjoy," The 30-year-old legal pot impresario tells me over chai tea. "My motivation is to sponsor a successful show I can also have fun at."
As co-owner of Denver Relief, one of Colorado's oldest medical marijuana dispensaries, plus a small chain of local pizza restaurants, and a sought-after cannabusiness consulting firm, Khalatbari used to spend large sums on local advertising for his pizza and pot that proved largely ineffective in bringing in customers. Then one day, about two years ago, he decided to sponsor a small stand-up show at his original Sexy Pizza location. The event wasn't advertised as 420-friendly, but things quickly went decisively in that direction.
"I lit the first joint, and that kind of set it off," Khalatbari recalls. "People smoked all night, they barely drank at all, and I think a lot of them were kind of in awe. They laughed at the jokes, but they were also just soaking in the atmosphere, because we were sharing an experience we'd never had before. Going in, I didn't know what to expect, and it ended up being one of the most fun nights of my life. I also loved the civil disobedience aspect—the whole speakeasy vibe of what we were doing."
From there, things just kept rolling.
Comedy, THC, and tacos in Denver. Photo by Cannabis Camera.
Khalatbari now sponsors seven monthly shows under his SexPot Comedy label, plus multiple weekly open mics, a comedy game show, and four different locally produced podcasts. And he's got plans to push things even further, by making Denver a major touring hub for nationally emerging stand-up acts, while working closely with the best homegrown talent in Colorado to incubate television and film projects.
"I think we're on the front end of comedy blowing up, not just in Denver, but nationally," Khalatbari says. "As the more subdued marijuana scene we're cultivating here spreads, we're going to see people discover that an enjoyable evening out doesn't need to be about raging all the time. It can be about relaxing, and comedy's a great fit for that. So if 300 people come to our shows every week, and experience this successful on-site consumption model, I believe they will begin to accept it and even push for it."
After much soul searching and several internal pep talks, I finally commit to making my stand-up debut at one of SexPot's weekly open-mic nights. About ten minutes before the doors open, I find myself pacing around outside Denver's Voodoo Comedy Playhouse—crib notes in one hand and a joint of store-bought Sour Diesel in the other.
For a brief, self-destructive moment I debate whether sparking up in an alley behind the club might help settle my nerves. But then I remember that the primary cause of said anxiety is a growing fear that once I face an audience, I'll go blank and forget the five minutes of jokes I spent the last two days feverishly writing and half-assedly rehearsing. And so, since Marijuana is not exactly a performance-enhancing drug when it comes to remembering things, for once, getting high doesn't seem like the answer to my problems. Especially in light of something Nick Offerman (Parks and Recreation's Ron Swanson) once told me in an interview, back when I was an editor at High Times:
Me: Have you ever used cannabis while acting?
Nick Offerman: I tried it once when I first started smoking pot back in college. I thought: "Marijuana is amazing! The world is so beautiful—it's going to be so cool when I get really high and then perform in this production of Man of La Mancha." So I did it. And, you know, one of the things new initiates often say when they first smoke pot is, "I feel like everybody's looking at me."
Well, when you're standing on a stage—they are indeed looking at you. It was quite unnerving...
I decide to save the joint for after the show. Instead, I head inside and chat with a few open-mic regulars, who collectively give off a distinct Island of the Misfit Toys type vibe. They seem like the kind of kids who, back in high school, put their hearts and souls into drama club, instead of smoking weed behind a bowling alley and wisecracking with their loser friends (like me). At least that's my hastily formed first impression, one that only deepens when the night's first act arrives in the form of an improv troupe having a rap battle.
From there, at least half the performers at this (and likely every) open mic comedy night don't actually have anything funny to say. They're here for a free therapy session. Also, let's be honest, of the 30-odd people in the seats, every single one of them is either here to perform or to support a friend. It really is amateur hour, but on the plus side, that dynamic has the effect of making any even remotely funny one-liner shine like polished silver.
For instance, I laughed so hard at the following people turned around to stare:
I got really drunk two nights ago and passed out in the street. Woke up covered in a blanket of snow. And let me tell you, that's a shitty blanket!
As the night wears on, I quietly pray for someone not at all funny to immediately precede me, and have that wish granted. Then they call my name, and suddenly my heart starts pounding and my mouth goes dry. Fortunately, as a dedicated stoner, I'm used to dealing with both of these sensations.
Unfortunately, I stumble out of the gate, opening with a lengthy anecdote instead of a quick, punchy one-liner,. Then my mind splits into two tracks, running simultaneously. One attempts to remember and deliver my set as prepared, and the other wonders how on Earth I ever talked myself into this.
Until, mercifully, I find my footing with a few pot jokes:
People say smoking weed makes you lazy, but I don't think that's true. It's just that lazy people love smoking weed, so you get a false impression. Which makes sense, actually, because if you're already planning to spend the day binge-watching season 2 of Game of Thrones, why not take a few bong rips? You're going to experience all the good parts of getting high and none of the drawbacks—so that's actually a rational response.
Just don't say smoking pot made you lazy. That's like saying moisturizer made you masturbate.
Anyway, I'm not sure what evolutionary purpose humor serves, if any, but hearing the crowd start to laugh feels like a tall drink of water after nearly dying of thirst. Overall, it's not as exciting or pleasurable an experience as losing my sexual virginity, but at five-minutes and thirty-two seconds, it certainly lasted a lot longer. And I don't cry afterwards.
To put a firewall around my humiliation, should things have gone south, I'd invited only my wife and two close friends to the open-mic night. After the show, we all regroup in the alley behind the theater to dispose of some Sour Diesel and compare notes.
"I could tell you were struggling at the beginning," My wife says. "But then things kind of clicked. I saw this big smile come over your face, and I knew you were having fun."
When the smoke clears, I feel intoxicated by more than just the ganja. Stand-up allowed me to embody Lawrence Ferlinghetti's famous tight rope walker, "constantly risking absurdity, and death, whenever he performs." And so I do think I'll end up trying it again.
The Green Room
Hoping for a final bit of comedic inspiration before leaving the land of legal weed behind, I make plans to check out the Midnight Run a few nights after making my stand-up debut. Promoted under the SexPot umbrella, with a prominent 4/20 theme, this highly irie iteration of the long-running showcase promises to pair top-flight local comics with a selection of herb-friendly out-of-towners—all in Denver's historic Oriental Theater, which opened in 1929 as a "movie palace" that also once hosted live vaudeville.
Designed in the then-popular Exotic Revival architectural style, the theater's décor evokes a Middle Eastern oasis at twilight. In the lobby, a small bar serves beer and cocktails, but most of the early arrivers choose to hover around a free toast-your-own-frozen-waffle table set up close to the entrance. Not yet stoned, I nonetheless can't resist scarfing down a chocolate chip waffle drowned in syrup before moving upstairs to the 100-person capacity balcony.
Although on-site cannabis consumption remains forbidden in Denver, smoke rises, shall we say. A thickening fog hovers visibly in the balcony, a milieu I find more than inviting. Moving up a few notches on the comedy food chain also means that every comic on the bill has real chops. They're also, by and large, really, really stoned thanks to a backstage green room that more than lives up to its name.
"We were smoking a ton of weed backstage before the show, and then Andy Haynes, the host, made sure we all smoked even more weed immediately before we went on stage," Denver-native Noah Gardenswartzreveals after his show-stealing set. "For me it wasn't a new experience, because I usually perform high. That's not to say that I need to be high, but I enjoy smoking weed regardless, so I'm at least a little high 75 percent of the time I take the stage."
Gardenswartz says he greatly enjoys sharing the same wavelength with a slightly toasted audience, but sometimes such crowds indulge a little too much, and the energy in the room becomes dangerously mellow. Still, he'd much prefer to perform for an audience that's too high than too drunk. Plus, pot plays a subtle but important role in his writing.
"I can't honestly say weed has ever helped me create material, but it has definitely helped me enhance material. So more often than not, instead of having no jokes, smoking herb, and suddenly thinking of jokes, what will happen is I'll get high, think about a joke I'm already working on, and then start creating all kinds of fun new angles and riffs to explore."
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