Everyone knows comics are an anxious, fearful bunch. In fact, a recent article on The Independent’s website claimed to prove the link between comics, anxiety and mental illness. It of course immediately went viral in the comedy community as comedians took a sort of pride in finally being diagnosed. Accepting this trait in comics and talking about it on and off stage lends a sort of credibility to comedians. The question is, at what point is it self-destructive to buy into the idea that psychosis is synonymous to comedy?
Self-proclaimed nervous guy Dave Ross, a standup comedian from LA, wonders about this same thing. Ross is about to go on tour and confesses, “There are a few shows I’m worried might be like the one in Blues Brothers where there’s chicken wire and people are yelling ‘You’re a pussy,’ and every time I tell a story they’re like ‘Fuck you’ and they try to kill me. But I’m stoked for all the shows really.” Ross, who will be at ArtBar (119 Gold SW) on Tuesday, April 8, delves into the psychotic proclivity of comics in his standup and his podcast “Terrified.”
In many ways, this is the impetus for people to do comedy, because being a comic is a great way to find power in your weaknesses, fears and anxiety. “I think everyone is afraid, but I think a lot of people aren’t honest with themselves and the people around them about their fears,” says Ross. “And I think that’s because the world, and more specifically America, has drilled it into our heads that it’s not ok to be afraid of things.” In his podcast “Terrified” he covers this subject extensively. Analyzing fear and “air[ing] it out takes the power away,” says Ross.
However, Ross agrees that obsessing about fears is also a good way to foster those weaknesses in an unhealthy way. “I talk about anxiety less and less on stage because at a certain point it doesn’t help,” says Ross, “If you’re just talking about it over and over and harping on it and you’re still anxious after years of talking about it and you’re not getting better, then what’s the point?” Perhaps it’s not that comics are more inclined to have anxiety, but that we’re more inclined to be truthful about it. And then we either self-implode or heal, either harp on it or work through it in five-minute increments onstage in front of strangers. I think ultimately that’s the connection between mental illness and comedy: unabashed and unapologetic truthfulness.
Watching a comedian move seamlessly between pre-written material and off the cuff banter with the audience while maintaining control of the show, making everyone laugh and improvising most of their set—well, it’s sort of like seeing a unicorn. There’s a very distinct possibility that Paula Poundstone is a unicorn. The comedian is known for her impeccable crowd work, which I witnessed when I first saw her perform in the 1987 TV special “Women of the Night” with Ellen DeGeneres and Rita Rudner. The way she incorporated the audience into her act changed the way I saw stand-up comedy. She provokes the audience with adamant personal questions, mocking their responses, but in a playful and free manner that never quite seems confrontational. With a new CD out called I Heart Jokes: Paula Tells Them In Boston, Poundstone can be heard on NPR’s “Wait Wait...Don’t Tell Me!” See her live at the Lensic Performing Arts Center (211 W. San Francisco) in Santa Fe tomorrow evening at 7:30, and witness as she guides the audience through a series of quick comebacks and witty one-liners. Tickets run between $27.50 and $35. Lensic Performing Arts Center, Santa Fe • Fri Dec 13 • 7:30pm • $27.50-$35 • 21+ • View on Alibi calendar
Winning photo by UNM art education graduate student Junfu Han
An older Latina woman stands clutching a telephone pole painted with colors of the American flag in a border town of the Southwestern United States. She’s expressionless except for a squinting of her dark eyes during the midday sun. Her gaze is slightly off camera and a silver cross is half hidden under her blouse. Her left wrist is bandaged, yet she doesn’t seem broken. Rather, she's solid and stoic with an unassuming strength. The author of this photograph is Junfu Han, a UNM Art Education graduate student and the winner of the 1st Annual International Education Week photo contest.
During the week of Nov. 11, UNM’s Global Education Office hosted International Education Week, and unlike previous years, this year’s event included the photo contest. The week focuses on the benefits of studying abroad and celebrates the diversity of UNM students. Photographers entered the contest, whose theme was “International Experiences,” with portraits, landscapes, architecture, street photography, abstract or experimental pictures. Han’s striking composition of the Latina woman in the Chihuahuita community in El Paso, TX was declared the winner with its portrayal of American mythos and Mexican experiences on the border.
A few months ago, I wrote about Denver’s successful High Plains Comedy Festival, which spotlighted such high profile alt-comics as Reggie Watts and Kurt Braunohler. Denver, just a few hours up I-25, is becoming a major port of comedy—and with its success, Albuquerque’s comedy scene grows, too.
Producer and comic Dawn Schary recently created Carpe Diem Comedy, a standup show at Imbibe (3101 Central NE) every first Thursday. It’s the only monthly show in the Nob Hill area and is already bringing in high quality talent from the burgeoning Denver scene. Schary’s stage persona is foul-mouthed and often brutally honest, but as her day-to-day self, the comic cheerfully explains, “My vision is to connect nearby comedy scenes, and to make ABQ an obvious place to hit on a young comic's tour.”
photo by Crystal Allen
For this month’s show, comic Jordan Doll travels down from the Mile High city to riff on monsters, video games and wizards. On stage he skillfully tackles paranormal scenarios, a theme he carries into his comedy podcast “Werewolf Radar.”
Fellow Denver comic Nathan Lund, one-fourth of the comedy group Fine Gentleman’s Club, also takes the helm at Carpe Diem Comedy this month. Watching Lund onstage is like watching a very well-read mountain man expertly navigate a laser beam field—he weaves smartly through jokes about his weight, politics and passive-aggressive lovemaking skills.
Functioning as a bridge between ABQ and Denver comedy, the Nov. 7 Carpe Diem Comedy show is a blend of extremely absurd, silly and politically charged comedy. Show starts at 7pm and is absolutely and magically free.
Comedy superstar Reggie Watts can be a hard man to track down.
Noon the second day of the inaugural High Plains Comedy Festival and about 15 of us hungover comics piled into a party bus and headed to the mountains for a day of swimming at El Dorado springs. The bus filled with Colorado-legalized pot smoke, the Pabst Blue Ribbon flowed, and comic Kurt Braunohler sat in a sink just to catch a ride. As we made our way up the mountain, it occurred to me: The comedy scene in Denver is less a “scene” and more a constant party with amazingly funny people taking turns holding court.
Most festivals are run by comedy clubs, but High Plains, much like The Bridgetown Comedy Fest in Portland, was created by comics. Organized by Denver’s local and national headliner Adam Cayton-Holland and his business partner Andy Juett, it was not only an overwhelming success, but it highlighted the major talent coming out of Denver and brought in comedy legend Reggie Watts.
Watts drew me to the festival. He is a rare talent. His often absurd music illustrates his comedic wit and is embedded with politically and socially charged lyrics. He rarely passes through the Southwest, so when I heard he was the headliner of High Plains, I immediately set out to meet the comedy superstar. My mission and mantra for the festival became “Find Reggie Watts.”
My quest began Friday night at 3 Kings Tavern on Denver’s South Broadway, a divey bar full of that old beer-soaked wood smell. On the outside, it looked like just a bar on a strip of other bars, but that night it was host to national headlining comics such as Matt Braunger, Kyle Kinane and Cameron Esposito, who all performed on a small stage to a sold-out audience. The show that night at 3 Kings was incredible. Esposito was definitely a highlight with her insightful punchlines. Braunger hit hard, as well, and destroyed the audience with his rant about sipping Jägerbombs like an adult.
Watts’ “Fuck Shit Stack” is surprisingly cerebral but isn’t for the faint of heart.
As I made my way through the packed crowd searching for Watts, I came across quick-witted Esposito, whose recent advice to new male comics went viral. One piece of her wisdom was, “Dress to show off your penis. Or, if you don’t have the best penis, try to go for like a dick next door thing. Wear a hoodie on your penis, you know?” About the festival, she said, “I am so proud and appreciative of this. It’s hard to put on a comic-run festival because you have a job as a comic, and you’re probably broke, but for Andy [Juett] and Adam [Cayton-Holland] to bring in such quality people is great.” Watts never showed at 3 Kings, so I walked the few blocks north to Hi-Dive, another bar, and caught New York-based comic Sean Patton, whose sheer energy on stage made the crowd putty in his hands.
At Friday night’s end, I landed at the open bar after-party in the dark basement of a Buffalo Exchange. I had a few drinks and pondered riding the conveyor belt. As my arm reached to push the “on” button, the store manager quickly intervened and informed me, “It’s quite dangerous and not for recreational use.” Plan thwarted, I continued my search for Watts. So far he was a no-show at any of the venues.
On day two, the Gothic Theatre, an Old West-looking space with balcony seating, was sold out for back-to-back shows. The early show by the Grawlix company had a shirtless Cayton-Holland and Andrew Orvedahl stretch the stress of the festival away as Ben Roy did squats and tried to get the crowd to do synchronized crossfit. Their opening sketch as yoga enthusiasts killed the crowd and set the bar high for the night. Then came the second show and finally Reggie Watts. When host Chris Charpentier introduced him and Watts emerged, the audience went wild. His performance consisted of his absurdist musical comedy with heavy synth beats and improvised lyrics like “bleach is for bitches” followed by nonsensical gibberish that was funnier than most meticulously crafted one-liners. Note after note and beat box after beat box, the intensity of the crowd grew. At 20 minutes his show was surprisingly short, and yet Watts channeled the energy of the audience and triumphantly crushed the sold-out crowd.
When the show ended, I went to the after party at a local comic’s house. At about 1:15am, I saw him. Finally it had happened. I’d found Reggie Watts.There he was, a few feet from me, amongst the thick green vines of the lush Colorado backyard. I had so many things to ask him. What did he think about comic-run festivals? What advice could he give comics who want to improvise? Would he have ridden the conveyor belt? I started the conversation by saying that his show was great. He replied, “Thank you, it’s so great to be here amongst such love and great company.”
With his improvised songs, Watts doesn’t prefer preparation and instead relishes pure comedy “that forms organically.” He is a man of few words. His comedy presence may be boisterous and surreal, especially in music hits like “Fuck Shit Stack,” but he is kind, warm and slightly shy in person. His comedy comes from his need to do a social good and spread, as he says, “love and love.” Maybe it was my timing, maybe it was the booze, but just as I had started to talk to him about comedy, Reggie Watts slipped away.
It was exciting to watch greats like Watts on stage and briefly talk with him afterwards about his urge to do comedy, yet I think a part of me was looking for more than “love” as the catalyst for such a comedy legend. It makes me wonder what I found at High Plains. Was it Watts? Or was it a communion with like minds? While looking for Watts on this journey through the festival, I was witness to one reason why comedians do comedy. It’s because they can take anything, even a bus ride into the mountains or a backyard party, and make it an exciting adventure into the unknown, bolstered by a common goal to bring joy into the world. As Juett says, this fest “reaffirm[ed] that comedy as something to fight for is always, always worth it.”
I called comedian Kurt Braunohler right after one of our Albuquerque monsoons—a real gully washer. The cell reception was sketchy and my phone cut out. I called back and, for the rest of the interview, just to keep him on the line, I had to lean out the window, balancing my computer on my lap, all while under the disapproving glare of my neighbor. Braunohler’s comedy explores those awkward moments in our lives, so nearly falling from the second floor of my house while being silently judged was, in a way, a fitting interview format.
Braunohler, who will feature in Denver’s High Plains Comedy Festival next week, started his career in comedy after college when he took improv classes at the Upright Citizens Brigade in New York. During this time he met Kristen Schaal, the stalker lady from HBO’s “Flight of the Conchords,” and together they created the weekly live variety show “Hot Tub,” now based in L.A. Braunohler’s jokes are big—literally big. He recently raised $6,000 on Kickstarter to hire a skywriting plane to write “How Do I Land?” above Los Angeles.
Braunohler has done everything: improv, sketch and stand-up. Although he only started stand-up about five years ago, he says he prefers this medium of comedy because “it’s a high-stakes scenario…When doing improv, the audience is on your side. They want you to succeed. Even if the improv just barely works everyone is excited for you. But people have very strong opinions about what stand-up is and sometimes the crowd seems to say ‘prove to me that you’re funny.’” Braunohler says he likes this contention, these high stakes, because ultimately the goal of comedy is “to show a level of vulnerability that makes connections with the audience.” To do this, Braunohler says, “No topic can be off-limits, and you can’t be embarrassed about anything.” This sentiment is echoed in his stand-up. Braunohler’s comedy is at times surreal. In one Vine—the short looping video clips so beloved on Twitter—he places googly eyes on an ice cream cone and calls it his little buddy. At other times his work is more personal and reflective. He explores the absurdities of life on his new comedy album, How Do I Land?, released by the venerable indie music label Kill Rock Stars.
Braunohler is excited for next week’s High Plains festival, when comedians from all over the country will swarm Denver for the first major comedy fest in the region. The inaugural High Plains Comedy Festival is headlined by comic genius Reggie Watts, features the brilliant Braunohler and will be packed with Denver comics. Over the past few years, the Denver comedy scene has expanded and flourished, churning out such national headliners as Ben Kronberg and T.J. Miller. As the talent pool has grown, so has the focus on Denver as a key producer of comedy and, in turn, the Southwest as an emerging comedy region. “This is an experiment for Denver and I think anything could happen,” Braunohler reflects. “I can’t wait to see all the comics.”
Take the short trip to the Mile High city and see Watts, Braunohler and 40 other comedians at the High Plains Comedy Festival on Aug. 23 and 24. The Southwest is starting to make a name for itself in the comedy world, and this festival will highlight the area as a place that can bring in big names.
“This is a weird little place to have a comedy show,” said Denver comic Sam Tallent when he headlined a show at the Guild back in April. A movie theater may be a weird stand-up venue, but for a few years now, local comedian Matt Peterson and Guild Cinema owner Keif Henley have been producing comedy shows there bimonthly. Though at first they could only fill the plush theater seats with other comics, friends of comics or people expecting a movie, Henley and Peterson have built an audience by putting on some of the funniest shows in town. Even wayward moviegoers stay and enjoy a laugh.
Keif Henley and Matt Peterson have built an audience by putting on some of the funniest shows in town. Even wayward moviegoers stay and enjoy a laugh.
When performing at the Guild, I can tell you from personal experience, you feel like a vaudevillian luring your audience in with old-timey promises of entertainment. Something about the curves of the velvety curtains on the walls and the rickety wooden stage floor make you want to channel Mae West or W.C. Fields. Audiences enjoy that nostalgic energy from the comedians because it’s a rarity in this modern world. “People come to see stand-up only, which is great for the comedians as well as the audience,” Peterson reflects.
On Friday, Aug. 16, Scotty Goff, originally from El Paso but currently residing in Albuquerque, headlines at the Guild. Goff is one of the sharpest, most quick-witted comics I’ve seen live. A crowd-work master, he can craft a joke out of anything thrown at him. Opening for Goff is Anthony Almanzar, a South Valley native, who recently won a competition to be the next MTV Voices correspondent. Relatively new to the Albuquerque stand-up scene, Almanzar has a slick, energetic stage presence and has quickly become one of the best young comedians in town. Just back from a gig in Texas, Sarah Kennedy and Matt Peterson are also performing. Kennedy has won best local comic from the Alibi and Albuquerque the Magazine. Her style ranges from pop culture references to political and social commentary. Peterson, who also runs a weekly showcase at The Damn Bar, recently had a lead role in the film The Bigfoot Election and is gearing up to star in Abe Makes a Movie. Peterson draws his comedy from raw personal experiences that resonate easily with the audience.