For the sixth year running, High Plains Comedy Festival delivered to Denver some outrageous and hilarious comedians. The Mile High City’s own comedic talent was showcased heavily — and with much appreciation — on South Broadway, but the headlining shows at the Paramount Theater on Friday and Saturday nights stole the show. Both David Cross and the group who records the podcast How Did This Get Made? packed the Paramount to the brim, with fans and newcomers laughing so hard it would be accurate to call it knee-slapping laughter. But the other shows throughout the weekend incited chuckles, groans, giggles and all-out-laugh-attacks that Denver has come to expect when High Plains comes around every year. We might still be nursing our sore abs — laughing is definitely a workout, we don’t care who says otherwise — but while we recover, read on to find out about our favorite shows of the absurdly funny weekend.
Thursday, August 23
Iron Comic at 3 Kings Tavern
Hosted by Nato Green — a politically-charged writer and comedian from San Francisco — Iron Comic is Green’s own creation, where five stand-up comedians must write jokes in eight minutes based on suggestions from the audience. This iteration in Denver consisted of comedians Shane Torres, David Gborie, Baron Vaughn, Eliza Skinner and festival-founder Adam Cayton-Holland. Green started the show off by picking through the basket of audience-suggested topics and explaining why the ones he chose would not work as topics. Even though this process is a little like “housekeeping” before the actual show — i.e., explaining rules — Green can’t help but infuse his own humor. Some of the funnier rejected topics were “Trump and Trump and a basket of dildos,” “Motherhood, kids, back to school, end of summer,” (which sounds like an entire act, Green reminded the audience) “white liberal guilt” and “drunk Kanye West arguing with a reflection of himself.”
With those out of the way, Green picked the first actual topic — the process of making whiskey. When the five competing comedians left the stage to write their jokes on the fly, Austin-based stand-up Vanessa Gonzalez took the stage to keep the crowd entertained. When the comedians returned with their rough jokes, most of them revolved around the Irish. The next round was decided upon after thunderous applause from an audience that contained noticeably more women than the last few years of the festival — “my first period.” The one female comedian competing, Skinner, could barely keep in her excitement, saying “I never get to do period jokes!” Unfortunately, the rest of the male competitors fell short on funny and relied upon the line “I don’t know enough about periods.” After another round of Iron Comic, Shane Torres was named the winner, based on judging from the audience’s applause.
Pussy Bros at 3 Kings Tavern
Pussy Bros. is a Denver comedy group who has been steadily gaining more traction is three women— and yes, according to them, that choice of name was a decision based on the male-dominated industry they’ve broken into. Before their show at 3 Kings on the first night of the festival, they played a short documentary-style video to the audience (which was delayed due to technical difficulties at first — a mistake that the Pussy Bros should have addressed with humor in their subsequent stand-up, but ignored instead). The video detailed the founding of Pussy Bros, including a short clip of their fourth member, the late Jordan Wieleba. Once the video ended, the three remaining members were welcomed onstage with the announcement “accepting the award for the best comedy troupe with a woman in it, the Pussy Bros!”, Christie Buchele, Janae Burris and Rachel Weeks took the stage with fancy dresses and tiaras, as if accepting an award.
Weeks launched into an almost whiny voice, saying “oh, wow, this is so unexpected. Thank you so much, it feels so good that this happened, I didn’t even know it was an award show!” Burris added, “I would have dressed better.” For a few minutes, the three women took turns airing their grievances and obstacles in the way of becoming the comedians they are now. Burris said “I want to thank my ex for sucking up all my 20’s and sucking up all my skinniest years. It hardened me, it made me want to do comedy. It made me have to develop a personality.” Weeks added, “I’d like to thank my super weird family that made me too crazy for friends in high school.” It would have been appropriate to replace all of their “thank yous” with “fuck yous.”
After they performed together, the audience was given a chance to experience a set from each woman on her own, but before that, it started with a guest performance by Tennessee’s Lila Bear. Though Bear’s jokes about sexuality didn’t elicit as much of a response from the audience as she obviously expected, she nailed a few others relating to genitalia including one about vaginal discharge — “most days, it’s oatmeal. But sometimes it’s like cream of wheat.”
Though the hour-and-a-half show focused heavily on female comedians, there were performances from Josh Blue and Eric Dadourian to prove that even though Pussy Bros. exists because of kick-ass females, they aren’t afraid to invite the other side on for a laugh or two.
Friday, August 24
Fortuna at Mutiny Information Cafe
One of the best parts about High Plains is the shows that navigate away from the typical boundaries of stand-up comedy. One of the annual favorites is Cartoons & Comedy (a show we could not make it to this year, unfortunately) and usually, there are at least a few live-tapings of podcasts. But this year, Fortuna presented an even more weird, wonderful and raw way to experience comedy — with tarot card readings. Host Kristin Rand, based out of Atlanta, traveled to Mutiny Information Cafe to give a small group of comedians individual tarot card readings, with a twist.
First, the comedians performed a small bit, most of which seemed unprepared or a rehashing of jokes heard at previous shows. Then, Rand would have them sit across from her at a small table and read their cards. Though the readings were pretty light-hearted, the knowledge Rand possessed of the tarot deck was impressive and her ability to mix in humor stole the show. She even joked about the visuals of the deck, explaining one as “all you need is a glass of water at the end of this fire ladder…” It was a clever way to give people who infamously don’t take anything seriously a serious piece of advice. The best part about watching each comedian was their level of discomfort, vulnerability and some unplanned emotions or reactions from what Rand divined. It was the kind of situation that exposed the comedians’ true personalities — instead of seeing their stylized and practiced personas.
David Cross at Paramount Theater
For the headlining show on Friday night of the festival, actor, writer, producer and comedian David Cross made a Denver stop on his “Oh Come On Tour.” Before Cross took the stage, Denver-based comedian and founding member of Pussy Bros. Christie Buchele performed a short opening set, warming up the audience for the absurdity that was Cross. Buchele has cerebral palsy and many of her jokes include that disability in some way. Her set at the Paramount didn’t shy away from that, and her ending joke about her funeral with “palsy bearers” for her casket made the audience both laugh and squirm — a mixture that kept up throughout Cross’ performance.
Cross has been in the news recently for openly and unapologetically offending audiences, like his stop in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, with his Oh Come On jokes. But in Denver on Friday, there weren’t many outraged onlookers, even as Cross joked about a future (fictional) terrorist attack (“too soon?” he quipped after the joke) and about the origin of AIDS (“I heard that AIDS started by a monkey [Monkee]. I hope it wasn’t Mike Nesmith… too late?”) It never fails that visiting comedians joke about weed in Denver but sometimes the jokes are on point, like Cross’ short story about a hoaxy-sci-fi dispensary he visited, where after he left he thought to himself “what am I doing? I live in New York. I get this shit delivered to my apartment, tax-free. What am I so happy about? I got really sucked into the whole thing.” And all those jokes were before his actual set started — he reassured the audience after one of his tangents that he was just riffing with us.
The Oh Come On set actually started with Cross telling everyone about his new daughter with Amber Tamblyn — an uncharacteristic subject for Cross’ stand-up routines, but one he managed to twist to fit his awkward and outrageous humor. “You can slap as many future-feminist onesies on an infant, it doesn’t mean shit,” he joked. And “it is a fascinating thing to watch and be a part of. When they’re first born they’re just nothing. And slowly they start to evolve and personality traits start to exhibit themselves. And I’m really looking forward to that big change that will happen, that big shift where you finally start to love them.”
The stories about his daughter relied heavily on his own political leanings, including a joke about using pronouns (“I’m just going to have her refer to everyone as ‘they’ not so that she’s progressive about sexual and gender identity, but so that she’ll fail English”), and he especially focused on his dislike of Trump. It would actually be an understatement to say that Cross dislikes Trump — after the show on Friday night, it’s obvious that he despises Trump. From stories about explaining a laundry-list of negative things Trump and his administration have carried out to his young daughter while he feeds her to an explosive ending featuring a daydream where Cross shits on Trump’s chest, Cross did not care if he offended anyone or not. It was unapologetic, righteous and expertly written and performed.
After the set ended to thunderous applause from a packed Paramount, Cross came back out for an encore joke, proving that he thought Denver appreciated his humor enough for more. If there’s one thing about Cross, it’s that he can sometimes take things too far — in his writing, acting and stand-up. But for us Coloradans living life on the edge, going too far is just the way we like it.
Saturday, August 25
How Did This Get Made?
The comedy podcast How Did This Get Made? (HDTGM) came to Paramount Theater to headline the High Plains Comedy Festival for two shows Saturday evening, and hosts Paul Scheer, Jason Mantzoukas and June Diane Raphael got to dive headfirst into their comedic commentary on two really bad films — Look Who’s Talking Too and Swordfish, both starring John Travolta.
Saturday night started with Look Who’s Talking Too, a movie with talking babies, that Scheer said “changed culture and showed us what babies really thought,” and man was it terrifying. Alamo Drafthouse in Sloan’s Lake sponsored the event and had a special showing of Look Who’s Talking and Look Who’s Talking Too earlier on Saturday that audience members could watch before they watched the HDTGM hosts dissect it all. The sequel, which was rated PG-13, should have been rated R according to Mantzoukas, for all the sexual innuendos, bad poop jokes and awkward scenes that will make both kids and parents squirm. “It’s rated no thanks for me,” Mantzoukas said.
Audience members got to watch scenes of Bruce Willis who voices the toddler “Mikey” opposite his baby sister voiced by Roseanne Barr (who is currently barred from television) before hearing Raphael, Scheer and Mantzoukas chime in on everything wrong in this film and how they can’t believe the first movie made 300 million dollars, so Hollywood directors decided to make a sequel. Overall, there were a lot of questions when the night was over and some audience members got to even ask their own about the plot and awful characters. The main theme though, honestly, was how did this get made? – Marissa Kozma