Arts & Entertainment  January 7, 2024

Laughing it up

Standup comedy moving from big cities to smaller outlets

Standup comedy, which for decades has been mostly confined to big-city comedy clubs, is making its way into bars, night clubs and arenas in smaller cities such as Fort Collins, Greeley, Loveland and Boulder.

“Over the last five to 10 years, you started seeing bigger acts see some value in smaller venues,” said Susan Trafton, assistant general manager of Oak View Group, which handles operations and bookings at the arena Blue Arena at The Ranch Events Complex in Loveland. “Artists or comedians understand it’s important to reach fans all over, not just in those large cities.”

As the director of booking, Trafton saw that historically country and classic rock were the best-performing genres, but in the last four years or so, comedy — especially standup comedy — has seen an uptick, she said. Other forms can include improv and sketch comedy.

“We’re bringing in recognizable names to the market that you used to see in the larger city,” Trafton said. “We are becoming a stop on the map for comedy and other touring acts, making Northern Colorado a separate identity from Denver.”

Actor and comedian Adam Sandler made an appearance Dec. 4 at Blue Arena during his tour of 11 cities in 2023 — 5,500 people attended his Loveland stop during the second leg of his

tour.

“One of the funnest parts for us as far as the Adam Sandler show is he brought his famous friends, who opened for him,” Trafton said. “You saw five different comedians that night, like Rob Schneider from Saturday Night Live and Kevin James.”

In 2024, there will be more big-name comedy acts, including stand-up comedian and reality actor Bert Kreischer, known as “The Machine,” on Feb. 2 and Nashville comedian Nate Bargatze on May 3.

“Nate almost sold out,” Trafton said. “That tells me people in this area want this kind of content. It’s supply and demand.”

The more large acts Loveland can bring in increases the likelihood of bringing in even bigger names, Trafton said.

“Basically, your success gives you more opportunities,” she said.

The demand comes from what standup can offer an audience. Comedy television shows and movies are scripted, while standup is in the moment — artists typically prep their material, but vary slightly in each presentation, so that an audience will never see the same show twice. Some comedians will play off the local aspects of where they’re performing or bring in recent life experiences or current events.

“Standup seems to be more organic. They may have notes, but at the end of the day, you never know what the comedian is going to say, which is half the fun,” Trafton said. “You never know what to expect with a comedy show, so it can be fun and exciting that way.”

Comedy also presents a nice escape from reality and is a social outlet for date nights or nights out with friends, Trafton said.

“Who doesn’t like to laugh for two hours straight?” Trafton said. “Our main goal is to improve quality of life. … Our goal is to provide a wide variety of content so there’s something for everyone.”

Ely Corliss, owner of the Moxi Theater in Greeley, began hosting weekly comedy acts a year after he opened Stella’s Pinball Arcade & Lounge in the basement of the theater in 2021. He’d converted an old dinner theater into a live music venue in 2013 where he brings in comedy acts every two to four weeks for larger shows seating up to 150, while Stella’s is able to hold a few dozen guests.

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Nashville comedian Nate Bargatze performs at Blue Arena May 3.

“During the pandemic, it was a big part of our programming because of social-distancing requirements,” Corliss said.

Stella’s presents local comedy acts every Thursday night starting at 9 p.m.— most of the performers come from the Front Range.

“That’s a huge investment,” Corliss said. “The last few months, we’ve been selling a lot more tickets than even six months ago. It has to do with regularity and consistency starting to pay off.”

Large acts can be hosted upstairs in the Moxi Theater, such as Colorado native Sam Tallent, who tours internationally and stopped in Greeley on Dec. 21.

“He’s kind of a big deal,” Corliss said. “We’re really lucky to have him here in our scene in Colorado.”

Other large acts include Willie Barcena, who will be performing at Moxi Theater on Jan. 26, 2024, and Jeff Leeson, who’s scheduled Feb. 2.

Comedy, which saw a surge in the 1980s, had an uptick post-pandemic, though the recent rise of reels and TikTok videos also placed more attention on the art form and helped grow the trend, Corliss said.

“It’s always been around,” Corliss said. “It operated as an underground experience as it should.”

Comedy is just as important as music and is something a well-balanced culture needs as an outlet for freedom of speech and political commentary and “to poke fun at things,” Corliss said.

“It’s an American art form because it’s an American idea to talk about what you want when you want,” Corliss said. “Now more than ever it’s super important to have comedians on stage to explore ideas. … I think we’ve all seen the dangers of groupthink. … We need comedians to comment on society so we can see what’s ridiculous.”

David Rodriguez, owner and founder of the Comedy Fort, 167 N. College Ave. in Fort Collins, decided to expand a weekly standup open mic at the now-closed Hodi’s Half Note into a full-fledged comedy club with his first show in January 2021. Since then, Rodriguez continued the open mic on Mondays, along with showcasing Colorado comics on Thursdays and headliner acts on Fridays and Saturdays.

“We bring in comics from all over the country and all over the world actually,” Rodriguez said. “We draw a lot from local Fort Collins comics, and our door and server staff also perform. Denver has one of the best comic scenes in the world, and they’re coming up here as well.”

Denver is known for Comedy Works in Larimer Square, where Rodriguez performed for years. He eventually tired of the commute, so he opened his own club in Fort Collins, where there already “was a solid scene,” Rodriguez said, pointing out that Hodi’s had the longest-running open mic in the state since 2010 that continued at Comedy Fort.

“I’m a comic myself, so I run it with performers in mind,” Rodriguez said. “The show comes first, and the audience responds to that. …It’s more like theater. It’s not like a rowdy club atmosphere.”

The rising popularity of brief comedy clips on social media “have made people more aware of standup,” Rodriguez said. “Now more than ever, people need to laugh. If we don’t laugh about it, what’s the alternative?”

In 2013, Brent Gill founded the Boulder Comedy Show inside The Rayback, a food truck, full bar, tap house, coffee shop and event space. He wanted to bring high-quality, big-city standup comedy to the Front Range through national headliners and touring acts, which he presents every Sunday.

“What I’m trying to bring is a premier level of comedy to Boulder,” Gill said. “It’s kind of like a showcase with a variety of comics (three to five) doing 10 to 20 minutes and the headliners, 30 minutes, unless there’s a host.”

Gill books off the same spreadsheet as places like Comedy Fort, so that comedians can make a run of a few Northern Colorado and Boulder Valley cities during their show stops.

“We’re exposing comedy fans to the next big name,” Gill said. “A lot of small town bookers in the comedy scene are responsible for the health of the comedy scene as a whole, especially in Colorado, because we’re able to provide good quality shows. … You can tell the health of a big city’s comic scene based on how healthy the smaller cities are.”

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