Comedians like Doug Benson and Stephen Colbert have been getting a lot of joke-mileage out of Colorado’s legalization of marijuana last January. Though after Maureen Dowd wrote about being “curled up in a hallucinatory state for eight hours” in a Denver hotel room after carelessly ingesting too much edible cannabis, Bill Maher editorialized that Colorado “must realize that they are the Jackie Robinson of marijuana legislation,” and that residents “have to get this right, or else you’ll ruin it for everybody.”
The definition of what “getting this right” means is being played out in the Denver comedy scene, where marijuana has become more than just a cultural glue between comics and comedy fans, but an economic steroid that has propelled the burgeoning standup community to new levels of ambition and national attention.
“There is obviously a very natural synergy between cannabis and comedy,” says Kayvan Khalatbari, a marijuana entrepreneur who has recently partnered with Andy Juett of the local Comedy 103.1 radio station and Grawlix comedy team, to create Sexpot Comedy, a collective that has been hosting monthly (semi-pot-friendly) shows with headliners like Rory Scovel, Sean Patton, Andy Kindler and Nikki Glaser.
“It's our hope to create somewhat of a Nerdist or Earwolf of Denver,” says Juett, referring to the upcoming launch of SexpotComedy.com, which aims to publish original content in the form of comedy podcasts, videos, and literature, in addition to the local shows.
The name is derived from Khalatbari’s chain of pizza restaurants, Sexy Pizza, one of which hosted the first Sexpot Comedy show early last year. The show has since grown and splintered into several regular events, hosted at different comedy clubs and music venues around town under the Sexpot banner.
“I feel like a comedy show is a concert for a more mature, thoughtful, witty and relaxed audience [than music],” Khalatbari says. “It’s something we will see more and more of in Colorado as cannabis gains its foothold in mainstream society. We all know how large the market is for music in Colorado, and I believe comedy can have that kind of presence as well. so long as our performers continue to be creative and push the boundaries with regard to content.”
For years Denver has been a known destination for touring comics; the thirty-year-old Comedy Works has been proclaimed by performers like Dave Chappelle and Dave Attell as their favorite comedy club. Last summer, Juett and comedian Adam Cayton-Holland produced Denver’s first large-scale comedy festival, The High Plains Comedy Festival, which was headlined by Reggie Watts and ended up being a sold-out success.
It was Kayvan Khalatbari’s marijuana dispensary, Denver Relief (one of the city’s oldest medical pot shops), that initially sponsored several different comedy shows and podcasts around town (including High Plains), back when Sexpot was just a witty pun being tossed around. And while this continues in some arenas, the Sexpot Comedy shows have been gaining a lucrative momentum of their own, in part thanks to Juett’s utilization of the local comedy radio station for marketing, as well as the throbbing enthusiasm coming from Colorado’s energized marijuana scene.
There’s no getting around the fact that some cannabis consumption goes on at Sexpot shows, whether through edibles, vaporizers or straight-up smoldering joints. To get into the legality of public pot smoking would be an exhaustive and inconclusive affair (if you’re really curious, you can check out some more in depth reporting I’ve done on marijuana use in Denver venues); the truth is that no one, not even the legislators, venue owners or police are completely certain of where the line is drawn on this issue. Khalatbari says that he “is trying for a little respectful civil disobedience” when it comes to marijuana use at the shows, but draws the line when it comes to promoting a show as “420 friendly.”
“There's really no marijuana imagery in the marketing,” says Juett. “Nobody at these shows is doing dabs on the bar. A cute couple sharing a vape pen is somewhat more of the speed. They hold hands while they giggle. I'm into that.”
While some Denver comedians don’t care for a stoned audience (the common sentiment being that marijuana makes you so cerebral, audiences often over-contemplate the joke, instead of impulsively laughing the way a drunk would) Andy Juett — who himself has acted in many sketch videos and recently began performing standup — says that there are upsides to playing for a red-eyed crowd.
“I think generally the cannabis culture makes a lot of shows more inviting and therefore — at least in Colorado — a better chance that people will leave the house to see live comedy versus sitting on their couch. A show where you can sit with 100 other people that are high is usually way more friendly than a show than one with drunk meatheads, who often walk up and see a sign that says, ‘comedy show’ and think that because they love The Hangover, they have carte blanche to come in and be rude and heckle comics, or make the rest of the crowd miserable. Not a single comic alive would rather have the dreaded bachelorette party that is drunk or disruptive than one on cannabis.”
“But to be clear, these are just comedy shows,” he continues. “They're not even more about cannabis than most other shows, I'd say. They're just good shows. Nobody is walking around on stage smoking or screaming the Women-Be-Shopping, Men-Love-Trucks of cannabis material.”
Khalatbari shares Juett’s feeling that marijuana shouldn’t come to dominate the identity of Sexpot Comedy. He’s derisive of the Cannabis Cup and 420 Festival culture that has become an unfortunate media focus of Colorado marijuana scene; and says that he is equally sick of the endless cosmos-and-munchies jokes that every hack comedian rolls out when performing in Denver.
“We understand cannabis has been a big part of our foundation in growth, and is a part of our culture, but we don't think cannabis has a mandatory involvement in our future workings,” Khalatbari says. “We want this to be more mainstream, more inclusive and more broad, so we can't assume that cannabis will be a part of each and every show and project going forward.”
Image by Kim Sidwell/CannabisCamera.com
Josiah Hesse is an entertainment and pop culture journalist in Denver, Colorado whose work has appeared in Westword, Out Front Colorado, and comedy blogs LaughSpin, Splitsider and The Spit Take. Follow him on twitter at @JosiahMHesse