Wende Curtis: Making Comedy Work in Denver

This week, owner Wende Curtis celebrates her 30th anniversary with Comedy Works. Giants of stand-up comedy grace her stages, yet she also stands up for emerging talent.
People have killed there. People have died there. No, it's not an overseas battlefield: It's the Comedy Works nightclub on Larimer Square in Denver.
Wende Curtis began working for Comedy Works at its onetime Fort Collins location on December 17, 1986. She's since gone on to helm -- and now own -- the Denver club, as well as the company's location in Greenwood Village, which she opened in 2008.
When Comedy Works hired her, Curtis was still studying acting and directing at Colorado State University, prior to graduating in 1987. Why didn't she pursue that theater career that she'd initially envisioned, instead of managing a comedy club? Curtis acknowledges that, at the time, she was battling "a major eating disorder." (And as any therapist will tell you, she says, it's always a mental struggle to keep an eating disorder under control, no matter how much weight you lose, "Because you've got to eat!") Curtis says of her then-self, "I didn't think there were a lot of parts for 22- to 23-year-old, 250-pound ingenues on Broadway."
But she took a shine to comedians -- and her passion has paid off over the long haul.
Curtis compares stand-up comedy to theater, filmmaking, jazz: "I believe it to be an art form -- and I've always treated it as such," she says. Not only does Comedy Works ban cell phone usage during shows, it curtails hecklers, as well. "You don't heckle when you see Chekhov or Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew!" scolds Curtis.
The comedy clubEstablished and emerging comics hold the club in high regard.
When Curtis started out, she was unique: There weren't many women working as the general manager of a comedy club in Colorado. Come to think of it, there weren't a lot of men, either. Curtis says of her singular job, "Nobody else wanted to do it!"
This year, Comedy Works in Denver celebrated its 35th anniversary, having opened for business in 1981. It moved into its more-or-less present location below Larimer Square about a year later. (Craig Ferguson has quipped, "You need a club downstairs in Denver because of the altitude. . . . You want to be a little lower.")
While the club has always had a hot reputation, Curtis says its esteem has grown exponentially over the years: "Comedy Works is, indeed, one of the most prestigious clubs in the country. It's not because it's mine. Well, it is because it's mine -- because I made it what it is! (And that's not a joke.)
"Everybody wants to work here. . . . If you are a headliner on our schedule, anywhere in the year, you have arrived."
Curtis cites the vibe, the physicality of the Denver club as a draw: "The comedians love this tiered, really packed-in-like-sardines [space]."
Comedian Dave Chappelle has called Comedy Works the "best independent comedy club in the United States." Chappelle is one of the top-dollar acts who appears there, able to command $55 a ticket.
Curtis notes that Joe Rogan filmed his Comedy Central special "Rocky Mountain High" at the club. She says in a joking (or maybe not-so-jokingly) way, "I tried to do $50 for Rogan and . . . I don't know, he has some sort of a heart and he's like, 'My people -- I don't want to do that.' And I'm like, 'This is America, and I don't know if you know anything about our economy, but it's booming! Let's get it while we can! . . . I'm a capitalist!"
Wende Curtis is celebrating 30 years with Comedy Works.A laughter-based economy
Curtis announces, "We should be voted the mayors of Larimer Square!"
She says that Comedy Works helps the block's economy by bringing 2,000 to 3,000 people per week into the neighborhood. Curtis says, "They buy their tickets first, then they make their dinner plans. They 'eat, drink and be merry,' before and after the show." Now, she doesn't want to imply in any ego-driven way that the many fine-dining establishments in Larimer Square wouldn't exist without her, but her audiences "drive a lot of these restaurants," says Curtis. "We fill a lot of seats for them."
It was precisely with that in mind that Curtis launched Comedy Works South in Greenwood Village in 2008. Not only would there be a hundred more seats (380, compared with 280 in Denver) and more space (21,000 square feet versus 8,000), there would be dining on the premises. (Drinks, too, naturally.) And all those Castle Pines doctors, lawyers and upscale professionals wouldn't have to travel far from their homes to enjoy comedic entertainment. The language also tends to be cleaner, compared with the Denver club. How about that? Curtis says the older, more moneyed, more conservative clientele often "don't want to hear the F-bomb."
Comedy Works also partners with promoters like Live Nation when major comedians headline at Red Rocks or one of the other larger theaters across the city. With an email list of over 200,000 people -- individuals who have previously bought tickets to Comedy Works events -- Curtis says she can help sell 30 percent of a show Red Rocks within 24 hours of one of her company's email blasts.
"We're pretty valuable," Curtis explains. "I would partner with me!"  
Deep roots
Curtis says, "Like New York, L.A., Chicago maybe, we have a nice group of homegrown comedians. We really help them blossom. We give them a stage. Tonight is part of that."
For many young comics in Denver, Tuesday night isn't just any night: It's New Talent Night at Comedy Works. It's their infrequent chance to get up onstage -- sometimes for the first time -- and try out their chops. Will their material slice and dice? Or will it prove as ineffectual as bringing a butter knife to a gunfight? A more established comic will act as the MC, and there will be a few regulars, appearing in between the fresh, raw talent.
On this night, there'll be one woman's take on why there's no female POV porn. There'll be a joke about Build-a-Bear outlets in malls being akin to factory slave labor. A pro will riff on why it always smells like marijuana as he drives from Denver to Aurora. Proficiency levels will vary, but most everyone in the audience will crack up at least once.
Comedy Works has 300 names who want to be on regular rotation, and 30 or so who are. Curtis says there are 10 who are categorized as "Almost Famous."
Should a regular move to Los Angeles, if they think they can make it further there?
"No," Curtis replies. "In fact, you shouldn't go to L.A. until you are an accomplished comedian. . . . You're going to get lost in L.A. with a bunch of actors pretending to be stand-ups."
"If you want longevity in this business, you need chops," Curtis says. And that entails working night after night. "I've got chops," she adds. "I've been at this a long time."
After Roseanne Barr developed chops in Denver, she went to L.A. Then she brought a Colorado colleague, Matt Berry, along as a writer for her TV show. Berry has since gone on to be an executive producer of Desperate Housewives and Last Man Standing. "They absolutely bring their friends," says Curtis of local peer-to-peer networking, advising, "You've got to have some deep roots about you."
She's told comics over the years, "I've only got one night a week to develop you, so you should be doing every coffee shop, every biker bar, every Holiday Inn that will let you in, that will give you time."
And then she cites The Grawlix -- the comedy trio of Adam Cayton-Holland, Andrew Orvedahl and Ben Roy -- who now star in the truTV comedy Those Who Can't -- "and that generation took me up on that."
The Grawlix found their own alt-comedy spaces in which to hone their act. Yet they've remained loyal to Curtis' fabled stage.
When the Just for Laughs festival in Montreal -- which attracts Hollywood agents and managers looking for newcomers -- asks comedy insiders like Curtis for talent recommendations, she'll champion someone like, oh, Cayton-Holland, Orvedahl or Roy.
Cayton-Holland returns the compliment: "If only every comedy scene had a Wende Curtis. She's been so invaluable in so many comics' careers, including mine. From letting you watch shows for free when you're a terrible open-mic performer, to giving you sets in front of comics who she thinks you'll vibe with when you're further on your way, Wende is always looking out for young comics in the scene."
Cayton-Holland adds, "But her biggest contribution to Denver, of course, is helming one of the best stages in the United States, and making sure you don't perform on that stage regularly until you have earned the privilege. In forcing local comics to set their eyes on the prize of headlining that Comedy Works stage, Wende has had a huge hand in creating multiple generations of gifted, Denver comics."
Call her a comedy karma guru: "There's no harm in being nice," Curtis advises young comics. "It comes back tenfold." She's also been known to pay employees' medical bills, when they've been stricken ill.
Naturally, Curtis has learned from her own mistakes. And from the mistakes of her colleagues across the country ("I don't think you need to be sleeping with the waitresses, I'm just saying!").
Today, she offers her advice to young comics -- globally, and gratis -- via the miracle of podcasting: Check out the How Comedy Works show that she hosts with comedy writer and stand-up comedian Rick Kerns.
Over the past three decades, she's raised the bar for comedy in Denver, precisely because she doesn't think of Comedy Works as just some bar.
Curtis says, "I do remind young comedians that we develop, 'If it weren't for you, we would be high-priced drinks and various forms of cheese food. You are what we do -- and don't ever let anybody else treat you as if you're not! You are the reason we're here.'"

Photos by Kara Pearson Gwinn.
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Read more articles by Gregory Daurer.

Gregory Daurer is a Denver-based freelance writer and singer-songwriter, whose credits include 5280, WestwordSalon, Draft and High Times. He's also authored the novel A Western Capitol Hill.
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