Westword Book Club: Comedian Deacon Gray on comedy, comic books, and the Theory of Stew
Reading is about more than following a narrative or absorbing information; it can also be a profound shared experience that culminates in a better understanding of ourselves and each other. In that spirit, welcome to the Westword Book Club, which celebrates the books that inspire Denver artists.
Deacon Gray, an Oklahoman transplant who honed his comedic expertise through years of working thankless road-dog gigs, is the new-talent coordinator in Denver's most celebrated comedy club. As such, he slaloms between developing his own act and mentoring insecure young comics who seek to benefit from his 25 years in the game.
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In addition to functioning as Comedy Work's benevolent new-talent gatekeeper, Gray is a touring standup and the creator of fêted Text-A-Saurus, a monthly comedy show wherein Denver's finest comedians along with selected traveling crackerjacks improvise sets based on text messages submitted by the audience. Text-A-Saurus is held the last Saturday of each month: the next performance is June 29 at the Bug Theater.
Westword sat down with Deacon recently to discuss comedy, comic books and how the book The Artist's Way has shaped his career.
Westword: You had a particular book you wanted to talk about, right?
Deacon Gray: Yes. It's called The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron. This is the book that I recommend to people the most. I've given it to people as a gift, and told so many people, "Hey, you should try this." If not the book itself, I've definitely adapted certain teachings and approaches she has and I've done the exercises she writes about.
Is it something you use in your comedy classes?
Absolutely, absolutely. But it's also a personal philosophy as well. This book was just really in line with where I was at the time when I first read it.
When was that?
It was the early '90s, and I had just graduated college and decided to go out on the road as a comedian, and I was finding that it wasn't like I thought it was going to be. I thought it was going to be this glamorous life and instead I was going from one shitty gig to another shitty gig.
Gulping down the dregs of the '80s comedy boom?
Yeah, I was late to that party. It was bad. Clubs were closing and audiences were shrinking. It was awful. It got to where I wasn't being creative at all, I was just barely surviving at these gigs. I'd do anything to try and make it work.
You mean like pandering?
Yeah. I remember one time I was in Little Rock, Arkansas, and when I got off stage I realized, wow, I had an accent that whole time. I was like "how're y'all doin'?" I felt like it was what I had to do. So what happened was my act became stagnant, and I wasn't writing and I wasn't happy. This book hit me at a really good time and helped motivate me to be more DIY with my comedy, to write jokes that felt more like they came from me, bring creativity to opportunities I have. Comedy Works could have been just dealing with Tuesday [New Talent Night] and coming in one day a week. I've tried to be creative though, I saw that we had this great pool of local talent that we weren't using I've tried to spin that in new directions.
Do you remember who recommended The Artist's Way to you?
No. I wish I did. I remember that the book had just come out at the time because it's only about twenty years old: 1992 maybe? I also remember hearing something about how Julia Cameron and Martin Scorsese were briefly married, which is a pretty cool connection. There were a couple things I liked about it right away. First of all, it was self- published and this was before it was so easy for people to do that.
Back when you had to find an actual printing press and not just pirate e-book software.
Exactly, and since it was a book about getting yourself to write, knowing that she self-published gave her a lot of credibility with me. Secondly, her approach to to quote-unquote spirituality fit really well with my approach to it aw well. So I'd just come off of like a Joseph Campbell period in my life, when it was all about following bliss and heroes and the power of myth, and this hit me next she kind of showed me how to translate that, put things down on paper and create something out of this philosophy I had. The one area where she echoes Campbell the most is she uses the word "God" a lot. If you're purely atheistic, you might not like this book for that reason, but if you're agnostic it'll make you think differently. It's mainly a way of viewing creativity as a force greater than you that you can tap into and channel.