Denver comedian Dave Shirley makes the second round of America's Got Talent
Denver's Dave Shirley has taken his multi-faceted act of magic, juggling, comedy and music from busking on the Sixteenth Street Mall to performing for NBC's America's Got Talent. After years of street performances and depressing corporate gigs, Shirley built his own sketch comedy club, The Rattlebrain Theater, in what has now become Lannie's Clocktower Cabaret. He has since moved on to teaching and building his own stage show, but you can catch him in his second appearance in America's Got Talent this Tuesday and Wednesday. Alhough he couldn't share with us the results of the pre-taped contest, Shirley did give Westword some hard-knock anecdotes about his long road in the entertainment industry -- proof that if you stick it out long enough, the gods of showbusiness will eventually give you a nod.
Dave Shirley will make his second appearance on America's Got Talent on Tuesday, July 16.
Westword: So much of your comedy and promotional material is self-deprecating. Has it been a humbling journey that you've been on?
Dave Shirley: It has been. I started performing 28 years ago, and this whole business is full of disappointments. It feels like you keep performing and performing, waiting to turn that corner. And there are a million people out there doing it, so it's hard to get noticed. So it is a long, hard road.
There are so many people competing in the entertainment industry. Is that what drove you to do these conceptual performances?
Well, that's interesting. Whether it's comedy or theater, everyone tries to figure out what their voice is. For me, I spent a lot of years desperately trying to find something else that would make me as happy as performing, because it is a difficult road, with no promises or job security. So I had tried doing other things that never made me happy.
And then maybe four years ago I thought, "You gotta stop playing around and just put 100 percent into this." So I started developing this show, something I'd wanted to do since I was performing on the Sixteenth Street Mall and Pearl Street in Boulder when I was fifteen. And when you're a street performer you develop a lot of useless talents, ones that are only good for entertainment purposes and have no use in the rest of the world. I always wanted to put one show together that incorporated all of those useless talents, so there was juggling, magic, comedy, film, these things I'd had in my act since I was seventeen.
Were you having any kind of success as a street performer? I understand that, if you do it right, you can make more on Pearl Street than in the clubs.
Well...you can. I think a lot of people have someone in their lives that helps guide them with what they want to do with their life. Even in high school, I never had a counselor sit down with me and ask, "What do you want to do with your life?" I was always wandering around, so I ended up in the Navy, because my parents didn't have any money to send me to college. I was stationed in San Diego and ended up street performing out there.
When I got out of the Navy a friend of mine got me an audition with an improv group called Comedy Sports. I got in, and it was like, "I guess this is what I'm doing now." But it wasn't leading to anything. It was fun, and I was performing, but it doesn't lead to a career.
What was it that lead you to a more established career as a performer?
Well, I was doing humor keynotes for corporate gigs, which seemed like performing to me. And there was money there. But in 2008 when the economy was getting really bad. My phone stopped ringing, because you don't want to bring in the funny guy when businesses are struggling.
So I ended up taking a job at Pickens Technical College in Aurora teaching film. I hadn't gone to film school, but after years of performing in theater and in film, I could teach the class. And I used to own what is now Lannie's Clocktower Cabaret. I built that theater in 2001, and it was called The Rattlebrain Theater. It was a sketch and improv, kind of Second City, Groundlings venue. We incorporated a lot of video, and I'd been an actor in a lot of commercials, so I was kind of a self-taught film person.
If you have enough life experience over a period of time, they give what's called a Career Technical Teaching Endorsement. I wanted nothing more than to love that job. I could collect my secure paycheck and my full benefits. And while I liked it, I didn't love it. About four years ago, I decided I needed to create a product and go 100 percent toward performing. So I spent three or four years really developing a show, performing it at the Avenue Theater or Lannie's. The idea was that I could take it around to colleges and theaters. I couldn't do comedy clubs because there is so much to setup; I needed a gig where I could do it for a few weeks at a time.
Continue reading for more from Dave Shirley.