Deacon Gray on the Comedy Works New Faces 2013 finalists
It's been a long ride since last spring, when the Comedy Works New Faces Competition 2013 began. And now, with 130 comics eliminated, we're down to the final ten, who will compete tomorrow night for a cash prize and the prestige of joining the ranks of previous winners, including Ben Kronberg, Josh Blue and Adam Cayton-Holland. The finalists: Aaron Urist, Christie Buchele, Derrick Rush, Jordan Doll, Kevin O'Brien, Mike Hammock, Nichole Mccormack, Patrick Hesse, Tim Messenger and Zachary Maas.
Comedy Works New Talent coordinator Deacon Gray.
Comedy Works New Talent Coordinator Deacon Gray has been documenting the Denver comedy scene since 2004, keeping stats on each comic's every move within the walls of this legendary comedy club, as well as producing the New Faces Competition. We recently sat down with this 27-year veteran of the standup industry, chatting about the boom and bust of the '80s club circuit, how the Internet has changed comedy, and why New Faces became a measuring stick for ambitious young comics.
Deacon Gray: I've lived in Denver since 2001, but I started coming to Denver in '88. I'd been performing comedy since '86 in Oklahoma City, and at that time there were more clubs than there were comedians. There was this huge boom with clubs opening up across the country, and anyone who could piece together a set could get work. So I got hired as an emcee about two months after I started -- and I got paid. I got paid more than they pay us now, even.
So you saw the comedy explosion in the '80s, and then its downfall in the '90s. Do you see any similarities in the rise of comedy we're seeing now?
What I'm seeing is that the paradigm is changing. The media that is delivering the message is different. It used to be that there were four guys in suits who decided what comedians got on, the people from the networks would decide who got on the Tonight Show. Then cable came along, and that changed everything, because there were so many hours to fill. But even then you were still dealing with networks like Comedy Central, which would decide what happens.
But now with the Internet, anybody can do it. The artist decides. So as long as you find your audience, it doesn't matter what that guy in the suit thinks.
I imagine that's changed the content of the comedy, since comedians in the past would sometimes cater their work to fit what that guy in the suit wants.
Oh, yeah. It's changed the content, and it's also changed the way in which it's delivered. And I think that paradigm shift is one of the reasons you've seen a surge of women in comedy. It's no longer necessary to do these horrible, dangerous road-gigs anymore. You can do comedy and stay in one place, while still being seen across the country.
And it's changed the content. In the '80s it was all [Jerry Seinfeld voice] "Guys do it this way, and women do it this way!" "People in New York do it this way, and people in Los Angeles do it this way!" It was that observational humor: "What is the deal with glove compartments!" In the '80s, comedians felt everything needed to be examined, and I think we've evolved past that. It's like, we get it, everything has humor in it, but show us where that's going. Everything got all hacky and schlocky.
Eventually you began working with Comedy Works, and what I'm curious about is with all those comedy clubs closing in the '90s and early '00s, what was it about Comedy Works that has allowed it to sustain itself since 1982?
Well most of the clubs that closed were not well-run clubs. What happened with the comedy boom in the '80s is that these club owners didn't care about comedy, that was just the hot thing at the moment. So guys who owned strip-clubs were like, "Oh I got an extra room, I can put a comedy club in this strip mall." And people were flocking to those.
Cable also really hurt the industry, because it became over-saturated everything. I remember in the early '90s every night there was a four-hour block of stand-up on A&E. It would be Live From Carolines, Comedy on the Road with John Biner, A&E Presents an Evening at the Improv, and then some other shows. It got so over-saturated where people were like, "Why should I go out to a club?"
Comedy Works took a different approach. Most clubs across the country were B clubs, and that refers to the way they do business. Comedy Works is an A club, and they'll bring in somebody famous that people know, and we're going to try not to give tickets away, and they make their money at the door. And since it's a premium night, they charge people premium price at the door.
The B room has a set budget each week for the comics, and never go over that. And anyone who will work for that, that's what they'll put on. So they don't need to make very much at the door, they make their money selling buckets of beer. The quality of the comic doesn't matter, it could be lesbian poetry so long as they can do their two-drink minimum. And those were the clubs that were closing in the '90s.
Comedy Works used to have a B room in Fort Collins, and I got a job there as an emcee. And that coincided with [current Comedy Works owner] Wende Curtis getting a job working the door there. She was a theater arts major at Colorado State. This was in 1988. Eventually she got a job booking gigs there, and she booked me for gigs from time to time. So when I moved here in 2001, I had that connection.
And now you're the New Talent Coordinator at Comedy Works.
I basically created that position. This is the seventeenth year of the New Faces Contest, so it was going on before me. It used to have a lot of sponsors like Frontier Airlines, so the winner would get some cash and two roundtrip tickets to anywhere in the U.S. Which to a comic is not bad. But it was treated as an open mic, and the judges were the sponsors. It was weird.
What stopped it was, one of the sponsors one year was Budweiser, and they brought in a bunch of their clients and got so drunk, and the contest was being heckled by the sponsors.