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CoverStory

The Art Of Failure
Colorado is the perfect testing ground for young comedians
By Dale Bridges (editorial@boulderweekly.com)

Laughter can't heal everything, but it can show you where the pain is coming from."

—A homeless man at a Paris train station who was selling balloon animals to support his methadone habit

A stand-up gets knocked down

It's Thursday night at Album's Bistro, and Dave Burdick is bombing. There's no nicer way to say it. He's standing under the white glare of the stage lights, trying to hide his skeletal frame behind a corded microphone. His last joke––a "bit" about horses––just hit the audience like a groin shot.

And now there is silence.

Burdick is a lanky 23-year-old with a porcelain complexion and the type of impish grin described in certain Mark Twain novels. When he gets excited, his eyes make a mad dash around the room and his large, white hands flutter at the ends of his arms like worried moths searching for a place to hide. These nervous mannerisms are almost mesmerizing, and the audience usually responds immediately to his disarming persona. Usually, but not tonight.

While Burdick reaches for a sip of 90 Shilling and tries to recover his composure, an uncomfortable pause engulfs the establishment. It feels as though a space-time continuum has opened up and swallowed University Hill. Seconds turn into minutes; minutes become days; days stretch into decades. Still there is no laughter.

But Burdick is oblivious to the wormhole that has absorbed his spectators—or at least he appears to be. He simply runs his freakishly long fingers through his retro haircut and plunges forward, attempting to push the audience out of its lethargy.

When a comedian falters, it is a strangely personal experience for everyone involved. A comic has a unique relationship with his audience that other entertainers do not. When a musician hits a foul note or an actor stumbles on a line, the audience might be annoyed or even disappointed, but it's difficult to be empathetic. After all, not everyone plays bass in a garage band or belts out show tunes on Broadway. On the other hand, everyone in America has been forced to deliver a public speech at one point or another, and that surreal, dreadful moment stays with us on some level for the rest of our lives.

Which is why the entire audience is now holding its breath, hearts racing, palms sweating, hoping that Burdick will turn it around. We want him to enunciate his words and establish good eye contact. We want to give him an A.

And Burdick does not disappoint. Over the course of the next 10 minutes, he regains focus and slowly pulls his set together. It's difficult to pinpoint exactly how he manages this. It doesn't happen with just one joke. The audience is cautious now, gun-shy, and Burdick has to coax them back to his weird fantasyland.

He tells a story about attractive, cross-eyed girls that makes a young man near the stage snort. He wonders if crabs feel inferior because they don't have necks. Like a Pied Piper, he takes the audience by the hand and leads them off to the strange world inside his head. The transformation is almost miraculous, and by the time he puts down the microphone, the room is ringing with laughter and applause.

Something funny this way comes

Most Coloradoans have no idea that they are living in the middle of America's new laughter mecca. Denver is consistently recognized as one of the comedy hot spots in the United States, right after New York, Los Angeles and Boston. National entertainers like Dave Chappelle, Roseanne Barr, Jamie Foxx and Dave Attell travel to the Mile High City frequently to test new material. Last year, USA Today listed Denver's Comedy Works in its "Top Ten Comedy Clubs in the Country." Every week, the Squire Lounge on Colfax packs in more than a hundred rowdy customers for its open mic. There are dozens of stand-up shows throughout the city and more than enough comedians to keep them hot.

Colorado is also deep on local talent, ranging from seasoned veterans like Troy Baxley and John "Hippieman" Novosad to edgy up-and-comers such as Dave Burdick, Adam Cayton-Holland, Ben Kronberg, Greg Baumhauer and Chuck Roy.

Trapped between the Rocky Mountains and Kansas, local comics have absolutely nothing to lose when they step on the stage. They aren't worried about auditioning for a part in the latest Eddie Murphy movie or feeling out a pilot for FOX. Their only concern is to improve as artists.

"We're not influenced by New York or L.A. comedy," says Greg Baumhauer, host of the Squire show, called by some The Meanest Open Mic in America. "We have our own voice. Colorado comics are known for dark, edgy stuff. Basically, we're a bunch of assholes down here."

Denver is an entertainer's purgatory, a place where you can survive as a comedian but there are very few opportunities for national exposure. That's why the city's comics are brash, crass and above all creative.

Recently, the rest of the nation was introduced to a small slice of the Colorado comedy pie when Josh Blue came out on top of the NBC reality show, Last Comic Standing. Blue had been building up a reputation as a heavy hitter in Denver for several years before his number came up. His success brought some long-overdue recognition to the area and helped turn the tide for a few struggling artists.

But don't expect to see pony-tailed Hollywood agents walking their Chihuahuas down Speer any time soon. At the moment, there's no indication that fame is going to come knocking at the door.

On the other hand, comics agree that Colorado's isolation has been a boon for the art form, even though it doesn't always pay off financially.

"America is in the middle of a renaissance in comedy right now, and I think we're a part of that," says John "Hippieman" Novosad, who recently appeared on the Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson. "Denver is a place where you can try new things and fail. That's why there's a lot of strong talent around here. We're not playing it safe."

The art of failure

Failure is a common topic for comedians, and it comes up in my interview with Dave Burdick before his show at Album's.

"I never bombed on stage when I first started doing stand-up," says Burdick. "I was living in Boston at the time, and everybody in Boston was either trying to be Denis Leary or Steven Wright. I was in the Steven Wright camp, and I never really failed back then." Burdick smiles ruefully. "It was only when I started doing my own material that I sucked."

We are sitting in Burdick's oddly furnished apartment, overlooking University Hill, and I'm drinking his last PBR.

Burdick is staring out the window at the Fox Theatre across the street and obsessively removing imaginary pieces of lint from his pants. Although he seems composed and articulate, there's something about his demeanor that's reminiscent of a hyperactive schoolboy who is counting down the seconds to recess. It's kind of like talking to a crack addict that also happens to be a member of Mensa.

And he's nice—almost pathologically so.

"A lot of comedians are really antagonistic on stage, and that works for them," Burdick says. "But I can't pull off that type of in-your-face, Lenny Bruce comedy. It's just not me. I've actually tried to do crass material before, but it doesn't fly."

He laughs. "I guess I'm too boring or something."

He may not be antagonistic, but no one would ever accuse Burdick of being boring. Weird, yes. Innovative, certainly. Boring, no.

However, when I suggest that he might be breaking new comedic ground with his style and material, Burdick quickly shakes his head and returns to his imaginary lint-picking project. "I guess I'm not sure what you're talking about. I do stand-up and sketch comedy. I know a lot of comedians who do that," he says.

At times like this, Burdick's humility can be infuriating. You almost want to grab him by his scrawny shoulders and shake the uncertainty right out of him.

Dave, you're good enough; you're smart enough; and, doggonit, people like you.

Cynics might suggest that Burdick's affable nature is the reason that he doesn't always hit home with his audience––and there might even be a modicum of truth to this––but the reality is that despite his tentative posture, Burdick takes more risks on stage than most live entertainers. He doesn't take physical risks (slipping on banana peels or tripping over furniture) or taboo risks (biting the heads off of live rats); he takes artistic risks.

Aside from his stand-up, Burdick also writes, produces and stars in the Secret Circus, a comedy show that he created with his good friend and fellow Emerson alum Elisha Yaffe. As its name suggests, the Secret Circus is a bit unconventional. With dramatic readings of the movie My Girl and videos about interviewing for a job at the sun (not to mention free juice and cookies during intermission), it's safe to say that the Secret Circus is not like anything you'll find in a traditional comedy program.

The highlight of the act, however, is when Burdick and Yaffe ascend the stage together and perform a tandem routine, an idea that's so old it's almost new.

Burdick and Yaffe don't have whimsical, Hitler-esque mustaches, and they don't pepper the audience with zany one-liners, but they do feed off one another in an Abbott and Costello manner. Dressed in oversized hoodies and faded blue jeans, they look more like a couple of chatty stoners than two innovative performers attempting to break new ground in their genre.

Before every Secret Circus performance, Burdick and Yaffe write a completely new script—usually during two or three evenings of drunken debauchery in Burdick's apartment. But they seldom stick to their material. Instead, they improvise constantly onstage, producing either uproarious laughter from the audience or dead silence.

And it's this willingness to face failure that sets them apart from other comedians who refuse to stray from their rehearsed jokes. It's also part of the reason audiences keep turning up to see them. It's like watching a pair of novice tight-rope walkers who have absolutely no fear of death. You get something extra every time you see Burdick and Yaffe perform that seldom happens with other comics: the possibility of catastrophe.

Although these edgy, freeform tactics have earned Burdick a devoted following, it appears that he has hit the apex of the Boulder entertainment scene. In just a few weeks, he will be moving to New York to pursue comedy full time. Burdick's final Secret Circus performance as a Boulder resident will take place on Friday, April 6, at 8 p.m. in CU's Old Main.

Although we are sad to see him go, it's satisfying to know that our community helped create such a rare and entertaining artist.

"Mostly, I'm just trying to find my own voice," says Burdick. "It hurts when you fail, but ultimately I want to feel like I'm doing something new, something that's truly mine."

We think you're one of a kind, Dave. Thanks for the laughs.


Laugh your ass off
A brief review of the local comedy scene

Boulder County

Sundays

Brewhouse Comedy BrewHaHa. Redfish Brewhouse, 2027 13th St., Boulder, 303-440-5858.

The Redfish Brewhouse hosts an Open Mic every Sunday night from 9:30-10:30 p.m. featuring Denver comedian Dick Black. There are two-for-one drink specials for the ladies and $1 pints on tap for the entire crowd. This venue attracts comedians from all over the Denver/Boulder area.

Mondays

The Laughter Club. Kake's Studio, 2115 Pearl St., Boulder, 303-447-2851.

OK, so this isn't exactly stand-up comedy, but it's pretty damn funny. Ellen Brown leads a local group that practices a form of spiritual/physical exercise called "laughter yoga." Participants sit together in a group and induce self-stimulated laughter to raise mind and body awareness. As Brown says, "You don't have to be happy or have a sense of humor to join the club." Maybe not, but it probably helps.

Wednesdays

Open Mic at the Burnt Toast. Burnt Toast, 1235 Pennsylvania Ave., Boulder, 303-440-5200.

Stephen Colorado (yes, that's his real name) hosts an Open Mic Competition on the second and fourth Wednesdays of the month at the Burnt Toast. This event is a new arrival to the Boulder comedy scene and is quickly garnering an audience. The winner receives a $25 coupon from the Burnt Toast and the right to taunt the other comedians mercilessly for the rest of the week.

Thursdays

Jokes at Album's. Album's Bistro, 1124 13th St., Boulder, 303-449-6637.

The premier stand-up spot in Boulder, Album's is a local institution that lends its stage to a variety of comedians, musicians and artists. Every Thursday night, rising star Dave Burdick hosts a comedy night with a variety of talented stand-ups from the Boulder/Denver/Boston area. There's a $5 cover that is sporadically enforced, but you'd be paying $20 to see these comics at another club. Album's is Boulder's very own version of the Ding Ho.

C.R.A.B./Fringe Festival. Laughing Goat Coffeehouse, 1709 Pearl St., Boulder, 303-440-4628. The Laughing Goat is probably the only comedy venue within a hundred miles where you will find a copy of Plato's Dialogues on the bookshelf next to a cooler filled with organic milk. C.R.A.B. stands for Constantly Risking Absurdity Baby, and their show is not for traditionalists. Every third Thursday night, David Ortolano hosts this offbeat variety show that features everything from postmodern clowns to one-act plays to interviews with Zen archers. Seriously. We're not making this shit up.

Other local venues

Comedy at the Crossroads. Crossroads Tavern, 400 W. So Boulder Rd., Lafayette, 303-926-4254.

The Crossroads Tavern will have regular stand-up nights starting in September.

Bumper's Comedy Competition. Bumper's, 135 Nickel St., Broomfield, 303-469-5865.

Bumper's has hosted several Open Mic competitions, and they're hoping to give comedy a regular spot in their schedule.

Denver

In order to suss out the story on the Denver comedy scene, the Boulder Weekly put a call in to stand-up comedian and Westword staff writer Adam Cayton-Holland. Cayton-Holland is the winner of the 2006 Comedy Works New Talent Contest and scribe of the weekly column "What's So Funny?" He's an intellectual pervert who bitch-slaps political correctness wherever he goes.

The Boulder Weekly asked Cayton-Holland where the inspiration for his high-powered, off-color material comes from.

ACH: From the suffering of little children.

BW: Really?

ACH: Yeah, it just makes me laugh, and it makes me want to bring the gift of laughter to others.

BW: But not the children?

ACH: Definitely not the children. Because then there's no suffering, and the cycle ends.

BW: Would you ever do a show for kids?

ACH: No, because kids think the Wiggles are funny. Basically, children are stupid.

According to Cayton-Holland's Wikipedia page (which he swears he didn't write), when he isn't making fun of weeping infants, he enjoys bird watching and "dog breading." (sic)

On Tuesday nights, you can catch Cayton-Holland at the Squire Lounge (1800 E. Colfax Ave.), hosted by Greg Baumhauer. "I don't know what the hell's happening over there," says Cayton-Holland, "but the Squire packs in a hundred people every week. It's sort of insane."

Cayton-Holland also hosts Los Comicos Super Hilariosos on the last Thursday of the month at the Orange Cat Studios (2625 Larimer St.), and You Suck Get Off the Stage at the Oriental Theater (4335 W. 44th Ave.) every couple of months when he needs to raise beer money.

Of course, you can also catch him at Comedy Works (1226 15th St.), the granddaddy of all comedy clubs in Colorado. Comedy Works is a favorite venue for superstars like Dave Chappelle and (ahem) Roseanne Barr, and it was listed as one of the top 10 comedy clubs in the country by USA Today.

"There's something for everyone in Denver," says Cayton-Holland.

Except for the children, right Adam? Keep those stupid, crying kids at home.


Boulder Sings for Dushanbe

The Boulder Chorale, Jubilate! and the Kutandara Marimba Ensemble will team up this Sunday, April 1 for a 4 p.m. concert at Macky Auditorium on the CU-Boulder campus. The concert will raise funds for the Dushanbe cyber café, which Boulder hopes to begin building later this year.

Tim Snyder, artistic director for the Boulder Chorale, says that each group will perform separately and will collaborate for the final selection, which will be an African mass written by Randy McIntosh, director of Kutandara Marimba Ensemble.

Tickets range in cost from $10-$150, and proceeds will go toward Boulder-Dushanbe Sister Cities, the nonprofit that will build the cyber café. For more information, contact the Boulder Theater box office at 303-786-7030. For more information on Boulder-Dushanbe Sister Cities, go to www.boulder-dushanbe.org.


A world of cuisine

It's hard to believe there was a time when the Dushanbe Teahouse was a controversial fixture in the Boulder political landscape. Boulderites had no idea what to expect from the roughly 200 crates shipped to Boulder from Dushanbe, which held the contents of the hand-crafted teahouse.

But then the teahouse doors opened in 1998 and the complaints immediately stopped, remembers Lenny Martinelli, owner of the Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse restaurant.

"I believe the complaints ended because people didn't understand the magnitude of the gift given by Dushanbe," says Martinelli. "This is the only [teahouse] of its kind in the Western hemisphere. I can't say this without enough emphasis. It's a significant piece of artwork, architecture and culture."

Martinelli, who owns the restaurant with his wife Sara, says that coming up with the concept for the Dushanbe Teahouse restaurant was simple: focus on tea and world cuisine. Martinelli says that he wanted the menu to support the broader concept of international food, as opposed to a focus on just Tajik cuisine.

"We thought that we could take [the concept] further and focus on the world of cuisine," he says. "We need to understand who our citizens of the world are. We're all fighting the same battles and living life and enjoying food."

Today's menu is a journey through the world's culinary hot spots. It boasts mouth-tantalizing curries, Mexican duck mole, Italian butternut squash ravioli, Korean BBQ and Spanish paella—as well as old Tajik favorites Plov, a traditional rice dish, and lamb shish kabob.

In the beginning, perhaps one of the biggest challenges for Martinelli and his wife was developing a list of teas. During the late '90s tea and teahouses weren't as popular as they are today.

"At that time in Boulder [interest in] tea was fairly nonexistent," he says. "Even in the U.S. there was very little tea consciousness, although tea was the second-most-drunk beverage in the world."

Sara Martinelli researched and built the extensive tea menu, working with various importers from across the country. In addition to the many hand-picked black, green and white teas, the Martinellis invented about 30 special proprietary tea blends.

While the expansive tea list is enough to make any restaurateur proud, Lenny Martinelli says he's especially happy with one teahouse favorite—hot chai.

Martinelli spent more than a year at the Naropa Café, which he now owns, and apprenticed the chai-brewing techniques of the café's previous owner, Almut Stamer.

"When I worked with her I couldn't make it for a year," he says. "Slowly she taught me how to treat chai. It fostered a respect and love for chai. To make good chai, you have to have 'chai love.'"

Having "chai love" may seem far-fetched, but it's downright necessary when you're in the tea business. In fact, Martinelli says that love and respect for food and its various traditions has been imperative during his nine-year tenure at the Dushanbe Teahouse. One challenge in serving up international favorites over the years has been that there are so many different methods on how to prepare one dish, says Martinelli.

"Everyone has [his] way and [their way] is the only right way," he says. "We have to make it palatable [to Americans] as well as satisfy people in Cairo and Argentina who will compare this to their mom's food."

—Grace Hood


Dushanbe Teahouse: an architectural tour

When the city of Boulder hired local architect Vern Seieroe to adapt the original open-air teahouse designs to an enclosed year-round space, Seieroe had one mission: To create a design that did not change, detract or dominate the artistic quality of the teahouse. Seieroe traveled to Dushanbe to work with Tajik architect Lado Shanidza on the enclosure designs. The two conceptualized how the enclosed structure would look, but there were a few changes made along the way. The Fountain of the Seven Beauties, which is directly visible from the front door, was originally planned as a square fountain recessed in the ground, says Seieroe.

"The fountain in the center originally had this large structure and the walking space was small," says Seieroe. "I like [today's] design. I felt that the business needed more floor space, and a hole in a floor in a public space has an inherent danger to it."

When Tajik architect Shanidza passed away in 1997, shortly after the teahouse construction began, Seieroe faced a few unanticipated challenges on his own. Each carved wooden column, placed throughout the main tearoom, came in two pieces. There was no rhyme or reason as to what two pieces went together, says Seieroe, or where to place them.

Seieroe decided to place the more intricately carved columns by the front door. When it came to Seieroe's two favorite columns, one of which featured a hen and its chick and a second one that displayed a peacock, he says he went with his instincts.

"I felt that the hen and the chick should be in the south side [which has more light]," he says. "I don't know of any symbolic or cultural reason, it's just the idea that you would nurture an infant in a warm place and the peacock would be in the cold place."

The mihrab is a common artistic motif throughout the teahouse, and appears in the ceiling design, the interior white plaster artwork on the walls and the exterior tiles. Mihrabs are commonly seen in mosques and represent a mirror into the spiritual world. In the teahouse, mihrabs take on less of a religious meaning and symbolize an opening to the world of beauty and nature, says Seieroe.

One architectural legacy left by Shanidza was the rooftop skylight design. Shanidza was enthralled with the Chicago School of Architecture, particularly the way in which skyscraper windows were tinted, says Seieroe.

"He wanted to do a skylight that was sort of like stained glass, but instead use glass that you would use on skyscrapers," says Seieroe. "He loved the idea of using technology that at the time was beyond his reach."

Other individual Tajik footprints can be seen in the ceiling near the restroom hallway.

Above this exit way are the signatures of the master painters who worked on the teahouse. Carved names appear nearby, which represent the names of the Tajik wood carvers involved with the project.

—Grace Hood

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