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  • Writer's pictureChris Fonseca

Denver Post: Indoor Comedy Shows Are Back In Colorado

From left to right: Musician Gary Clark, Jr., Colorado comic Chris Fonseca, and mega-stand-up Dave Chappelle, on Dec. 19, 2020, at Antone’s in Austin, Texas. Fonseca, who has opened for Chappelle in the past, was flown down to Texas by the comic to perform on a series of indoor live sets recorded for potential broadcast. (Provided by Chris Fonseca)

“It felt very weird, but at the same time very comforting because I wasn’t secluded in my apartment,” said Fonseca, who’s also launching a podcast this week and shopping around a sitcom pilot.

He’s not the only one jumping into the fire. The renowned Comedy Works brand is reopening its South club in Greenwood Village with Adam Cayton-Holland on March 11. On Tuesday, comic Zoe Rogers announced the Boulder Comedy Festival for June 2021, noting she will be “grateful to partner with venues prioritizing health and safety.”

Last weekend, Fort Collins’ newest business, The Comedy Fort (formerly the music venue Hodi’s Half-Note), held 50-person indoor test shows with Denver comic Ben Roy, all of which sold out. The club will officially open this weekend with shows through Feb. 13 featuring Shane Torres, all of which are also sold out.

“Level Yellow raises the overall capacity, but with space restrictions, I can’t safely fit more than 50 people in the showroom,” owner David Rodriguez said. “However, it does allow me to have people in the bar since it’s sectioned off.”

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment reported 8,460 new cases in the week ending Sunday, the lowest weekly total since mid-October, The Denver Post reported. And on Saturday, the state’s dial framework changed, raising the number of cases a county can have before having to move up to the next level of restrictions. In Denver’s case, that meant the county could move from Level Orange down to Level Yellow. (Under Level Yellow, restaurants, gyms and other businesses can operate at 50% capacity, which is double what they were allowed under Level Orange.)

The Comedy Fort’s Rodriguez has for months heard critics who say opening a public, indoor venue during a pandemic is a shaky business plan, at best. But he sees the public-health progress, incremental though it is, as his cue.

“I know it’s not ideal, but every establishment has faced these challenges,” he said. “I’m opening a year into this when everybody knows the drill. We haven’t had any pushback on enforcing any safety protocols because everybody’s super grateful to have live entertainment back.”

Comic and producer Brent Gill, who’s been running his Boulder Comedy Show from both Denver and Los Angeles in recent years, is returning full-time to Colorado in March to focus on the weekly showcase amid the grim environment in Southern California. His show, which ran sporadically in Boulder last year and shut down in October, restarted its regular schedule of two shows, at 5 and 7:30 p.m. every Sunday, on Jan. 11.

“The shows out here are all illegal,” Gill said via phone from L.A. this week. “It’s a whole different vibe than in Denver. People are legitimately frightened out here about it all, and in Colorado, I feel like they’re reasonable. Not that they take it less seriously, because we operate as if someone from the health department’s at every show. But in Colorado, we’re actually (poised) for a second boom.”

Comic Georgia Comstock performs during a recent, socially distanced Boulder Comedy Show. The stand-up showcase returned to a new venue, the Rayback Collective, in Boulder on Jan. 11. (Provided by Brent Gill)

Gill sees a slim window to rebuild his eight-year-old showcase, which has booked national headliners such as Torres, Sean Patton and Denver’s own Cayton-Holland in the coming weeks. Due to a renovation and a trend of pre-pandemic sell-outs, the show left its longtime perch at Boulder Biergarten last year for the roomier digs of the Rayback Collective, a food truck park and open-walled music venue.

Despite the change of address, that’s given Gill extra confidence since restarting last month, given that his new venue can normally fit 330 people — or about 75 live-comedy audience members under the current restrictions.

Any number is too high, some Denver comics continue to say. “So comedians have just decided no more on the whole pandemic thing?” Denver comic Aaron Urist wrote on Twitter Feb. 7. “I am truly baffled.”

Urist, a festival favorite and road opener for Todd Barry, Denver’s Josh Blue, and the Sklar Brothers, last performed live indoors at the Church of Cannabis in Denver in March 2020, he said. Since then he has never felt tempted to return to the stage.

“When I see comics performing unmasked indoors it makes me feel crazy. What are we doing?” he said. “I feel for the club owners and comics, because they’ve been failed by the government like everybody else. But just because it’s technically allowed doesn’t mean it’s safe.”

Urist is not alone, although few comics The Denver Post spoke to for this story echoed his sentiment publicly — some for fear of losing future gigs over current safety concerns. It’s an agonizing negotiation to be in, said Denver comic Roy, who headlined the Comedy Fort last weekend and recorded a live, outdoor podcast with buddies Cayton-Holland and Andrew Orvedahl on Wednesday at RiNo’s Number Thirty-Eight Social Hall, featuring guests such as Torres and comic Eliza Skinner.

“I feel like this is just where we’re at now,” said Roy, who plans to record his new stand-up album at Comedy Works South on March 26 and 27. “When we’re not in a surge or holiday spike, it’s a constant balance of being considerate and conscientious of other people’s well-being while also watching my own.”

However, Roy said, he understands and respects comics such as Urist, who have gone public with their disdain for live shows. He just happens to feel differently.

“That, and my artist disaster-relief funds, which were paltry but appreciated, are not going to last much longer,” Roy said.

“We have to work,” Boulder Comedy Show’s Gill said, noting the inherent tension between safety and commerce. “I understand where people are coming from, but if we waited eight more months (some people) would probably still think it’s too soon.”

Gill, a Comedy Works headliner, said he’s performed recently at other indoor shows that have given him hope, such as Ben Kronberg’s room in RiNo, The Denver Comedy Lounge, which seats about 25 people for now.

But live, indoor stage performances, like the restaurant industry, aren’t even close to normalization, experts say. If indoor dining and shows become common before vaccine distribution is widespread, we may create “superspreader playgrounds for dangerous new variants and squander our best shot at getting the pandemic under control,” according to a Feb. 6 ProPublica article titled “Why Opening Restaurants Is Exactly What the Coronavirus Wants Us to Do.”

Colorado Springs’ Fonseca is willing to take the risk, with the right precautions, so he can avoid a repeat of last year.

“I got my tax form for last year and had to laugh,” said Fonseca, who has performed for capacity crowds at Red Rocks Amphitheatre in the past. “It was for a single show in February that I did for the HA Comedy Festival on HBO Max. A year later, I’m making sure to livestream my Feb. 12 (album) set on my website.”

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