Janae Burris likes to fudge her “comedy birthday” when she tells people who long she’s been doing stand-up — she says eight years, when really it’s 14 — given that comics tend to get less creative leeway the longer they’re in it. Particularly as a woman, who are far outnumbered by men on comedy clubs stages. .
“I kind of stopped doing that, though,” Burris said with a laugh over tea and snacks at Denver’s Kochi cafe on Tuesday. “Now, or at least before the pandemic, I’ve gotten to the point in my (career) that I can tell people the truth and still get jobs.”
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As an actress and nationally touring comic, Burris is in league with Colorado comedy-boosters who see a big comeback for 2022. Their optimism springs from dozens of refreshed bookings in Colorado’s stand-up scene, from big names headlining Red Rocks to club sets at the Denver Improv and Comedy Works, but also local festivals and showcases.
That comeback includes Burris. After years of hosting and appearing on local TV shows (including, full disclosure, The Denver Post’s former “Cannabist” show) and as a national opener for Denver comedy titans such as Josh Blue, she’s finally getting around to recording her first comedy special, “Long Overdue,” at the Aurora Fox Arts Center on April 16.
Notably, she’s doing it about two weeks before her pregnancy due date, with the intention of burning old material before her expected, extended break. Like Ali Wong, the trailblazing Los Angeles comic who has recorded two specials while pregnant, Burris has consistently told jokes and appeared in plays during her pregnancy (she’s currently at the Aurora Fox as the title character in “Hurricane Diane”), challenging traditional notions of what a working comic and actor looks like.
“I feel like I’m trying to squeeze it all in,” she said. “Apparently you can get pregnant at 42! How weird.”
Other comics are making up for lost time by rushing to secure shows and apply to festivals, even as a lack of staffing keeps schedules less-than-full at some local music and comedy venues. Missing servers, bartenders, board-runners and more mean that sold-out runs from comics like Marc Maron, the agreeably cranky host of the “WTF” podcast who visited Comedy Works last year, aren’t quite the norm yet.
“It’s still not back yet to pre-COVID numbers,” said Wende Curtis, owner of Denver’s nationally renowned Comedy Works clubs (she also happens to have thrown a baby shower for Burris over the weekend). “We’re still recovering, but podcasts and specials continued to happen during the pandemic, so you’ve got a lot of (formerly smaller) acts jumping from clubs to bigger concerts. That leaves holes, but also opportunities for younger comics.”
Those holes are apparent at venues like Englewood’s Gothic Theatre, a favorite of stand-ups (and album tapings) that, despite its packed music calendar, features virtually no comedy as of this writing (unless you consider political commentator Dave Rubin to be a stand-up; he visits May 18).
Nontraditional comedy rarely has trouble fitting in, however, at least in Denver. Storytelling shows such as “Mortified Live!” (April 21) at the frequently 18-and-up Oriental Theater sit alongside favorites there like Lucha Libre & Laughs (wrestling and stand-up; April 24), touring stand-ups (Nick Colletti, April 29) and drag-queens extraordinaire (“RuPaul’s Drag Race” vet Adore Delano, Feb. 9, 2023).
Curtis, who owns and operates both the downtown club and Comedy Works South in Greenwood Village, is also happy to see upstarts like Fort Collins’ Comedy Fort flourish in recent months — the latter having bravely opened in the middle of the pandemic — as well as the return of Denver’s High Plains Comedy Festival (Sept. 8-10), Trinidad’s Chief Bicycle & Comedy Festival (May 5-6), and The Grawlix showcase (the last Saturday of every month at the Bug Theatre).
Some of Curtis’ club-owning peers, whom she confabs with at events such as Montreal’s Just for Laughs festival, have questioned her for supporting smaller, seemingly competitive shows in Denver. Comics work for years to get a brief opening spot on her prestigious stage, they remind her.
But Curtis’ blessing for and occasional sponsorship of independent events has been one of the driving forces behind the growth of Denver’s comedy scene. The DIY scene, evidenced at bars, open-mics and festivals, has also compelled comics who can’t find stages in other cities to move to Denver and contribute to our growing renown.
“Denver definitely came back faster and better than L.A.,” said Burris, a California native who has opened for names such as SNL “Weekend Update” co-host Michael Che and Roy Wood Jr. “I was doing beach shows out (in L.A.) and not getting paid. In Denver, I got promoted at Comedy Works. Josh Blue is executive producing my special. I’m getting paid! … It’s always been my dream to build a community like this, where they recommend me and call me up when there are jobs.”
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