There's been a proliferation of these ethnic hybrid bars. Jose O'Shea's, O'Rourke's Cantina. These restaurants. They're always Irish and Chicano, which is like a marriage made in Northglenn.
After his four minutes are up, one thing is clear: Becker is a hit. Once backstage, he's euphoric, jumping around and throwing shadow punches. "This is the first thing I've ever done in my life that feels right," he crows.
Becker is soon one of Denver's top regulars at Comedy Works. Before long, he's touring medium-size cities and opening for well-known comedians such as Bobcat Goldthwait, Louie Anderson, and Dennis Miller. Like his idols George Carlin, Dick Shawn, and Professor Irwin Corey, Becker's style is acerbic and urbane:
Heroin was developed after World War I as a cure for morphine addiction. And it works! LSD was discovered in the 1940s by Albert Hofmann as a cure for the migraine headache. I guess it's for people who can't take Tylenol. Cocaine was developed as a cure for money.
"Don would go places nobody else would go," says Mark Corrigan, a Denver improv actor who watched Becker's star rise. "He was more erudite. He wouldn't necessarily get on the bicycle every night and just ride it." What Becker did was make the audience think. Denver singer Lannie Garrett liked his witty style so much she had him open for her. "The first time I saw him perform," she says, "I fell in love with his brain."
But Becker's rough edges also estranged him from some in Denver entertainment circles. "If he didn't like what you were doing," Corrigan remembers, "he had no bones about making that obvious to you." True enough, says Becker, who claims he had a near-perfect record of determining if a comic had talent after only few minutes on stage.
One of the up-and-comers he marked for stardom was Denver housewife-turned-comic Roseanne, for whom Becker occasionally wrote material. Westword used to have a category for Best Comic, which Becker won twice over Roseanne. "If I talked to her today, I would lord that over her," Becker says. "Then she hit hyperdrive, and she entered this new area where she was just unbelievable. I think she's the best comic in the world."
According to Roseanne, Becker was one of the few Denver comics to support her debut as a stand-up comedian. In her autobiography, My Life as a Woman, she wrote about her first appearance at Comedy Works, where after perkily introducing herself to others backstage, "They all turned around and looked at me with great loathing, like 'Oh, my God.' I went on stage and did my show and people just loved it," she continued. "The very first night was just great. I went off, and the only person to come up to me was Don Becker."
Becker did not experience the same kind of breakthrough celebrity as Roseanne, but he did enjoy regional success. He received numerous write-ups and positive reviews. But as his career was taking shape, intermittent binge drug use and increasing mental instability were taking a toll on his health. Around that time he had opportunities to work in Los Angeles. Comic Louie Anderson offered to help facilitate a major audition. But Becker never left Denver. "I never went to L.A., and a lot of people felt that was a big mistake," he says. "But I was making better money than any other comic in Colorado, and I could sleep in my bed every night. In some ways, I think it's serendipity and kismet and karma. I think if I had gone to L.A., I would have ended up a cocaine casualty."
It was hard enough for Becker to keep his head above water in Denver. In some ways, he was not unlike John Belushi, Sam Kinison, or Freddie Prinze, self-destructive figures whose comic lives belied their darker personalities. In Becker's case, his comedy was a refuge from his demons.