The Laugh Track

Can a bunch of dudes, some dirty jokes, and $50,000 make Denver famously funny?

February 2013

What, exactly, is the best way to hit a guy in the face with a dodgeball?

That’s what these three oddly dressed, would-be comic stars are trying to figure out. They’ve come to Manual High School’s cavernous gym on this November morning to film the pilot of Those Who Can’t, a sitcom about three inept Denver teachers. As a dozen or so crew members watch, comedian Andrew Orvedahl gets into character as eager-yet-bumbling gym teacher Andy Fairbell. Wearing knee-high socks and uncomfortably snug gym shorts, with a whistle tucked into his waistband (to keep it warm), he paces the parquet floor before a group of semi-attentive students. Orvedahl is supposed to give a rousing speech on the virtues and requirements of dodgeball—Courage under fire! Enthusiasm! A decent throwing arm!—only to be violently silenced by a cherry red ball to the face.

But it’s not going well. Orvedahl, anticipating the impact, keeps flinching right before he gets hit. It doesn’t help that the ball thrower is his co-star, local comic Ben Roy, who plays a punk rock, neo-communist teacher imparting what he calls the “people’s history.” As the show’s third co-star, Adam Cayton-Holland, looks on from the bleachers—he plays the burnt-out instructor Loren Payton, who insists on teaching Old World Castilian to Latino students who are already fluent in Spanish—Roy seems a bit too eager about his task. “We get to hit Andrew in the face with a dodgeball today and get paid for it!” he gushes, before turning to Orvedahl. “Get ready to suck ball!”

This past fall, Amazon decided to dive into the TV business. Among its first forays was a $50,000 pilot of Those Who Can’t, which, like all pilots, will determine whether the online behemoth will fund a full season. The weeklong shoot, at Manual and East high schools and around town, has gone smoothly. Big-name comedians Nikki Glaser and Rory Scovel flew in to do free cameo appearances. Actual high school students are costumed in the letterman jackets of Buchanan High, the show’s fictional setting, and school hallways are plastered with posters for mascot Terry the Fightin’ Tariff (so named because President Buchanan is mostly known for raising taxes).

Until today, everything’s been on schedule. As Denver filmmaker Evan Nix, 29, barks “Action!” to launch another take, his equally tall and rail-thin brother, Adam, 26, mans the camera. The two are even more laconic than usual—it’s an ongoing joke that they communicate to each other telepathically—despite the stakes. Those Who Can’t could solidify Denver’s burgeoning comedy scene, a community these three comics, with help from these two filmmakers, now epitomize. It would prove that you can make it in the comedy business in Denver without following the old rules.

But first, they need to hit Orvedahl squarely in the face.