Zoe Rogers started performing stand-up comedy as a young mother in Los Angeles nearly 10 years ago. The stress and chaos of caring for an infant gave her more than enough material to fill 10-minute slots at open mics around the city. Performing proved to be cathartic. “I felt like the only person terrified and Googling my way through life,” Rogers says of being a new parent. “Then, I got on stage and other people were like, Yes, exactly.”

The environment backstage wasn’t always so reassuring, though. It wasn’t uncommon for audience members to approach Rogers after a set to ask why she was out in bars and not home with her baby, a question she says seemed primarily reserved for female comics. The misogyny didn’t end there: Rogers says she would often be rejected by bookers if another woman was already on the bill for a show. The reason? No one wanted to host a “ladies night.”

Discouraged by the gatekeeping, Rogers began to produce her own show in her friend’s backyard, dubbed “Token Straight White Dude,” which highlighted comedians marginalized because of their sex, race, sexuality, or physical ability and who, oftentimes, felt tokenized at comedy shows by being the sole person representing a minority. The show, which ran monthly for one year in 2015, featured, as you might guess, only one straight white dude.

By 2017, Rogers decided it was time to leave Los Angeles. The sheer number of comedians in LA had begun to wear on her, so she packed up and moved to Louisville. After a few years of doing stand-up around Boulder and at the Dairy Arts Center (DAC), she pitched the idea of an inclusive comedy festival to DAC staff in 2020 and got the green light. The inaugural festival took place last summer.

In its second year, the Boulder Comedy Festival will feature 30 comics, including local comedians Miriam Moreno, Lee Robinson (of Dyketopia), and Shanae Ross. Big names such as Heather Pasternak (who recently opened for Jeff Garlin), Leslie Liao, and Mike Merril, all from Los Angeles, will join in the fun, too.

Ahead of the festival—which runs from June 23 through June 26 at six venues in Boulder and Louisville, including the Dairy Arts Center, Front Range Brewing Co., and Finkel and Garf tap room—5280 spoke with Rogers about the local comedy scene, the homogeneity of stand-up comedy, and which jokes, if any, are off-limits.

5280: How is the Boulder Comedy Festival different from other festivals of its kind?
Rogers: I’m including people. I’m creating room for different voices without excluding. Sometimes, with comedy, it can feel like [show-runners say] ‘I’m booking one Black comic, or I’m booking one woman, and that’ll cover my diversity.’ The rest of my lineup will be straight, white men. Like, you don’t think guys talking about Tinder, how high they are, and how bitches are crazy for 90 minutes is redundant? I’m just saying there shouldn’t be 90 minutes of that perspective.

How have comedians reacted to participating in the festival?
It has been really good. People are on board with the diversity aspect because it is lacking in most festivals. It’s improved in the last couple of years, but it’s a slow crawl. I feel like people don’t want to make a conscious effort. Maybe events like the Boulder Comedy Festival—or other comedy festivals that make a conscious effort to promote diversity—will inspire others around the country to do the same.

Why do you think comedy has been so homogenous?
I think it’s because people associate certain people with being headliners, so people keep booking them. But for me, I ask myself, Is this a voice that’s represented? We control the content that’s going out into the universe; we control what people are going to hear and then think about on their drives home. Why not make that as diverse as possible?

Does being inclusive mean certain jokes are off-limits?
I think most things can be funny if they’re done in the right way, with the right angle. I don’t think you should be afraid to go to dark places. I really admire when somebody’s like, Here’s a topic that’s totally going to be uncomfortable, and I’m going to make it funny. It’s not like we’re more uptight. We’re just more aware of how people feel. As a woman, to have comics get up and do, like, rape jokes and then come up to me and say, Hey, are we cool? You want to be like, You just got up there and said horrible things, and now you want to shake my hand and ask me if we’re cool? I am cool, but I think you need to seek therapy.

What kind of comedy do you gravitate toward?
I like when there’s no “punching down” or bullying. I personally like really vulnerable, personal, and even self-deprecating humor, and someone who looks like they would be fun to watch on stage. I like who we have this year, because it’s a real spread of different voices and different energies.

Ticket prices range from $15–$25 per show. The Saturday night session will benefit the LGBTQ resource center Out Boulder County in celebration of Pride Month.

Fiona Murphy
Fiona Murphy
Fiona writes and produces multimedia stories for 5280.com, as well as oversees social media strategy for 5280’s and 5280 Home’s accounts.