Given just four minutes to win over the audience packed into Comedy Works in downtown Denver, Jeremy Cash unleashes a string of one-liners. “I went to a climate change protest over the weekend, but I couldn’t find any parking,” he says, “so I just drove around for 14 hours.” It’s a Tuesday evening in July, and Comedy Works is hosting New Talent Night, which, over the years, has become a weekly tradition. “I don’t have kids,” Cash continues, “but if I ever do, I’m going to home-school them because if they’re going to get bullied, I want to do it.” His allotted time expended, Cash walks offstage to the sound of laughter and deserved applause. More than 200 comedians signed up for the 15 spots available tonight, most, if not all, with the goal of polishing their performances and attracting the attention of someone who’s not even in attendance: Wende Curtis.

Curtis has owned Comedy Works for 22 years and is such a legend in the business that the 60-year-old doesn’t need to be present to make her influence felt. Despite the fact that New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles all have comedy scenes that are better-known than Denver’s, Comedy Works has an outsize reputation in the business. “When people ask me what the best comedy club in the country is, I always say Comedy Works Denver,” says Las Vegas–based comedian Brian Regan, who has performed at the Kennedy Center and Radio City Music Hall. “I’ve always felt that way. There are a lot of great clubs out there, but the planets just line up when it comes to Comedy Works.”

Curtis started working at the now-defunct Comedy Works in Fort Collins in late 1986, during her senior year at Colorado State University (CSU). Initially hired as a waitress, Curtis eventually took on more responsibilities, working in the office and trying to grow the club’s audience. Within two years, she was booking comedians at both the Denver and Fort Collins clubs. When the owners opened a Comedy Works in Tampa in the fall of 1991, Curtis made regular visits to Florida the following year to try to build a consistent crowd. After 10 months of struggling to attract one, the club was shuttered and Curtis renewed her focus on managing the downtown Denver Comedy Works. She was 29.

Over the past 30 years, Comedy Works has faced its share of challenges, and the laughter that reverberates inside its walls has been occasionally punctuated by tears—and, worse, silence, when COVID-19 closed the club’s doors for a year and a half. Fortunately, Curtis says, after a global pandemic, people have desperately needed to laugh, which means seats are full once again, and the waitress-cum-owner doesn’t have to imagine life without Comedy Works.

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Curtis in the Denver condo where performers at Comedy Works can crash when they’re in town. Photo by David Williams

“This is all I’ve ever done,” Curtis says, sitting in her office a few blocks north of the Overland Golf Course one day this past summer. The dichotomy of her professional life is evident: A framed whoopee cushion that served as an invitation to the opening of the Greenwood Village club hangs a few feet away from file folders labeled Estate Planning and Property Taxes. “I’ve never been married,” she says. “I don’t have kids. I don’t have that legacy. This is it.”

In 1974, Curtis’ family moved from Garden City, Kansas, to Aurora, where her father opened an auto parts store on Brighton Boulevard. Curtis was only 11, but she found herself helping out with the family business: She washed windows, counted nuts and bolts, and swept the parking lot. At Hinkley High School in Aurora, Curtis appeared in school musicals and performed in a madrigal group, and after graduating enrolled at CSU with the idea of going on to acting school.

When Comedy Works opened in Fort Collins during her senior year at CSU, Curtis found her creative outlet. She was a waitress, with no desire to try stand-up comedy, but she liked the idea of being close to what she calls “the business of show business.” “It was so much fun,” she says. “At the end of the night, the staff would vacuum and wash ashtrays in the back. Well, I wanted to vacuum and wash ashtrays because I could sing. I could sing with the vacuum going and with the water going, washing ashtrays.”

But her joy at Comedy Works was beset by her ongoing struggle with eating disorders; Curtis says today she was both anorexic and bulimic. Instead of going to acting school after graduating, she focused on overcoming her battle with her disordered eating and body image. She began therapy at 26, but it took a few years until she found a therapist with whom she really connected. Curtis credits that with saving her life. “I remember thinking, If I can ever do this, if I can ever conquer this, it will be the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” she says. “And to this day, I still believe that to be the case.”

Meanwhile, she found solace at Comedy Works, which had been founded in 1981 by Edd Nichols, a jazz trumpeter who dabbled in stand-up, Doug Olson, and comedian George McKelvey. (McKelvey wound up going out on his own and opened George McKelvey’s Comedy Club in Aurora.) Nichols and Olson moved Comedy Works to its current location and reached beyond Denver to open outposts in Fort Collins and Boise, Idaho, in 1986 (it closed later that decade) and Tampa five years later.

Curtis found herself taking on increasing responsibilities over the years. She managed the two clubs in Colorado and oversaw Jazz Works, the nightclub Nichols had opened in the basement of Wynkoop Brewing Company in 1990. “I just did what nobody else would do,” she says. “I never had a problem with working. I never had a problem with working harder. I never had a problem with working longer. I just did it my way. And I just did it, honestly, better than anybody was doing it or had done it before.”

Nichols says he was initially skeptical of Curtis becoming a manager; people in various organizations get promoted because they are good at their jobs, he says, and eventually reach positions they don’t have the skills for. “That was not the case with Wende,” Nichols says. “She was one of those people who made the transition from just being a good, hard-working waitperson to a manager. Then there’s the next step, going from manager to being able to own and run the business.”

In 1990, Nichols and Olson sold the clubs to First Entertainment Inc.; Curtis, Olson, and another partner purchased Comedy Works 11 years later from the group. Curtis bought out one partner within a couple of months and the other after a year. By 2002, Curtis, the former waitress, was the sole owner of Comedy Works.

Photo by David Williams

Ask a comedian about Wende Curtis, and you’ll often get a version of the same response. “The thing about Wende that really makes a difference is that she’s a club owner and manager, and while she obviously wants to make money, money doesn’t seem like the main concern with her,” says Brad Williams, an LA-based comic who headlines Comedy Works a couple of times a year. “She actually cares about the comedy.”

“Wende knows comedy,” says Dana Gould, the LA-based comedian and actor who previously wrote for The Simpsons. “Unfortunately, knowing comedy isn’t a prerequisite for booking a comedy club. It should be, but it isn’t. Wende knows what she’s doing, and it shows in the fact that the club is still going really strongly out there.”

That Curtis knows comedy, however, isn’t the only reason for Comedy Works’ success. Over the years, she’s made savvy business decisions about the direction of the clubs, many of which overlap with her love of the art and craft of comedy. As Curtis considered expanding Comedy Works after she’d become the sole owner, she looked to Chicago, partly because she had become familiar with the city through a boyfriend, whom she’d met at Jazz Works. But after two deals to buy buildings in the Windy City fell through, she started looking closer to home. The Improv, a comedy club franchise, had announced plans to open a club in Denver. “I knew I needed to shore up my own backyard,” she says, “and I always knew that was going to go south.”

She means that literally, not figuratively. Demographic data Curtis had collected from ID checks at the downtown Denver club showed that many people making up the weekend audiences were coming from south of Denver. If she could open a bigger club in the southern suburbs, she thought, the audience would already be there.

Curtis’ dream, though, was slow to become reality. Having borrowed money to finance her new club, Curtis saw the project—and the surrounding Landmark development in Greenwood Village—run into repeated construction delays. (The developer, Zachary Davidson, wound up under criminal indictment on embezzlement charges and died by suicide in January 2013.) In need of additional capital, Curtis borrowed from her parents and her then boyfriend and sank her own savings into the new Comedy Works. “What you don’t want to do to a new business is front-end load it with debt,” Curtis says, “and it was pretty front-end loaded.” Curtis opened the new club, located just south of Belleview Avenue along I-25, in October 2008, with Josh Blue, Kathleen Madigan, and George Lopez all taking turns at the mic for an opening-night celebration.

Curtis, who leases the 8,000 square feet of space at the corner of 15th and Larimer streets, now had 21,000 square feet in Greenwood Village to fill. In addition to Comedy Works, she opened a third-floor ballroom suitable for weddings, a second-floor restaurant named Lucy in honor of her beloved French bulldog, and a first-floor lounge named for her paternal grandmother, Lila B. The club itself sits on the ground floor, with a mezzanine. The ceiling is higher than at the downtown club, and the seating is not as tight as it is in the Larimer location.

Christopher Titus, who has recorded nine specials so far, regularly performs at Comedy Works and remembers thinking the new club might be too big—until he performed there. “The laughter funnels to the stage and gets louder as it gets closer to you, so you’re a better comic because you’re hearing the response,” he says. “Some of these guys will set up a club, and they’ll put 30-foot ceilings in thinking it’s grand, and all that does is the laughter from the audience goes to the ceiling. On stage, you’re not hearing it, so it messes you up.”

As it turned out, laughs weren’t in short supply, but money was. Two years after opening, the Greenwood Village club had still not overcome its debt burden, and Curtis realized she needed an infusion of cash. She got word to Lopez, whom she had been booking since the early 1990s. “I think she might have been taking a loss in the weeks that I was there [back then],” he says, “but I appreciated it.” Now a major celebrity with a successful television and movie career, Lopez, who lives in LA, sold out two Wednesday night shows in 2010, covered his own expenses, and refused to take a penny.

“There’s not a lot of people I would do that for in this business,” Lopez says. “This is the business of laughter, but there’s a lot of backbiting and a lot of deception. She was one of the few people that was not that.” Lopez says if Curtis runs into trouble again, he will help her out “with no second thought.”

Curtis has paid that favor forward in many ways, but especially by cultivating local comedic talent. She puts three area comedians on stage before headliners, who perform on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. The locals typically come up through New Talent Night at the downtown location, which serves as an opportunity for emerging comics to hone their acts and stage presences. The rookies get two minutes, but even the most awkward acts often walk offstage to applause from the supportive audiences. Longer sets—three, four, or five minutes—convey that a comedian is moving up through the ranks. “Because she uses local talent, nurturing local talent is really important to her,” says Elliot Woolsey, coordinator of New Talent Night, who emerged from the program himself. “New Talent Night is sort of the farm system.”

Adam Cayton-Holland, a Denver comedian and writer, and a veteran of New Talent Night, says while other club owners act like “the kings of their tiny kingdoms,” Curtis doesn’t have that attitude. “I think there’s just a lot less of an ego there. She’s just easier to deal with and more pleasant than a lot of comedy club owners, because she gets it.”

Woolsey, who critiques new comedians after their Tuesday night performances, alerts Curtis to stand-ups he believes she should know about. But his opinion isn’t the only one Curtis solicits—she also checks in with the servers, managers, bartenders, and other comics. “The servers have a big say in your success because they are the people who see every show, and they are the people that report back to Wende,” says Blue, a nationally touring headliner who started at New Talent Night in 2002 and won NBC’s Last Comic Standing four years later. “I really attribute a lot of my early success to the staff there for presenting everything to Wende.”

Of course, with a reputation like Comedy Works’, the clubs draw comics from all over the country. To welcome that talent, Curtis provides two condos—one downtown and one near the Greenwood Village club—where performers can crash for free when they’re in town. Even comedians who’d normally prefer a hotel room say they enjoy the spaces Curtis offers, which she has decorated in a vibrant, eclectic style. “I am going to a hotel with the exception of Comedy Works, because it’s like being on the Monkees set,” Gould says. “And I’m proud to say that I am in their Mullet Hall of Fame.”

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Artwork made by guests of Comedy Works’ Denver condo. Photo by David Williams

Yes, the downtown condo has a Mullet Hall of Fame and is decorated with paintings of balloon animals, a faux zebra rug, and a Bozo the Clown punching bag. A talking Rodney Dangerfield doll sits on a counter next to a lava lamp. An entire wall is filled with paintings and other artwork done by visiting comedians. The dining room table is bright metallic red with turquoise accents, and the chairs are yellow, orange, blue, and purple. A framed poster of the cover of a Thor comic book hangs above a toilet. The shower curtain proclaims: “Please Don’t Do Coke In The Bathroom.”

Laughter emanating from Comedy Works has been heard far beyond Denver over the years: Madigan, Blue, Ben Roy, and the Sklar Brothers all have recorded live albums there. So have John Novosad and Greg Giraldo. Dave Attel’s 2003 album, Skanks for the Memories, which was recorded at the downtown club, has become iconic for its clever mix of frat-boy humor and sophisticated commentary on politics and religion. Comics like to record at Comedy Works partly because they like Curtis but also because its audiences seem to laugh easily, something all stand-ups want on their albums. “They’re just great audiences,” Curtis says. “We’ve honed them. We’ve given them good stuff and conditioned them right.”

Regan has his own theory about why Comedy Works patrons are so receptive. “I always wondered if [Curtis] had this magic power where she would release laughing gas into the club,” he says with a laugh. “Like maybe she’s in the back of the room behind the curtain like Oz, and she can sense if a crowd isn’t quite where it needs to be. She just opens up these valves and gets some laughing gas in the room to make sure every show goes well.”

All of which is part of what made things so difficult in March 2020 when the laughter stopped. As COVID-19 restrictions spread, it became clear it would be impossible to socially distance in a room where the audience sits elbow to elbow. Curtis was forced to shut down both clubs. Because the Greenwood Village club was significantly larger and allowed for better spacing between patrons, it briefly reopened in late July of 2020, but continued concerns about the spread of the virus prompted its closure almost four months later. “It was devastating in so many ways,” Curtis says. “Honestly, I thought about committing suicide—and I mean business suicide—multiple times. I was so frustrated and scared about losing [the clubs]. I was mad, and I walked around mad for a very long time.” Her anger wasn’t directed at anyone in particular, of course, and then she’d have moments when she’d feel bad for being so upset. “I would obviously feel horrible,” she says, “because people have lost people, and that’s awful.”

With no audiences, Comedy Works, like so many other small businesses, quickly fell into a financial hole. Curtis received funds through the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant, the Paycheck Protection Program, and an Employee Retention Credit loan. “That money,” Curtis says, “made all the difference.”

Having survived one of the most difficult challenges in her time as owner, Curtis isn’t ready to give up the business even though she says she’s broken her body working 70 hours a week, every week, for years. “[Doctors] told me about seven or eight years ago, Your battery is out,” she says. “My adrenals are shot.”

She has a plan, five to seven years out, to groom someone to take her place. Curtis may turn over the reins, but she is unequivocal about one thing: She will never sell Comedy Works. “I’d have to leave the country,” she says. “I would have to. I couldn’t watch what somebody would do to it.”