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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.
For years, Denver comedy revolved around Comedy Works. The 31-year-old institution, with its intimate, densely packed subterranean room in Larimer Square and its independent management in an industry full of chains, has always helped Denver draw bigger comics than other cities of similar size. It also has nurtured such local talents as Troy Baxley, Chuck Roy, TJ Miller, and Josh Blue of NBC’s Last Comic Standing.
The guys behind Those Who Can’t represent the latest wave in Denver’s comedy evolution. Cayton-Holland, 32, penned the “What’s So Funny” humor column for Westword while hanging around comics and launching his own stand-up career. Orvedahl, 35, an odd-job dabbler, was once terrified of public speaking until his roommate convinced him that he’d kill at comedy. Roy, 33, who worked at an online insurance quote company and sang in punk bands, was often at Comedy Works because his then girlfriend (now wife) worked the door. Eventually, all three worked up the nerve to climb onstage and tell jokes. “I was hooked,” says Cayton-Holland, wryly adding that he eventually regretted his desire to interact so much with other comics once he realized that “they’re all just miserable.”
After they’d spent a year or two performing, the trio set about creating their own opportunities beyond the handful of weekly open mic nights around town. In 2005, Orvedahl, Cayton-Holland, and some other comics began running a monthly underground show called “Los Comicos Super Hilariosos.” Appearances by names such as TJ Miller, Maria Bamford, and Tig Notaro helped draw crowds to the alternative stand-up events. Roy soon joined the group, which now runs a bigger version of the show at the Bug Theatre, a usually sold-out event called “The Grawlix” (named after the symbols used to replace swearwords in comic strips, as in “%#!*$”).
Running their own show and producing new material every month forced each budding comedian to hone his onstage persona: Roy, the liberal hellraiser; Orvedahl, the wide-eyed raconteur; Cayton-Holland, the smarmy lothario. They’ve performed at well-known comedy events such as the Aspen Laff Festival and Montreal’s Just for Laughs. Laughspin.com named Roy’s 2012 recording, I Got Demons, among the best comedy albums of the year, and at press time, Cayton-Holland was scheduled to make an early-2013 appearance on Conan. “You saw a long time ago some serious genius from these guys,” says Wende Curtis, Comedy Works’ owner. “They just went out and started storming down doors and building their own rooms so they could get all the stage time they needed.”
These days, there are grassroots stand-up shows, comedy debates, humorous storytelling events, and comic-run podcasts all over Denver. Orvedahl, Roy, and Cayton-Holland are tapped into all of it, headlining shows, appearing on podcasts, and wrangling out-of-town comics to appear at events. “It’s been huge,” says Chris Charpentier of the Fine Gentleman’s Club, a stand-up collective following in the Grawlix troupe’s footsteps. “Just seeing guys like that at the same open mic as you and all the other nobodies gives you hope that if you work hard enough, you can make it as a comic and not have to leave the city we all love.”
That’s what the three hope to prove: that they can be successful without leaving Denver. The pressure’s on to move to California, to be closer to TV execs and talent scouts and late-night talk shows. But they have homes and families here now. “We’ve been working really, really hard to prove to people that our dream of staying here and creating something is not an unreasonable goal,” Roy says. “I don’t think it’s bad to be in a place where you feel comfortable, a place where you are creatively inspired.”
This is where online videos come in. Much like YouTube has shown that you don’t need to live in New York or L.A. or have a record deal to get your music heard, online comedy opportunities have helped the Grawlix guys build a name in Colorado. While Evan and Adam Nix had day jobs in video production and advertising, in their off hours they were filming comedy videos like Rainbow Chasers (the cutest form of storm chasing), running Denver’s Laugh Track Comedy Festival, and forming a German synthpop duo named Total Ghost. (The act began as a joke but has since played more than 70 shows around Denver and was invited to Germany by a big Total Ghost fan to play a birthday party. That fan was PayPal co-creator and SpaceX founder Elon Musk. The invitation didn’t work with the brothers’ schedules, but Adam says, “We’re hoping to be the first band to play on Mars.”)
Evan says he and his brother began collaborating with the Grawlix guys because, “We like working with comedians because they already have material.” That material morphed into a Web series on funnyordie.com. While anybody can upload videos onto the site, the Grawlix episodes stood out for being both professionally produced and profane, and all earned enough hits to land on the website’s front page. Among the plots: In one installment, Orvedahl takes a meeting about a movie deal, overdoses on donuts, and demands to star in Hostel 3. In another, Roy’s wife leaves him and starts dating the Nix brothers—concurrently.
Soon, the Grawlix members were fielding calls from Comedy Central, FX, and Adult Swim. Then last October, news broke that Amazon Studios, which has been experimenting with crowd-sourced films and digital comics, had optioned Those Who Can’t. The show is one of about a dozen potential series for Amazon’s “Instant Video” streaming service. Benjamin Jones, head of Image Brew, the local production company where Evan Nix works, agreed to produce the pilot. “Shooting in Denver was something we all wanted,” says Josh Lieberman, Cayton-Holland’s Los Angeles–based manager, who is executive producing the show. “It seemed organic to them.”
The Nix brothers finished editing the pilot in January, and now it’s up to Amazon, which will soon decide whether to option more episodes of the show. If it doesn’t, the folks behind Those Who Can’t are free to shop the pilot around after a waiting period. If no one picks it up, the five might have to move to Los Angeles. If Amazon or some other studio bites, they still might shift production of the show to Hollywood. John Wenzel, who covers comedy for the Denver Post, is realistic. “If their series gets picked up and does well, and they start getting on late-night shows, I think they have potential to have a national presence and never move from Denver,” he says. “But I think it would be extremely hard for them to do that based on just what they’re doing right now. Something would have to change.”
About that dodgeball: After another frustrating take, Evan has an idea that he whispers to Roy. Sure enough, on the next shot, Roy launches the ball a beat early and Orvedahl, caught off guard, takes a direct hit and falls backwards, arms flailing. As Roy cackles with delight, Cayton-Holland cracks, “Stay down, Andy! We’ve called the paramedics!”
A few minutes later, a makeup artist hurries over to apply a bloody nose to Orvedahl. “You’re on the ground now, choking on your whistle,” instructs Evan, before hollering, “Everyone ready for blood?” On a nearby flat-screen monitor, Roy and Cayton-Holland watch the dodgeball-hit footage over and over. “Can we do one more take?” Roy asks. “After all, this isn’t a Web series.”
Joel Warner’s book, The Humor Code, co-authored with Peter McGraw, will be published in 2014 by Simon & Schuster.