Colorado’s largest and longest-running standup comedy festival returns this weekend with 100 elite, invited comedians from Denver and around the country.
That’s nearly twice as big as last year’s High Plains Comedy Festival, the giggling love child of big-time Denver comedian Adam Cayton-Holland and Executive Director Karen Wachtel. The 10th annual festival runs Thursday through Saturday, mostly at venues in the Baker neighborhood of South Broadway. For those who have attended the annual Underground Music Showcase, think of it as the UMS of comedy.
One artist who has appeared in both festivals is former Boulderite Mishka Shubaly, whose comedy has been described as “stand-up tragedy.” His extraordinary songwriting catalog includes titles like, “Am I (The Only One Drinking Tonight”), which includes piercing and bluntly honest lyrics like, “If I’m a bad drunk, well it’s not for lack of practice.” That’s a line that only could have been written by a Cohenesque troubadour – or a stand-up comic. Shubaly is both.
“I sing songs that twitch back and forth between heartbreak and hilarity like a goldfish that has foolishly leapt out of its bowl,” Shubaly said. “And I tell stories from my dumb life where I skewer my own pain and humiliation for chuckles and guffaws.”
Littleton native Mara Wiles, on the other hand, is known for her “cerebral goofiness.” She’s a comedian who lives for those moments that can only happen while interacting with a live audience.
“The reason I fell in love with standup was just being in the room with all that energy,” said Wiles, a graduate of Chatfield High School and the University of Colorado Boulder. “I think the way you really connect with an audience is by being completely genuine.”
Wiles has been completely genuine with audiences about her life journey since 2009, when she was a healthy, 24-year-old distance runner one minute, and a kidney transplant recipient the next.
She remembers a late Tuesday night around that time when she attended a show by the comedy duo “Tim and Eric” at the Fillmore Auditorium, then stumbled into the Squire Lounge, home of what was then known as “The Meanest Open Mic in America.” There were Cayton-Holland and Troy Walker, now a writer for “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” performing on a night that would change the course of Wiles’ life. She’s been standing up ever since – and based out of Brooklyn since 2017.
Whatever is happening in her life at any given time tends to find its way into her material, and right now that’s processing the death of her father and the loss of her job – “and trying to find the humor in that,” said Wiles, whose comedy is stories that resonate.
The High Plains national headliner this year is Matteo Lane, who is appearing at Paramount Theatre on Saturday night. Other headliners include Beth Stelling and Chris Gethard, who are among those presenting curated lineups filled with seasoned and up-and-coming performers. Big local names include Janae Burris,Chris Charpentier and the Grawlix – that’s the three-headed comedy monster of Ben Roy, Andrew Orvedahl and Cayton-Holland.
Wiles will be appearing on the 11 p.m. lineup on Friday in the Bobcat Club at the Skylark Lounge. She also will perform at a live recording of the “Chubby Behemoth” podcast starring Sam Tallent and Nathan Lund at 4 p.m. Saturday at the hi-dive.
“The High Plains Comedy Festival has always been a big deal to me, being a hometown gal,” Wiles said. “But it has been getting bigger and bigger every year, and it is now considered a real prestige event in the national comedy world. As comedians, we value this festival for the opportunities it brings. But we also value the opportunity for all of us to come and be together with a lot of great people with Denver ties.”
Here’s an opportunity to better know two performers, Shubaly and Ian Karmel:
Meet the comic: Mishka Shubaly
• Hometown: I was born in a small town in Canada but haven’t been back in 30 years. So … New York? Boulder? Take your pick.
• Home now: Phoenix
• When did you know you were funny? I started out as a songwriter and then tragically fell in with comedians after Doug Stanhope shone a light on my music. I was getting booked on these edgelord comedy nights where it was all just dudes making jokes about their (manhood). I was like, “I can do this, my (manhood) is way funnier than this.” And here we are – the big time!
• What boundaries are you pushing? Folks have described my shows as, “so funny, I could cry,” and I take that as high praise. For some reason, holding a guitar while I talk gives me permission to speak plainly about addiction, grief, loss … and my tiny (manhood), which is corkscrewed like a duck’s.
• One random word that is inherently funny: Words aren’t funny, they are literature, and literature is dead serious, you philistine! OK, OK. “‘Flagrant” is kind of a funny word because it makes me think of a very fabulous comic-book vagrant. You know, a stovepipe hat covered in sequins; a bindle made of satin. The whole nine yards.
• What kind of comedian are you? I try to sell out the bro code at every turn. I’m definitely a bro – I love old trucks and loud rock and dumb explosions. But I think sports are dumb as hell, I’m always looking for a good cross-stitch hookup and I cry at commercials.
• Who are your people? If you have a closet full of black hoodies, if you’ve been to rehab or need to go, if you have a divorce or a DUI and you’re shopping for another one, please come, bathe in the fetid air of my bad decisions. Let me be your big spoon.
• Name one topic that is out of bounds in 2023: The weather. Enough with all the hot takes about clouds!
• In these divisive times, what is one thing we all can agree upon? Anyone with strong feelings about pineapple on pizza or “Die Hard” as a Christmas movie needs to spontaneously combust.
• Who makes you laugh? Every time my dog jumps onto the couch, the effort makes her fart. Every time, she turns around to look at her butt, like, “What was that?” then looks at me with genuine concern. Every time. It absolutely kills me to death. This is the apex of comedy. Nothing will ever be funnier than a couch-jumping dog worried about her own toots.
• Who is most definitely NOT funny? My dad.
• Best comeback to an obnoxious heckler: Dad, is that you?
• Your High Plains Comedy Festival times: 7 p.m. Thursday at the hi-dive; 6 p.m. Friday at the hi-dive, and 10 p.m. Saturday at Chaos Bloom. Bonus: 7:30 p.m. Sunday at the Comedy Fort in Fort Collins.
• Shout out another comedian: That knuckleheaded lumberjack Kyle Pogue is the most underrated comic in Colorado. He’s like Crime Dog McGruff, but instead of urging you to say no to drugs, he is urging you to go to a pill-popping orgy. I have seen him set a dead room of sleepy drunks on fire till those degenerates were ready to carry him out into the streets on their shoulders like a conquering hero.
Meet the comedian: Ian Karmel
• Hometown: Portland, Ore.
• Home now: Los Angeles
• When did you know you could be funny?: There isn’t some Spider-Man moment where all of a sudden you’re shooting webs out of your wrists. Everyone is funny when you’re a kid, and then at some point you realize there’s a feeling you get from making people laugh that you can’t live without, and there’s no better way to get that feeling than performing stand-up comedy. And then you spend the rest of your life trying to keep yourself and the audiences interested so you can keep doing it.
• What kind of comedian are you? I’m like a hotter Matt Rife.
• What boundaries are you pushing? There are no universal boundaries in stand-up comedy for me to push. I think we just went through a decade where it felt like comedians couldn’t joke about certain things. But that’s because, for the first time, audience feedback became immediate and freely available because of social media. This had a concussive effect on comedians because many of us have this dual need to receive affirmation and affection and also to not ever be told what we should or shouldn’t do. Those comedians who favor the latter feeling, and are inclined to be a bit edgier, started pushing back against the people on Twitter who said, “Don’t joke about X!” – and they found a huge audience who still wanted to joke about X. The only real boundary is boredom.
• Name one topic that is out of bounds in 2023: The second you identify something as “out of bounds” there will be a massive contrarian audience for that topic because people don’t like being told that something is out of bounds. It’s a paradox!
• In these divisive times, what is one thing we all can agree upon? There’s nothing better than ordering fries, and then there’s one little onion ring that snuck its way in there. You didn’t want an entire order of onion rings – that’s a bit much – but a little onion ring cameo? Brother, that’s living.
• One random word that is inherently funny: “Extravaganza”
• Who makes you laugh? Charles Barkley
• Who is most definitely NOT funny? Most doctors. You’d think somebody who spends that much time around death would be hilarious. But, not doctors. Luckily, nurses are some of the funniest people on the planet.
• Best comeback to an obnoxious heckler: Say nothing. Hand them the microphone.
• Your High Plains Comedy Festival times: 8 p.m. Thursday at the Skylark; “All Fantasy Everything” live podcast recording, 5 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the Skylark; 8 p.m. Saturday at Chaos Boom.
• Who are your people? People who Postmates Taco Bell before they leave the bar so their Uber and their food show up at the same time. … People who can recite the commercials that run during NBA games. … People who’ve seen all of “Gilmore Girls” and “Entourage.” … People who, when they’re planning a trip, know where they’re going to eat before they know where they’re going to sleep. … And Jews.