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Hidden in the back of a sake bar, Denver’s newest comedy club is hosting national headliners

Denver Comedy Lounge in RiNo looks to fill hole in city’s stand-up scene

Newly Denver-based again, comic Ben Kronberg performs at Denver Comedy Lounge in the RiNo Art District last month. He’s now booking the venue. (Provided by Andrew Bray)
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You wouldn’t know it’s there, tucked away in the back of the red-concrete building that hosts Colorado Sake Co., its folding chairs and stage occupying what used to be the tasting room.

The Denver Comedy Lounge opened on Oct. 18, although there’s still no sign outside 3559 Larimer St., no advertising budget and zero Yelp reviews. It only operates on Fridays and Saturdays.

And yet founder Anthony Kapfer said he can barely keep up with the calls from people in New York and Los Angeles wanting to book it.

“I don’t know what this city needs, but I feel like there’s room for what we’re trying to do,” said Kapfer, a nationally touring comic who grew up in Brooklyn and lived there (or near there) his entire life before moving to Denver last month. “The scene here is not like New York. But it’s got more than most other cities that aren’t New York, and it’s a lot more welcoming. That’s what made me think maybe I could break into it.”

Kapfer’s right. For the last decade or so, Denver has boasted a competitive and nationally renowned stand-up scene that has produced shows like the Denver-set sitcom “Those Who Can’t,” which ran from 2016 until earlier this year on truTV, as well events such as the High Plains Comedy Festival.

Provided by Andrew Bray
Stand-up Shanel Hughes performs at Denver Comedy Lounge in RiNo during its soft opening last month.

Comedy Works’ Larimer Square and Greenwood Village rooms are the gold standard for club comics touring this part of the country, and if the big names aren’t there, they’re likely at a theater or arena Comedy Works helped book. Other road dogs stop at the Denver Improv, the national chain with a location in Northfield Stapleton. And beyond the A-rooms, as they’re called, a glance at 5280comedy.com reveals dozens of showcases, open mics and themed nights up and down the Front Range.

In that way, it’s not hard to find comedy near Denver. But is there any room left over for Denver Comedy Lounge, particularly in the rapidly expanding River North Art District?

Absolutely, said Ben Kronberg, a Denver-based headliner who helped launch (and has performed at) Denver Comedy Lounge. He befriended Kapfer while living in New York, bonding over a shared love of the brainy, absurd brand of musical comedy they practice; think Demetri Martin or Nick Thune.

“Last weekend both shows were at capacity,” Kronberg said of Denver Comedy Lounge’s soft-opening, which seated about 60 people per night. “I’ve never seen people respond that fast to a new venue. Maybe they’re looking online, maybe they’re deciding they’re turned off by Comedy Works’ cost or two-drink minimums. Maybe they’re looking elsewhere.”

The tickets were given away, a common practice in stand-up called “papering the room.” But the fact that everyone who received a ticket actually showed up was encouraging to the sake brewery.

Provided by Andrew Bray
Denver Comedy Lounge founder Anthony Kapfer moved from New York to Colorado last month.

“We’re talking about doing different things to turn people out,” said William Stewart, founder of Colorado Sake Co. “Themed shows. Music. Visual art. Hopefully we can get to a point where we’re charging $5 or $10 per night. But even with free tickets, we’re still paying the performers on these shows (with money from drink sales), and that’s attractive to a lot of comics.”

The risk for Kapfer and Stewart is relatively low compared to opening a club that runs exclusively admission and bar revenue — the way most music and comedy venues do. And yet it’s still a risk. If it doesn’t work, Kapfer is suddenly without his main project, Denver comics are without a promising new room to play, and stand-up fans are down another affordable (or free, as the case may be) entertainment option in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood.

“It’s nice to not be surrounded by PBR or IPAs,” Kronberg said. “This has a little bit more class to it, and the clientele is typically more women than men. Plus, the sake’s really good.”

Kapfer is optimistic based on the last few weekends of shows. He lacks the calcified judgments, as Kronberg put it, of longtime scenesters and has fresh ideas that could make Denver a funnier, more entertaining place. Independent comedy shows in Denver tend to avoid the Comedy Works and Improv-dominated weekend nights. Maybe this could work, he said.

“I did a couple of sets last week and I loved it because any sort of speakeasy room already has a fun, ‘we’re all in on a secret’ vibe,” said comic Andie Main, who’s returning to headline Denver Comedy Lounge Nov. 8 and 9. “Plus the owner, Bill, was there and that’s just refreshing to see.”

Stewart is excited, too. If a bit jealous.

“We started an LLC and a website for Denver Comedy Lounge a week and a half ago, and some days it’s already getting more page views than Colorado Sake Co.’s website,” he said. “If it’s gaining that kind of traction that fast, then it needs to exist.”

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