How Ben Bryant turned a church basement into a packed comedy club

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Ben Bryant sports a formidable mustache and a gray sweater with a self-applied Denver Judo crest. The comedian and Denver Comedy Underground founder grabs a Capri Sun from the mini-fridge in his Cap Hill green room and explains how Super Mario helped save his indie club.

Bryant founded DCU in 2019 as a series of comedy shows in the back room of the Irish Snug, which has since closed. After performing outdoor shows on Colfax during the pandemic, he found a new permanent venue for DCU, but ticket sales were sparse. The club was in the red when Bryant came across a video game on Facebook Marketplace that caught his eye. “It was a sealed Nintendo First Edition Super Mario game,” he recalls, and he bought it for $800. With a combination of cunning and luck, he sold it on eBay for ten times that amount. This windfall became his operating budget to keep the business going until ticket sales increased.

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DCU is truly underground, beneath Althea Center, a non-denominational church that celebrated its 100th anniversary last month. The neo-classical style building centers around its rounded colonnaded corner entrance that stands out in the Cape Hill neighborhood like a sore thumb – if a sore thumb was a major National Register monument designed and built by the prestigious architect American Jacques Benedict.

Bryant says he contacted the Althea Center because he knew it was hosting improv and theater shows in his basement. The owners agreed to a lease, and it was a huge improvement for Bryant, who was happy to leave the Irish bar. “Now I rent to spiritual people who help the homeless,” he remarks.

Leaving the real world, you enter the black box theater via a steep flight of stairs. The room is dimly lit and slightly cold; the ceiling is low and black. The stage is supported by a dark brick backdrop framed by red theater curtains. The room seats 120 people – the majority in plush theater seats, the rest at tables draped in red tablecloths.

The lounge has drinks for sale, but without the two-item minimum required by most comedy clubs. “The only people I’m beholden to are the public and the comics,” Bryant says, differentiating his independent comedy club from other venues that are responsible for dozens of employees and corporate reports. “I want the comedy to remain accessible, so the price is not an obstacle”, he explains. “I just need to make enough to feed my pug.”

Low overhead allows for flexibility. In addition to stand-up shows, DCU now offers acting classes, and improv classes are planned for the future. Bryant is never short of new entertainment ideas. “If I wanted,” he said, “I could hold a Wednesday pie contest here.”

At eighteen, as a student at UNC Greeley, Bryant took the stage for the first time and told a joke on Wikipedia. Granted, it’s not his best work, but he says there wasn’t much else to do in his spare time, so he continued to write and perform. “I need to be myself more than standing up,” Bryant says. “The stand-up happens to be one of the best vehicles for that.”

Ten years later, on stage at DCU, his material oscillates between silliness and intelligence as he thinks aloud quickly by analogies. A Fruity Pebbles joke told with a Barney Rubble accent is followed by thoughts on empathy and feminism. Her expressive face contorts strategically to accentuate an idea or a punchline. He rolls his right shoulder because, he says, his shirts don’t fit properly on that side. He will often raise an open hand to the side of his mouth and lean in to finish a joke, as if telling you a secret.

Bryant’s thought process is a show of strength, not a show of focus. Offstage, it seamlessly jumps into an impression of John Mulaney or George Carlin to take stock of the personality or singular perspective of our favorite comedians. “I touch too much shit to have singular focus, which is a bad thing for this generation,” he says. “They think you need something.” His mind wanders as if waiting for the recess bell to ring, pacing, improvising from idea to idea, just as the word “RIFF” tattooed on his collarbone indicates. “Yeah, he’s a bit scattered,” comments Bryant’s friend, comedian Andie Main, “but he operates with kindness to every interaction.”

One moment he’s contemplating the racial bias he sees in ticket sales, and the next he’s criticizing the economics of tennis. He will dissect the different types of laughter, referring to the rational and the irrational, the thinking part of the brain, and how your body physically reacts to a joke. He considers the sunk cost fallacy as he scrolls his phone for a photo he can’t find, then apologizes for rambling because he’s trying new psychic drugs, which he strongly encourages.

But after more than a decade of stand-up, Bryant says he’s not even at the starting line of his career. He has plans for his own special, his own tour, and more writing credits. “I want all the beautiful things in this world,” he says, “but it’s hard to call myself ambitious when I know how many naps I take.”

Bryant is acutely aware that a certain environment is needed to support laughter. Standing next to the stage, he snaps his finger to signal echo in the room, a crucial ingredient for any comedy room. But the fragility of a comedy hall means the comedians on stage can hear it all, good and bad. “At a rock concert, you can basically throw a bottle of beer at the guitarist,” Bryant jokes, “but if you put your drink down too quickly during a comedy show, the comedian has to fix it.”

New York and Chicago work well for comedy because of the way the cities were built – both had thousands of speakeasies with hidden back rooms. “These rooms are great for comedy because they’re isolated, which lends itself well to acoustics,” says Bryant. He notes that such halls are harder to find in this region, but he has the solution for Colorado, albeit an unrealistic one: every brewery in the state should lower its ceiling by ten feet. “That would be my dream term as governor.”

Bryant’s phone vibrates often. People want tickets and comics want stage time. Agents and sponsors, too, were playing for his attention. He curates and organizes the lineup each weekend using tried-and-tested wisdom in deciding who will perform: “They have to be good,” he says, “and offstage they can’t be crap.” Having credits — a distinction that involves a recognizable media appearance — also helps.

It’s a big step for many comedians to step onto the DCU stage. Gabby Gutierrez-Reed says she felt validated the first time she performed in the basement. “It’s like I’m doing something good,” she says of the experience.

Bryant’s friends describe him as someone brought up on comedy and still a student, intense but silly, obsessed with quality and judo. They say he’s also humble and diplomatic, never playing up the comedy hierarchy that’s all too common. “Ben delivers comics by their ability,” Main says, “not who they’re friends with.”

He starts each day giving the gift of kindness: He feeds his dog, Mochi. He ends his days with the responsibility of more than 100 paying customers. They bought tickets to a church basement and agreed to put their phones away for ninety minutes and give their full attention. “It’s crazy,” says Bryant, “and I want to respect this gift the public is giving us.”

Over the past fourteen months in space, Bryant’s immense effort to make DCU a premier comedy venue has been undeniable. “Who thought you could take a church basement,” Main says, “and turn it into one of Denver’s most regularly packed places?”

Denver Comedy Underground shows are every Friday and Saturday at 8 and 10 p.m. at 1400 Williams Street. Tickets are $15 at denvercomedyunderground.com.

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