Adam Cayton-Holland hits the comedy jackpot

As part of our global expedition exploring what makes things funny, we’re grilling humorists about the science behind scoring laughs. (This post was previously published at Wired.com.)

Image credit: Noah Van Scriver

The Just For Laughs festival in Montrealisn’t just the world’s biggest comedy festival; in the freewheeling world of stand-up, it’s one of the few proven methods left for up-and-comers to really make it big. That’s why it’s a big deal to be among the handful chosen each year to be one of Just For Laughs’ New Faces. It’s like the Harvard Lampoon of stand-up — New Faces alums have been known to star in prime-time sit-coms, score gigs on late-night talk shows, host some of the biggest podcasts on iTunes and sell out major theaters.

Among this years’ New Faces, all of whom will be performing shows at the festival from July 25 to July 27, is Denvercomic Adam Cayton-Holland. As co-host of the hit monthly comedy show The Grawlix, Cayton-Holland is something of a local icon in Denver, and he’s making national waves thanks to a popular Funny or Die video series, appearances on the Nerdist podcast and a cameo on the ABC show Happy Endings. But Cayton-Holland knows full well that Just For Laughs could be the development that catapults him to the next level. As he prepped for the big event, we caught up with him to talk about making it big in funny — while staying true to your comedy roots.

Humor Code: Congrats on making it to Just for Laughs! Why is a development like this important?

Cayton-Holland: I think Just for Laughs kind of serves as an instant legitimatizer. You see comedians use it as a credit all the time. It’s not like it’s the only route to comedy success or whatever, but when you look at who’s gone through there it’s hard not be blown away. Comics talk about who was in their New Faces group like it’s who they were drafted into a sports league with — like, “I was in the Quarterback Class of 1983.” Also, in this analogy I would like to be John Elway.

Humor Code: What is your plan for making the most of the opportunity?

Cayton-Holland: I’m not going in with any plan whatsoever. I’m going to go out there and do the best I can at the shows and let everything else that I can’t control just happen. Otherwise I’ll go crazy.

Humor Code: Were you born funny, or did your funniness come from practice and development? Does good comedy have to come from a screwed-up childhood?

Cayton-Holland: I had a great childhood. My parents both loved me and they never divorced and they encouraged every creative effort. I’m the child of smart hippies; it was a great upbringing. I resent that whole “You have to be fucked-up or have come from somewhere dark to be funny” theory. You don’t have to be abused or overcome something. You just have to be sensitive. The rest will take care of itself. If you are sensitive, you’ll see abuse and injustice all over the place because that’s just how you perceive the world. Then how you deal with that is up to you. Become a politician or a civil rights attorney and try to change it or write and joke about it.

I always tried to lighten the situation as a first defense. Did people make fun of me because I was tiny all through middle school? Sure. Did important, pivotal figures in my life pass away? They did. Did my parents have knock-down-drag-outs sometimes? Sure. Whose didn’t? That’s just part of living, if you ask me. Most people could point to a tragedy or perceived slight in their background. I never felt those were the catalysts for any life ethos. I was always drawn to humor from an early age and I always made people try to laugh because I just did. Seemed like a more fun way of viewing the world: laughing at it all. Beats crying. That said, if I see that kid Danny who called me “fag” all through seventh grade, I may just have to thank him.

Humor Code: Describe your comedy creation process, as well as your revision process.

Cayton-Holland: I used to try and force it. Like go spend an hour a day writing. But that just led to shitty, forced jokes. When I have a funny thought or conversation with a friend, I’ll usually jot a note down in my phone – a premise, or a ridiculous situation. Then I’ll go back and hash that thought out with a cup of coffee at a cafe so as to be a complete and total cliché. Then I take it to the stage, where revisions sort of occur naturally. Editing the stuff that doesn’t work out. Tagging the stuff that does, etc. I do a monthly show in Denver with two friends, Ben Roy and Andrew Orvedahl, called the Grawlix. We have a lot of repeat fans, so our one rule is no repeat material. Our guests can bring whatever level of polished stuff they would like but the three of us have to have ten new minutes every month. No better motivator to create then having a deadline.

Humor Code: There are a lot of young, hard-working comedians out there. What do you do to stand out from the crowd?

Cayton-Holland: Um, duh. I’m an early-thirties, cynical white guy with a beard. They pretty much broke the mold with me.

Humor Code: What, for you, is the toughest kind of audience to make laugh?

Cayton-Holland: Mutes.

Humor Code: Can you give an example of when one of your jokes failed badly?

Cayton-Holland: I have a million examples. Most of the time a joke fails because you haven’t put in the ground work to really make it good yet. You just took a sloppy premise up there without a punchline conclusion. But most of the bombing horror stories are usually circumstance: A shitty setting where comedy should have never been happening in the first place, an audience that does not want to sit and listen to the type of performer in front of them and a scared performer hating his way through thirty minutes for a paycheck. It’s like a perfect storm of everyone not wanting to be there. Like Vietnam.

I did a show for this great group in Colorado, a sort of very green, eco-friendly mountain-conservation group. And they were lovely. But there were a bunch of local politicians there, and a bunch of do-gooder, PC NPR types. And their kids. I told them I’m not the most PC guy out there and they were like, “We’ve seen you, we like you, we want you.” They were trying to “hip up” their annual benefit. So before I go on they announce that a “very dirty” comedian is going to go on and any children in the room should be taken to the far other side of the room, where a puppet show will took place concurrently. Away from my supposed filth. So I took the stage to glowers from local politicians who think I’m about to get Doug Stanhope on their asses, while children are literally fleeing me. Then I did 25 minutes while looking over the heads of the audience at a fucking puppeteer fifty yards away on the other side of this banquet hall. And the worst part was he was killing with those kids. Fucking killing. But hey, I got paid $50.

Wired: You’re a part of a thriving grassroots stand-up scene inDenver, but it’s a scene that’s far from comedy hot spots likeNew York and LA. As a comic, is it possible to make it big in your own community, or at some point do you have to move to where the action is?

Cayton-Holland: I’ve been trying for awhile to “make it” from Denver, but who knows. The scene is certainly thriving. It’s truly amazing right now. So many talented comics doing whatever kind of shows they want. There’s a lot of creative stuff happening here. Every big, famous “made it” comedian that comes through and does my show and stays at my house marvels at the scene. It’s like a fantasy land for them: “Wait, you have a house and a dog and all these great fans come out to all these cool shows all the time? Why would you ever leave?”

And the answer to that is to become bigger, to get more people out to your shows and continue to tell jokes. And to get paid a bit more — earn a decent living. So I think you have to go to where the action is constantly. I can’t name many comedy icons or movie stars who come from anywhere other than New Yorkor LA. I go to LA a ton and every time I do, great stuff seems to happen, so who knows. I just hate the concept of moving to a city on the vague promise of “making it.” If I move I’d like it to be for a concrete reason. And I’d like that reason to be starring in the Ghostbusters remake. Make it happen, Humor Code.

Humor Code: How could the comedy industry do better at finding/fostering/promoting new talent?

Cayton-Holland: By signing me and seven comics to be named later to limitless contracts with no creative oversight whatsoever. Problem solved.

Humor Code: A lot of comedians describe “finding their voice” as a pivotal moment in their career. When and how did you find your voice?

Cayton-Holland: I think it’d be pretentious of me to say that at eight years into the game I’ve completely found my voice. I bet I still have a lot of searching left to do. All I can say is that all of my jokes seem to fit together better than they ever did before. People seem to find a coherent viewpoint somewhere within that and that’s all I can be happy about at this point. I try not to over-think it. I have jokes, bits, abstract one-liners, rants and bizarre e-mail exchanges in my headlining sets. So by that criteria, my voice is an abstract pastiche of ennui-driven observations and pop-culture references. Remember how I started this question out saying I didn’t want to be pretentious? Forget that part.

Humor Code: How far would you go to get a laugh? Is anything off limits?

Cayton-Holland: I think that’s a personal choice for a lot of comics. There’s lots of things I won’t do. There’s jokes I used to do that I’m now appalled at. That’s part of the process — testing the boundaries to see what you can get away with. It’s a normal process for any comic. Hopefully you find what works for you in terms of taste and decorum. That said, I hate when any comic or blogger or arbitrator of supposed tastefulness tells a comic what they can or can’t do. Is it funny? Is it creative? Is there some real thought there beyond shock value? Then it’s okay. Is it stupid? Is it lazy? Is the comic just saying something naughty or creative because they want to be risqué or they saw someone better than them do it more skillfully? Then it’s offensive.

Humor Code: How is technology changing comedy for the better — and how is it making it worse?

Cayton-Holland: Twitter is making it so that great comics can find audiences on their own and then go do shows for those people, outside of any Hollywood or club system. That’s awesome. Twitter is also making insipid hot chicks with sexy profiles the darlings of Hollywood. That blows.

Humor Code: Do you have an end goal? Where would you like to see yourself in five or ten years?

Cayton-Holland: Hanging out with you, drunk as all get out, re-reading this interview and just laughing, laughing.

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