"So, yeah, Colorado, way to legalize it! Do we have any pot smokers here tonight? . . . Alright."
With some variation, this has been the introductory line or segue of almost every touring comedian I've seen in Denver over the last year. Sometimes this leads them into a hilarious bit filled with wisdom and color and authentic misdirection — but most of the time it's just an I-was-so-stoned-when-I-shouldn't-have-been yarn involving junk-food and a cop. Maybe this is just the case in Colorado, but it feels to me like marijuana jokes are slowly becoming the airplane-food humor of today's comedy: We've heard a lot of these jokes, so this one better be good.
I'm not sure if the fact that I smoke a lot of pot makes me more or less likely to be annoyed with cannabis comedy. When it's good, there's nothing better. Whether it's Bill Hicks theorizing that "to make marijuana against the law is to believe God made a mistake," or Bill Cosby walking us through coughing/laughing/paranoia misery of being high, the subject is a fertile landscape of punchlines and characters. But with those two examples, the comics took very well-tread subjects (legalization; mocking stoned behavior) and moved them somewhere fresh. Unfortunately, this is rare in today's comedy.
Last Monday, Chris Hardwick addressed the phenomenon of Denver's marijuana-themed weddings (yes, that's a thing here; and it only gets weirder) on his @Midnight Comedy Central show. For the next two minutes, all jokes revolved around onion rings, Phish guitar solos, procrastination and running from the cops. It wasn't that the jokes were offensive to pot-smokers, they're just the same tired themes we've been hearing for decades. It's the equivalent of a marriage joke about leaving the toilet seat up, or forgetting an anniversary.
Doug Benson was a guest on Monday's episode of @Midnight, so it was possibly a contractual obligation that at least one segment be devoted to cannabis. Benson is an interesting character, in that he seems to have actively made himself the poster-boy for being a productive stoner, illustrating by the nature of his own existence that the human brain can juggle podcasts, live performances, joke-writing, interviews and a TV show, all while as stoned as a sea turtle on mushrooms. And yet at the same time, Doug Benson comes off as a cliche cartoon character in both his demeanor and one-liners. Admittedly, those one-liners are sharp as hell, but it's not like the guy's ever twisted my wig with a hilarious slice of brain-candy.
Or maybe it's just my being a Colorado comedy journalist during the great extravaganja of 2014 that's hardened my heart pot humor. Just as I've grown sick of psych-garage rock bands and geometric art, maybe losing patience for bud-banter is just a sign that I'm oversaturated with comedy. In the interest of comparing notes, I called up fellow Denver comedy journalist (and occasional Splitsider contributor) John Wenzel, who writes for the Denver Post and is the author of Mock Stars: Indie Comedy and the Dangerously Funny.
"I think there is some pressure for a comic [to tell pot jokes in Colorado], whether it's self-imposed, or that it's just a subject that's in the air — literally," Wenzel says. "I'd say more than half the comics I saw at the Oddball Festival at Red Rocks opened with pot material. I think they might've felt that it was the elephant in the room and if they didn't mention it they would seem out of touch, even though I don't think that would have been the case."
After hearing a ubiquity of cannabis comedy at Just For Laughs, Bridgetown and SXSW over the last couple years, Wenzel doesn't feel that the oversaturation of pot pandering is isolated to Colorado. Though he does agree with me that while there are great moments of marijuana comedy (such as Denver's Sexpot Comedy series), for the most part attempts at pot-humor are a cultural bargain basement.
"A lot of pot culture in general appeals to the lowest common denominator of trashy, juggalo-type stereotypes with women in pot-leaf bikinis standing before shiny cars," he tells me. "Pot culture hasn't changed much in thirty years, it's still stuck in Cheech & Chong and The Grateful Dead. Nothing about Half Baked or Pineapple Express really moved that culture forward. Yet for a long time pot was best interpreted in popular culture through comedy."
So perhaps it's not comedy that needs to develop more sophistication around marijuana, but society at large. Jokes about race, gender and politics didn't become more enlightened until the dialogue at large about those subjects changed. And again, it's not that pot jokes are offensive, they're just profoundly dull and inauthentic.
"I don't want to only be known only as a pot comic, because I'm so much more than that," says Denver comic John Novosad, who's been performing standup since 1980, though in 2000 began using the stage-name Hippie Man. With his Eric Clapton mustache and long, shamanic grey hair, the Hippie Man schtick was a unique novelty when Novosad began using it fourteen years ago, but now that that Denver has become the cannabis capital of the world, the identity has become a bit confining for him.
"When I first became Hippie Man, it was more of a counter-culture thing," he says, explaining that today people feel they know what his act will be by just looking at the poster. "I don't do as many pot jokes as I used to. On a headlining set today I'll only do about four minutes of weed jokes."
Novosad says that he's considered changing his name, but just like a comic who gains national recognition for a sitcom — even if the comedian doesn't feel comfortable having that become their sole identity — he's aware that the name holds a large currency for a comic working in Denver.
This forces me to acknowledge the fact that pot-jokes still work. Audiences love them, especially here in Colorado. Just as a comic will get big laughs by bashing on Republicans in San Francisco, or touting the virtues of being a nerd in L.A., I guess marijuana is now the softball opener for a touring comedian passing through Denver.
It's probably going to take a little while longer for jokes about munchies and bong-rips to become as hackey as Tim Allen grunting about tools. And until that day comes I guess I'll have to remain the snob in the back row, arms folded, profoundly stoned and profoundly unamused.
Photo by Coleen Whitfield.