Posted on: Aug 22, 2009By Mike Cote, ColoradoBiz Editor
"Saturday Night Live" cast member Darrell Hammond takes the stage at Comedy Works. He seems a bit under the weather, and during the course of his one-hour set - punctuated by dead-on impressions of Dick Cheney, Bill Clinton and Jesse Jackson - he polishes off two cans of Red Bull.
It almost looks like a product placement: a high-energy drink for a high-energy act. But club owner Wende Curtis is the one who made sure Hammond had two cases of the beverage waiting for him.
Curtis also knows how Hammond likes his coffee, that he's a bit on the shy side and that he wants to sleep in one of the most expensive beds in town.
"He wants the Brown Palace," she said a few days later. "I pay him good money, but I sell out, and I make money. And he says really good things about us."
Like much of the entertainment business, the comedy circuit is a small world, and reputation means everything. Curtis is about to bet her good name - and a major financial investment - will lead to success beyond downtown Denver in September when she opens a new club at The Landmark, an upscale residential, retail and entertainment project in Greenwood Village.
Curtis will own a three-story, 21,000-square-foot building that will include a comedy club with seating for more than 400 people - compared with the Denver club's 280-seat capacity. It also will include a restaurant that will feature Southern cuisine and a tapas bar on a floor she will leave to a third party.
Curtis has worked outside the confines of her Denver base before. Las September, she capped three years working as a consultant to help open a comedy club in New York. But she acknowledges that the new club has rattled her nerves.
"What I owe on my business is not very much, it's like a small mortgage on a house. I could pay it off in a year," Curtis said during an interview at Comedy Works. "Now, I'm about to take on way too many commas in debt."
It hardly dampens her enthusiasm for the project, which will expand Comedy Works employee ranks from about 55 to 150. Curtis has been meeting weekly for construction updates with her representatives on the project, part of the Landmark's $75 million restaurant-retail-entertainment component.
"Boy, did I learn to surround yourself with the right people and to do it right," Curtis said. "It's got my stamp on it every step of the way, but there's a lot of stuff I don't know. It doesn't mean I take everyone's word for it. I just get a lot of different opinions and advice."
A Woman On The Rise
A large black-and-white print adorns a wall in Curtis' office at the basement home of Comedy Works in Larimer Square. An update of Charles C. Ebbets' classic 1932 photo, 'Lunch Atop a Skyscraper,' it depicts about a dozen construction workers sitting on a steel girder hundreds of feet above the streets of New York.
The Twist is these workers are women.
But it's the mixed message and the comic touch of David M. Allen's 'Women on the Rise' that catches your eye. The blue-collar crew includes one woman who is checking her makeup and any of these babes would attract catcalls from male construction workers.
Comedy is not pretty. Steve Martin says Curtis might tell you otherwise. It's her life, her business, her family. And after running the club for more than 14 years and owning it for five, she's not shy about saying she knows how to do it right.
"I think I've always been a leader," said Curtis, who joined the club as a cocktail waitress about 20 years ago. "I was a bossy kid. When I was 10 years old, I was producing a little beauty pageant in the neighborhood. I think I always knew I would run the show."
Curtis may call the shots, but a collaborative approach has been the lifeblood of her business, which generates more than $3 million in sales a year and was named by USA Today as one of the top 10 comedy clubs in the country. She rose up through the ranks and has done pretty much every job at the club so she understands everyone's role - and appreciates what they contribute to her business.
The Kansas native studied acting and directing at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, where she worked as a cocktail waitress at a club operated by the previous owners of Comedy Works. An eating disorder cut short her singing and acting dreams, though she wouldn't consciously realize that until years later. She underwent gastric bypass surgery 13 years ago.
Upon graduation, Curtis continued to work for the company, quickly moving into management. They relied on her to operate the clubs in Tampa and lower downtown Denver. Curtis found she had a knack for business - and a substitute for her weight battle.
"I really enjoyed being complimented about being such a hard worker. It really does feed into a different addiction," she said. "I don't think it's any sort of a coincidence that I truly, clinically ended up being a workaholic."
Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper was a partner with Jazz Works, (now known as the Impulse Theater), one of the clubs Curtis helped build. Hickenlooper, who worked with Curtis for about 18 months, said he's impressed with what she's done with Comedy Works and with her skills as a manager and business owner.
"She took something that was really struggling and turned it around," he said.
Patrons entering Comedy Works are guided to their seats with organized precision. As customers descend the stairwell leading to the club, ushers escort them to the available seats, arranged in tightly packed rows that rise in steps from the stage. Waiters navigate narrow rows to take orders for drinks and microwave-ready snacks.
Small trays equipped with drink holders link chairs that are bolted to the floor. The club once featured table seating, but Curtis had to pay for a $100,000 renovation, completed in January 2006, to comply with fire codes.
"As painful as it was, as expensive as it was, we got through it," said Curtis, who notes the change meant the loss of only one seat.
The configuration means wait staff have to maneuver through tiny spaces, using the alternate wider rows to deliver food and drinks. Curtis calls the smaller aisles the "excuse me, please excuse me," rows.
At Comedy Works, politeness rules. For Curtis, that can mean greeting customers outside to alert them to get their IDs ready and visiting the "green room" to make sure her headliner is comfortable.
"They're at my house, and I want them to be happy," Curtis said. "If they're happy, they want to come back."
Rising Up The Ranks
Curtis also has earned a reputation for nurturing new talent, including the local comics who could someday become headliners, such as "Last Comic Standing" winner Josh Blue, who got his start at the club.
And maybe there's a bartender, a ticket clerk - or a cocktail waitress - who has management potential.
"Some of my employees kind of see what I've done," said Curtis, 43. "When they hear the story that the person they're going to be working for came up through the ranks and that we promote people from within, it impresses something upon them."
Eva Magdelenski, who handles publicity for the club, started as Comedy Works four years ago as an intern and, at age 23, is now about the same age as Curtis was when she started working at Comedy Works. Magdelenski's job includes accompanying visiting comedians to their radio spots to promote their appearances, a job that requires finesse, especially when it means meeting a comedian in front of their hotel at 6 a.m. to shuttle them to a radio station.
"My nerves always flare up," Magdalenski said. "Are they going to be really sleepy? Did they have a bad flight? I've learned how to be nice but not over the top. You're sitting in a car with them and you're stuck in traffic. You have to come up with conversation topics."
When Magdalenski graduates next year from the University of Denver, where she's pursuing a degree in business development, Curtis plans to build a publicity company around her that will specialize in handling comedians.
"Wende is a really smart, really successful woman business owner," Magdalenski said. "You can get a lot from being in class and going to a business school, but I could watch her do all these amazing things. I couldn't ask for a better mentor."
For Curtis, that mentorship also is an investment in Comedy Works. She's not the only one who has recognized Magdalenski's ability to set people at ease. Management for comedians Joe Rogan and Dave Chappelle have tried to woo her away, Curtis said.
In The Spotlight
Headliners like Chappelle and Wanda Sykes have become so popular that Comedy Works only needs to leak word of their appearances to sell out. The club announces these "secret" shows through its customer e-mail network.
Those marquee names don't come cheap, however. At the bottom end of the scale, comedians make about $5,000 for an engagement, but Curtis says she has written checks for as much as $130,000. Curtis always makes money on food and beverage, but she's willing to take a smaller margin from ticket sales for the cachet of bringing in a big name.
"My own formulas are always to make money on the door certainly," Curtis said. "But sometimes to get a larger artist in here I may make less on the door. My margins may be smaller, but you also have to weigh in the amount of press that we get."
Curtis also invests at the other end, making sure the club offers fertile ground for new talent. For every Chappelle or Sykes, the club features dozens of wannabe stars - amateur comics daring enough to stand in front of a crowd for two minutes or more.
That's what happens on Tuesdays, when Comedy Works presents open-mic nights. One March evening, 20 comics, including several up-and-coming professionals entertained a club that was about two-thirds full, not bad for a weeknight.
Emcee Dick Black, garbed in a white T-shirt touting his MySpace page, warmed up the crowd and introduced each hopeful. The next in line waited by the side of the stage, ready to shake off the nervousness and take over the spotlight for two to five minutes, depending upon their comic pedigree.
"I got really excited the other night. I lost a bunch of fat," Brandon Edwards said during his three-minute set, punctuating the line with a dramatic pause: "Then she found her way back to my door."
Edwards earned scattered applause and some groans, but it was clear the crowd was rooting for him. These comedy fans paid nothing or very little to get in, and they had been sipping beer for a while. All they were looking for was a decent excuse to laugh.
Soon they got one they didn't expect.
Before the headlining set from Ben Kronberg - the only comedian who was getting paid that night - another comic showed up to refine his act: Denver's own Josh Blue.
The winner of the NBC reality series "Last Comic Standing" was working on an audition tape for "The Tonight Show," and the unsuspecting Comedy Works audience got to play a role that evening.
Blue, who suffers from cerebral palsy and has made it the driving force of his act, offered the audience a new spin on stage fright.
"People ask me if I get nervous before I come on stage," Blue said, his right arm swinging in an arc as if someone else was controlling it. "I say 'Heck, I have people staring at me all day.'"
And if he hadn't already triggered uncomfortable laughs from everyone, he went in for the kill. "You guys better laugh. This is my Make-a-Wish."
A 'Blue' Future
Blue's real wish is more ambitious than performing a short set for the hometown crowd. But Comedy Works is where he got his start and it has a stake in his future. Curtis' company manages Blue and is helping to nurture his career. And Blue said he is grateful for what he's achieved so far with her and what she's done to help emerging comics.
Blue began performing at Comedy Works five years ago, coming to the club on open-mic nights. Soon, he was attracting the attention of the waitresses and bartenders, who told Curtis she should check out his act.
"She confronted me and said, 'You do good work' and encouraged me to come to any show I wanted to and watch," Blue said. "The best way to learn comedy is to watch what everyone else is doing. She made that a very open invitation, and I know she has extended that invitation to a lot of the open-mic people."
When comic make the "list" - which offers them the chance serve as emcees for national headliners - Curtis holds a party for them.
"Once you make the list, you're a made man," Blue said. "She books the room differently than most clubs do. Most clubs have a headliner, and an emcee who flies in. She just pulls in from the (local) people."
"I think three other people made the list the same time I did. From there I went from five minutes to 10 to 20, and she headlined me pretty quickly. She had faith in what I was doing and was very supportive. As I progressed, she got more and more involved."
Blue refers to Curtis as the "silent partner" in his management team, the person he consults only for major issues. "We don't ask her unless he need 'Big Mama.'"
The Family That Laughs Together
"Big Mama" has a French bulldog named Lucy, who sometimes can be seen padding around Comedy Works during the day. Curtis, who has been "involved" with the same guy for more than three years, doesn't have children, but she's woven her maternal instincts into her job. Maybe she learned a few things from her mom, Barb Curtis, who works the phones on the weekends.
Curtis includes her workers in charitable causes the club adopts, such as choosing a charity to help around the holidays. In March, the club raised funds through a "pay it forward" to help a family with their power bill.
New talent coordinator Deacon Gray, who has been performing stand-up for more than 20 years, says Curtis gets involved in the lives of her comics.
"She runs that club like it is her family. In a lot of ways Wende feels like my big sister," said Gray, who has been working at the club for three years.
But Curtis has high demands for her household. Although she makes it possible for young comics to learn, she promotes them only when they're ready.
"She sets such a standard of excellence for the club. We won't bend on it," Gray said. "If they are not where they need to be, they'll stay in the oven."
Josh Blue made the grade in 2004, when he won the club's "Almost Famous" contest, a chance for local comics to gain a bigger spotlight.
"A lot of time you work at a club, they're just thinking two or three months ahead, whereas Wende is more of a big picture person," Gray said. "That's why we do the new talent night. It benefits us in the long run to have them. Our emcees of tomorrow are the amateur comics of today. Who knows when a Josh Blue will pop up?"
Or a Sarah Silverman or a George Lopez?
Gray says a recent open mic night featured five women comics, but he acknowledged that of the 150 regular and semi-regular locals appearing at Comedy Works, only about 10 percent are women. There's also a dearth of Hispanic comics.
"It's difficult for us to find women. We've also had some difficulties finding minorities," Gray said. "We really need the diversity. It's just a matter of finding the talented people who could do it."
Booking them makes for a better night of comedy, Gray said: "You don't want to have a show where it's 12 white guys who are mad at their girlfriends. I try to schedule women as frequently as I can."
Nick at Nite has visited Comedy Works for the past three years to find comics for its "Funniest Mom in America" contest, and female headliners pop up regularly at the club. Among them is Kathleen Madigan, who has known Curtis for nearly 20 years. Madigan and Curtis have become best friends, in part because they share hectic lifestyles and a similar passion.
"With my job and her job, if you really want to be successful, you kind of have to give it everything you got," Madigan said by phone during a break from taping "Last Comic Standing" in Tempe, Ariz. "A lot of women, they want to get married and have kids. Neither Wende nor I are married or have kids. We are just passionate about what we do."
"A lot of other women, and I think Wende would agree, are more balanced, more normal than we are, in a good way. It would jut be too much," Madigan said. "She's very passionate about the game of business. She wants to win and she wants to be No. 1, and she'll do what it takes."
Madigan stays with Curtis when she's in Denver and accompanies her friend on shopping treks to Cherry Creek. She said the only friends she's known longer are from high school and that she trusts Curtis more than anyone else.
"Wende is so type A and so get-it-done successful that I could land in jail in Fairbanks, Alaska, and I could call her and go 'I'm in Fairbanks, Alaska, and you need to come here with $3,700 in the next 20 minutes,' Madigan said. 'And she would get there. Some Alaska person would go, 'Wende told me to bring you this money, and here's what we're going to do.'"
With the schedule she keeps, Curtis finds it difficult to stay connected with friends who have a more traditional work routine. She only recently began expanding her days off to two a week.
"I kind of lost touch with a lot of my friends," Curtis said. "My friends don't even invite me to parties anymore. Because I say, 'It's Saturday night' and I have somebody big in town every single Saturday night."
Battle Of The Sexes
Rarer still than female comics are women who own comedy clubs. It's something Curtis doesn't spend much time pondering.
"People keep pointing out to me that I'm a woman. I'm a small-business owner, and I'm a woman," Curtis said. "It's always been a non-thought to me because I also didn't grow up in that climate of, 'Well you're a girl. You can't do that.' I never realized the difference between boys and girls other than there were boys and there were girls. My father raced motorcycles and I raced motorcycles. It was great fun, and the whole family did it."
Curtis recalls a third-grade "battle of the sexes," during which she competed with a boy in a race to complete multiplication problems. "It was a big official thing, and I just beat him," she says.
It wouldn't be long before she was producing a neighborhood beauty pageant. Fast forward a few decades and soon she'll be running two comedy clubs and a restaurant.
Who says comedy can't be pretty? Take that, Steve Martin.