The perils of opening for Jeff Tweedy in Kansas City

Denver comedian Andrew Orvedahl takes on a heckler in Chiefs territory

Photo by Sharon Alagna

Picture this. You’re Denver comedian Andrew Orvedahl, and you’re booked as the opening act for Jeff Tweedy — the frontman of Wilco. You’re the only thing between a crowd and a major music headliner. And you have 40 minutes to fill with jokes. Denver and Salt Lake City, Orvedahl says, were great, enthusiastic crowds. But the Kansas City one? Not so much.

First, they boo you when you first enter the stage, just because you’re from Denver. Our sports teams beat theirs, or something. Regardless, they’re not happy. But you keep at it, and they grudgingly warm to you.

Except for that one guy. The guy in the crowd who at first just shouted out “Tweedy! Twee-e-e-e-e-dy!” during your set. How do you handle a heckler? This isn’t even a comedy show. It’s not like you’re headlining Comedy Works in Denver; the rules are different here. You can’t just go after the guy; he paid to see Tweedy! Plus, you’ve opened for many acts, it’s sort of been a theme in your career, so you know your role. It’s your job to soften the audience members for the headliner, not antagonize them. You can’t just berate the guy. What if the crowd turns on you? So you keep going. But then he yells out the ultimate heckle, one you’ve only seen directed at other comics, not you.

“You suck!”

It’s the worst thing anyone can shout at you, because it’s a litmus test for the audience. You’ve seen it go two ways: Either they agree with the heckler (“Yeah! You do suck!!) or they side with you (“Shut up!”).

Nevertheless, it takes you off guard. It doesn’t help that there are more than a thousand people in the audience, and through the bright lights you can’t see a single one of them. There’s a horrible moment where the catastrophic thought flashes through your mind: “Oh God. This could be it. Maybe the majority of these thousands of people think that I do suck.”

Luckily, it’s a fleeting feeling, since, as you quickly realize, you aren’t sucking. You’re doing all right. So you handle it as gracefully as you can. After the show, people come up to you to congratulate you on your set. They compliment you on how you handled the heckler, but wish you were a little meaner to him. He’s just a drunk asshole, why be so polite to him? And honestly, there’s a part of you that wishes you hadn’t. Screw that guy.

Orvedahl has been doing stand-up comedy for 10 years, and he’s seen it all. He’s one-third of The Grawlix, a comedy group that inclues Orvedahl and comedians Ben Roy and Adam Cayton-Holland. In 2011, he started a monthly storytelling show called The Narrators, and it has been running strong ever since.

Orvedahl and the Grawlix (who do a monthly show in Denver) are stalwarts in the Denver comedy scene. As Denver’s comedy scene has grown (a few years ago, Orvedahl noticed that “It just kind of evolved that way over time to where … your reputation as a Denver comic would precede you,” like a “New York comic” or a “Los Angeles comic”), Boulder has soaked up some of the overflow. The weekly comedy show at the Bohemian Biergarten, run by Denver comedians Chuck Roy and Brent Gill, and the Dairy Center for the Art’s comedy show often feature Denver comedians as headliners.

The Denver comedy scene is strong, Orvedahl says, but he has a new theory on it.

“All the success hinders all the comedians,” he says. “No one wants to leave because it’s so much fun, and no one is making full-time money from here because the next closest city is like 1,000 miles in any direction. So you’d basically have to go out and become a road dog — and then, you’re not even doing comedy in Denver — to earn full-time money. You can’t make full-time comedy money in Denver unless you’re living in a squatter house with 11 other dudes and your monthly expenses are like $300. There’s just not enough opportunities that pay enough. … It’s like a part-time job I have.”