After taking a fifteen-month hiatus from in-person performances and classes during the pandemic, Rise Comedy Club in LoDo is back and ready to help the Denver community rise with laughter in its grand reopening weekend, June 18 and 19.
Growing up in Sacramento, California, Rise Comedy co-founder, actor and comedy writer Nick Armstrong found solace as a kid watching Saturday Night Live skits, including ones with the late Chris Farley.
“Being a heavier kid, when I saw the way [Farley] used his body and how good he was at it, I wanted to be just like him,” Armstrong recalls. “I didn’t feel so alone anymore as a bigger kid. I’d have to sneak-watch [SNL] because my parents wouldn’t let me. Thought it was too vulgar. SNL was kind of dangerous, and I liked that about it. You never knew what was going to happen.”
Armstrong was drawn to improv and sketch comedy and wanted to make a career out of it. He was a regular performer at the now-shuttered ImprovOlympic (iO) West improv and comedy club in Los Angeles and the King Ten Improv Club in Santa Monica, and taught and performed as a member of L.A.’s The Groundlings improv and sketch-comedy theater company and school. The Groundlings was the old stamping grounds for comedic superstars like Will Ferrell, Kathy Griffin, Phil Hartman, Lisa Kudrow, Jon Lovitz and more.
“I’ve been a TV, film and commercial actor and writer for around twenty years now,” Armstrong explains, “doing TV shows like The Office, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Parks and Recreation, writing for Comedy Central, A&E and truTV.”
Eventually, Armstrong met his partner, Josh Nicols, who ran a comedy club in southern California for more than ten years before running Rise Comedy.
“Josh and I have known each other for almost ten years now,” Armstrong says. “We met at a nonprofit I founded called Improv Utopia. It’s a summer camp for adults, and you learn comedy there, as well. Josh found an ad for my camp and decided to come in 2012. We hit it off and had a lot in common, so we continued to be friends.”
Nicols also created an improv comedic education curriculum implemented by other theaters and clubs, such as Utah’s Off The Cuff and Santa Monica’s Westside Comedy Theater.
“It’s basically an improv curriculum that strayed away from moving to a comedy form, like the Chicago scene did, to a more skills-based [approach], so improvisers could start their journey in whatever skill they wanted to focus on," explains Armstrong. "We [comedians] all share information very freely in our comedy world, so a lot of people borrow from each other and share.”
Armstrong and Nicols traveled to various improv festivals in cities including San Francisco, Chicago, Austin, Alaska and Utah, picking up different comedic techniques along the way. Then they stumbled across Denver’s comedy scene and embraced it with open arms.
“Josh and I had been coming out to Denver for years,” Armstrong says. “We had attended the Denver Improv Festival many times, and had met a lot of Denver comedians on the road. We always would say they were just the best, and always just enjoyed their vibe and sense of humor.
“We also loved how supportive Denver was to artists, too,” he adds. “The comedians here were just a supportive group, and you don’t get that very much in bigger cities like New York, Chicago or Los Angeles. We really fell in love with the passionate comedy community here.”
Armstrong and Nicols took an interest in the then-named Voodoo Comedy club. So much so that they bought the place in 2019 and renamed it Rise Comedy last summer in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We had the opportunity to buy the theater in 2019, as the previous owner was looking for a fresh perspective and wanted to bring the theater to the next level,” Armstrong explains. “We changed the name to Rise Comedy, because that became our mission statement, really. Things changed drastically in the world, and we wanted to change with it, to help our performers and students rise to their opportunities and potential and find their voices.
“We strive to help our fellow artists get to the next level of their careers,” he continues. “We know how to get there because we’ve been there and still are. We had a lot of opportunities coming up in comedy, and we want to give that back by creating a safe place for everyone in comedy here.”
Despite having to close, Armstrong and Nicols kept Rise Comedy going strong with online classes.
“We closed March 15 and had classes up by [the] beginning of April,” Armstrong recalls. “Josh and I took our vast list of some of the best instructors in the world and asked them to teach for us. We had instructors from all over.”
They called Craig Cackowski from Comedy Central’s now-shuttered Drunk History, Holly Laurent of MEGA Podcast, Jet Eveleth from A.P. Bio and more.
Now that they’re reopening, Nicols and Armstrong plan offer more comedic classes and festivals along with giving Rise Comedy a fresh coat of paint and new furniture.
“We planned to redo the whole space before the pandemic, but are now breaking it up in phases,” Armstrong says. “We want it to be a nice hangout for all — a place you can come and feel comfortable, have a few drinks and laughs after a long day or week. We are also offering top-notch comedy classes like standup, taught by Denver’s own Christie Buchele; sketch comedy from myself; and improv classes from some of the most experienced instructors around, including Josh.”
On June 18, at 8 p.m., Rise will host Hit and Run: Musical Improv, a Broadway-style musical improv performance started by Voodoo Comedy founder Steve Wilder in L.A. in 2006.
“Hit and Run performs fully improvised Broadway-style musicals every Friday night at Rise Comedy,” Armstrong says. “We feature a live musical accompanist at every show who makes up all of the music on the fly, along with us. Based on the suggestion of a title from the audience, every show is original, never to be repeated.”
On June 19, at 8 p.m., Rise will host its LMAO Standup Comedy Showcase, spotlighting some of the best local Denver comics such as Jeremy Cash, Erin McLaughlin, Raymond Ace, Wes Williams, Sammy Anzer and headliner and veteran comic David Testroet.
“LMAO had been a huge part of our schedule since we took over in 2019,” Armstrong says. “It’s consistently sold out since its inception. Producer Derrick Culver’s goal is to showcase the wonderful talent that is in Denver and Colorado. A lot of the standups we get for this show have a lot of experience on the road. Some have even done late-night shows like Jimmy Kimmel Live and Conan.”
In the end, Armstrong and Nicols are thrilled to reopen Rise Comedy, and hope it offers healing with laughter and good times.
“I firmly believe laughter unites us more than divides us,” Armstrong exclaims. “After so much that happened in 2020 — the pandemic, civil unrest and a slew of other situations — we want to help our community rise together and come out of what was a horrible fifteen months in a positive way.”
The club reopens at 8 p.m. June 18, with Hit and Run: Musical Improv, and at 8 p.m. June 19, with LMAO Standup Comedy Showcase. For more information, visit the Rise Comedy website.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.