Comedy, Tragedy, Time
Few people work harder than Adam Cayton-Holland, and recently he’s been able to enjoy the success that comes from that hard work. After graduating from Wesleyan University, Adam became a staple of Denver’s cutting edge stand-up scene, launched the High Plains Comedy Festival and recorded two seasons of the destined-to-be cult comedy classic Those Who Can’t for Tru TV. Despite all the accolades, the comic’s journey has been tempered by tragedy: Adam has had to reconcile his achievements with the heartbreaking suicide of his younger sister.
Season Two of Those Who Can’t recently ended, but Adam’s career is clearly just beginning. He’s signed a book deal to explore the paradox of unprecedented successes accompanied by crushing personal tragedy and will be performing throughout the country in 2017. We were lucky enough to chat with Adam about catering your comedy to legal markets, finding oneself on stage and ways to create something meaningful in times of struggle.
DOPE Magazine: You’ve been working in the Denver comedy scene for close to ten years now, and you’ve toured all over the country. Do you change your act when you’re performing in a pot-friendly town?
Adam Cayton-Holland: Not at all. Denver was the first place to legalize. We had a lot of pot shows, a lot of pot friendly comedians coming to town. I don’t love doing that. I feel like thematically any kind of intoxication sucks. There have always been those kinds of shows, alcohol or pot or whatever. I don’t like doing shows that focus on beer or whiskey or weed. I like comedy to just be comedy.
Q: Your comedy has always walked a fine line between high- and lowbrow, and you’re obviously well educated. How has your background informed your material?
A: When you start doing comedy you get pigeonholed. Even among your friends. You learn very quickly how people view you when you’re on stage. Right away I was the fancy smart one. So I took that on, because you have to take back your persona. I was always tongue-in-cheek WASP-y. If anything I had to apologize for being so well educated. But I don’t apologize for shit anymore. I like to throw out really smart jokes, and then the absolute dumbest, and then comment. If you’re too elite and smart you’re only playing in Brooklyn.
When you start doing comedy you get pigeonholed. Even among your friends. You learn very quickly how people view you when you’re on stage.
Wiser comics than me have described comedy as a search to find yourself on stage. As you get into it more you become more yourself onstage. And people respond to authenticity. So, as you know who you are more, the connection with the audience takes care of itself. I wear my opinions squarely onstage. Some people say ‘don’t do political stuff because it alienates part of the audience,’ but I don’t avoid any of that. I’m not saying a Trump supporter couldn’t come to my show…
Q: But your comedy isn’t really about your own personal tragedy, you’ve been performing all this time kind of through that…
A: I have not been able to talk about these things onstage. And I admire so much the comics who bring their stuff to the stage, like Tig Notaro or Maria Bamford. But standup comedy hasn’t been where I dealt with it. Stand up comedy has been a welcomed distraction. Creatively, I’m saving it for this book.
Q: You’ve been constantly working while trying to deal with this terrible loss. Why do you think now is the right time?
A: The book is going to be called Tragedy Plus Time, and I’ve been working on the book and proposal for a while now. I’ve just had so many thoughts, and I had to write them all down. I think part of it is, it’s not my story – it’s hers. It’s a memoir about my family and having to reconcile career success with my sister’s suicide.
My sister died a couple days after I got back from the Montreal Film festival, which is like the NFL Draft of comedy and had been a great experience. It was a big win for me, followed by this huge tragedy. A few days later our show got picked up. And I’ve had to deal with the guilt and trying to keep it together for my family. All this tragedy has been coupled with this huge career success.
So I’m excited to pursue stand up. I really hope we get a third season because it’s a great show. We get to do highbrow and lowbrow, and it’s been well received by so many people I admire. I mean, ratings are important, but when Patton Oswalt [who guest starred in two episodes of Those Who Can’t] tells you he likes what you’re doing, that’s what really makes me proud.
But it’s always been about writing for me. Despite the terrible circumstances that led to it, I’m really excited to write this book. I just want to do right by Lydia. Really it’s her story.