Stoned stand-up often no laughing matter for comedy crowds

It almost starts off like a bad joke: A touring comedian walks into a pot shop …

But the joke is on comedy fans, given the rash of incidents across Colorado involving stand-ups overindulging on legal marijuana before their shows in Denver, Grand Junction and beyond.

The state’s new “Good To Know” educational campaign might consider a folksy message to these stand-ups and others: Wait until you get off the stage to partake.

After a group of fans walked out on a visibly intoxicated Ralphie May in Grand Junction earlier this year, the comic is now being mentioned alongside Reggie Watts and Pete Holmes as a performer who seemed to let legalized weed get the best of him.

And the euphoria isn’t being felt by the crowds.

Comedian Ralphie May
Comedian Ralphie May performs in Nashville, Tenn., in May 2014. (Rick Diamond, Getty Images for Bud Light)

“It took him a good 30 seconds to get onto a bar stool,” says Josh Peterson of Grand Junction, who spent $80 on tickets for he and his wife to attend May’s Jan. 15 show. “He was slurring his speech, and he wasn’t finishing sentences.”

According to Peterson, the situation quickly deteriorated as audience members grew angry over the performance, or lack thereof. Many felt that May was high to the point of incoherence — TMZ had reported a May source as saying “he was like a kid in a candy store” celebrating the state’s legal weed. Soon, a crowd had gathered in the lobby of the Avalon Theatre to demand a refund. Peterson believes this is around the time that May’s people called the police to escort him out of the venue after the show.

“In my opinion, there wasn’t any point where he needed to fear for his safety. Everyone who was upset had already left,” Peterson notes.

Zachary Buchalo, also of Grand Junction, was attending his first stand-up show and said he enjoyed the opening acts — and the combative crowd as the situation devolved — but wasn’t pleased with May’s antics. “You could barely understand the guy,” Buchalo says. “Would I see Ralphie May again? Hell no.”

Stoned stand-up often no laughing matter for comedy crowds
Reggie Watts performs in Oakland, California in March 2014. (Steve Jennings, Getty Images for Free The Children)

This trend is nothing new. After disclosing he ate marijuana edibles at the inaugural High Plains Comedy Festival in Denver, Reggie Watts gave a performance Denver Post arts writer John Wenzel (also a Cannabist contributor) described at the time as “clipped.” Fast forward one year, and Pete Holmes decided to try a cannabis-infused soda on a live taping of his podcast “You Made It Weird” at the second High Plains. Hours later, before his expected headlining set, he surprised the organizers by revealing he couldn’t do his scheduled time.

“He seemed fine, but I don’t know much about Pete’s tolerance so we trusted him to make the adjustment,” says High Plains co-founder Andy Juett. “Pete said he was too loopy, and the next thing we knew, he was on stage.”

Holmes did an abbreviated set before handing the mic to the evening’s host Kristin Rand. Yes, it was bizarre. And it left many in the audience wanting more, since his face had been plastered on promotional materials and his set was supposed to be the culmination of the weekend.

“When you’re headlining a theater show or a festival — and you’re the top-billed talent with your mug on all the posters — it’s just amateur hour to pull this kind of stuff,” argues Wenzel in an interview for this piece. “These people flew you out, paid for your lodging and meals, and have been advertising you to prospective audiences for weeks.”

Things to do: What’s happening this month? Check our events calendar

While the relationship between stand-up comedy and cannabis goes back further than Cheech & Chong, that doesn’t always mean it’s a match made in heaven. Colorado is known for having some of the strongest pot in the world, leaving some unable to deliver their usual lines after consuming the same amount they’re used to at home. Others claim the altitude and thin air at a mile high leaves them more stoned than they anticipated.

But even Colorado comedians aren’t immune to the effects of THC on their performances. Andrew Orvedahl, a member of Denver-based The Grawlix, experienced being too high to tell jokes at the 2012 Bridgetown Comedy Festival in Portland, Oregon. But at that show, it was part of the gimmick.

Andrew Orvedahl (twitter.com/theorvedahl)
Andrew Orvedahl (twitter.com/theorvedahl)

As a guest on comedian Andy Haynes’ “Midnight Run,” comics are expected to smoke before they get on stage, often creating hilarious situations as they navigate through their buzz. “Knowing my rare weed use (Andy) suggested I take one or two hits,” Orvedahl notes. “But once I was backstage and the joints were everywhere, I threw that idea out the window and had somewhere between 10 and 88 hits.”

How high was Orvedahl? He says that he “encountered a crushed banana slug backstage that I thought was an alien.”

According to Haynes, this happens most frequently when people fail to embrace the moment and, subsequently, their high. “They either were scared and/or distracted and tried to do something that didn’t match the energy of the room,” he notes, before subsequently adding “Some of the best sets are the biggest freakouts.”

Now celebrating over 120 days of sobriety, Haynes looks back on his alcohol and marijuana use and puts it in perspective. “I quit (smoking pot) because I’m an alcoholic and I’d used pot irresponsibly for a long time instead of dealing with my shit,” he says. “At first it was great for making me just uncomfortable enough to say things I wouldn’t say sober, but eventually I smoked so much that it slowed me down and I found myself not connecting.”

Denver-based comedian Chris Charpentier used to be among those who used pot for a little “cannabis courage” before taking the stage. “I used to have a hit right before I’d go up to deal with a little bit of the fear and anxiety of being onstage,” says Charpentier, who’s also a member of The Fine Gentleman’s Club. “Now that that’s gone away, I don’t need (marijuana) as a crutch.” While he still smokes before shows — “because I like being high” — it’s no longer a ritual.

Keep reading: Why Doug Benson revels in weed for his performances