Taylor Higginbotham Wants to Sustain a Denton Comedy Scene That’s More Supportive Than Dallas.
Welcome to Humor Us, our column in which Dallas comedian Alex Gaskin interviews other area comedians about the ol’ funny business in order to help introduce DFW at large to the burgeoning comedy scene blooming right under its nose.
Taylor Higginbotham saw a need — more opportunities to perform for the stand-up comics in Denton — and helped fill it. In fact, he donated his own backyard in support of the cause.
Higginbotham’s E Third shows merge local music acts with stand-up comedy from Denton and Dallas performers. The arrangement is as DIY as can be, right down to the location — Higginbotham’s house.
His persistence in building up the comedy scene in Denton has caught the eye of promoters and artists in the area — he was asked to assemble a group of comedians for the last show at the Ol’ Dirty Basement at J&J’s Pizza (full disclosure: I was one of those comics), and he’s been asked to put together a stand-up showcase for this year’s Oaktopia (that showcase, Joketopia, will be held in the Campus Theatre on Friday, September 23 (full disclosure: I’m one of the comics on this show as well).
As a promoter and a stand-up, Higginbotham is rarely satisfied by convention. His act mixes deft wordplay and bits that probe at the boundaries of the medium, and his shows can be aggressively unorthodox. In addition to regular showcases at his home, he’s booked a convenience store (Midway Craft House) and a comic book and games shop (Freaks and Geeks), all in Denton.
I talked with Higginbotham about the upcoming Joketopia, and he helped break down how Denton can help push comics onto greater success in Dallas and beyond.
You were asked to handle the booking for Joketopia, Oaktopia’s comedy portion. Can you talk about that? It’s set up to be kind of part of Oaktopia, but a little removed.
They kind of put this on last minute. It wasn’t planned for Oaktopia’s programming at all, they just had some slot they had to fill at Campus Theatre after some film thing, and they gave us the opportunity to run Joketopia for that portion.
What are you hoping to accomplish with the space they’ve given you?
I mean, we’re required to fill it, which is kind of challenging in itself, which is strange. We’re looking to make it an understood thing. They kind of just gave us this little space at the last minute. It’d be nice if they understood that they could give us an hour each night; that’s what I’m kind of going for next year. We could have decent showcases that aren’t way too fucking long each night. [Laughs.] I’m hoping that they ask us and that we don’t have to ask them.
You’ve become one of the go-to guys as far as when somebody wants to include comedy on a show in Denton. You started comedy in Denton more recently than I did, and when I started, there really was no comedy scene at all.
No, not at all. From what I’ve heard, it was dry.
I knew two other comics, and we had to go to Dallas to do anything.
Kevin [Ward] and Dalton [Pruitt]?
Yeah. What was your experience when you started doing comedy?
It was really rough. I’d heard about an ebb and flow, different times; “Oh, it was really hot, then it died, and then Joe [Coffee] brought it back, then it died.” I had done comedy in Frisco, just kind of sparingly. I was really awful. When I moved to Denton, I wanted to plan and book music shows. And then I started getting into comedy, and started meeting comics that were growing from open mics. I saw the potential for show-running in Denton. It wasn’t so much I wanted comedy on everything as much as Denton was providing me the ability to give comedy to the shows.
I didn’t realize you had been looking into being a booker first.
I was doing comedy, but I didn’t think I was good at all at comedy. I still hold that in my head. I hold booking a little bit higher, because there are truly talented people that need to be seen. Even just coming off open mics — that’s the thing, there’s kind of a trap of open mics, you can get caught in it. I wanted people to think they could get out of it. Even if it’s a small show — i.e. post-band, between bands, as much as people hate that — I wanted people to feel like they could get out of an open mic like I wanted to get out of an open mic.
You talked about mixing music and comedy. Do you get resistance from that? What’s the response from that from artists and audiences?
We’re still playing with it. We like that the bands will draw. The bands can pull forty people right away, no problem. It’ll pull forty people. The comedy is something you have to kind of convince people to be around. What we’re playing around with now is shortening the bands. Getting people there to bands, and then comedy. We’re running on four [bands] now and it’s just asking people to stand for too long. I try to take notes from all the comics. When a comic says, “This is too long,” or even in their strange passive-aggression, if they tell me something, I’m gonna absorb that. I hate that shit, too. And I don’t know until I see it. I just keep trying shit until they say it sucks.
So talking about the Denton comedy scene, how it had been pretty anemic at the start, what do you think has contributed to letting it grow more?
I think it’s giving it the opportunity. When Joe was doing stuff, when Dalton and Kevin were doing it, pulling people to Mable’s [Mable Peabody’s Beauty Parlor and Chainsaw Repair], when the [Denton] Comedy Collective was reaching out to bars, that was great. That was wonderful for the scene in Denton. But they weren’t doing it enough, is what I saw. I just so happened to have the house [the site of Higginbotham’s regular E Third house shows] to keep pushing for it, y’know? These businesses want people there, too, and they’re willing to try comedy. And I think it was really giving people the opportunity to do stand-up somewhere else. It wasn’t that the scene wasn’t there, it was always there, it was giving people showcases, giving people other opportunities to do that.
Do you feel like Denton’s comedy scene should be considered separate from Dallas and Fort Worth?
Nick [Fields, another Denton comic] talked about that. A lot of us Denton people get a lot of shit for not being Dallas people, but it’s kind of a driving thing and a work thing for a whole bunch of us. I think Denton is a great place to go to. And Mona [no last name, another comic] said it in an interview, where you go [to Denton], and it’s safe. If a joke fails, it positively fails. You never really bomb in Denton. Once you start showcasing on the regular in Denton, you mature to Dallas. I don’t think they should be held separate, I think it’s just, as of right now, Denton isn’t where you go for headliner comedy, it’s where you go for showcase comedy. You get to go see new talent, and they grow up. Nick just did it; Nick and Javoris [James] are opening up for people. It’s where you prove to yourself that you can go to the Improv and Hyena’s and shit.
It seems like your perception of Denton is that it’s very much a DIY environment.
Right. It’s fun to play in Denton. I come to Dallas and I get five minutes, and that’s not, for what I do, that’s not the time I need. In Denton, I can do fifteen minutes every other night on open mics. I can really play around with the stage, and play around with things I can maybe take to Dallas to refine.
It sounds like that serves the comics well. Do you feel like Denton audiences are getting served well?
Absolutely. I think they do, because they’re not going to… they may not sit and follow one comic, but they’re out just to have a good time. They’re really out just to see a show quickly and then get out. Like, you go to a house show, ask everybody coming out of that house show what the first band was, and they have no fucking clue. [Laughs.] Ask them any comics and they have no idea, they’re just there to have a good time. And I’m hoping that the comics are there just to throw out some material, get a good laugh out of them.
Would you want to see Denton get its own Hyena’s Comedy Club or Improv?
I don’t know about Hyena’s or the Improv. It feels like they’d be a little “Chili’s” for Denton. It’d be nice if it was something like the Dirty Dungeon. Or some place that was something else, but it really focused on comedy. Almost like High and Tight, where they’ve kind of allowed more comedy sets than music sets. I feel like that would be conducive.
So maybe not a traditional comedy club, but maybe something that focused more on comedy.
Right, like a bar that just had a small stage that just did acoustic or comedy, I feel like that would be beneficial. I feel like Abbey [Underground] points at that, but they also do a lot of music, too. But Abbey’s a beautiful stage if they just leaned on comedy.
Let’s talk about you a little bit.
Not a lot. [Laughs.]
How long have you been performing comedy?
I started in 2010, then I took a break for about two years. And I don’t even count those first bits. I was doing stand-up to Frisco bar patrons that only wanted to hear shit about their kids.
How long would you say you’ve been doing comedy consistently?
Two years. At least the stuff that I’m doing now, the stuff where I’m kind of finding my voice, as they say.
What is it like trying to grow as a performer when you’re also trying to be the guy booking comedy? Do you feel like there’s a conflict?
One of the major things was I wanted it to be a booking thing, where you needed to pull the crowd, and you needed to pull people with you. One of the things I was a little worried about was, especially with the community, was, “Oh, he’s just going to book himself.” And that’s not really what I was going for. I was really just trying to show that I was going to be on the show as well, and I was gonna try to make it run as good as possible. I’m hoping I’m a better booker than I am a comic. I’m trying not to put myself on shows. That’s where I find the hard part again. I listen to the comics, and I don’t want it to come off as though that’s the only way I can get booked, if I do it myself. I don’t think I write for that. I try to book sets for what I’ve heard from them.
Are you maybe hoping more people step up and start booking so you don’t have to?
Sure, yeah. I love that there’s been other people. Angel [Garcia], and somebody else started [booking] something, too. I love that. Again, it’s about the opportunity. Denton is about, “Oh, I kind of feel like I can do comedy.” You go up there [and] you’re in a happy environment. A lot of times, and it is a good thing but it’s also a bad thing. You go up in Dallas and you get booed offstage, you may not go back up. And you may have a voice, but you may not have it in you to fight that. In Denton, you get booed off the stage… that wouldn’t happen at all. In Denton, you have a bad set, someone says, “Hey, great set, maybe try this.” Just giving people the chance to do stand-up comedy, any venue would be wonderful in all honesty, and more venues are doing that. More house shows are looking to book comedy.
So it sounds like the support in the scene is really important to you, as opposed to the challenge of proving yourself against a hostile audience.
When I started, I was just able to get to Frisco and then come back before work. But I didn’t have the opportunity to drive from Little Elm to Dallas, and then back, and then make it to work. Coming to Denton and doing comedy, seeing these people working the way that they do in Dallas and Denton, and wherever they work, I wanted to book something that was a little more available to them. They can get up onstage, have a decent size audience, without having to sacrifice other parts of their lives. That’s the worst part about it. You have to choose work or comedy a lot of the time, and that sucks.
This question might be get you in trouble, because it could come back to haunt you.
I think those Joketopia questions are gonna get me in fucking trouble. [Laughs.]
When you’re thinking about who to book on a show, what are you looking for?
The common phrase is Laughs per Minute, but that’s not really what I’m looking for. I want…I mentioned in house shows, a lot of these audience members are going to forget who went up. I like to watch people super neutral, from every possible audience member’s perspective. I try to book people, again, that are gonna make it to the show, and are gonna keep the audience engaged. You can’t say I’m gonna book the best comics, or the oldest comics, or the comics who’ve been around the longest, because they have bomb sets, too. It’s really just people that keep people engaged, and know their audience. I like to book people that’ll sit in a room and say, “Oh, shit, I need to rewrite my set, because this is not the room I thought it was going to be.” The adjusting. I’m trying to be vague. You called me out on that one, I’m trying to be vague. [Laughs.] I do look for experience, I try not to book people who’re fresh out of open mics, I try to see how they’ve matured, that they know what a light is, I try to get that, too. I don’t know how to end things, I do podcasts with the same rhythm.
Totally hypothetical, in the abstract, what should a good comedy scene provide its comics?
An audience. A captive audience. An audience that’s there to see comedy. That’s the rough thing with music, you don’t get people that are necessarily there to see comedy. You have to convince them. If you can get a crowd that’s there to see comedy — that’s the thing I envy about Dallas, they came to sit down and watch comics. In Denton you have to tell them that comics are there and hope that they stay. But, yeah, a place like we had mentioned, a place that’s known for comedy.
What should a good comedy scene provide audiences?
Drinks. [Laughs.] A good rhythm. A really good rhythm. You don’t want to go all low-energy, you don’t want to go all high-energy. You just, something that gives you multiple perspectives from every comic. You can over-pack a comedy night with too much. Giving people variance is quite a task, because people’s attention spans are garbage.
Is there a way to ensure you get a variety in a comedy scene?
Yeah, you just keep your hands in the open mics, you keep your hands in the people that are already working or trying stuff. You want to start hot, and move into people with lower energy, and then get warm again. You want to keep people on the edge of their seat while drinking, and while listening to just people talk. It’s a weird thing to sit somewhere, try your best to ignore your phone, and listen to someone talk, and relate to you. Because you’re expecting a laugh. And you have to turn that off, and then turn it back on. It’s such a weird thing to be an audience member. I think it’s important to have a variety. That’s what we try to do at E Third at least; music, comedy and DJ’ing. We try to just hit them from multiple angles.