Joe Coffee Helped Build The Comedy Scene In Denton And Now He’s Reaping The Benefits With The Upcoming North Texas Comedy Festival.
Joe Coffee just wanted stage time, but he ended up building and cultivating a comedy scene.
His efforts to build his career have led to connections with clubs and comics in several prominent markets and helped create a thriving comedy scene in Denton. Booking and promoting weren’t on his radar when he started performing three years ago, but Coffee was quick to ascertain that if he wanted to tell jokes in his neighborhood, he’d have to lay the groundwork and make opportunities for himself.
After three years, he’s created an atmosphere that can sustain multiple recurring comedy shows, and several open mics – whether he intended to or not, he’s become an important part of why and how comedy happens in Denton.
For the last few months, Coffee’s been involved in an effort to help Denton reach another prominent benchmark – he’s part of the North Texas Comedy Festival, which will take place October 5-7. With last year’s Denton Comedy Festival apparently moving to Fort Worth, the North Texas Comedy Festival aims to gift Denton with an annual event.
Coffee is headlining a show at the Arlington Improv on August 16, part of the club’s ongoing series that invites local performers to assemble their ideal lineup and show what they can do in a headlining role. In between hosting open mics, out of town gigs, and booking responsibilities, he finds time to host a weekly show for Denton Radio, “Nobody Knows with Joe Coffee.” Episodes are also available on iTunes and iHeartRadio.
I spoke with Coffee about the upcoming North Texas Comedy Festival, how he’s learned to book and promote, and his strategy for making connections in new comedy scenes.
(Quick note: both Dallas Comedy Festival and Denton Comedy Festival are often referred to as “DCF.” All uses of DCF in this article refer to the Denton Comedy Festival.)
You’re currently working with some other comics to put together the North Texas Comedy Festival.
Just to avoid any misunderstandings, let’s say upfront that this will be the first year of the North Texas Comedy Festival, but Denton did have another comedy festival last year, the Denton Comedy Festival.
The Denton Comedy Festival, which I guess moved to Fort Worth this year, I don’t believe they’re in town any more. But yeah, [the North Texas Comedy Festival] is a lot of the guys who helped put together the Denton Comedy Festival last year. A lot of the people that are heavily involved, an integral to the comedy scene. We’ve got Stu Hollowell, Taylor Higginbotham, [Brett] Peveteaux, a lot of the guys that are making things happen. It’s a good group, I’m excited. October 5-7.
Can you talk to me about what’s different this year from last year’s Denton Comedy Festival? What are you changing up?
We want this to be a festival for the performer. Y’know what I mean? The crowd is gonna love it, it’s gonna be a good show, we’re gonna book the best talent we possibly can. But we want the comics to walk away from this not feeling like this was just a big open mic. We want this to feel like a festival. Not even ragging on DCF, some people made that reference last year – I was helping book last year, I didn’t even know how it worked. Now we’re trying to give certain people longer sets, not have as many comics. We’re trying to make it feel like a festival, and not an open mic. The first year, that’s hard to do. It’s a learning process, man. Figuring out headliners, who would go good on what show, figuring out the filming situation. So covering all of our tracks, essentially. We’re being very thorough and meeting every week, as opposed to last year where a couple of us would occasionally meet. We have a board – treasurer, president, vice president. But it’ll be a fun experience for sure. I think people will be pleasantly surprised. We have all headliners from Texas, so I think that’s really cool, too, between Jay Whitecotton, Slade Ham, and Latrice Allen. I think that’s really cool.
So when you got into comedy, did you expect to deal with this much organizational work and paperwork to be part of it?
Oh, no. Jesus Christ, no. [Laughs.] I was here, and I just wanted to be booked myself. That typical story of, I only did this for me.
Because you’ve been booking for a while.
Yeah – when I got here, the Denton Comedy Collective had just fallen off, I’d even messaged them and they were like, “We’re not really doing stuff.” I was like, “Well, I want to do comedy.” I had a lot of friends, I’d been involved in the music scene through friends’ bands, and used to help people with stuff in terms of booking. And I figured, it’s gotta be just like music. Denton’s a cool place, a lot of people work together – you can just go up to the bartender, the booker’s probably there drinking at the bar, and you can just get it done like that. I think the first place I booked – I mean other than hosting shows and booking at Whitehouse [a coffee shop which has closed – the venue is now Killer’s Tacos, and they continue to run a weekly open mic, and shows] – the first venue I booked was J&J’s Pizza. But that was…there’s not an Old Denton versus New Denton like people talk about, you can still just go up to a place, and if you have kind of a thing to do, they’ll take a chance.
J&J’s was always good about giving people a shot.
You were on that show, I think. You were.
I was on your first? I didn’t realize that show was the first you’d booked.
I think I’d done a show at Whitehouse before that, but I don’t count that, I think of it as home court. That’s always been an easy place for me, I think because I run the open mic – and run it now at Killer’s. But J&J’s was the first show I went out and booked, and it was terrible. I was eighteen – there was all comics, and that one guy in the cowboy hat in the shadows, and then there were two people. But you learn from that stuff. Now I know to book four to five people, I know where to book them, I know what days. I also know to check other venues now, too, see what they’re doing. But yeah, I just really did all that for me. [Laughs.] I was just like, “Oh, I’ll just get a scene going and then people will book me.” Which has happened, which is cool. People take chances on us. KUZU, the radio station, booked me as their only comic for a show at Harvest House. It was between music, which is tough, but it was cool. But now people do reach out to comics, and book us for other things. Taylor [Higginbotham] runs shows now, Colton [Jones] runs shows now, it’s cool. So I’ve kind of gotten to take my foot off the gas, chill, do my mics, and just focus on the festival.
I do want to circle back and talk about how Denton’s scene was when you started versus the scene they would walk into if they started doing standup in Denton today.
When I started out, there wasn’t a mainly comedy mic. My mics, [at] Bearded Monk and Killer’s Tacos, we take poets and musicians because it’s Denton, and you kind of have to. But we have like twenty comics, like all comics mainly. That was never a thing when I was first here. I guess Banter, I came at the end of Banter when they stopped allowing comedy at their open mics. So I didn’t really know much about that. There’s more of a scene now to where you can just dive into it. Like I said, I started booking because the Denton Comedy Collective wasn’t really a thing. It’s a lot more accessible now. We have a lot more new comics, and I think it’s because they see it’s accessible, they can do it. They see, “Oh, there’s twenty of these guys going up.” I think that’s what it is, it’s way more accessible. There’s more comics, to my knowledge, and I don’t really know much about where the scene was in terms of talent back then, but we have comics now working clubs from Denton. To my knowledge, that wasn’t like a huge thing before. I walked into Hyena’s the other day, and someone introduced me as one of the Denton guys. And that stuck out to me, because I was thinking that would’ve never been a thing. You say “Denton guys,” and it depends on how you say it, it could be, “ugh, he’s a Denton guy,” but also like, “Oh, a Denton guy…” There’s a scene now where you get to be called that.
Do you get to spend much time performing in Dallas?
Yeah. I mean, I’m always at Hyena’s [open mic], but other than bar shows and club stuff, not as much. And that’s not for the reason of I don’t want to. I just got booked for Dallas Comedy House, Hyena’s Dallas I perform at, High and Tight showcases, stuff like that, it’s not that I don’t want to, I think it’s just that I’m out here [in Denton] so often, and there’s so many comics already in Dallas that they’re there frequently, and I’m here frequently. If I get booked in Dallas it’s through other comics. It’s not like out here where I get booked through bookers, but it’s also because I’m not constantly out in Deep Ellum slinging jokes. But it’s a geographical thing for sure. I would like to. It’s like I told you before we recorded, I’m trying to get out there more. Because it’s crazy, I’ll travel to all these places, and go and get time, but then I’m like not going to Dallas. It’s an hour away. [Laughs.]
Do you feel like you have to change much between Dallas and Denton? Does geography affect your material?
I think when I’m out of state, for sure. For sure for sure. Most of my jokes can be used in Texas, most of my act for sure. But I do think about that. I don’t think I have to change things in terms of censoring anymore, considering this is a college town. I’m more careful out here, to be honest. Because also, when I say…if I don’t do well in Dallas I can just come home here. I don’t really think I have to change it up that much. I like Dallas crowds. I like the older crowds Dallas brings. I think I’m more careful out here. I think it’s a reason of, it’s a small town. I have to see these people everyday. [Laughs.]
You’re more careful about what you say to your neighbor than what you say to a stranger.
Yeah, exactly. And it’s super claustrophobic out here in a sense. I’ll go to the Square out here to write, and most of the people I see I’m gonna know. If I do anything out of the realm of the ordinary, then those people are gonna see me. They know my name. Dallas, it’s not that big of a difference. It’s an hour away. There’s a joke I do, my Taco Bell joke, it’s essentially a joke about the employees, where if you go to a five star restaurant, you expect five star service – in Denton I’ll give the example of Queenie’s, y’know, or if I’m in Dallas I’ll say Ruth Chris. Little things you have to throw in there. If I’m in Boston I’ll say Blue Oyster. Just little details you have to throw in.
Speaking of travel, you’ve been making an effort to travel out of Texas more lately, how’s that going?
It’s been fun – I recently got on at Zanie’s in Chicago, that was super cool, I’m trying to get into that rotation. I really enjoy Chicago as a city. That drive, [you] break even, y’know, on money. I just did Boston and I’m in the red massively from that. That drive, you don’t really make money driving twenty-six hours. I’m doing Colorado in August, I’m actually gonna make decent money from that. It’s super cool to get out there, get in those different states. That’s really where you have to change up material. Like that Taco Bell drive-thru joke, if I go to downtown Chicago and talk about a Taco Bell drive-thru, people are gonna be like, “What are you talking about?” They don’t have drive-thrus in the middle of Lincoln. But I just…I did a little road open mic trip and went out, and since then, it’s hard to come back and then not travel. There was like a year where I was only doing Colorado and Austin occasionally. I’m trying to make it a once every month or two month thing.
When you travel do you reach out to comics, clubs? Who do you try to get in touch with?
Anyone at all possible. I’ll start out with clubs, easily, just because those make better pictures. [Laughs.]
So you’ll send an email or…
Yeah, I’ll send an email. And if they don’t reply to email, I hate that I can’t see if they read it, so then I’ll just be petty and go to Facebook Messenger and get ignored there, and then I’ll go, we have the DFW Comedians [Facebook] page here, I’m in a bunch of those already from traveling, so I’ll go to a bunch of those. And reach out to comics who work the road. My buddy Mark Viola – we had him for the Traveling Circus showcase I did where I brought all the traveling comics we had at Backyard on Bell. The reason we did that was I met Mark in Arkansas, he’s from Orlando and he was coming through. I’ll hit Mark up, or I’ll hit up Krish Mohan. He’s come out here a few times. They’re both road guys I’ve met through my travels and stuff. I also hit them up because they know, they get booked. It’s good if you can drop that other comic’s name, well, if they’re funny it’s good, and those guys are good. I’ll reach out to those two, reach out to group pages, and email clubs. And call. If they don’t answer I’ll call and leave voice messages, and they still don’t call back. It’s super weird, y’know? It’s only Denton. I can’t take the sixteen hour drive, ask the bar, “Hey, do you want to book next month?” and then take the sixteen hour drive back. Big cities, too, are just tougher in general, because they already have a lot of talent in places like Chicago, Boston, a lot of the time they don’t feel the need to outsource.
Which at that point you plan for September.
Which is fine, exactly, because then you get to save up and get ready for it. That’s an issue, too, I’ll sometimes have these spontaneous trips, that, like, I’ll know about two weeks in advance. The Boston thing was kind of last second, but I’ve got some family out there, I can crash, but I just scored Red Sox-Yankees tickets, and I’m a big Red Sox fan, so I was like, “Oh, I’m going, totally.” If I travel and don’t do comedy, then I feel guilty. So I was just blowing up people. It ended being not in Boston, out in the New Hampshire area or something. Whatever you can get. Road-tested material, it’s an interesting thing. You asked about changing up the material, I did a comedy competition in Arkansas, and I had a joke about Bernie Sanders having a Ben & Jerry’s flavor, and I would give the other candidates flavors. And I was thinking, oh, Arkansas, the deep south, they’re gonna love the Hillary Clinton joke. Well, Hillary and Bill are from Arkansas, I did the joke, and it got nothing. I’m up there like, “What the fuck? Why is this not…” And I had to, like…it took me a while to go, “Oh, that’s why.” It’s little, weird, minor things like that. That’s all comedy is, attention to detail. So when you’re out on the road you’ve got to be more attentive to certain things. Certain ways you say things, too. A lot of shit gets lost in translation.
What’s something you’ve seen in another scene, from a booking/organizational perspective, where you were like, “I need to bring this back to Denton.”
Hmmm. I did a Pass the Mic show at The New Movement in Austin – and I’ve been forgetting to do this, I’m glad you asked that – I did this Pass the Mic show, and it was like four comics, and they had a host, and at the end of the show all the comics came onstage. And the host read – people were tweeting, they had to tweet something, and the tweet was “Your headshot shouldn’t be better than your jokes.” So then the host has to go up and riff on that. And then it was like the improv game Freeze Tag, where you have to tag, and you keep riffing, and then “headshots” got to the point of like, someone says something about me being in Dallas, so someone says JFK, then it got to Hitler, then 9/11, and whatever. But we don’t really have much of an improv scene out here. Primary Colors and Warm Milk I think are out here, but they’re mainly at Dallas Comedy House. Dallas has a great improv scene. I would like to see a little more of that out here, even though I’m not an improv guy. Just in terms of standup shows, things that make things different. The games, stuff like that. I’ve seen stuff that involve audience participation, without heckling. Any show that takes it outside. I’ve been doing comedy three years, and for where the comedy scene is from where I started…I mean, it’s only been three years.
Cover image courtesy of Joe Coffee