If you’re trying to make it big in showbiz, they say, the move to Los Angeles—the jump—is a necessary sacrifice, a rite of passage, a negotiation of values, simple and straightforward: endure the traffic and the narcissism, earn yourself a shot at stardom. Hordes of hopefuls accept the deal and fail. A few persistent ones succeed. And then there’s Adam Cayton-Holland. Undoubtedly the biggest name to come out of the Denver comedy scene in the last 10 years (and probably ever), Cayton-Holland has enjoyed the kind of success that most kids born in Denver in the 1980s—old, ungentrified, cow-town Denver—could hardly fathom, all without leaving his native Mile High City. Over a 15-year period, he has climbed his way from sparsely attended open-mic nights to the upper ranks of industry status: performances at Carnegie Hall, appearances on “Conan” and other late-night name-makers, the creation of a greenlit cable TV show, the publication of a memoir. He has achieved these milestones from the unlikeliest of home bases—a modest little place in City Park West—and he has plans, firm ones, never to leave.
“I grew up in Park Hill,” says Cayton-Holland. “This is my home. I feel better here. Life is about finding what makes you happy. Maybe there are limitations, career-wise, to staying in Denver, but I’m fine with that.”
Limitations, perhaps, but also idiosyncrasy, which in comedy is never a bad thing. As far as Cayton-Holland has strayed into the glittering maw of L.A. (his television show, “Those Who Can’t,” is produced in Hollywood), he has always been insistent on bringing a piece of Denver with him. References to Colorado are everywhere in his work. The Centennial State is not a difficult one to parody, especially after 2012, and Cayton-Holland gets some good mileage out of the common Denver stereotypes, most of them drug-related. But perhaps nowhere in his oeuvre is Cayton-Holland’s hometown pride better conveyed than in his new memoir, “Tragedy Plus Time,” coming out this month from Touchstone Books. The work describes the comedian’s rise to fame in 27 tightly crafted vignettes, all of them orbiting an unexpected (and truly affecting) emotional dark star: the suicide of Cayton-Holland’s younger sister, Lydia. The book is funny, sad, brisk and peppered with insider references to Denver institutions, locales and luminaries. It’s also clear on one point that Cayton-Holland preaches with absolute conviction: It’s possible to make comedy, good comedy, outside of L.A.
“What I’m striving to do, and what I hope other young comedians do,” he says, “is make stuff here in Denver. Sometimes it’s hard. Film incentives are nothing here. We need to change that, but that’s a whole political battle. The point is, it can be done here. And it should.”
As for the professional hazards associated with working outside of Tinseltown, Cayton-Holland has some choice advice for up-and-comers: “Don’t worry so much about the career stuff. Just do what feels true. There are no guarantees in this field. It’s a nuts field to get into in the first place. If you’re not willing to stand by the stuff you believe in, then you’re not going to last very long, anyway.”