Taylor Higginbotham stood on stage and raised his bottle of Miller High Life.
"Tonight we're talking about drugs," he said.
The audience at Dan's Silverleaf erupted into catcalls and whistles. That's what people do at comedy clubs, and Higginbotham bills himself as a comedian.
Higginbotham nodded, his beard like a giant black cloud above his black East Side Denton T-shirt. You can tell by the way he slouches that he hit his growth spurt at a young age. He speaks much faster than most Texans, most Americans even — quick like a salesman or a downtown attorney.
Onstage beside Higginbotham, his partner in comedy, Brad McKenzie, ran his fingers across his checkerboard hat with its bill curled up.
"We're Two Brave Boys," McKenzie told the sweaty crowd at Dan's.
A live show
It was Monday and a choking 85 degrees, yet the back patio of Dan's Silverleaf swarmed with people. Front row, five women shouldered together, dressed for a midnight booze run or a shopping spree at Dollar General. A man in a bathrobe slouched into the fence, done up like the Dude, Jeff Bridges' character in The Big Lebowski. Next to him, a group of 20-somethings fanned their necks. The whole backyard had the feel of a secret between the people who make Denton unique: hair stylists, bartenders, professors and musicians. Lots of musicians.
Higginbotham and McKenzie have been hosting Two Brave Boys Comedy Hour Live Podcast on Mondays at Dan's Silverleaf, a well-known bar and venue just east of Denton's Square.
At night, Denton's a music town, and a damn fine one at that. But most people outside Denton don't know about its burgeoning comedy scene.
Two Brave Boys is a microcosm of that scene. While the show is not yet available online, the duo plan to turn it into an online sensation. In an era of podcast ubiquity, Higginbotham and McKenzie seem ready to struggle their way to success.
"Yes, the topic of tonight's live podcast," McKenzie said, "is drugs." A man to the right of the stage shouted, "Whewwww! Molly — whewww!" The outburst felt forced coming from a guy in a pink button-up slightly darker than his shiny bald head. The man added a few more whoops. Nobody laughed, and for a moment Higginbotham and McKenzie paused, blinking.
McKenzie is shorter than Higginbotham, but most people are. He has a grassy tangle of beard — the beard of someone who grows facial hair often only to hack it off impetuously. A healthy turmoil churned amid the playful blue of his eyes.
Higginbotham broke the silence by noting that McKenzie looks like someone who got kicked out of a ska band for looking too ska. Unfazed, McKenzie recounted his days as a raver. He earned nicknames — his primary one was "Stomp," a reference to his trademark dance move. The dance, Higginbotham told the audience, resembles the tantrum a kid throws after being told he can't eat Cap'n Crunch for dinner.
Feigning anger, McKenzie replied: "You've done drugs, too!"
"I'm very personal with my drugs," Higginbotham replied. "I smoke weed very personally. I don't go outside, and when I do it's awful."
His grin sank into a straight face. "It's awful for me, it's awful for everyone who I come into contact with. I smoke weed twice a day, I'm not gonna lie. I don't like being in public. It reminds me of the time I was alone without my parents."
The punchline, if one can call it that, reeled in its unexpected dark tone, the kind of cringeworthy observation that makes comedians laugh, but not necessarily audiences. Higginbotham relished the moment, hunching a nod, then topped it with a non sequitur about smoking dope: "If it was a dance move, it would be me sitting in a chair, staring at a wall, convinced that that wall was too textured for my taste."
The shaven-headed man near the front bent forward laughing, his hand on the table like he needed it for balance. He straightened up when he saw the bartender, then wrestled an ice cube from his cocktail glass and shouted a mangled phrase at the stage. His outburst annoyed the German shepherd splayed on the ground nearby. The dog would sigh through most of the show, like a teenager surrounded by toddlers.
A week after the appearance at Dan's, Higginbotham tries to describe the Two Brave Boys approach to comedy.
"You get to watch local comedians do stand-up, then you get to see them hang out, which is exactly what we do all the time," he explained.
McKenzie notes that the Denton comedy scene hasn't always been as tight-knit as it is.
"Taylor did so much to make the comedy scene what it is — he's established a [expletive] load of comedy open mics in town. He held comedy shows out of his house."
Higginbotham sidesteps: "The only thing the scene was missing was proper marketing, and that's really all I brought. The talent was already here."
"He's underselling a lot of that," McKenzie responded. "First off, he's really funny."
Both McKenzie and Higginbotham work at East Side, the popular bar on East Oak Street where they first met. They balance dialogue like the Beastie Boys balance lyrics, able to deliver a complete idea in long form by quickly switching off.
When McKenzie mentions the future of their live podcast, Higginbotham immediately follows: "The hope is to get outside the North Texas local comic scene and get traveling comics and comics that are known elsewhere."
Then McKenzie: "And traveling comics that shouldn't be well known."
Then Higginbotham: "But a lot of them should be, because they're working their asses off driving themselves around the nation."
Back to McKenzie: "Essentially what we're doing onstage is a version of conversations we've had in bars, or conversations we've had at lunches ... in bars."
Growing up, McKenzie spent a lot of time watching comedians on TV. Even when they appeared on late-night talk shows, they were performing routines. He always wondered: What are they actually like?
The Two Brave Boys live podcast is his answer to that question.
"Audiences get to see a stand-up set. But immediately after — we don't even let the person leave the stage — they're done, then we walk up with our mics and immediately pull a table to them, we pull up our stools and we all sit down immediately, so the moment the comedian is done, we start talking to them," McKenzie said. "We're like the two hipster theater masks on either side of them."
Matt Quenette, general manager of Dan's Silverleaf, noted that Higginbotham and McKenzie work for drinks by choice. "From the start they said, 'We don't want that money.'"
Instead, they asked that he use it to pay the guest comedian.
"Two Brave Boys is a good name for them. But, man, those kids are hungry. They want it bad," Quenette said.
A comic enters
Higginbotham and McKenzie's act combed through some drug slang. Then, they introduced the night's featured comedian, Denton-based Javoris James, who ambled on stage, a black hoodie slung over his shoulder. His T-shirt was a mashup of Huey from The Boondocks posing like the baby from Notorious B.I.G.'s Ready to Die.
Javoris clapped up the mic, grinning a bit, young — 22 — and restless.
"All right, let's get this out of the way: I look like Craig Robinson. I look like LeBron James." He knew he could make the crowd laugh harder.
"I look like LeBron if he just blew his knee out. And he shrunk. And he spent the rest of his retirement eating junk food." He grinned into the laughter. "I look like Lesley Jones impersonating LeBron."
Like B.I.G., who never wrote his lyrics down, Javoris performs his jokes from memory. He's constantly integrating new bits into his routines, although he'll follow the impulse to free-flow if it strikes him. You can tell he's spent years watching Chappelle, Patton Oswalt, Bill Burr. And in his two years on the Denton comedy scene, he's made strides. He recently opened for Baron Vaughn, who voices Tom Servo on the reboot of Mystery Science Theater 3000.
Javoris doesn't typically talk about drugs in his sets, but he maintained the theme with ease. "I don't smoke weed but I've been around it enough to realize that my dad, not only did he smoke it, he probably sold it at the same time." At the back of the crowd, a group of black-leather-vested metalheads gradually grew louder, more drunk, less interested in the show — full-blown conversation.
If Javoris was bothered by the chatter, it didn't show — later he would tell me disruptions really do bother him. Although it's the quiet moments that rattle his focus. He's learning that the audience is quiet because they're drawn in, taken. And his style depends on it. At the start, he's soft-spoken in a way that lures people forward. He builds the joke like it's a Tribe Called Quest song, swaying a little, so that he can hit the audience with an angle they didn't see coming.
In real time, he handled his own, seemingly aware of the crowd and how to get them to fetch. The drunk metalheads' ears perked when Javoris mentioned his dad's collection of digital scales.
"For the longest time I thought the smell of weed was chicken," he said.
The pink-shirted bald man to the right of the stage smacked at his thigh: "WHAT!" Groans cascaded through the back patio. Javoris stood there. He grinned halfway as he fiddled at his logo-less black hat. With a sharp turn: "I witnessed my first drug deal earlier this year ... at an abandoned car wash."
Guts and charisma
Every comic bombs. Even the best. Javoris realizes hecklers are something every comedian has to deal with. Why is heckling so common at comedy shows?
"People see hecklers on TV," Javoris said a couple of weeks after his appearance at Dan's. "They see videos on YouTube of 'Watch this comic take out a heckler.' And they think it's just a part of the show," he said, his face turning sour. "It's not."
Also in attendance that night was Joe Coffee, president of the North Texas Comedy Festival, a soon-to-be-annual event that debuted in Denton in early October. He's also a touring comedian who won the 2017 Denton Arts & Music award for Best Comedian.
"You know how many people I've talked to that have told me that they go to comedy shows strictly to heckle?" Joe said. "A lot of them — they're just too cowardly to go up and do an open mic."
Most of the time, he encounters two kinds of hecklers: "There's someone who's intentionally, maliciously trying to tear you down — 'cause they hated what you said or they hated way you look, or they made some preconceived notion. That heckler is THE worst."
Less volatile, though still repugnant, is the drunk heckler. "They just want to be part of the show and they don't realize they're hurting it. They don't know comedy etiquette. If they've seen stand-up, it was on a Netflix special. And they've seen Louie [C.K.] just kill for an hour. They don't know a lot of the grind that went behind him making that happen."
Coffee's approach to hecklers has changed as he's matured and evolved as a comedian. He used to bully them, and it got laughs, but they were the wrong kind. "I mean, sometimes you literally have to tell them to shut up, but a lot of times you can get them back on your side."
The qualities that make McKenzie and Higginbotham's live podcast unique — the conversational tone, the intimate feel, the laid-back insight — also leave them more susceptible to hecklers.
"What Brad and Taylor are doing is really hard" Joe says. "You have to establish that you're up there for a reason."
Because performing onstage takes guts and charisma, an athlete's intensity, the ability to perform under pressure. That pressure is tenfold for comedians, who — unlike other artists — have to hone their craft in front of an audience. Comedians need people. Sometimes, when a comic bombs, it's the audience's fault.
As soon as Javoris finished, Higginbotham and McKenzie shuffled onto the stage with a table, stools and fresh alcohol. They formed a huddle midstage. After a few minutes, the pink-shirted heckler laughed like a sea lion.
Sitting alone at a table near the front, he had spent much of the set shouting at the stage. His heckling hadn't gotten a single laugh. Only groans. Yet he had kept going. And he kept trying to get onstage.
Halfway through the roundtable with Javoris, Higginbotham and McKenzie got fed up.
"What the [expletive] do you want us to do?"
"Let me up there," the heckler said. "Roast me!" Higginbotham and McKenzie's faces bore the weary look a parent gives a crying baby, willing to do anything to shut it up. They shrugged and the man rushed forward. Onstage, he asked: "Is this OK?"
McKenzie chuffed into the mic: "Not really. I mean, it's almost like we had something planned and you interrupted the planned thing we had." McKenzie tugged at his checkered hat and looked down at his slip-on Vans.
The heckler bombed, overtaken by an indifferent crowd that treated his time on stage like a scheduled intermission. He shuffled back to his seat and the show continued.
McKenzie sighed into the microphone. "I'm not against audience participation, but I'd prefer if people participated a little less than you did," he said.
A harmony settled over the audience as the three comedians got lost in conversation, and it was like they were alone at a bar, their mechanics and vulnerabilities in full view. For five minutes, they talked about their lives and their comedy. Brad followed an impulse: "Let's imagine that Javoris is a dolphin and it's 1967 and you're out of water and a scientist just gave you acid, what would —" but he's interrupted. Again. Again. Again. Again.
"Go pee! Pee your pants on stage! Peeeee!" the heckler yelled.
The outburst pinched Higginbotham's last bit of patience: "Jesus, shut up. You stood on stage and you're still screaming? God ..."
For a moment, Higginbotham looked like a wounded gladiator, unkempt in a sandstorm, bloodied, sober. His hair was confetti in the stink of a breezeless night. But when McKenzie shrugged and grinned crosswise, Higginbotham freshened back. A train passed in the distance and the moon hung sprightly gray. Glass bottles clanked, thrown into a trash can.
FEATURED IMAGE: From left: Brad McKenzie, Taylor Higginbotham and Javoris James are Denton comics. The three men have performed at Killer's Tacos and are devoted to building Denton's comedy scene. (Courtesy photo/Lindsey Hanley)