Boulder Comedy Festival, which returns for its third year June 21-25, will bring diverse comedians to stages across Boulder. However, the festival’s unlikely origins lie with a type of person who has dominated the stand-up scene for decades — the straight white dude. 

“I started a show called Token Straight White Dude while I was living in Los Angeles, where we could only have one straight white man on the line-up. People got very angry about it,” said Zoe Rogers, founder and director of Boulder Comedy Festival. “It was an attempt to flip the script on how I was so often the only woman on the line-up.” 

And flip the script she did. After moving to Colorado, Rogers was tapped by the Dairy Arts Center because they caught wind of Token Straight White Dude and wanted more. This desire for fresh voices on stage ultimately led to an entire comedy festival dedicated to that effort, spearheaded and directed by Rogers. 

“I don’t think diversity is divisive,” Rogers said. “Bringing this festival to Boulder shows that there is an audience for this here, and that they are open to seeing more than just a straight white dude in a hoodie.” 

Shanel Hughes performs during a recent show. She will be headlining at this year's festival. Photo by Jeff Stonic, LLC

Over the course of the five-day festival, attendees will find shows at several venues across Boulder and hear from a variety of comedians — including Shanel Hughes, a Denver local who has been a part of the Boulder Comedy Festival since 2021. As a Black, queer woman in the Front Range comedy scene, Hughes is aware that she doesn’t look like most of the people in Colorado audiences.

“We are really divided as a nation right now, which is why comedy is so important,” Hughes said. “It’s a way to show that we’re all way more similar than one might think, especially to someone you never thought you'd be similar to.”

Recent studies show that only 11% of stand-up comedians identify as women, while more than half of all comedians are white. Hughes says that Roger’s leadership and awareness of the diversity problem in comedy is what makes the Boulder Comedy Festival so special. 

“There aren’t a lot of women running comedy festivals right now,” Hughes said. “I think it’s great of Zoe to break this Boulder bubble, especially through humor.”

While it can be challenging to perform in front of less diverse audiences, Hughes recalls meaningful moments like receiving positive feedback from audiences members she wouldn’t have expected a reaction from. 

“I'm always getting a good reaction and sometimes even hugs from people that don't look anything like me, with tears in their eyes, just telling me that they needed that,” Hughes said.

Janae Burris on stage during a recent set. Photo by Jeff Stonic, LLC

Featured comedian Chris Bryant, a queer and neurodivergent comic based in Los Angeles, is returning to Boulder Comedy Festival and looking forward to performing for Boulder audiences again.

“It’s honestly one of my favorite festivals to attend,” Bryant said. “The crowds in Boulder are unlike anywhere else — you can tell they are really dedicated to listening to diverse voices.”

Bryant, who recently premiered their latest special Gender Reveal, says they have been met with hateful and homophobic responses from people online. Some have even gone as far as to flag and report Gender Reveal as “inappropriate content” in an effort to have it removed from online platforms. While Bryant says they are used to hate speech, this is their first experience with being silenced.

“I’ve been coping by focusing on live comedy,” Bryant said. “It’s why the Boulder Comedy Festival is so important. It creates a space for people from marginalized communities to perform.”

Rogers, whose extensive career has included experiences such as being mistaken for a male comedian’s girlfriend while headlining a show, knows that comedy is not an easy path for those who don’t fit the societal mold of what a stand-up should be.

“It does feel sometimes I'm just swimming in a sea of misogyny,” Rogers said. “I just try to focus on the positive stuff, and not on people who have issues with you simultaneously having a sense of humor and a vagina.” 

Zoe Rogers, comedian and founder of the Boulder Comedy Festival. Photo by Melissa Leavenworth.

Tickets for Boulder Comedy Festival are available online, as well as a complete list of venues and line-ups. On Saturday, June 24, the festival will be partnering with Creative Nations for a fundraiser show benefiting Native artists in the Colorado area. 

“When a room full of people laughs with you, it's everybody else saying, ‘yeah, me too,’” Rogers said. “That’s what we’re really aiming for with the festival, just a chance for people to realize we’re not so different after all.”

Photo by Jeff Stonic, LLC