A TV show, a suicide, a book, and a baby: Adam Cayton-Holland's life
Denver's best comedian lives full-spectrum
Adam Cayton-Holland is the star of the truTV sitcom "Those Who Can't." He founded the High Plains Comedy Festival. He's done Conan and played the Kennedy Center. He grew up in Denver and still spends most of his year in Denver, making him possibly the most famous comedian in the Mountain Time Zone, and while that may not be super-famous it's more than famous enough.
On stage, Adam has a bit about a class he took with his wife, Katie, for the natural birth of their first child, due at the end of November. When the birthing-class teacher went around asking about fears, other people said they were scared of the pain, or afraid of becoming fathers. But Adam told the class he worried that fifty snakes would shoot out of his wife's vagina. And when the other hipster parents-to-be shared their hobbies — skiing, hiking, gentrification — Adam told the class that he and his wife's hobbies were watching YouTube clips of middle school fist fights and hucking street scooters into lakes.
Of course none of that happened in the real birthing class. Adam attended the class like it was graduate school — sitting up front, asking questions, doing the homework — as if a safe, natural birth was the equivalent of getting into Princeton Law.
Sure, Adam has made a career taking mundane reality and twists it to hilarious ends. He did that for years with Ben Roy and Andrew Orvedahl in the comedy troupe The Grawlix. Then he took his time as a substitute teacher in Denver and turned it into "Those Who Can't," featuring big names like Patton Oswalt and Kyle Kinane, now heading into its third season.
But Adam is less likely to joke around with something like a birthing class, because family is a bigger factor than you might expect in the life of a guy whose first CD was called "Dick Jokes for Artists."
"I've lived in L.A. a bunch working on the TV show, but I'm happier here," Adam says. He's sitting at a table outside Ratio Beerworks on Larimer Street, about to perform a set. "Family, familiarity of place."
Denverites love them some A-C-H. And A-C-H loves him some Denver. He's stuffed the TV show full of Denver, full of blowjobs on the top of Lookout Mountain, an attempted assassination at Mutiny Information Cafe, and a villain whose goal is mixed-use condo developments.
"I am very proud of Denver," Adam says. "'Those Who Can't' is a show you can get if you're just watching it, but if you're a Colorado person there are these layers, these extra jokes in there, and I love that."
In Adam's new memoir, "Tragedy Plus Time," he spreads his Denver love around even more.
The book is about Adam's career, how he worked his way up from open mics to headlining. It's about Adam's rise to success and his love of the Denver comedy scene. It's about why he stuck around Colorado to learn to do comedy here.
"I just think local scenes are more interesting than — everybody does five years in their hometown and then goes to New York or L.A.," Adam says.
"Denver's got great joke writers. Meaning, they care that the punchline lands, that it makes sense, that it's well written. Whereas some people will just coast on personality. Denver has clean, great jokes."
In the memoir, Adam writes about his almost ideal childhood as a member of the "magnificent" Cayton-Holland family of Park Hill, three children of a civil rights lawyer and a journalist who fought for social justice and did not mind giving their children last names journalists would later find laborious to type.
But the book's lifeblood are the stories of his adorable little sister, Lydia, who was Adam's comedic collaborator, friend and inspiration, the sweetest, kindest, girl he knew. Lydia and Adam worked on comedy bits when they were kids, long before they knew exactly what a bit was. Later, Lydia helped organize his comedy shows and refine his material.
The memoir begins and ends — and never strays far from — Lydia's struggles with mental health and depression and substances and how, at the age of 28 she took her own life, and Adam found her body.
At first, Adam didn't know how to talk about what had happened. Gradually, he just started to talk, even if what he was saying was only half true, or shifting day to day. He wrote essays about it. And then a publisher asked him to write a book about it.
"Writing the book was therapy," Adam says. "A legit catharsis," he says. "Made me cry the whole time."
You can almost feel his tears coming through the pages. There's a beautiful moment in the book when Adam comes to some sense of peace with his sister's suicide. She was such an empathic girl, so unable to withstand other beings' loneliness or suffering, that she couldn't watch a piece of trash or a goldfish cracker fall on the floor by itself. She always threw a second piece of trash or cracker with it, so it wouldn't be lonely.
As he struggled with the suicide, with his anger toward her for doing it, Adam realized that his sister, because she was so in tune with the suffering of others, must have known the depth of pain her suicide would have caused. And if she killed herself anyway, her pain must have been oceanic, and suicide must have been the only way out she saw.
It's incredibly forgiving and tender and vulnerable thing to think about a sibling.
"Obviously I'm gonna think about it for the rest of my life," Adam says. "But if I was to land on one thought, that would be like the one."
It's been six years since Lydia's death. Tragedy plus time equals comedy, goes the saying. Good title for a book. But Adam doesn't believe it. Time hasn't made his sister's suicide funny, not a bit.
But the book came out this summer and people loved it. And talking about mental health, about stigma, opening up in general, has helped Adam. Tragedy Plus Time Plus Openness Equals a Measure of Acceptance, maybe. That's not a great book title. But it's true.
Others should try it, Adam says. Write your book or at least tell your friends about the things you think you cannot say.
"Realizing the not-aloneness of it, has really been transformative," Adam says. "I used to think it was like six degrees of separation for mental illness — but it's like one degree. Everyone knows someone or has suffered, it's so close to every single person, yet it's still this taboo, whispered subject. Once you open up about it, people just come out of the woodwork and talk to you about it and say 'me too,' and thank you for doing it. That's kind of a new type of shocking and interesting, but it's better than thinking that you're alone in this grief or anxiety or suffering."
Lydia died just days before Adam struck the deal for his TV show. And her death reminded him that Hollywood is a game, that family is what matters. And now that he's neck-deep in promotion about a book about Lydia's death, and media wants to talk to him all the time about suicide, the forces that govern the universe reminded him that life is as common as death.
Adam sometimes mentions mental illness or suicide on stage, to get it out and also attack the stigma more. But tonight, at Ratio Beerworks, he talks about the new baby. The new life.
"We're not gonna find out the sex," Adam tells the crowd. "Ever! When the kid wants to tell us, they'll tell us. People will be like, is that your son, and I'll be like, ow dare you ask them that?!"
Fatherhood is a gift that keeps on giving, Adam says.
"Now I got my head up my own ass about my book, being all cool, rah-rah me, and this kid's gonna be like, 'hey, here's what really matters.' It's interesting how life, for me, tends to show you what's truly important when you're kind of forgetting what's important."
"And that's a big part of why I'm in Colorado."