The name of Corona Street will change to “The Flu Actually Kills More People Street,” according to Westish, a new online publication that arrived just in time to save us from the real news.
As the pandemic closed entertainment venues around the city, 25-year-old Denver comedian Hannah Jones was stuck at home, unable to make people laugh in-person. Her madness drove her to conceive the satirical news website less than two weeks ago with the help of fellow comedians Meghan DePonceau and Cody Ullrich. Westish launched May 1.
“The thing about Denver standup comedy scene that a lot of people don’t realize is that all of us are spending like, no joke, 20 to 30 hours a week usually at mics and shows,” said Jones, who moved here two years ago from North Carolina and “fell in love” with the city and comedy scene. “So when live entertainment became not a sensible thing anymore, there’s just this immediate time vacuum for me and the entire comedy community.”
A quick scan of the headlines on Westish will give you the gist. It’s like The Onion, but for Denver: “Lakeside Amusement Park to Reopen: ‘Why Would We Suddenly Care About Safety Now?'” and “Reduced Pollution Allows Dog Food Smell to Reach Fort Collins.”
No one is praising the pandemic, but those headlines and the accompanying articles might’ve never have happened if not for COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by a new coronavirus that shut down live entertainment citywide. Jones had pitched the idea to comedians in January without getting traction. Now people are fixated on pandemic news and could also use a good laugh — two things that give the site wings.
“It’s a time where people are paying more attention to the news more than ever,” said DePonceau, 29, who recently started the Wide Right comedy club and bar in Five Points. “It’s the perfect time for it because it’s mostly on the same subject and people want comedy but they can’t really get the normal live sense that they had.”
The jokes aren’t all virus-related. Just ask Brent Vasquez, the fictional fourth-ever Colorado Rapids season-ticket holder.
“Denver has a soccer team?” said Vasquez. “I thought I was buying a package to take me and my family rafting on the Colorado rapids. This sucks.”
Westish’s biting humor is meant to appeal to everyone in a city where the divide between “natives” and “transplants” can be palpable.
Some stories require a little explanation for readers without a deep history in the city, said Ullrich, 28, who grew up here. And that’s OK.
“I remember being one of those snobby people that are like, ‘No, move back,'” said Ullrich, doing the universal imitation of a Whiny Person. “But I see a lot of people that are here because they want to be here and it makes me feel so much better about where I am.”
“The ability to have an inside joke with everyone in your city about the part of I-70 that smells like dog food — that’s always going to make people happy just because we can all recognize it,” Jones said.
Writers from around the Colorado comedy community contribute to the site, sometimes relying on universally funny things (“Quarantine Gives Denver Pub Enough Time To Finally Hose Down Bar Mats”). Other times they stick to local stereotypes like the Denver drummer who is “in need of girlfriend (housing)” during the pandemic.
“Carhartt jackets, golden retrievers, Subarus. I mean, we’ve got a lot of stereotypes that you can check down a list that are probably already on some kind of Buzzfeed article somewhere,” Ullrich said.
Westish writers help people swallow real problems with a dose of humor.
Every time a mass shooter kills Americans, The Onion runs the same article: “‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.” The consistency serves to editorialize the news — take a stance — while making people laugh (and/or cry).
Westish writers, similarly, comment on society’s problems and the people who play a role in them.
“The tenets that we’re working with for the site are the same as the basic tenets of stand-up comedy,” Jones said. “So that means that all of our articles have been punching up, which refers to making fun of people in power and putting criticism where criticism is due. And that’s something that I would expect would be a central part of the publication for as long as it’s run by three stand-up comics and contributed to mostly by stand-up comics.”
One article tackles cultural appropriation on Cinco de Mayo. Another addresses sexual harassment of people in the service industry.
“Comedy, no matter what, for me, makes people think and it makes hard stuff more digestible,” DePonceau said. “I don’t think you can shy away from it, but I think what we’ve posted so far covers all the spectrum — people who like a little something more shocking and like to have an opinion afterward, or something that’s so silly.”
The Westish trio — and their stable of contributors — have experienced success beyond their expectations.
It’s hard to start a website with consistent content that people consistently read. But Westish has had some articles go viral, at least locally. Their articles have seen tens of thousands of clicks in the eight days they’ve existed, according to the counters on the site.
Comedians are hungry to contribute, making around 40 pitches a day, Jones said. Writers who get published are paid for their work, which is not a guarantee in the world of writing. Westish is free to read but not free to produce, so the website collects donations.
“We’re trying to make sure that they’re being compensated for work, and that’s a really solid policy that Denver has always had about comedy,” said DePonceau, who has advocated for a standard rate among local comedians. “I really respected that in Hannah’s original platform. That’s something that she’s been extremely focused on from the start, which I think is huge.”
The site’s early popularity has Westish founders thinking about monetizing the site down the road to keep the operation sustainable. So even though COVID-19 will hopefully end, Westish will not.