In Expert Witness, The A.V. Club talks to industry insiders about the actual business of entertainment in hopes of shedding some light on how the pop-culture sausage gets made.
As far as cannabis cred goes, you can’t do much better than co-owning a dispensary and a chain of pizza parlors and sponsoring comedy shows. That’s just vertical integration right there. Kayvan Khalatbari has done all three: After quitting his job as an architectural engineer to help start the Sexy Pizza chain, he went on to co-found Denver Relief, now the longest continually operating medical dispensary in Denver. Those interests come together in Sexpot Comedy, which started as a backroom “speakeasy” and now encompasses a number of marijuana-friendly stand-up shows and podcasts. Oh, and he runs a magazine.
Today, Kayvan—a longtime legalization activist—also works for Denver Relief Consulting, which helps small business owners across the U.S. navigate the frequently labyrinthine process of establishing cannabis-based businesses. There, he deals with politically charged issues like the potential federal rescheduling of marijuana as a Schedule II drug, something that, while it opens the door for more research on potential medical benefits, also threatens to regulate small businesses out of the nascent legal-weed industry. (He believes it ought to be descheduled entirely, for the record.) The A.V. Club, on the other hand, decided to ask him about the state of the stoner comedy in the brave new world of legal cannabis, where stigmas against smoking pot in polite society are beginning to dissolve. He also recommended a few movies to enjoy this 4/20.
AVC: It’s obviously not as simple as taking something that used to be sold on the black market and then saying, “Okay, here’s a store” [to operate a legal weed business]. Besides all the bureaucratic red tape, there’s also a hearts and minds element.
Kayvan Khalatbari: Sure. Movies in general exaggerate things, they find certain things to exploit, and you definitely see a pattern with cannabis [on film]. I haven’t seen anybody like Bill Gates, or Clarence Thomas, or Bryan Cranston, or, Rick Steves, or Phil Jackson, Maya Angelou—all admitted regular consumers. They aren’t the cannabis user that’s portrayed in movies.
AVC: It’s always kind of an idiot.
KK: Even if they are intelligent, they’re too quirky to be socially integrated. They’re loners, or misty geniuses, never normal people. But the more you see celebrities and politicians coming out of the closet, so to speak, as cannabis users—and in states like Colorado, where it’s like, “Oh, my grandma smokes weed? The soccer mom down the street does?”—you start to understand that it’s like alcohol. Everybody does it, it has no race, religion, age, it crosses all boundaries in terms of demographics. And when you see that, you can start to be less judgmental. We’re starting to see some of that on TV, especially on streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, or cable networks like HBO or Showtime, showing cannabis use in a totally different way.
AVC: Are there any specific shows you think show pot in a different light?
KK: Have you ever seen Bored To Death?
AVC: Yeah, totally.
KK: I know a lot of people who remind me of characters on Bored To Death—Ted Danson’s character specifically. He’s a successful businessman, he knows what he’s doing, but he also likes to consume cannabis.
And then there’s the one—the name’s escaping me—it started out as a webseries, and recently got picked up by Showtime, I think. [It was HBO. —ed.] It’s about the dealer in New York—
AVC: High Maintenance.
KK: Yeah. When he goes to different people’s homes, they way he interacts with them, it reminds me a lot of when I used to deliver. I’ve been selling cannabis since I was 15 years old. This wasn’t aboveboard, obviously. But that show reminds me a lot of those days.
There’s Weeds, obviously, although that show got just out there and preposterous after the first season. Nancy’s clientele was just a perfect depiction of what a cannabis user is. She would sell to people at kids’ soccer games and city council meetings. It really opened that door to saying, “Okay, everybody smokes cannabis.” And it didn’t need to be about what it makes them do it. It’s like, we see somebody drinking a glass of wine and we don’t label them. You don’t define that person by what they’re imbibing. We’re trying to get there with cannabis, normalize it I guess, although I hate the word “normal.”
AVC: Are movies lagging behind, do you think? These webseries, like High Maintenance, are more grassroots-level. And in contemporary film, you have guys like James Franco and Seth Rogen.
KK: Yeah, I think they’re behind on a lot of things, and not just cannabis users. I mean, the evil character in movies is still often a person of color. And when it comes to people of color, or just about anything, Hollywood movies still perpetuate these same tired stereotypes. But when you look at original content creators like Netflix, you start to see a different perspective. Vice has done tremendously well at documenting the cannabis user in a million different environments. We’ve done a couple of things with them, actually.
AVC: There was an episode of [Viceland’s stand-up comedy show] Flophouse set in Denver, and someone mentioned Denver Relief.
KK: Yeah, Sam Tallent [one of the comedians on Flophouse]—his dad’s actually our accountant. After I got established in the cannabis scene and in pizza, I started Sex Pot Comedy at one of my pizzerias down south. It started as a cannabis-friendly consumption show. After we closed, we’d hang up these big burlap sacks over the windows, we’d open it up to a private party, we’d drink and we’d smoke and do a show late at night.
We had 50 or 60 people the first time, the next month it got bigger, the next month it got bigger, and it got so big that people were stuck outside and couldn’t see much of anything. So we moved it to the Oriental Theater, and we’ve been doing cannabis consumption shows there for about two years. We’ll have about 400 people in a theater consuming—illegally, but in a responsible way. In a way that didn’t get us in trouble.
AVC: So it was a speakeasy kind of thing.
KK: That’s how we used to describe it. If you saw the Sexpot Comedy logo on a poster, it was just kind of an unspoken thing that you’d know these venues were cannabis friendly. Even if you couldn’t smoke inside, if you went out on the patio where people were smoking cigarettes, they wouldn’t hassle you. That really created some momentum around that conversation, showing people how to act when they’re consuming [in public]. Because so many people are so egregious with it [in Colorado] because it’s kind of cool and new right now.
We have 45 shows a month in Denver, in L.A., Chicago, and New York City, we’ve got 20 podcasts, and they all tie into this central theme that even if they’re not about cannabis, they’re adjacent to it.
AVC: Do you think there is such a thing as the “stoner comedy” aesthetic, then? Is there a certain shared sense of humor to people who smoke pot?
KK: There’s been a lot of debate in Denver lately about whether a cannabis crowd is good to have at a comedy show. One of the first cannabis-friendly shows we did was at this place called Pete’s Monkey Bar, which isn’t around anymore. Adam Cayton-Holland—he’s on that TruTV series Those Who Can’t with a couple of other Denver guys now—has this joke where he speaks to doing this this show, and telling a joke, and it takes about two seconds for the laughs and the applause chime in. There’s always a delay while people are, you know, getting it. Maybe that’s playing off stereotypes, but it’s also kind of true.
This was pretty early on at one of these first cannabis-friendly shows in Denver, and I think people were getting into too much of a haze. We’ve corrected that since then. Undoubtedly [smoking pot] gets put into a lot of the content that’s out there, but I think we’ve moved forward a great deal. I just think people, when they hear that kind of generic stoner content that you’d see in a movie like Pineapple Express, it just doesn’t fly anymore. I think people see it as tired.
AVC: Do you think there’s a way to appeal to that aesthetic without pandering? Like, do you ever watch Broad City?
KK: Oh yeah, love those ladies.
AVC: One of the great things about Broad City is that they’ll show them smoking, but the story doesn’t revolve around it. It’s incidental. They’ll smoke and then go on an adventure, which is so much more interesting.
KK: I think that’s a step in the right direction. It’s balancing that stoner stereotype with what people are really like. I definitely know girls who are just like them. What I’m curious to see as another step forward would be to see a guy—like myself, or a million other people who are a little higher up in the food chain than [the fictional Abbi and Ilana] who are daily consumers as well. They can be funny and likable, but not defeating themselves all the time.
And when talking about Broad City—for the past two decades, the cannabis industry has been notorious for sexualizing women, and whenever you’d see women involved in cannabis it’d be about sex, in ads or even in movies. Even Nancy Botwin [on Weeds]—she was a very sexualized character. And while these girls have sex, they’re also just normal people, and I really appreciate that about Broad City.
AVC: Is there any particular depiction of a fictional stoner that you just hate?
KK: As someone who watched Seventh Heaven on a lot of drugs and alcohol, I always found that to be one of the most entertaining, because it’s so over the top. It’s almost like one of those dramatic public service announcements you’d see back in the ’80s.
I think that’s probably the worst. Something like Reefer Madness is so ridiculous that it’s just funny, it’s just stupid. But then something like Seventh Heaven is meant to scare you, to put you down as a person. It’s like, “You are evil, how could you do that?” And that’s not the approach we should be taking to drugs at all.
AVC: When you watch something like Cheech And Chong, or The Big Lebowski, do you still find that funny, even though you don’t like the stereotype of the stoner? Or does it just annoy you?
KK: I wouldn’t say it annoys me. It’s just like I was saying about comedy earlier, it just gets kind of tired. I get it, and I think you have a likable actor, it can still be endearing, The Big Lebowski is one of my favorite movies, and the Dude is such a likable character, even though he’s a fucking loser. It’s great writing, they don’t dumb it down, there’s just so much more to that story, although he’s consuming cannabis, there’s other stuff going on.
Dazed And Confused is another one where, yeah, it was a big part of that culture and that time and those kids, but there’s so much else going on. Cheech and Chong, I think, is different. There’s nothing else in that plotline except cannabis. That does get a little annoying.
AVC: Looking over popular stoner movies from over the years, you see a lot of buddy comedies. Friday, it’s two friends. Harold And Kumar Go To White Castle, it’s two friends. What do you think about that?
KK: I think there’s a couple things. Maybe a stoner interacting with the general public where he’s the only one stoned maybe isn’t as funny. But I think it does say something about cannabis, where you’re more inclined to be friendly.
I also think a lot of people who consume cannabis—and I’m the same way—I didn’t fit in in high school. Then I started consuming right in the middle of high school, like a million other kids I was just kind of figuring things out, and kind of an outsider. And those were the kids I attracted myself to. We were different from each other in almost every other way. The music we listened to, the way we dressed, how we were raised. But [cannabis] brought us together.
I think that a lot of people who write about the stoner culture and make movies about it probably have some inkling of that in their history, and you find in those buddy movies as something they can relate to.
AVC: After talking with you about it for a little while, it seems like it’s not any one particular character that is a problem for you, it’s the one-dimensionality.
KK: 100 percent. I think it’s just encompassing more people and understanding that the cannabis consumer doesn’t have a definition. We should consider that when putting them into our culture. If we truly want to find characters that are relatable, we’ll get outside that one-dimensionality. When you hear the same joke over and over again, eventually you stop laughing, right?
AVC: From different kinds of walks of life, and things like that?
KK: Rich people, poor people, everyone in between uses it. And that’s coming out very quickly, and I think people are becoming hip to the fact that these old stereotypes, they just don’t fly anymore.
AVC: There have to be a few hippies that work in the marijuana industry.
KK: They’ve had their day in the sun. Let’s give somebody else a go at it. [Laughs.] There are a lot of things—like in The Big Lebowski, I guess he’s smoking while driving, that’s different, but he crashes the car because he drops that hot joint in his lap. There’s studies coming out from around the world, from three countries, showing that stoned drivers are actually better drivers than sober, in a lot of ways, because they slow down. The paranoia’s actually a positive there. [Laughs.] They’re more aware of their surroundings.
AVC: Hyper-aware, you could say.
KK: And it is funny, talking about the different stoner characters, you do see different types—old people, young people, losers, cool guys that everyone wants to be with—but they all have these characteristics we’re trying to get away from in the cannabis industry.
AVC: So you want stoner comedies to get up off the couch, basically.
KK: I think that’s a good way to put it.
“A teenage cannabis dealer bartering dime bags for therapy sessions is entrepreneurial, in the pursuit of self-betterment, and getting through life with those we least expect to make it with. Cannabis finds commonality in all demographics.”
“Motivated, smart, witty, artistic, goal-driven teenagers overcome all sorts of odds, with cannabis use being not a focus but just another way to cope on occasion. Outside of them being far more hip than I am, I see a lot of myself in these kids.”
“[Featuring] twin brothers separated only by their relationship with cannabis, this movie shows that despite a few moments in life that create different outcomes in our lives, we’re all pretty similar and in pursuit of the same happiness.”
“Another instance of cannabis initiating collaboration towards a common goal, and by people who, purely based on aesthetics, are generally not perceived to be associated with the plant.“
“One of the most honest and ‘normal’ portrayals of cannabis and the people that use it. [There are] no defined demographics.”
“Similar to High Maintenance, though playing off the stoner stereotypes a little more. Bored To Death doesn’t generalize too much about who the cannabis user is.”
“As much as I don’t like the people themselves, it highlights people consuming cannabis and still being active, aware, out there.”