When students think about paying professional dues, they might conjure images of the movie “Office Space,” where the boss strolls up to an employee’s cubicle and says, “I need you to work this weekend, mmm-kaay.”
For Chris Voth, a doctoral student in CU Denver’s School of Education & Human Development, the early days of being a standup comedian were more like “The Road Warrior.” “I did a lot of eight-, nine-hour drives to make $100 at one-nighters,” he says. “It’s a lot like getting a pilot’s license. You need a certain amount of hours performing on stage, getting into bad situations and figuring out … What do I need to do to make my act work?”
CU Denver doctoral student Chris Voth frequently performs at the Comedy Works Downtown and Comedy Works South, as well as other local clubs. He will headline at Comedy Works South on March 29.
Voth has taken some sudden turns – one being leaving his home state of California on a whim 17 years ago to launch a comedy career in Colorado, a place he’d visited while working his previous gig, a public relations representative for the National Hot Rod Association. The love of writing jokes began in first grade, he says, “so it’s been a lifelong thing.”
Now, besides being a part-time comedian and a doctoral student at CU Denver (about halfway through his program), Voth is a full-time English teacher at Pomona High School in Arvada. He says he’s discovered the point of coffee: there are many days that Voth teaches a full schedule at Pomona, goes to class at CU Denver and caps his evening by doing standup at a comedy club.
Voth so much enjoyed earning his master’s degree at CU Denver – “It was a great experience; I love Denver and the school” – that choosing the leading public urban research university for his doctoral studies was an easy choice. At age 42, he clearly knows what he likes: making people laugh, adventuring through life (authors and raconteurs Hemingway and Twain are favorites), and learning – always learning. If you see his standup show you might hear odd bits about his frenetic schedule or anecdotes about enlightening high school kids for a living.
At age 35, after 10 years of scraping by as a comedian, Voth decided to give teaching a try. He didn’t yet have a teaching license, but a charter school in Denver Public Schools saw his comic background as a plus – if he could handle hecklers, surely he could deal with high schoolers.
“Almost immediately I loved it,” Voth says. “I got called names and all the things that happen in high school teaching, but I loved the kids. It changed the way I saw the world, the way I saw what I should be doing. It changed everything for me.”
He considered attaining more education, because “when you’re teaching you begin to realize all the things you don’t know.” So, as he honed his sideline career as a comic – he started getting better-paying gigs such as Comedy Works-Larimer Square as well as private functions – Voth fortified his skills as an educator. In spring 2014, he earned his master’s in English, rhetorical studies and teaching composition track. CU Denver’s program “directly affected how much I could impact my students,” he says, because many were English-as-a-second-language learners.
Chris Voth has a new appreciation for coffee. He frequently teaches a full schedule at Pomona, goes to class at CU Denver and caps his evening by doing standup at a comedy club. Here, he enjoys a latte at his neighborhood coffee shop, St. Mark’s.
Voth still loves being a comedian as much as ever – his TV credits include “The Late Late Show,” “Last Comic Standing” and “Comics Unleashed” – but teaching has added a layer of fulfillment and given life more meaning. “I do all the things that go with teaching (grading, bureaucracy, etc.) because I just want to serve the students,” he says. “What do they need and how can I provide that?”
His master’s and doctoral programs – particularly classes taught by Antwan Jefferson, clinical assistant professor in urban community teacher education, and Michelle Comstock, PhD, associate professor in English – have been “awesome,” Voth says. “CU Denver offers a high-quality education, and it’s so practical to what I need.” Considering Voth’s hectic schedule, the university’s many online classes have been convenient as well.
‘Made me a better teacher’
“It’s made me a better teacher, a better professional and that’s what I’m here for,” he says. “A degree is great, but I want to learn something. In every class I’m learning something I can use in my classroom.”
And Voth – who at age 25 wrote a list of 25 goals he wanted to accomplish by age 50 – has his eyes set on ambitions beyond the classroom. He wants to use his growing expertise in education – be it curriculum policy, best practices or education management – to become a strong voice in local, state and national education circles. Ever the entertainer, Voth figures he could also spice up many a staid conference by providing comic relief.
And ever the learner – “If there’s something I don’t know, I want to know it” – he plans to continue satisfying his curiosity. “I enjoy academics since I’m in that environment all the time,” he says. “I want to be a strong model for my students.”
Voth wants to keep reaching his goals. He’s hit most of the 25 marks he set almost 20 years ago. He wrote “doctorate” on the list, thinking back then that his best chance would be an “honorary doctorate” via entertainment fame. But in spring 2018, he expects to add an academic-earned doctorate – EdD – to his name.
“Either way, my friends have to call me ‘doctor,’ so it doesn’t matter too much on the logistics of how I got to it,” Voth says with a smile as he takes another swig of coffee.