Splitsider’s Guide to Austin’s Comedy Scene
Though I was not born in Texas, and did not get here as fast as I could, and while much of what lies outside Austin City Limits is a mystery to me, there’s one local fact I know for sure: Austin’s got an insanely great comedy scene, and it’s growing fast.
It took awhile to get the timing right. In 1997 Austin Stories premiered, an effort to introduce an emerging stand-up scene to MTV’s hip audience with the help of Howard Kremer, Chip Pope, Laura House and Matt Bearden (also Patton Oswalt, who briefly served as head writer). Decidedly Slacker-inspired, its washed-out world of plaid-clad alternabands and happily unemployed freeloaders, while understatedly brilliant, didn’t quite catch on, getting the axe after twelve episodes.
Fast-forward fifteen years, and things feel pretty similar: day drinking is the city’s unofficial sport, the Live Music Capital is full of more amateur honky-tonk acts than you dared fear existed and, happily, nobody’s ever really ‘unemployed,’ they’re just ‘focusing on their screenplay / web series / revolutionary taco trailer concept / Twitter.’ But the incoming festivals, film studios and fleets of food trailers have spurred a climate change. As SXSW and ACL grew, so did the local music scene. As Richard Linklater and Robert Rodriguez found commercial success, their studios helped boost local filmmakers. This year, Austin prepares to launch its largest ever humor festival and SXSW continues to expand comedy programming, with sights set on similar exposure for the local stand-up scene. If there’s ever been a time to get on board, it’s now, and as the NY vs LA debate rages on, an increasing number of creative funny types are choosing to settle halfway between the two coasts instead.
Maybe you are one of them? The following abridged guide to comedy in Austin is for you.
Best Weekly Show
Say hypothetically you can only get to one show a week: make it PUNCH!. Matt Bearden’s Tuesday night showcase always has a great lineup, usually featuring surprise guests and sought-after performers. It draws as many first-time audience members as repeat customers and tends to sell out Cap. City’s cozy side stage, especially when comics like Chris Cubas, Ramin Nazer, Eric Krug and Bryan Gutmann are on the bill.
Cap. City Comedy: Formerly the Laff Stop (where Bill Hicks recorded his first album, Sane Man), this North Austin club has a cavernous main stage and a smaller side room, hosting touring acts — everything from alt comics (like Nick Thune) to cult faves (like Dana Gould) — Thursday-Saturday. It also has PUNCH!, a Sunday night open mic, table service and a two-drink minimum, FYI.
The Velveeta Room / Esther’s Follies: Austin comedy institutions, Esther’s and The Velv share a two-stage space on one of the most highly-trafficked corners in the city, 6th Street and Red River. The Velv, dimly lit with walls covered in murals and mirrors, hosts a famed Thursday night open mic and, on the weekends, local headliners and late night shows like It’s Always Funny and Dirty Laundry (where stand-ups bring their bluest bits). Next door, Esther’s is a tourist favorite, a heavily-costumed, self-described “topical vaudeville/satirical musical comedy revue.”
Improv and Sketch
It’s a persistent rumor that the Upright Citizens Brigade has secret plans for an Austin expansion (one that founders Besser, Roberts and Walsh shot down at the ‘11 Del Close Marathon — sorry, guys). But most out-of-towners — and, honestly, most in-towners — don’t know that Austin’s already home to four improv/sketch theaters.
The Hideout: Nestled above a downtown coffee shop, The Hideout specializes in creating improvised interpretations of classic cultural touchpoints (Dickens, Star Trek), and hosts curated weekly showcases like the Threefer and the Weekender, plus kid’s shows, jams and more.
The Institution Theater: Their space is brand new, but The Institution has been teaching and performing around town for several years (theater owner Tom Booker, a former director at Second City Los Angeles, is also a founding member of Chicago’s Annoyance Theater). They have shows on the weekend and their eclectic calendar includes runs of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog Live alongside improvised Mamet from The Confidence Men.
The New Movement: Though it’s the youngest theater in town, The New Movement has already franchised out to two other cities (Houston and New Orleans) and co-presents events like the Air Sex World Championships. Here in Austin, the small East Side theater hosts shows four nights a week, beginning with the monologue-fueled Megaphone Show on Wednesdays. As of this Spring, they’ve also opened a secondary theater, a two-stage basement space centrally located downtown at 6th and Lavaca.
ColdTowne Theater: ColdTowne’s got a particularly compelling origin story: after Katrina, this displaced NOLA team didn’t just relocate to Austin, they rebuilt, opening their theater space within a year of arriving and quickly growing to host shows seven nights a week. ColdTowne’s tourco is consistently stellar, and for lineups stacked with great new and one-off groups, try their Monday Night Mash or Friday’s Cage Match.
Other Places That Occasionally Host Comedy Shows
The Highball: Owned by and located next to the Alamo Drafthouse, this retro bar / bowling alley / karaoke palace also has a side stage that’s sometimes home to game shows, sketch and a li’l thing called Tittie Bingo.
29th Street Ballroom: An extension of Spiderhouse bar and café, the Ballroom has a bit of a Twin Peaks feel, with walls swathed in red velvet curtains. Monthly events include The ShowGO, a film and comedy showcase, and The New Movement’s Mothership variety show.
Training and Classes
The Hideout, The Institution, The New Movement and ColdTowne all have multi-level improv training and sketch classes. Stylistically, ColdTowne and The New Movement have similar curriculums, inspired by the teachings of Del Close with an emphasis on game play and a deep appreciation of absurdity. The Hideout and The Institution teach similarly structured programs with a more narrative focus, incorporating acting exercises and experimenting with conforming to (and breaking apart) classic stage play structures. The Institution also offers classes on directing and musical improv. Additionally, training center Merlin Works has been coaching performers since 2000, drawing inspiration from Keith Johnstone’s Theatresports and offering classes with partners like the Puppet Improv Project. (Though Merlin Works doesn’t host shows, they have a relationship with Gnap! Theater, a performance group that creates improvised plays “both deliberately experimental and unashamedly populist”; new projects debut every few months at the Salvage Vanguard Theater.)
Open Mic Nights
For both getting onstage and seeing great sets, your best bets are: Sunday at Cap. City; Tuesday at Cherrywood Coffee; every Wednesday at Austin Java (12th and Lamar location); Thursday at either The Velveeta Room (which boasts 30+ comics and goes til late) or Block Party (which is also open to sketch and improv acts); and Live at ColdTowne on Friday nights. Check Last Gas Comedy for detailed info on show times and sign-ups.
Funniest Person in Austin
In 2010, the Austin-American Statesman guesstimated there were “probably 50 ‘serious’ comics doing regular stand-up work” in town; in 2011, the 26th annual Funniest Person in Austin contest drew a record-setting 172 entrants, continuing to expand exponentially.
Every spring, the contest takes over Cap. City for a month of elimination rounds, with performers vying for a slot on the final show. Austin Stories’ Chip Pope is a former contest winner; Brendon Walsh, Lucas Molandes, Andy Ritchie and Martha Kelly also have headshots on the FPIA wall of fame. Bryson Turner, who won in ‘09, has described the contest as “basically the tax for being a comic in Austin,” and talk of the results — who’s advancing, who was robbed, why life is terrible and unfair — is an inevitable, incessant topic for months before and after the event (which is to say, this competition is not for the casual comic, faint of heart or novelty act — talking to you, “Booze Lightbeer”). The contest is judged by local humorati and national promoters, with the final round the guaranteed best lineup of the year (the annual PUNCH! Sour Grapes show — with sets from those who didn’t place but probably should have — is a close second).
The O. Henry Pun-Off
Alternately, there’s the zero-stress O. Henry Pun-Off, an annual event hosted by the O. Henry Museum that awards prizes to “punslingers” for “punniest of show.”
While there’s nothing more Austin-y than a music festival (jorts are pretty much required, everything smells vaguely of weed and there’s an awful lot of dudes in flip flops hanging around), the city’s really nailing it in the comedy fest department. April’s Austin Sketch Fest is the best place to see premieres from local teams, plus touring shows from out-of-town acts. Every May, The Ladies Are Funny Festival, one in a very small handful of female-focused fests in the country (and possibly the oldest), hosts a wide range of performances over two days (we’re big fans of regular feature The Linda’s, whose lineup includes one very talented 10-year-old improviser). In the fall, the Out of Bounds fest presents stand-up, improv and sketch at multiple venues around town, always attracting top teams from theaters across the country. Wrapping up the festival season, The Hideout’s winter WaffleFest is three days of improv shows and all-you-can-eat waffles because yes please.
The rapidly growing Fun Fun Fun Fest now has a dedicated comedy stage hosting stand-up, improv and sketch on the same bill as acts like (the notoriously hilarious) Danzig. SXSW Comedy consistently books the most exciting lineup of well-known and up-and-coming comics, hosting showcases and live podcast tapings at The Velveeta Room and Esther’s Follies, plus industry panels and day shows at the Conference Center. And in 2012, The Moontower Comedy and Oddity Festival launches as Austin’s largest all-comedy event, with over 60 performers, 12 venues and 4 full days of shows.
Film and Video
It’s not a stretch to say Richard Linklater built Austin’s film scene from the inside out, with Slacker showcasing the city’s creative voice and the Austin Film Society, which he co-founded, helping grow the local production industry, too. Slacker 2011, a modernized remake with contributions from 24 local artists and scores of the city’s most talented actors (many of whom double as the city’s most talented comics), is a pretty great snapshot of Austin:
New video collective HUMORdy helpfully collects uploads from local comedy teams like The Ramsey Bros. and Beef and Sage. Spirit Desire and Blackmagic Rollercoaster both have some trippy shorts (the latter’s also responsible for one of my favorite parodies ever, “Powder 2: Powder to the People”). SXSW always commissions video bumpers from awesome local artists (you can see classics from past years online). Also: There’s Puppetose, a sort of bizarro version of Wonder Showzen that airs on public access. And if you’re up late wasted and wasting time, you should definitely call in to the Drunk Dial girls.
This one’s a no-brainer, but seriously, the Alamo knows what’s up. They have sing-alongs and quote-alongs, Rifftrax-inspired Master Pancake screenings, Action Pack events (which usually feature in-theater pyro), Weird Wednesday treasures and an amazing beer selection. They also sometimes show cheesy cult classics in HeckleVision, where you can text all your hilarious jokes to the screen, so if you’re too scared to open mic there’s that.
Every year, AFF’s Comedy Vanguard premieres a surprisingly eclectic lineup of under-the-radar indie films (in 2011, two of the program’s four selections were Matt Besser’s Freak Dance and Matt Walsh’s High Road), and the headlining marquee screenings usually include a few highly anticipated comedies.
Podcasts and Radio
Add these to your iTunes: The Mascot Wedding show, hosted by members of Stag Comedy, is a call-in variety show; CB Radio talks to touring comics (including podcasting icon Marc Maron, interviewed in Episode 48); and Grow Up!, hosted by stand-up Seth Cockfield, airs on a pirate station, which is exciting (find more show recs here). On the dial, Comedy 102.7 broadcasts bits 24/7, and they also take submissions from locals. Slappy Pinchbottom’s Odd Preoccupation, on community-run station KOOP, is radio’s answer to YouTube, collecting all kinds of (sometimes funny) auditory treasures.
May We Suggest…
For beautifully executed narrative improv, check out The Frank Mills (and spinoff duo Rachel and Dave); do not miss a single Stag Comedy sketch show, and keep an eye on news from Your Terrific Neighbors, The P! Company and Turn of the Century Paris.
Neither sketch nor improv, the Old Murder House Theatre rewrites action flicks like Robocop, Die Hard and Back to the Future into stage plays (Flooding With Love For The Kid-style) that can only be described as ‘visually addictive clusterfucks.’ They even somehow, in the middle of Texas, presented Aliens On Ice on actual ice, proof that their live shows are wildly unpredictable, therefore unmissable.
Things to Bookmark
There’s no comprehensive comedy calendar online (if you’re the entrepreneurial type, get on that); follow performers and theaters on Twitter and Facebook for the most reliable show info and invites.
- For local comedy news, check Austinist, CultureMap and It’s Always Funny in Austin.
- Look for copies of The Texas Travesty, UT’s official student-run humor mag that’s been grooming Onion contributors since ’97.
- Misprint Magazine’s infographic, “How Shit Works: Austin,” remains eternally relevant.
- Showlist rounds up music and sometimes comedy events.
- The Austin Improv Collective forum has tons of info for performers.
- @LastGasComedy has a Twitter list of local comics.
- Every open mic has its own sign-up process; check a complete listing here.
- Check the Casting page on the Austin Improv forum for info on upcoming performance opportunities — for example, The Hideout posts whenever they’re accepting submissions for their Threefer showcase.
- Living in a city with so many festivals can get expensive, so check to see who offers passes in exchange for volunteer hours; SXSW always needs a hand.
- Both ColdTowne and The New Movement offer internships, which you should take advantage of if you have the time.
If you can’t find something you’re into, at least you’re in the perfect place to start something new. What really sets Austin apart from other cities, comedy-wise, is its genuinely supportive, collaborative scene; it’s trite, but true. Want to get on public access? Host a show in your living room? Compose a musical tribute to local legend Leslie? Just keep it weird and you’re good to go.
Samantha Pitchel is on Twitter.