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. READ MORE
Imagine you’re Roman Polanski. (Stay with me, this isn’t going where you think.) It’s 1968, and you’re working on Rosemary’s Baby, a thriller that will go on to earn six Golden Globe and two Academy Award nominations. Everything’s going great until a bit player delays a day of shooting to debate your carefully scripted delivery. “To me, that’s not being a troublemaker — that’s just being alive,” actor Charles Grodin recalls the incident, more Zen than mortified, in a 1997 interview with Charlie Rose. The memory, and the glib explanation of it, exemplify performer-turned-pundit Grodin’s infamous churlishness, part of a personality introduced over dozens of wonderfully awkward late night TV appearances.
Grodin, whose career spans nearly fifty years, is a well-known thorn in the side of hosts who have spent decades dealing with his aggressive demeanor. His early guest appearances on the talk show circuit were quickly categorized as schtick, the affectation of a combative character whose eye-rolling accusations aimed to expose the fake friendliness of celebrity culture — and to prove that audiences loved the abuse. Throughout his shifting career, Grodin’s maintained and expanded on this “character,” challenging hosts and audiences to play along with the joke, or become the target. READ MORE
There are about a million different ways to describe The Chris Gethard Show: it’s a viewer-run panel that doesn’t hesitate to cast complete strangers as regular on-air guests; It’s a weekly dance party-slash-costume ball that counts Bananaman, Flashing Glasses Guy and a giant bunny as regular attendees; It’s an exercise in diffusing the awkward moments that inevitably arise when fielding calls from crazies, comics, kids and characters. But mostly, it’s really, really fun.
A weekly public access call-in series described as “the most bizarre and often saddest talk show in New York City,” The Chris Gethard Show got its start as a monthly, themed stage show at the UCB Theatre, known for memorable stunts like the Night of Zero Laughs (where attendees were removed from the theater for laughing), the Paintball Punishment Stand Up Challenge (where unfunny comics were shot by paintball guns) — even convincing Diddy (yes, that Diddy) to appear on the UCB stage. Early last year, Gethard and his cast took their show on the road with a twelve day, Kickstarter-funded trek from New York to LA; with no set plan, the crew made stops based on Twitter prompts from strangers and made it clear they were willing to do pretty much anything on the road.
This past May, Gethard announced that he was taking things to the next level, switching to a weekly schedule and making the show — a cult hit with fans who enjoy recounting “you had to be there” moments — accessible to a much larger pool of potential viewers. Now, the show broadcasts live on the Manhattan Neighborhood Network, while simultaneously streaming online (it’s also available as a video podcast through iTunes). READ MORE
“Hey. Remember DCM? (I don’t. Please fill me in.)”
Four days after I get home from the Upright Citizen Brigade Theatre’s 13th annual Del Close Marathon, this message pops up on my Facebook wall. I laugh for a second, trying to think of a stupid joke before realizing that — holy shit — I kind of can’t. Remember DCM, that is.
Towards the end, 50 straight hours of non-stop comedy on three stages (four, counting nightly featured shows) begin to blend together. Plus, the weekend-long festival is overcast by a frantic feeling of wanting to see everything (especially since this is likely your only annual chance to catch visiting groups). Presenting well-known acts like ASSSCAT, Baby Wants Candy and Derrick Comedy, plus UCB teams including The Stepfathers, Convoy and Mother, alongside late night shows with titles like Old Prospectors’ Make ‘Em Up Jamboree and Ira Glass-prov, the three-day festival honors the memory of improv guru Del Close the way the grandfather of modern comedy would have wanted: by creating an environment where performers feel not only free but obligated to push every boundary (both onstage and off). READ MORE
Dog wedding. Japanese wake. Mars Lander launch party. If frequently mourned Starz comedy Party Down lived to see a third season, those are just a few of the celebrations co-creators Rob Thomas, John Enbom and Dan Etheridge were hoping to have their forlorn crew of caterers-slash-Hollywood wannabes host. We assume Paul Rudd, the series' fourth Executive Producer, had some great ideas, too, but since he didn’t make it to last weekend’s Ultimate Party Down Marathon (held at the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas), we’ll just have to speculate.
Nearly 200 fans weathered the 10+ hour marathon, and they’re surprisingly alert as the event wraps up. Maybe it’s because they’ve just heard the show’s bluesy, bouncy theme 40 times through. Or maybe the high fives that Ken Marino and Adam Scott doled out, sprinting through each aisle before taking the stage, have something to do with it. As questions about favorite episodes and guest stars come in from the audience, Lizzy Caplan and Megan Mullally giggle and whisper; at one point, Martin Starr calls a time out, goading Scott into an air guitar rendition of George Michael’s “Faith” (a skill Scott’s apparently well-practiced in). This is an unmistakably close group, and their enthusiasm is infectious.
“We really wanted to do the Japanese wake, where all the guests would be speaking a different language,” explains Enbom, identifying the inane twist that would turn a funeral into a potentially awkward, definitely hilarious situation for Party Down's apathetic crew. Imagine Marino’s clueless but well-meaning Ron Donald attempting to offer condolences to a baffled foreigner; knowing Enbom’s style, it would probably end with a Pearl Harbor joke or, worse, a casket-related mishap. It’s those moments of “How the hell is he gonna deal with this?” that the show handles so well, slowly building each episode up to mind-blowing misunderstandings that are both over the top and totally relatable. READ MORE