Austin's comedy scene is so robust that you can laugh at stand-ups every night of the week. Free or inexpensive open mikes provide venues for locals working their way up the comedy ladder and a cheap form of (admittedly hit-and-miss) entertainment for audience members.
Kath Barbadoro, a rising-star Austin comic, hosts Clubhouse, a weekly comedy open mike at 9 p.m. Mondays at New Movement Theater (616 Lavaca St.). Pay-what-you-want and BYOB, the show has one rule — all comics must perform new material. "Every week, there are some jokes that kill, and some jokes that will never escape the lips of that comic ever again," she says. The potential for brilliance and failure can be thrilling.
In between Clubhouse and her paid gigs, Barbadoro hones her chops around the city. I followed her to a week's worth of open mikes and asked her to share her thoughts as a performer for those of you who are considering grabbing the mike. And I'm sharing my thoughts as an audience member in case you just want to watch.
9:30 p.m. Tuesdays, 1400 E. 38 1/2 St. Free.
This was the first — and most uncomfortable — open mike at which I saw Barbadoro perform. If you're there to watch, you're probably the only non-comic, which can create a claustrophobic degree of self-consciousness. To say the venue is casual is an understatement. I felt like I was in a friend's basement with some chairs set up, except there was also a coffeehouse in that basement with loud, whirring coffee grinders masking punch lines.
Barbadoro: As a performer, you have to contend with the general din of a popular neighborhood hangout, but the vibe is relaxed and welcoming. It's a good open mike for beginners and people too nervous to try bigger and potentially more hostile stages like Cap City or the Velveeta Room and it's a decent place to try out new material. You're not going to see polished, finish-product comedy here, but you will get to see a lot of the "process" of honing material, which can be interesting for a comedy nerd who only ever gets to see TV-quality, professional-level stand-up.
Java Lounge at Austin Java
9 p.m. Wednesdays, 1206 Parkway. Free.
Much better. I saw a lot of the same comics (and material) here as I did at Cherrywood but had a much better time. For starters, the lounge is spacious (it's indoors, but feels like an outdoor patio) and insulated from the coffee shop noise. And it's relatively dark in the seating area, so the focus is on the stage, where it belongs. Finally, there are actually audience members here, not just comics.
Barbadoro: Your chances of bombing here are pretty high. The mike is typically frequented by more experienced comics who are harder to get a reaction out of. However, it's a great place to try and loosen up and get comfortable working off-the-cuff. I love trying to do crowd work (talking to people in the audience) here with the few non-comics who show up, or commenting on what's gone on before I've taken the stage. Java is a good place to study other comics and see how they work a low-key room.
Block Party at New Movement Theater
9:30 p.m. Thursdays, 616 Lavaca St. Free.
This is a small, black-box theater. The lighting and multi-media equipment allows comics to stretch beyond the spoken word. It's a little more formal than other open mike spaces but comfortable for audience members. Even in a sparse crowd that was mostly comics, I didn't feel conspicuous.
Barbadoro: I love that you can do absolutely whatever you want at this mike — it's the best place to come if you want to execute a weird idea that isn't quite stand-up and you don't know where to do it. Example: A regular block party feature for awhile was a segment called "pizza debates," where two comedians would debate each other on a hot-button issue while stuffing their faces with as much pizza as possible.
The Velveeta Room
9:30 p.m. Thursdays, 521 E. Sixth St. $5.
I didn't catch the "tough crowd" vibe for which this venue was infamous in its heyday, but there is definitely a sense of danger coming from the stage. The first act was a completely blotto first-timer with four minutes and no material. But there were also many skilled performers, including this year's Funniest Person in Austin winner Ramin Nazer. It's an actual club setting, a welcome change from the more informal java joints.
Barbadoro: "The Velv" is located right on dirty Sixth's main drag, so you never know what kind of audience is going to wander in; it can still be a rough crowd. If your material works at the Velv open mic, it'll work anywhere. As a new comic and likely future train wreck, getting on the list can seem pretty intimidating. There are 30 comics on it every Thursday, and if you're new and you do make it (there's no guarantee), you're probably going on last, for a dwindling audience of comedy-fatigued drunks. Good luck to you. You will need it.
Innuendo at The Aviary
8 p.m. Saturdays, 2110 S. Lamar Blvd. Free.
Tucked into the corner of a swank lounge and home decor boutique, this was the most unusual open mike of my tour. The posh venue gave the comics plenty of opportunity to poke gentle fun at their surroundings and the upscale (meaning they had full-time jobs with benefits) clientele. More often than not, the comics rose to the level of their bright and comfortable surroundings.
Barbadoro: This is certainly the classiest open mike I've ever been to. The audience when I was there was great, and the set times are very generous. I wouldn't recommend doing anything too dirty or offensive — save that for the Velveeta Room. And be sure not to get too drunk on one of their incredibly strong beers and almost knock over a $350 mirror like I did.
Live at Coldtowne
10 p.m. Fridays, 4803 Airport Blvd. $5.
I wasn't sure how well stand-up comedy was going to work in Coldtowne's tiny BYOB space, but the intimacy just added to the experience, which was great. The show is curated, so the comics are going to be good. The audience is right up on the performers, which seems to dare them to be their funniest.
Barbadoro: The audience is usually excellent — they're as strong and boisterous as a comedy club audience, but tend to be younger, more comedy-literate, and more willing to go with you if you want to get weird and go off on a tangent. If you're newer to comedy and stuck in open mike purgatory, this is as close to a good booked show as you can get.
One caveat for performers: All the comics watch the show from this little hallway and comedians are not known for personal hygiene. Get a bunch of them together in close quarters and it starts to get a little rank. One time, local comedy legend Joe Hafkey ate a spicy chicken sandwich in that hallway and I nearly died.
Cap City Comedy Club
8 p.m. Sundays, 8120 Research Blvd. $2.
This was just plain fun. The comics, ranging from first-timers to highly polished, were comfortable and funny, and the polite and receptive crowd was the largest of any open mike I attended.
It takes place in the more intimate room at the front of the club, which was perfect. It felt packed, in a good way.
Barbadoro: There's a big advantage to performing for an audience that actually came out specifically to see comedy. Nobody's going to laugh if you're not funny, but it's a bit easier of a room to perform in than most.
However, this is not an open mike to mess around at — if you do well here consistently, you can get work opening for the nationally touring stand ups that perform here weekly.
Most comics I know think of this show as the end of their open mike workweek — you start working out new material on Monday or Tuesday, edit it through the week, and then bring a more polished form of it to the Cap mic and see if it'll fly in a straightforward comedy club setting. Cap is another excellent place to study up — this open mic regularly attracts some of the best comics in the city.
Contact Dale Roe at 912-5923 Twitter: @djroe