- Nancy Flores AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
It's Monday, well before the weekend shows begin. Under the unlit stage lights and without the laughter of a live audience, writers and actors gather around a table in the middle of Esther's Follies' iconic theater. At first, the meeting of these creative minds sounds a lot like a newsroom conference as they discuss the week's political headlines — until someone breaks out in song.
As they tweak, review and test run upcoming musical numbers and jokes, it's not unusual for the comedy crew to belt out a few of their tunes-in-progress amid the elaborate aquatic murals that give Esther's Follies its whimsical and funky flavor.
"So let's talk about the GOP," Esther's Follies co-founder Shannon Sedwick said to the group of eight. When presidential elections heat up, so does Esther's Follies' political humor. No political party or presidential hopeful is safe from Austin-style ridicule.
"A political race is great for us, and it's hell for us," said head writer Steven Baranowski. A constant stream of new joke material makes it great, he added, but it challenges writers because everything constantly changes and is quickly forgotten. So rolling with the fast-paced news cycle and correcting on the fly is key when finding the funny in taxes, caucuses and candidates.
Gov. Rick Perry was presented in a skit as a "sort of tongue-in-cheek savior of the Republican Party," Baranowski said. "And we all know how well that worked out.
"Now that he's not even in the race, (the skit) has been heavily modified, and we're probably nearing the end of the line on it. So we're grooming its successors."
A slew of political bigwigs pop into Esther's weekend shows in all sorts of ways. Vice President Joe Biden as a hunchback? Sure. President Barack Obama in fishnet stockings? Why not? At Esther's, it's not about spot-on impressions.
"The trick is to make it funny," said cast member Billy Brooks (son of American-Statesman editorial writer Alberta Phillips). Brooks plays Obama as both the Old Spice guy and a transvestite, among other characters. "You'd rather see someone who doesn't sound anything like Bush at all rather than a bad impression for 15 minutes."
Brooks does nail an Obama impression — he even auditioned at Esther's with it. Perhaps audiences will see it when Esther's spoofs upcoming political debates between Obama and his Republican opponent.
And though political humor is in the forefront, watching a show doesn't mean leaving with news fatigue. Political humor mixes with other fast-paced sketches and musical numbers poking fun at everything from Austin scooter drivers to superstar divas Lady Gaga and Cher as they fight for the public's attention.
Two giant glass windows facing Sixth Street add an extra amount of improv comedy to each show as curious pedicab passengers, drunken club-goers or a gang of roller skaters peek in from time to time. No one knows how to handle those revelers better than longtime magician Ray Anderson, who combines comedy and magic for a break from all things political. Just stay away from the front row if you have stage fright.
"The show is always mutating," Baranowski said. "It's never exactly the same show ever. You'll see a percentage of similar material a year later, even five years later. But it gets modified, and so it does add up to a show that has certain amount of rewatchability."
Audiences can count on some of Esther's signature skits, like Sedwick's wildly popular Patsy Cline sketch where she pulls saws and other surprises from her dress.
When it comes to political figures, let's face it, not all of them are funny. So apart from the times they goof on camera, what makes a political figure's personality funny enough for the stage? Republican candidate Mitt Romney, for example, has funny potential.
"He's curiously bland and sort of like a Republican robot," Baranowski said. "But then he's a Mormon, and that's an odd twist. We thought we'd get more mileage out of Joe Biden, but he doesn't do anything."
Timing is everything when dealing with topical humor. "Topicality works best when you can get it in that day," said writer and actor Shaun Wainwright-Branigan. "Rick Perry's `oops' moment got huge laughs the night it just happened. We ran with it for a couple weeks, and later it wasn't so funny."
The Esther's writing crew expects weeks of writing and constant rewriting in preparation for a debate parody between the two presidential candidates, about three to four minutes of back-to-back jokes.
"So every joke has to get everyone laughing," Baranowski said. For every page of joke writing, Baranowski said, maybe about two jokes will hit the stage for the debate sketch. Then depending on audience reaction, some of those jokes get cut.
"There may be jokes that are not as funny as the killer joke," Brooks said. "Then it's (the actors') task to make it work on stage. We try to find something different to just punch it up."
And sometimes, Wainwright-Branigan adds, you can't be afraid to throw away jokes that don't work, no matter how much you love them.
Open every weekend for 35 years, Esther's Follies is a fixture on Sixth Street.
"I think the Esther's experience is really part of Austin's core; it's old Austin," Wainwright-Branigan said. "It's not highbrow but not dumb. We all share this; it's part of our heritage. I'm trying to think of something comparable in another city, and I really can't. I can't think of another theater group that is so ingrained in that city's personality."