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Austin is a lot funnier than you might realize

Comedy scene has national reputation for nurturing top-notch talent.

Barry Harrell
bharrell@statesman.com
Matt Bearden

You already know Austin is the Live Music Capital of the World.

What you might not know: The city has also quietly become a major player in the U.S. stand-up comedy world.

About a dozen places around the city offer stand-up comedy — with two full-time comedy clubs and an improv theater included in the mix — and there are probably 50 "serious" comics doing regular stand-up work here, say those in the local comedy scene.

"This scene is dripping with comedy, and really high-caliber comedy," said Margie Coyle, a co-owner of Capitol City Comedy Club, the city's biggest and best-known comedy venue. "Austin has just been a breeding ground for comedy. There's L.A. and New York, maybe Chicago, but definitely Austin has to be in the top five (markets in the country) if you are trying to hone your chops in comedy."

In the past several years, the Austin comedy scene has sent four to five comics a year on to appearances on Comedy Central, and several have made appearances on the late night shows of David Letterman, Jay Leno and Craig Ferguson, said Matt Bearden, a veteran Austin stand-up comic and comedy writer.

"Austin is known on the industry side — not so much on the fan base side — but on the industry side as a hot place for comedy," said Bearden, who also works on the "Dudley & Bob Morning Show" on KLBJ-FM.

He'll get no argument from JoAnn Grigioni, vice president of specials and talent for Comedy Central network.

Austin "is consistently one of the best comedy scenes in the States," said Grigioni, one of the judges for the semifinals of Capitol City Comedy Club's annual Funniest Person in Austin contest, which began last month and runs through May 17. "The vibe of Austin in general really attracts great talent. It's known for being a cool, smart city with great audiences where you can really cultivate your comedy."

Capitol City Comedy Club and the Velveeta Room, both full-time comedy clubs, are Austin's main stand-up venues. But there are a number of places where you can now go to see stand-up comics perform — or give it a try yourself on an open mike night.

Albert Im, a stand-up comic and one of the founders of www.lastgascomedy.com, a website devoted to the Austin comedy scene, said that when he started doing comedy in 2007, "there were only three open mikes in town: Capitol City, the Velveeta Room and then the one at Coldtowne (Theater) was starting up. Now you can go up every night, more than once a night. It's becoming a lot more accessible throughout the week, maybe the way it is in L.A. or New York."

Grigioni said Austin is a known commodity for talent scouts.

"I know a lot of other people come through to scout, such as the Montreal Just for Laughs festival," she said. "The whole creative feel of the city is so conducive to the type of comedy we're looking for."

Dana Smith, manager of the Velveeta Room, said comedians such as Bryson Turner, last year's Funniest Person in Austin contest winner, are moving to Austin specifically to do comedy.

"When I got here 11, 12 years ago, maybe 60 people would sign up for the 'Funniest Person in Austin' contest. Now there's about 120," he said.

Recently, several local comedians each year have been picked to be featured on Comedy Central, and "I think that's a bit of a story," Bearden said. "We've had four or five acts that have been on Letterman, Ferguson, one of those shows. If a band from town got on Ferguson, you're going to see a write-up about it somewhere. When a comic does it, there's nothing there."

One of the constant challenges for the Austin comedy scene is how to coexist with the city's famous music scene.

"Live entertainment is definitely our competition, because there's just so much to do in Austin. You can turn the corner and see a live band playing," Coyle said. "The comedians have their work cut out for them. If you plucked all the wonderful comedians that are here and set them in another city, they would blow the place up. But because these guys are competing with the music and just the Austin atmosphere, it's tough."

While the Austin scene's national profile has grown recently, locals say the city has been turning out top comics for years.

Austin comedians Mike MacRae, Martha Kelly and Doug Mellard, among others, have appeared on national television, including Comedy Central. Kelly is among the comedians who have landed showcase slots during the South by Southwest Music Festival, which has added comedy acts in recent years. And comics such as the late Bill Hicks, Johnny Hardwick, Eddie Gossling and Brendon Walsh either lived in Austin or honed their craft here before gaining a wider reputation.

"I would say in the past seven years it's been pretty much very steady, as far as this is a good place for talent executives and people to look for discovering new talent," Coyle said.

The reason for this is, in part, because the scene operates at a high — and sometimes brutal — level of sophistication, Bearden said.

"We brutally beat the hackneyed premises out of beginners before they get too far and develop bad habits," Bearden said. "The Austin scene, on the upper echelon, there seems to be a lack of pandering there, and that's what I appreciate about it. You don't get that in a lot of other scenes, and I think that's what's making our scene do well."

Whose set to see?

If you aren't familiar with the Austin comedy scene, which standup comics should you go see? Three local experts — Margie Coyle, co-owner of Capitol City Comedy Club, Dana Smith, manager of the Velveeta Room, and Albert Im, founder of www.lastgascomedy.com — offer up some of the top local names (listed in alphabetical order, not in any implied order of hilarity):

  • Matt Bearden
  • JR Brow
  • Mario DiGiorgio
  • Bryan Gutmann
  • Martha Kelly
  • Eric Krug
  • Maggie Maye
  • Mike MacRae
  • Doug Mellard
  • Lucas Molandes
  • John Ramsey
  • Andy Ritchie
  • Jimmie Roulette
  • Bryson Turner

Where the laughs are

Regular spots to see stand-up or improv comedy in the Austin area:

Open mikes

The following venues are among those that regularly host comedy open mike nights (and yes, there might be some we've missed):

  • Capitol City Comedy Club
  • Coldtowne Theater
  • Homer's Bar & Grill
  • Kick Butt Coffee
  • New Movement Theater
  • Pipes Plus
  • Pluckers
  • The Velveeta Room
  • Trophy's