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Austin's comedy scene is burgeoning, but it wasn't always a barrel of laughs

Staff Writer
Austin 360

The Moontower Comedy and Oddity Fest hits town in a big way Wednesday. Headliners Aziz Ansari, Seth Meyers and Steven Wright are among 100 comics (most of them out-of-towners) descending upon venues across Austin.

But on any night there are guffaws already rolling out of our theaters, clubs and coffeehouses. Improv schools and troupes are propagating, and homegrown stand-up comics regale half-listening drinkers wherever there's a barstool and a microphone.

Perhaps the biggest sign that we're at a potential turning point in Austin's comedy history? Performers are moving here to be a part of it.

The city's thriving comedy scene didn't happen overnight. It took highs and lows, and — as with the city's music, film and food scenes before it — plenty of creative cross-pollination.

A Big Stinkin' development

Sixteen years ago, another big festival was making Austin a new pin on the comedy map. In 1996, Marc Pruter and Jon Wiley were performers with Monk's Night Out, the house improv troupe at Sixth Street's Velveeta Room. That venue is attached to and managed by Austin's legendary Esther's Follies, the longtime home of a topical, musical comedy revue.

Stand-up comics tested new punch lines on tipsy Sixth Street revelers (and judgmental fellow comics) while the Monk's Night Out kids dabbled between sets.

Like their cohorts, Pruter and Wiley longed for the attention of national comedy scouts. So they hatched a plan to bring those industry players to Austin. The pair aimed for a massive showing of improv groups and a cadre of improv's biggest stars and most celebrated teachers at what they had dubbed the Big Stinkin' Improv Comedy Festival.

"What we did was we called everybody and told them that everybody else was already coming," Wiley admits. "And it worked. They all said ‘We'll come too. We've got to be there for this.'"

During its four-year run, the festival attracted some of improv and sketch comedy's biggest names. Les McGehee, who performed with the Cheese Pistols at the Velveeta Room and ran Austin's ComedySportz franchise, got to pal around and teach with Wayne Brady. "Mad TV's" Alex Borstein showed up, as did improv legend Fred Willard. And groups from coast-to-coast footed the bill to travel here to be included.

Improvisational shifts

After 1997's second installment, Pruter and Wiley transferred ownership to get out from under the debt they had accrued from advertising and venue rental costs. I didn't move to Austin until 2000, one year after the festival collapsed under its own financial weight, and I've always regretted missing it. Back in the Chicago suburbs, I had directed my own sketch comedy ensemble, Gag Reflex.

The scene I experienced my first few years in Austin was a different one than I expected. There was still Esther's, of course, but Bad Dog Comedy Theater, opened by Pruter, Wiley and others in July 2000 near South Congress Avenue and Riverside Drive, failed financially and closed just over a year later. The Monks had split town to seek fame and fortune in Los Angeles.

"I was one of the last to leave for L.A.," recalls Pamela Ribon, a Monk's Night Out member who is now an author and television writer in Los Angeles. "It got to where every time we auditioned for Aspen (Comedy Festival), we were told ‘There's not much we can do for you as long as you're still in Texas.'" The National Comedy Theatre at Northcross Mall, home to McGehee's ComedySportz, would close its doors in 2003.

"You can look at the history of comedy in Austin and it tracks pretty closely to the Austin economy," notes Shana Merlin, an improviser with the musical troupe Girls, Girls, Girls. "There have been boom-bust cycles within the comedy scene that have tracked very closely with the boom-bust of the tech scene."

"Post Internet bubble-bursting, our audience dried up a bit," Wiley says. "A lot of the audience was young, just out of college and riding the tails of the tech industry. And then there was the lull."

About the only remaining pure comedy venue doling out stage time was the Hideout, created by Sean Hill, an improviser who had performed with Monk's Night Out, in the late '90s in a Congress Avenue storefront.

I had started an Austin offshoot of Gag Reflex, and we never had trouble getting stage time at the Hideout. Between 2000 and 2004, we performed most of our shows there. There were a few other improv and sketch groups around, notably Well Hung Jury and the very successful Latino Comedy Project (which hosted its own small festival until 2005).

On the stand-up side, Cap City rolled on but was mainly a venue for touring national performers. Just a few years after the outsized success of the first Big Stinkin' festival, Austin's comedy scene seemed almost dormant.

Growing by Bounds

But signs of new life were stirring. In 2002, Jeremy Sweetlamb (then Jeremy Lamb of Well Hung Jury — he and his wife, Caitlin Sweet, combined their surnames when they wed last summer) took stock of the city's comedy scene. He had volunteered with the Big Stinkin' Improv Festival in high school, and he thought Austin should take another shot at a comedy fest, this time more humble and measured. Now headed into its 11th year, Sweetlamb's Out of Bounds Comedy Festival features improv, sketch and stand-up comedy in half a dozen venues each Labor Day weekend.

Sweetlamb is proud of how Out of Bounds helped bring new talent to Austin's comedy scene. He notes that Asaf Ronen, a key force at Austin's Institution Theatre, came from New York to perform at Out of Bounds and then decided to move here. The first place that the Hurricane Katrina refugees who would open Coldtowne Theatre here performed was at the festival. Future members of The Frank Mills came from Chicago.

But there was still a problem: In the early 2000s, Austin's improvisers had few places to play. Even Out of Bounds and Wafflefest — a weekend event featuring improv competitions and, yes, waffles — were cloistered in the Hideout.

Then, in 2004, Andy Crouch, an improviser who had worked with Hill in the Hideout's house troupe, the Heroes of Comedy, returned to Austin from San Francisco improv workshops with renewed energy and motivation.

"The Hideout was the only still-active theater at that point, but even the Hideout wasn't doing more than one or two shows a weekend," Crouch recalls. "Sean needed someone to help manage the space and asked me if I was interested, which I absolutely was."

Crouch created a new show on Friday nights that got two groups of improvisers to do back-to-back sets and then hang out together. He contacted dormant improvisers, imploring them to get back on stage. Hill credits Crouch with something important: changing Austin's improv scene from a venue-based model to a cross-pollinated troupe model.

"I spent a couple years in college living in co-ops, and I love the idea of intentional communities, people coming together to elevate a common cause and take ownership over the process of making it happen," Crouch explains. "And improv is such a collaborative art form that trying to work together and organize ourselves according to those same principles seemed like an obvious move."

He formed the Austin Improv Collective to raise awareness of improvisational theater through performance, teaching and community outreach. The collective spawned more improvisers and, thus, more groups.

For the first time since I'd moved here, it became difficult for my sketch group to get stage time at the Hideout. Fortunately, there are now more venues. Joining the Hideout are the Coldtowne Theater and The New Movement Theater (which breakaway Coldtowne co-founder Chris Trew started). Original Heroes of Comedy co-director Shana Merlin is teaching improvisation at Salvage Vanguard Theatre, and members of The Institution are performing and teaching improv in South Austin. Even venues such as the Alamo Drafthouse theaters and the Highball sometimes host groups.

Merlin estimates there were 185 groups in Austin in 2009 and she's sure there are more now. Her classes, for example, knock out a new troupe each month.

Stand-up surge

Meanwhile, the stand-up scene has been making strides of its own. I recall a time when it seemed as if the Velveeta Room and Cap City were the only places Austinites could get open mike time. Now it can be hard to get time on those stages. The Velveeta Room, for instance, has an online forum at which up to 60 comics will volley for half that many five-minute slots — and the lists for each date open four weeks in advance.

I have attended (and sporadically performed at) weekly open mikes at bars including North Austin's Homer's and at java slingers such as Kick Butt Coffee, which held one at each of its locations until the Triangle shop closed down. LastGas, a clearinghouse for Austin's stand-up community, lists 14 weekly open mikes — there's at least one someplace in town every night.

"There is a boom, and it has been a calculated effort and I'm very proud of that," Matt Bearden says. "It hasn't happened by accident."

He was one of those Austin comics who fled for L.A. He headed out there to act, although he confesses he really wanted to do stand-up. Disillusioned by that city's open mikes, he returned to Austin with the idea that he would hone his act and then head back.

"But what happened, interestingly, is that things started getting much better here and I started realizing that this is a much better scene to be in," he says. That's when it occurred to him that Austin could be a destination hub for stand-up comedy.

"I don't expect it to ever compete with L.A. or New York, but I don't know why it can't compete with Boston or Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco — some of these other cities that have secondary comedy scenes," he explains.

Bearden and other touring comics proselytize Austin to performers they meet on the road, which attracts top talent to the city. "We were always importing creative people, but they weren't very good comics. We were getting high-school players instead of junior college transfers. Now we're getting the junior college transfers," he says.

Cap City's Margie Coyle attributes some of those transfers to the growing prestige of the Funniest Person in Austin contest (Bearden is a past winner), which has grown from 45 contestants in its first year to 180 today and showcases stand-ups for Comedy Central and other industry players. "If you get into the contest and you move into the semifinals, you've got a good shot at being on somebody's radar," she says. I judged a round of the current contest (the 27th) and I can attest to the quality of contestants.

Meanwhile, events including SXSW and Fun, Fun, Fun Fest are increasingly adding comedy to their lineups. Coldtowne's annual Sketch Fest will bring performers including Paul F. Tompkins to Austin over Memorial Day weekend. And the open mikes? Coyle says stand-up comedy can be a cheap form of entertainment for bar owners and predicts that's only going to grow.

Reaching for the Moon

The next logical step seems to be a festival on the scale of Moontower.

"There's a great deal of momentum in the comic and improv community here in Austin," says Jim Ritts, executive director of the Paramount Theatre and one of the festival's organizers. "I think that is reflective of a renaissance in comedy in North America."

Ritts knows that Moontower, like the Big Stinkin' festival, is starting out, well, big. But he thinks there's an accelerating curve on how long it takes festivals to hit their strides. He points to SXSW.

"At that time, it took 25 years to grow to its size. The ACL Festival took four or five years to grow to its size. Our goal is within three to five years to be the second-largest comedy festival in North America, second only to Montreal."

The Austin comedy players I talked to are unanimous in their enthusiasm for our comedy scene. Moontower will shine a spotlight on that scene, and that has people excited.

"It's never been better," Bearden says. "And I'm so anxious to find out what happens on April 29. When it's packed up and gone and the banners are gone, what happens next?"

Contact Dale Roe at 912-5923. Twitter: @djroe

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