Lucas Molandes is a comic, interrupted
Just when it looked like the Austinite was going to become a comedy star, he stepped out of the game. Now he's trying to find his way back.
Lucas Molandes is alone on stage, and it's not going well.
It's a Friday night at the Velveeta Room, the tiny Sixth Street comedy club, and Molandes is trying to coax laughs from a few dozen strangers.
Austin casual in jeans, plaid shirt and a hoodie, Molandes, 30, sips a Lone Star as his shaggy dark hair threatens to fall over his tired eyes. Leaning back on a stool, he looks anything but nervous. He's done this hundreds of times. And played in front of much bigger crowds. And appeared on Comedy Central.
But none of that is helping him tonight as he plays a small club that is famed for its tough crowds.
A series of jokes about conjoined twins falls flat. A riff on drug testing draws only a few laughs.
A quizzical look on his face, Molandes stops in mid-joke.
"Are you guys enjoying this, or am I annoying you?" he asks.
A few give him a hand, but a woman in the second row shouts: "Annoying."
"Annoying? Really?" he answers. "Well, you guys better laugh, or it's going to get worse."
A few years back, not many in the Austin comedy scene would've expected to see Molandes still scuffling around town.
Molandes had the look of somebody destined for bigger things. Headlining at the famous clubs in New York or Los Angeles, HBO specials, sitcom offers ... they all seemed possible.
Instead, Molandes is living with his parents, getting small payoffs at local clubs and making $9.50 an hour as a part-time warehouse clerk to stay afloat financially.
"When I started doing comedy (in 2007), Lucas was the 'lead comic' (locally) just because he's a very unique talent in the Austin comedy scene," said Albert Im, a stand-up comic and one of the founders of lastgascomedy.com, a Web site devoted to the Austin comedy scene.
Almost from the moment Molandes started doing stand-up in 2004, his talent was obvious, said Dana Smith, manager of the Velveeta Room.
When newcomers show up for open mike night, Smith said, he's usually not listening too closely until someone impresses him with their stage presence and audience reaction.
"When I get those things, that's when I stop and listen, and Lucas had that immediately," Smith said.
It can be futile to try to predict who will make it in the stand-up comedy world — "To make it in comedy, you have to be in the right place at the right time, holding the right thing in your hand," Smith says — but almost from the beginning, Molandes set himself apart with his ability to do more than just tell jokes, Smith said.
"The best thing about a comic is if you've got something to say. Like (late comedians) Bill Hicks and George Carlin, they had something to say about society and the world. And that's Lucas," Smith said. "He has this very dark, crazy view of the world through his life, and that's what makes a great comic."
Molandes is someone about whom a talent scout "will immediately say, 'That guy is brilliant, he's fresh, he's sharp, edgy,' " said Margie Coyle, a co-owner of Capitol City Comedy Club, Austin's biggest comedy venue. "He's so young, and he just seems so jaded and embittered. But that's what makes him so intriguing. Where did this come from?"
A necessary creative outlet
The comedy part, at least, seems to have come naturally for Molandes.
When he moved to Austin in 1997 after graduating from high school in Nacogdoches, he had no intention of launching a career in comedy.
After a few years of low-paying jobs, Molandes enrolled at the University of Texas, where he studied architectural engineering. But Molandes said he felt creatively stifled; he found himself "sitting on the bus, writing in my notebook, not sure what to do with it."
"I had this strong feeling of 'I need to get on stage.' I didn't get into comedy to be famous; I just did it because it was necessary," he said.
His first experience was an open mike night at the Velveeta Room in 2004, and when he got on stage, "I forgot everything I was going to talk about," Molandes said. "But walking back to the car, it's the highest feeling I've ever had in comedy."
Molandes was hooked. He dropped out of UT, and in about eight months, he was being paid (modestly) as a featured act at the Velveeta Room. In less than a year he was headlining. He was a finalist in the Funniest Person in Austin contest, hosted by Capitol City Comedy Club, three years in a row from 2005-2007.
It was shortly after the 2007 contest that he landed a spot at the Montreal Just for Laughs Comedy Festival, one of the world's most prestigious comedy events.
That led to one of the most coveted gigs in the stand-up world: air time on Comedy Central. For Molandes, that took the form of the "Live at Gotham" series, which he taped in March 2008.
But to this point, that national exposure hasn't led to financial success.
There are a lot of reasons for that, and they are as complicated as Molandes himself.
'It's hard to put that behind you'
In his act, Molandes sometimes does a bit about the children's book "The Little Engine That Could," imagining how life might have gone downhill for the engine after "his one big day."
The story is, of course, a metaphor for Molandes' comedy career.
He played the prestigious Montreal festival, he got his shot on Comedy Central — but he hasn't been able to sustain that national profile.
Some of that is attributable to the vagaries of the business, but some of it is traceable to a roughly yearlong sabbatical from stand-up that Molandes imposed on himself.
The break from comedy came as he dealt with some "personal life situations," including a painful ending to a relationship, and it came just after he had achieved some national notice with his Comedy Central appearance.
"The sad thing was (the Comedy Central show) came at a time when I was halfheartedly doing comedy," Molandes said. "When your heart's not really in anything ... when everything feels kind of dull, it's hard to put that behind you."
So instead of trying to cash in on his "big break," Molandes, who had in February 2008 moved to suburban New Jersey just outside New York, stopped going on stage.
Instead he got a job at, of all places, CNN in New York, where he, of all things, typed transcripts of interviews.
Living in New Jersey, Molandes said, his life became take the train into New York, take the train back home, and then sit "writing short stories and drinking in the kitchen of a garage apartment."
While he did that, the stand-up comedy world was moving ahead without him.
"I was aware it could affect getting booked on stage ... But none of that mattered," Molandes said. "It's sort of like a fundamentalist view of comedy for me; if I can't do it the right way, then I don't want to do it at all."
And so he basically didn't do it all, other than a few sporadic shows, from March 2008 until August 2009.
Molandes moved back to Austin and into his parents' South Austin home in September 2008. He took a job in the Macy's warehouse in October 2008, but he wasn't ready to return to the stage.
"I believe the main reason I didn't continue doing comedy at that point was because I still didn't know what I was getting at, and I didn't have the passion," Molandes said. "I hadn't really felt motivated about comedy in so long that I thought maybe the feeling would never return. I had never found anything in life that felt as right as comedy, and it was scary that I had become so numb to it."
Molandes did some reviews of comedy CDs for lastgascomedy.com, and that helped him make his re-entry into the Austin stand-up scene.
"Since most people figured I'd quit doing comedy, I felt as if they had no expectations of me, and that's when I perform my best," Molandes said.
His first time back on stage was an open mike night at the Velveeta Room in August 2009. From there, after about two months of doing open mike events, Molandes landed a spot featuring at Capitol City Comedy Club in November.
"I sort of just 'physical therapied' myself back into comedy," Molandes said. "It wasn't until I felt like everything had just calmed down inside of me that I could focus on (comedy) again — this time hopefully in a more focused and disciplined kind of way."
On college loans and dreamcatchers
Lucas Molandes is alone on stage, and it's going great.
He's back at the Velveeta Room, headlining on a Saturday night. It's just one night after his rough Friday show, but this time Molandes has it flowing.
The crowd is hanging on his every word. He draws howls with a take on student loans ("If you don't graduate, you shouldn't have to pay back your student loans. As far as I'm concerned, they bet on the wrong horse.") And his observation about the treatment of American Indians ("They made the dreamcatcher, but the one dream they couldn't catch was the American dream") draws sustained laughter.
Molandes is in the moment, his delivery crisp, his timing perfect, his material smart.
This is what he lives for. This is the reason he sifts through his psyche for material, the reason he keeps showing up and performing comedy, even when the money and crowds are small.
"It's where I belong. It's my environment," Molandes said. "If I didn't have comedy ... I wouldn't have any creativity. At least this way maybe I can still lie to myself for a couple of years that it's going to take off."
The perils of being a 'smart artist'
At least some of Molandes' struggle is the classic comedian's dilemma: The fight between having something meaningful to say versus just getting a laugh. Doing the set you want versus doing what will get you bookings. Art versus commerce.
"One of my earliest jokes was that I wanted to be a philosopher, but I got into comedy so people would take me seriously," Molandes said, and there is truth behind the joke. Comedians can be deadly serious about the business of being funny, about trying to find a way to stir both laughter and thought in the audience.
That's the path Molandes has taken, but it comes with risks. Though his approach wins him admiration from his peers — "He's one of the comedians that all the other comedians really aspire to," Coyle said — it doesn't always help with club bookings and other commercial aspects of the business.
Matt Bearden, a veteran Austin stand-up comic and comedy writer, said Molandes faces the challenges of being a "smart artist."
"How do you do what you want to do, and put it into the structure and confines that we've been given?" Bearden said. "There are a lot of dumb comics who might financially be more successful than Lucas ever will be, but he may have a longer success, and a lot more success, in terms of respect.
Of course, that leads to the question: What does Molandes want from his career? What does success look like for him?
"Just being able to do this consistently for a living, being able to pull in enough money to support myself. And always being creative," Molandes said. "It definitely means something to me, but I don't know if that's because I'm attaching delusions of grandeur that I'm going to have something to say that nobody's ever said before and it's going to be amazing."
There are some indications that Molandes is getting back on the national comedy radar. JoAnn Grigioni, vice president of specials and talent for Comedy Central network, describes herself as "a really big personal fan of Lucas. He is super-talented and unique." And Molandes recently was among a handful of Austin comics invited to try out for spots in the Montreal Just for Laughs Comedy Festival, and for a spot on "The Late Show with David Letterman."
If Molandes does "make it" in the traditional sense, it will create an interesting irony: A lot of his act comes from his personal struggle. So if he does become a comedy star, will that change who he is on stage?
"Part of the good thing about not having achieved success, like a high level of success, is it gives you something to work for," Molandes said. "If I make it, then what happens? I'm just going to be a dude who made it. Now what do I talk about?"
The stand-up code
Such big-picture questions, however, aren't front and center for a comedian when things are going badly on stage, as they were for Molandes on that recent Friday night at the Velveeta Room.
The look on Molandes' face suggests he'd like to toss the microphone on the floor and stalk off stage. But his stand-up code is clear: You put in your time. You finish your set.
So Molandes sits on his stool and looks out at the small — and unimpressed — crowd.
What can he say that will make them laugh, and be true to his vision of comedy, and maybe explore a bigger truth?
He pauses, microphone in hand. A half-smile appears on his face.
Then he moves on to the next joke.
This month, you can watch Lucas Molandes and other local comedians compete in the 25th annual ‘Funniest Person in Austin' contest. The contest — with the largest field ever of more than 120 comedians — is under way at Capitol City Comedy Club, 8120 Research Blvd., Suite 100, with the preliminary rounds concluding this Monday and Tuesday night. (Molandes is scheduled to perform Tuesday.) The first-round winners advance to the semifinals, which will include judges from Comedy Central. The semifinals are scheduled for May 10-12 and the finals for May 17. Tickets are available at www.capcitycomedy.com.