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They'll be here all night: Comedy's back in Austin, but pandemic recovery still goes on

Omar L. Gallaga
Special to the American-Statesman
Ms. Pat performs for the Moontower Comedy Club Series at the Paramount Theater on Dec. 4, 2020. After pandemic delays to its annual comedy festival and a handful of limited-capacity special shows like that one, Moontower's marquee event will return to Austin venues this week.

Austin, are you ready to laugh? 

(Sound of distant crickets.) 

Ahem. Austin, are you ready to laugh — again? With comedians on stage and two-drink minimums and super-loud crowds, like we did back in 2019 and a couple months in early 2020? 

It’s been a long, surprisingly busy year and a half for some of Austin’s funniest people, the performers, writers and even behind-the-scenes producers and bookers who make local audiences gasp for air between hysterical giggles and diaphragm-deep belly laughs. Ever since acts began canceling performances weeks before South by Southwest 2020, Austin’s comedy scene has felt the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, much like the city’s music and film industries

This summer, Austin has struggled with a surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations, a dark turn right as many in the local entertainment industry had expected things to get back to normal. However, leaders and performers at Austin comedy institutions — including Esther’s Follies, ColdTowne Theater, Moontower Comedy Festival and Cap City Comedy Club, which shuttered last September and is reopening at the Domain this fall — say live comedy is alive and well, even if there have been some big changes. 

Esther’s only began performing at its iconic Sixth Street theater again in mid-June, after a long in-person hiatus. In the interim, the 45-year-old comedy group produced comedy videos for online Patreon supporters. 

Related:You think you're an Austinite, but have you been to Esther's Follies?

Moontower last year postponed its huge annual festival, which now runs Sept. 22-25 with headliners including Margaret Cho, Dave Attell and Maria Bamford. But the festival’s organizers programmed a series of comedy shows with COVID safety protocols at the Paramount Theatre starting last November that included big names like Bill Burr and Michelle Wolf. 

ColdTowne, active in Austin since 2005, has conducted improv classes, as well as provided diversity training Zoom classes for corporations, while federal loans and grants have helped keep the group afloat. ColdTowne lost both of its performance venues and is in the process of acquiring a new home theater.  

“It was profoundly heartbreaking,” said Rachel Madorsky, who runs ColdTowne with partners Dave Buckman, Tauri Laws-Phillips and Justin York.  

“We knew it was inevitable, but it was really rough. But we’re always making plans and creating goals and structure, even when it’s bad, just to help stay optimistic and carry us forward,” she said. This year, ColdTowne plans to start doing live shows again, in addition to student showcases it’s already been staging. 

On a recent Tuesday afternoon, just as rehearsals wrapped up, some of the principals at Esther’s Folliws — including co-founders and performers Shannon Sedwick and Michael Shelton, magician Ray Anderson and ace Trump impressionist Ted Meredith — said they had a moment of true catharsis when the cast of about a dozen returned to a live, social-distanced audience for the first time in more than a year. 

“It made me come to tears, basically, because it was just so sweet. They’re back, and we can actually hear them,” Sedwick said. 

For that first Thursday night show in June, the audience was largely composed of supporters who’d been paying to watch Esther’s comedy online, filmed in the homes of the theater group’s cast, while the theater was closed 

“It was probably the most magical live theater performance experience I’ve had in my life,” Meredith said.  

Keeping the laughs coming 

The March 6, 2020, cancellation of SXSW — which had a large roster of comedians including Samantha Bee, Stephen Colbert, Dave Burd, Bob Odenkirk, Hannibal Burress and Pete Davidson set as speakers and SXSW Comedy performers — began a devastating year of cancellations and pivots for Austin’s comedy stages. 

During SXSW, Esther’s Follies typically goes on vacation, ceding Sixth Street to the badge-wielding crowds. “We were ready to take our vacation, and then our vacation lasted forever,” Sedwick said. 

“They announced South-by canceling the Friday before our last show,” Meredith said. “I was backstage thinking, ‘This might be our last show for a while.’” 

Sixth Street vaudeville show Esther's Follies returned to live performances this summer.

As the city locked down, musical comedy performers, magicians, stand-up comics and  improv and sketch comics fought off boredom and financial straits by seeking laughs online, launching podcasts and Zoom comedy shows. When Esther’s Follies launched an online Patreon crowdfunding campaign, cast members had no idea the troupe would end up producing more than 180 videos, using bathrooms, home offices and bedrooms as stages for topical sketches about the presidential election and Dr. Anthony Fauci. 

Odell Lyons-Harris, who’s been performing stand-up comedy in Central Texas for about five years, stayed home and began posting up YouTube comedy videos under his “Wreckless Comedy” brand.  

“I just switched over to video to keep the creative stuff going,” he said. But he added, “There’s nothing like being on stage and seeing the audience react to whether it’s a good joke or bad joke.”  

Lyons-Harris worries that the delta variant of COVID will send comics back to virtual performances just as he hoped to return to the road with a mini tour this fall. His plans included incorporating some of the videos he created into his stage act. 

“If, God forbid, we go back to lockdown, I feel like it won’t stop this time. At least we know this time what’s going to happen,” Lyons-Harris said. “Everybody would just switch to virtual open mics.” 

Stand-up comics like Steve Treviño, who relocated from Los Angeles with his wife and son back to his native Texas, began to perform outdoor shows, including drive-in theater sets where cars honked horns instead of applauding. 

 “I didn’t realize how much I personally needed the stage and the people and to express myself,” Treviño said in an interview last October. “It was just a moment of, ‘Oh yeah, I remember why I love this so much.’” 

The comic, who now lives in New Braunfels, filmed a stand-up special in Texas called “My Life in Quarantine” that included the recording of an episode of the popular podcast “Steve & Captain Evil,” which he hosts with his wife, Renae.  

Comedians like Treviño managed to dodge COVID on the road, eliminating after-show interactions with audience members and masking up before and after their sets. 

Meanwhile, efforts by talent bookers (including the organizers of Moontower Comedy Festival) drew dormant stand-up comics from cities like L.A. and New York onto Texas stages. Treviño said he knows other comics who were considering permanent moves to Texas because of the opportunities here. 

Then there's prolific podcaster Joe Rogan, who moved his recording studio to town in the past year. He also performed in town with Dave Chappelle, who did a series of outdoor shows in Austin starting this past winter. Some of the dates were called off after Chappelle contracted COVID-19 in January.  

Attendees fill out release forms before entering a Dave Chappelle comedy show at Stubb's on Nov. 17, 2020. They also were screened for COVID-19 before admittance.

In November, Moontower began showcasing national acts at the Paramount Theatre by turning the 1,200-seat theater into a socially distanced venue hosting 300 audience members. Comedians wanted work, “but in a really safe place,” said Colleen McGarr, booker for Moontower. “People could still see these giant stars who are massive club sellouts within a super-safe space." 

One thing that helped that effort, Moontower chief programming officer Lietza Brass said, was that comics typically travel light.  

Related:Moontower Comedy Fest headliner Margaret Cho on her comedy children and 'Face/Off'

“Comedians were ready to come back to work much earlier than other types of art, like music, which is a more complicated production and requires more people,” she said. “A comedian can come with just a mic and a stool and be very comfortable.” 

For COVID-19 protocols at the Paramount shows, a new online seating reservation system was put in place; audience arrivals were staggered to avoid clustering; a nurse was on staff to take people’s temperatures; and cashless payments were the norm.  

Fans “were more than ready to come back," Brass said. "Even with the audience being spaced out, I think people were laughing for three.”  

As of Aug. 13, the Paramount now requires masks when not eating, as well as proof of a COVID-19 vaccination or a negative COVID test within 48 hours of a show for all audience members 12 and older. 

Looking ahead 

Some comedians are known to possess dark temperaments, their moody inner complainer fueling the fires of sarcasm and humorous observation. But the comedic talents and producers we spoke to for this story are largely optimistic and excited about more live comedy in Austin, even as the pandemic continues to loom over businesses, many of which have spent months dancing on the edge of closure. 

Brad Grossman, co-owner of Cap City Comedy Club, said the city of Austin has issued a construction permit for the planned Domain location, and the club is “still on target to reopen this fall.”  

Matt Bearden performs at Cap City Comedy Club on Research Boulevard in 2016. The venue's owners plan to open a new location at the Domain this fall.

“While moving to a new space has been a challenge, nothing can be compared to owning a performance arts business in the middle of a pandemic,” Grossman said. “We’re just happy to have a home and to be reopening our beloved Cap City.” 

The performers at Esther’s Follies said that the long break from live performances allowed the group to revisit its show as a whole for the first time in many years, and to upgrade the audio and video in its theater after broken pipes from the February winter storms caused flooding in the space. The adjacent Velv Comedy Lounge space also opened its doors in early June and has had sold-out audiences for its stand-up comedy shows since. 

Ray Anderson, who has three new magic acts he’s been eager to perform in front of the Esther’s Follies audience, said that even though comedy in Austin came to a “dead halt” in a way that was similar to the immediate aftermath of 9/11 in 2001, the new shows are working well. “I feel like we’ve done it right,” Anderson said. “We waited until it was safe for everyone to come back out and kept the group together.” 

ColdTowne is cooking up a 15th anniversary show, set for Oct. 14-16. "We will be requiring proof of vaccination or a recent test result to enter any of these events, as well as requiring audiences to wear masks" at least until Austin is out of Stage 5 safety guidelines, ColdTowne executive producer Dave Buckman said.

The group, like Esther’s Follies, managed to ride out the past 18 months of the pandemic without laying off any staff. “I would say it has been rough, but we’re so much stronger as a theater company now, I think,” Buckman said. 

Moontower Comedy Festival is still on track for this week, with a wide range of podcast tapings and showcases planned, including recent additions like the “Your Mom’s House” podcast, Michael Kosta and Dulcé Sloan from “The Daily Show,” Robin Tran and a premiere of the documentary “Joy Ride” with Dana Gould and Bobcat Goldthwait in attendance. “We have not been pulling teeth for bookings this year at all,” McGarr said. “It’s been super cinchy. Thank God Moontower is going to happen again. People want to get out and laugh.”  

Cap City Comedy Club’s Grossman said he’s been encouraged by seeing how well live comedy is working in cities such as Philadelphia, where he saw Mark Normand perform recently. 

“The energy in that room ... I’d hate to see us lose that because of this aggressive delta variant. There’s nothing like being in a room with 250 other people and laughing as one,” he said. “We could all use a little more comedy in our lives right now.” 

Moontower Comedy Festival

The annual comedy festival makes its big in-person return on Sept. 22-25 at venues including the Paramount and Stateside theaters, Antone’s, the Creek and the Cave, the Green Jay, the Parish, Parker Jazz Club, Stubb’s, the Sunset Room, the Velv Comedy Lounge and the Venue ATX. All festival attendees must show either proof of full COVID-19 vaccination or a negative test result taken within 48 hours of the event. Go to austin360.com to read Eric Webb's interviews with headliners Margaret Cho and Bob the Drag Queen. Find more information about the festival at austintheatre.org/moontower-comedy.