Comedian Ron White watched from his home in Atlanta two weekends ago as his home state of Texas got pounded by Hurricane Harvey. Then he did something about it. The comedian partnered with Jim Ritts, CEO of the Paramount and State theaters; Turk and Christy Pipkin; John O’Connell; and the Moontower Comedy festival and decided to help in the best way he knows how: making people laugh.
A few years back, we celebrated the tenth anniversary of Fun Fun Fun Fest, the event’s final go round with its original producers before Graham Williams and much of his crew broke off and started Sound on Sound Fest. To mark the occasion we complied a comprehensive oral history of the fest.
Folded into the tales of battles with the city, rock star divas and French onion soup, was this little gem about from 2008. At the time, FFF Fest was a rag tag event produced on a shoestring budget in Waterloo Park. Producer Graham Williams felt bad about his event displacing the homeless people who made the park their year round residence, so he hired some of them to work as his grounds crew.
It was the first year the festival included comedy and they were excited to welcome the Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job. And then this happened.
Max Gregor: (Tim and Eric) were awesome but also kind of a disaster. There was a box of their merch that was delivered to festival grounds and somehow it was dropped off literally in the middle of the park. Just a box sitting on the ground … while we were building. It was kind of like 60 feet away from the stairs that led up to the merch area so I think people that saw it were like, “Oh that’s somebody who’s setting up merch.” For a couple days it sat there.
So finally we opened up the doors for the festival and people came through and a few hours later Tim and Eric show up and they’re like, “Hey, it’s kind of crazy but there’s just tons of people wearing our merch everywhere. Have you been selling a lot?” And we were like, “Your merch?” Rosa Madriz:All the homeless folks. They left it out … and everyone who was helping clean the park was wearing all their merch around the park. Max Gregor: Tim Heidecker was standing there as I was having this conversation with his manager being like, “Yeah it all must have gotten stolen and it was our fault,” and the manager trying to be super cool about it … with the artist just standing there silently. Just staring at me. Like what a (expletive) idiot. Later Adi Anand, who then worked at now-defunt website the Austinist, interviewed Tim and Eric in a swank little lounge area set up by Prototype Vintage. Adi Anand (Director of client services): (They) got super fired up in their characters and one of the Prototype chairs was flipped over into the creek behind the (lounge). I had to go down and like bargain with some of the folks who lived in the park who claimed that to be their new furniture.
By Wes Eichenwald Special to the American-Statesman
The Velv, aka the Velveeta Room, is Austin’s comedy analogue to the Continental Club. Twenty-nine years after its founding, it’s become a local institution: a performer’s club, intimate without inducing claustrophobia, it’s definitely one of the classier joints on the carnival midway that is Dirty Sixth. Matt Ingebretson — an Austin native living in LA who, besides standup, writes, makes amusing YouTube videos and has a deal with Comedy Central for a sitcom, “Corporate” — is there emceeing a Thursday early-evening Austin Towers showcase during the Moontower Comedy Festival, with a dozen performers doing sets averaging about seven minutes apiece.
Some use their seven minutes more effectively than others. Brassy, stalwart local fixture Kath Barbadoro, with a date to open two nights later for Patton Oswalt at the Paramount, starts out with some inevitable remarks like “I like weed” but really energizes the room with some grade-A lines like “I’ve gone on so many dates in Austin that I know how to brew my own beer now.” Fellow Austinite Bob Khosravi, 35, bearded and cranky, gets laughs with rants like “I don’t like things if they make things easier for younger people. They don’t deserve it.”
If you spend enough time in comedy clubs – and I did three straight Moontower nights, seeing headliners Jay Pharoah, Colin Quinn, Margaret Cho and Oswalt, plus that showcase – you’ll realize the parallels with the music scene. Not just Austin’s, but any music scene. Instead of notes, comics play truths. Or at least, their particular truths. Some routines play like Coltrane-style jazz (solid, smoothly flowing), others like punk rock (aggressive, no prisoners taken), others like funk or salsa. And the 12-person showcase? That’s just another record-company promo sampler given out at South by Southwest; explore further if you’re interested, otherwise toss it.
The obvious musical analogue for Pharoah is freestyle rap; he’s done some of the actual stuff himself, and he streams his consciousness as he stalks back and forth across the stage Paramount stage, discussing Uber and drugs and President Donald Trump and marriage (“Marriage is hard. God knows it’s hard — that’s why he ain’t married”) and flowing from one to the other of the scores of impressions he’s famous for: Obama, Denzel, Eddie Murphy and Eddie’s recently deceased brother Charlie, a mentor of his whose death he mourns. “Be gangsta!” he advises towards the end.
Friday night over at the State, Quinn, a 57-year-old Irish-American from Brooklyn, holds forth with his working-class, self-taught philosophy, squinting into the lights like a mongrel cross between Cliff from “Cheers,” a vaudeville comic and a crusty old police sergeant in a 1940s Preston Sturges movie. Quinn titles his show “Bully,” and though he touches on the schoolyard anecdotes you’d expect, he veers off into the roots and history of bullying, from the Greeks (“Socrates: the passive-aggressive friend’) and Romans through to communism, capitalism and our current dysfunctional world.
What kind of music does Quinn’s monologue suggest? Garage rock with literate lyrics, maybe, or an experimental post-punk cult band from the ‘80s. Prowling the stage like Burgess Meredith’s Mickey, the aging boxing trainer in “Rocky,” he defines intellectual bullying in addition to the physical kind, and bemoans the shortage of democracy in even a supposedly democratic society: “Work is a dictatorship. Family is tribal. Traffic, a failed social experiment. Then you’re asleep for eight hours. You maybe experience democracy about two and a half hours a day.”
By the end, when the audience, rising, applauds vigorously, you realize that even considering everything, and despite all his faults, there’s something noble about Quinn’s quixotic endeavor to explain why things are the way they are. You also realize that this former “Saturday Night Live” news anchor, though he may have been a gigantic jerk at certain points in his past, may fit the living definition of “too smart for his own good.” Colin Quinn: the last of the moralists. In 20 years, he’s going to make a great old man.
As with musicians, the best comedians make it look effortless, a grand illusion of ease and simplicity. This was certainly the case with Cho and Oswalt in their back-to-back headlining sets at the Paramount on Saturday, Moontower’s closing night. About 80 percent of Cho’s set can’t be mentioned in a newspaper; let’s just say that she mounted the stage in ultra-high heels and black leather shorts, making a point to discuss her outfit and its effect on her, and things spiraled away from there. Cho is the extrovert’s extrovert, even for a comedian, and after her riffs on celebrity feuds and one-nighters, and extended bits on bodily functions and malfunctions, you felt directly wired into her thought process in real time. Her musical parallel: gutsy mainstream pop, probably.
Finally came a brilliantly woven set from Oswalt to a packed house, likely Moontower’s hottest ticket this year. If you wanted to design the perfect thinking man’s standup comic, it might look and sound a lot like Oswalt, who showed quicksilver wit and impeccable timing in his interactions with the audience (“Everyone here is well-adjusted!” he complained. Nothing to work with!)
The actor/comedian took the stage just one day after the first anniversary of his wife Michelle McNamara’s untimely death. Everyone waited for him to talk about it, which he did towards the end (it’s hard to follow that kind of material with jokes about fast food).
Expressing his disgust with platitudes like “I wish you strength on your healing journey,” Oswalt, who described his experience as more of a “numb slog,” spoke movingly about breaking the news to his young daughter, about suddenly having to be the point person at her school, and his feeling of unreality about it all.
In the end even this, too, is great material for standup. Oswalt was an outstanding comedian before his wife’s death; now, with his venture into widower standup, he may be something close to inspirational. To me, it sounded for all the world like one of the better classical symphonies.
By Wes Eichenwald Special to the American-Statesman
If stand-up comedy in America is an expression of the national psyche, one problem in particular these days is afflicting its practitioners: How do you make jokes about a reality whose very possibility was, until very recently, widely considered to be itself a joke?
Whatever your political preferences – and yes, the vast majority of stand-up comics lean to the left – the Trump Hangover must be acknowledged to be as real as the current situation in Washington. To comedians, this is one elephant in the room that everyone has to talk about, but even for the more politically vocal standups, the risk of Trump overload and burnout seems ever-present.
At least from my observations at the just-concluded Moontower Comedy Festival, President Donald Trump is mentioned, more often than not, with weariness by the comic near the beginning of their set, more out of obligation than burning desire. But most seem to feel the elephant must, at least perfunctorily, be addressed.
At Thursday night’s Austin Towers showcase, where a dozen comics performed for an average seven minutes apiece, Kerri Lendo compared Trump negatively to Bill Clinton: She preferred the latter because at least, she said, Clinton “was a fun pervert.”
The ever-popular standup topics of online dating, sex, drugs, rude bodily functions and the comic’s physical flaws were mentioned both more often and more enthusiastically than the present occupant of the White House.
“How do you feel about the president?” Matt Ingebretson asked, emceeing a Thursday night showcase at the Velveeta Room. “I just don’t think anyone should ever have children again…”
“Why did Trump win?” asked cranky, middle-aged barstool philosopher Colin Quinn at the Stateside on Friday. “Trump is the manifestation of all of us, for the past eight years,” arguing past each other on social media. “There’s going to be another civil war,” he said. “Instead of the blue vs. the gray, it’s going to be Dunkin’ Donuts vs. Starbucks.”
At the top of her Paramount showcase, Margaret Cho speculated that Trump was “our punishment for everything that didn’t happen during Y2K,” adding, “I’m not sure if Trump is an alien.” Echoing a few other comics’ thoughts, she applauded legalizing marijuana but said it wasn’t enough to cope during a Trump presidency: “They should legalize heroin and meth, too!”
Many comics alluded to a feeling of unreality, or of living in an alternate universe; Patton Oswalt, whose Twitter feed is chock-full of anti-Trump tweets, played with this theme with his usual adeptness, at one point wondering if a Trump presidency was just a hallucination induced by his grieving his wife’s recent death.
But perhaps Jay Pharoah had the most adroit adaptation of the theme, opening his Thursday set at the Paramount: “It has been rough as (expletive) …I cannot believe this actually happened … the Verizon man switched to Sprint!” He later imitated Trump, though it sounded more like an imitation of Alec Baldwin’s Trump impression.
Although for professional comics, Trump has long been a gift that keeps on giving, you do get the sense that most of them would just as well prefer to take the gift back to the Returns and Exchanges counter, with receipt in hand.
You know Margaret Cho is an iconoclast. You know she is merciless and brave and gives zero flips. You may know she had a show on network television two decades before “Fresh off the Boat” became a hit. But did you know she got her comedy career started in San Francisco as part of a comedy duo with Sam Rockwell? She did. And, did you know she has made regular visits to Austin for years? She has.
Cho, who headlines Moontower Comedy Festival next weekend in Austin, has been a regular visitor to Austin, which she calls her “musical Mecca.” Not only has she recorded with singer-songwriter David Garza, her Grammy-nominated album “American Myth” includes a song called Topaz about Austin saxophonist Topaz McGarrigle, and she even recorded a song with the great Patty Griffin, whom Michael Corcoran once dubbed “The Meadowlark of Hyde Park.”
Dave Chappelle has not only been slaying comedian fans of late, he’s been throwing some damn good parties, as well. His Juke Joint parties have been hits in his home state of Ohio and outside of New Orleans over NBA All-Star Weekend. The comedian announced he will be throwing one tonight at 9 p.m. in Luck, Texas. Expect live music (including Frédéric Yonnet), laughs and a goood time. Also: NO PHONES OR CAMERAS. Seriously. Tickets are $85 and a limited number are on sale to the general public. The party pops off after Chappelle’s final show at ACL Live, with buses to Spicewood available for Juke Joint ticket holders.
Nevermind what you feared, Dave Chappelle is back and on top of his game.
When his two Netflix specials dropped recently, some worried Chappelle might not be keeping up with the times. There were tone-deaf jokes about the transgender community and rape. Those subjects aren’t off-limits in stand-up comedy, but Chappelle’s jokes weren’t worthy of the triggering. They didn’t enlighten or enliven the societal conversation. Referencing a line Chappelle told Gayle King on “CBS This Morning” recently, they didn’t highlight an “irreconcilable moment of paradox.”
With those imperfect advertisements, some may have been skeptical about Chappelle’s form. But those sets were almost two years old (the Austin shows edited into episode two were from April 2015). Chappelle proved at his Wednesday night late show, amidst a sold-out weeklong run at ACL Live, that he’s as sharp as ever.
He didn’t walk close to the fire from his Netflix specials, instead rallying the crowd from the moment he took the stage. Chappelle proved he is a uniter, not a divider. And nothing brings us together quite like comedy.
Maybe it was simply a nod to the West, but Chappelle seemed aware of the ripples created by his recent specials and the bullseye-on-your-back role of comedian in world of social media and instant reaction, taking the stage in a black cowboy hat to Bon Jovi’s “Wanted: Dead or Alive,” following a fire set from opener Donnell Rawlings. (We sadly missed former Austinite Ashley Barnhill.)
His jokes weren’t uncomfortable but he didn’t play it safe, as the self-proclaimed feminist proved with a self-aware bit about how the feminist movement needed a man in charge, a joke that required a deft touch and a strong sense of absurdist vulnerability
Chappelle made news earlier this year with his great “Saturday Night Live” monologue, which aggravated and moved people with his call to give Donald Trump a chance. But, Chappellehas pumped his breaks on that one. The living legend said he had made a mistake with that plea. Trump has fallen apart and can’t do anything right, Chappelle said to raucous and relieved consensus.
The comedian suffered a train-wreck of fan interference when he visited the Paramount in 2012, when he was just starting to take swings on big stages again, but he rolled with the few interruptions and created a few of his own Wednesday night, embracing fans, not alienating or shaming them. He delivered watermelon juice to one audience member for her cocktail and sent another couple tequila shots. The relationship between performer and audience was made tighter by the lack of cell phones. On entering, attendees had to put their phones in sealed pouches that were unlocked on exiting, an awesome touch that meant no glowing phones, no selfies, no shots of Chappelle, and, the main reason, no recording. It was a touch that gave the night a retro feel, tripping back to when community was less disrupted and more organic. I would love to see the policy at every concert, movie and performing arts show.
Phones or no, Chappelle would have had the audience rapt all night, however, as he moved from easy but hilarious jokes about Bill Cosby’s “shenanigans” to more poignant societal statements about the late Emmett Till, the latter proving that not only is Chappelle back on top, he is exactly the comedian America needs in these uneasy times.
Don ye your puffy shirts. Jerry Seinfeld is bringing his act to Austin. The legendary comedian will perform at Bass Concert Hall on Jan. 13, according to Texas Performing Arts.
According to a news release, “Seinfeld has been hailed for his uncanny ability to joke about the little things in life that relate to audiences everywhere,” which sounds like how you would describe him to someone in a TV Guide article from 1989.
Tickets go on sale Sept. 30 at 10 a.m. Presale tickets are available Thursday from 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Vulcan Video has three copies of “Bee Movie” in its catalog, so make sure to rent it before anyone else in preparation.
On the “Statesman Shots” podcast last week, one of the featured stand-up comics on the annual “SheBang” show at Moontower Comedy and Oddity Festival, Maggie Maye, called the show a collection of the funniest people around… who also happen to be women.
She was right and then some when Friday night at the new and spacious 800 Congress venue she and many more stand-up comics took turns blowing minds and winning hearts with one great set after another. I wasn’t able to stick around for some the lineup’s biggest names including Janeane Garofalo and Erin Foley, but 90 minutes in as it was time to run to the David Cross taping across the street, I’d become a new fan of Jo Firestone, Debra DiGiovanni and host Greg Behrendt, sole male of the night, who kept the show moving at a brisk clip after a stellar bit about his 11-year-old daughter’s cartwheels and drinking habits.
The lineup promised surprise guests and the one I caught was the brilliant Maria Bamford who has a new Netflix show on the way next month. Even in the context of a shorter set than her usual headlining slot, she still enthralled with her therapist song, her raccoon impression and complete mastery of her physical presence on stage. Things loosened up a bit at the end as she more candidly addressed mental illness and she didn’t end as strongly as she started, but she got some of the biggest reactions of the show for her completely unique comedy and no one in the audience who was seeing her for the first time will forget her.
Firestone, who followed Bamford’s set, asked the audience morosely, “You guys ever follow Maria Bamford?” The New York comic’s intentionally shaky and questioning delivery were on point and by the end of her time, host Behrendt commented that he’s followed Bamford before too, but never that well.
DiGiovanni, a Canadian comic, seemed on a rapid-fire-delivery wavelength that took the audience a bit to adjust to, but by the end of her set about murder, sibling rivalry and junk TV, her brute-force approach was a clear winner.
Austin’s Maggie Maye, who has matured into reliably hilarious presence on the comedy scene, focused on her dating preferences (with a great “Sons of Anarchy” shoutout), the trials of having a missing tooth and and “Angry Black Woman” stereotype which she choose to lean into to great effect.
It was a great prelude to a set by “2 Dope Queens,” made up of “Daily Show” correspondent Jessica Williams and writer/comic Phoebe Robinson, whose new self-titled WNYC podcast has blown up in only four episodes. The two of them have also explored “Angry Black Woman” in their recent material, but in this performance each told stories in their collaborative conversational style, one of them involving a memorable and disgusting oral sex incident. All was going perfectly in the well-received set until a woman in the audience started shouting out about Passover, and then shouting something offensive that wasn’t clearly audible, causing Williams and Robinson to be taken aback as they closed their set. They handled it well, but come on, Austin. No heckling.
800 Congress was packed; fans even sat on the floor along the side of the appointed chairs and no one could have been disappointed with such a consistently great lineup.
Tracy Morgan took the stage at Funny Or Die’s party at the Scoot Inn Monday night and told the crowd he was “the Desmond Tutu of entertainment.” And with that non sequitur, everyone’s crazy and dirty comedic uncle was back.
The beloved former star of “Saturday Night Live” and “30 Rock” almost died in a horrible collision with a Wal-Mart freight truck in 2014, making the night’s sponsor both ironic and on-the-nose, and Morgan spent a good portion of the first part of his set mining the accident for material. The whole time he was in a coma, he said his grandmother wore God out with her prayers, eventually inspiring the Man Upstairs to reprimand her (and Tim Tebow) for wasting his time when he had better things to do, like make sure Donald Trump didn’t get elected president. He said he went to heaven but didn’t stay long, because you don’t go toward the white light if you think it might be the cops.
Morgan used his reputation as rebellious bad boy to set up such jokes, and it’s not just a comfortable comedic device. From his anecdotes about selling crack to his myriad stories about graphic sex and masturbation, Morgan doesn’t worry with offending anyone. Even when the jokes were simply confessions of his sexual proclivities and not very funny, in the age of political correctness, it was good to see someone fearless, though I don’t expect the New Yorker to be earning any medals from feminist groups anytime soon. But when you’ve almost died and lost the ability to speak, being fearless probably comes easy.
The boundary pushing naturally followed Morgan into satirical discussions of race, as he wedded slavery metaphors and sexual humor. Morgan, whose wife is of mixed race, also defined the difference between arguing with a white woman (she’ll call her lawyer on you) and a black woman (she might kill you). In one of his bits that brought the biggest laughs and guffaws, he called out Tiger Woods for not identifying as back, saying Earl Woods (Tiger’s dad) is undoubtedly the name of a black man.
“The blackest thing he ever did was suck at golf,” Morgan said of Tiger Woods.
Morgan engaged in some biting crowd work, while his act repeatedly bounced from tales of physical therapy and the accident back to his sexual desires. Understandably, it wasn’t Morgan at his most manic or funniest, but it was great to see him back on stage taking swings. Comedy isn’t like sports – you don’t get to rehab in private and wait to come back and perform for the public at 90 percent. Morgan, who was performing in only the 12th show of his first tour since the accident, isn’t all the way back, but from the immediate standing ovation at Scoot Inn, it’s clear his fans are ready to help him rally back to his old self.