Moontower of babble: Reflections on the music of comedy

Patton Oswalt performs at the Paramount during the Moontower Comedy Festival.

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.

How are comedians reacting to life under Trump?

Colin Quinn at the Moontower Comedy Festival.

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.”

PHOTOS: ‘My Favorite Murder’ from opening night at Moontower

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.

PHOTOS: Ali Wong at the Moontower Comedy Festival
PHOTOS: Thursday night at the Moontower Comedy Festival
PHOTOS: Chris Hardwick and more from Friday at Moontower

 

Moontower preview: Margaret Cho’s deep Austin ties include recording with Patty Griffin and David Garza

Margaret Cho performs on April 22 at the Paramount Theatre as part of the Moontower Comedy Festival.

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.”

We caught up with Cho before Moontower to talk about her 33-year career, Donald Trump and how to Keep Austin Weird. Read the entire interview here. 

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Festival information, headliners, set times, et al

Two Dope Queens, Maria Bamford, Maggie Maye slay at Moontower Comedy Fest SheBang showcase

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.

Phoebe Robinson (left) and Jessica Williams (right) of Two Dope Girls were a highlight of the "SheBang" show at Moontower Comedy Fest. Credit: Mindy Tucker / via WNYC.org
Phoebe Robinson (left) and Jessica Williams (right) of Two Dope Girls were a highlight of the “SheBang” show at Moontower Comedy Fest. Credit: Mindy Tucker / via WNYC.org

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.

Moontower Comedy releases full schedule

Maria Bamford performs at the Paramount Theatre on April 21 as part of the Moontower Comedy Fest.
Maria Bamford performs at the Paramount Theatre on April 21 as part of the Moontower Comedy Fest.

How are you going to take in over 100 comedians at more than a half dozen downtown venues in three days? That’s up to you. But Moontower Comedy recently announced its complete schedule, which should help with planning.

The fifth annual festival features Paramount Theater headliners like Martin Short (4/21) and David Cross (filming his new special on 4/22), Maya Rudolph, performing with her Prince tribute act, Princess, and Leslie Jones on April 23.

The club schedule, as always, is packed, with performers like Dana Gould and Arden Myrin, Jessica Williams and Phoebe Robinson, Ari Shaffir, Big Jay Oakerson, Ron Funches, Matt Bearden, Lashonda Lester, and many more.

Special programming features include Ian Abramson’s Seven Minutes in Purgatory, where comedians have to perform in a soundproof booth unaware of audience response, and Next, an industry event showcasing rising (yet-to-be-named) talent.

Podcasters at this year’s festival include Kevin Smith and Jason Mewes (Jay & Silent Bob Get Old), and Brendon Walsh and Randy Liedtke (The Bone Zone).

The complete schedule is below, with lineups subject to change. Head to moontowercomedyfest.com for tickets and more information.

2016 MOONTOWER CLUB SHOW SCHEDULE

*Show lineups are subject to change; additional performers coming soon

WEDNESDAY, APRIL 20

Anjelah Johnson presents Bon Qui Qui’s Gold Plated Dreams Tour featuring Group 1 Crew – 8:00 p.m.; Paramount Theatre

THURSDAY, APRIL 21

An Evening with Martin Short – 7:00 p.m.; Paramount Theatre

Featuring Martin Short, Mac Blake

Janeane Garofalo – 7:30 p.m.; Stateside at the Paramount

New York’s Finest – 8:00 p.m.; 800 Congress

Hosted by Jessica Williams and Phoebe Robinson (2 Dope Queens); featuring Joe List, Tony Rock, Mark Normand, Andy Kindler, Joe DeRosa, Jesse Joyce, and Sean Donnelly

Ron Funches – 8:00 p.m.; Cap City Comedy Club

Featuring Ron Funches, Lashonda Lester, and Matt Sadler

This Is Not Happening – 8:15 p.m.; The Parish

Hosted by Ari Shaffir; featuring Debra DiGiovanni, Big Jay Oakerson, Dan Soder, and more

Austin Towers – 8:30 p.m.; The Velv Comedy Lounge

Featuring Brian Gaar, Aaron Brooks, Andrew Dismukes, Bryan Gutmann, Joe Hafkey, Kath Barbadoro, Kelsey Caine, Kent Juliff, M.K. Paulsen, Zac Brooks, and Pat Dean

James Adomian – 8:30 p.m.; The Townsend

Featuring James Adomian, Mike MacRae, and special guest

Stars in Bars – 8:30 p.m.; Antone’s

Hosted by Matt Bearden; featuring Jon Rudnitsky, Randy Liedtke, Beth Stelling, The Sklar Brothers, Dana Gould, Greg Behrendt, Brad Williams, Arden Myrin, and Martha Kelly

Piff the Magic Dragon – 9:30 p.m.; Stateside at the Paramount

Maria Bamford – 9:30 p.m.; Paramount Theatre

Unhinged – 10:00 p.m.; 800 Congress

Hosted by Daniel Webb; featuring Erin Foley, Fahim Anwar, Johnny Pemberton, Ahmed Bharoocha, Debra DiGiovanni, Kate Flannery and Scot Robinson, Brad Williams, Scout Durwood, and Dana Gould

Stashbox – 10:15 p.m.; The Parish

Hosted by Danny Palumbo; featuring Andy Kindler, Allen Strickland Williams, Maggie Maye, Brendon Walsh, Randy Liedtke, Chris Cubas, and special guests

Blue Moon – 10:30 p.m.; The Velv Comedy Lounge

Featuring Abby Rosenquist, Annie Lederman, Brad Williams, Nick Mullen, Big Jay Oakerson, and Dan Soder

7 Minutes in Purgatory – 10:30 p.m.; The Townsend

Hosted by Ian Abramson

Goddamn Comedy Jam – 10:30 p.m.; Antone’s

Featuring Josh Adam Meyers, Jeremiah Watkins, the band Elemenope, Big Jay Oakerson, and more

FRIDAY, APRIL 22

SiriusXM’s The Bonfire – 4:00 p.m.; 800 Congress

Featuring Big Jay Oakerson, Dan Soder, and special guests

Sklarbro Country podcast – 5:00 p.m.; Speakeasy

The Sklar Brothers, Guests TBA

The Bone Zone – 7:00 p.m.; The Velv Comedy Lounge

Featuring Brendon Walsh, Randy Liedtke, and Johnny Pemberton

David Cross taping Making America Great Again – 7:00 p.m.; Paramount Theatre

Piff the Magic Dragon – 7:30 p.m.; Stateside at the Paramount

1st and 10 – 8:00 p.m.; Speakeasy

Featuring The Sklar Brothers, Tony Rock, Fahim Anwar, Erin Foley, Dan Soder, and Ahmed Bharrocha

Ron Funches – 8:00 p.m.; Cap City Comedy Club

Featuring Ron Funches, Brian Gaar, and Avery Moore

SheBang – 8:00 p.m.; 800 Congress

Hosted by Greg Behrendt; Featuring Erin Foley, Jackie Kashian, Jenny Zigrino, Debra DiGiovanni, Beth Stelling, 2 Dope Queens, Maggie Maye, and special guests

Blue Moon – 8:15 p.m.; The Parish

Hosted by Mark Normand; featuring Annie Lederman, Brad Williams, Big Jay Oakerson, Nick Mullen, Jenny Zigrino, and special guests

Friends of Single People – 8:30 p.m.; The Velv Comedy Lounge

Featuring Jo Firestone and more

David Cross taping Making America Great Again – 9:30 p.m.; Paramount Theatre

Jimmy Carr: Funny Business – 9:30 p.m.; Stateside at the Paramount

Stars in Bars – 10:00 p.m.; 800 Congress

Hosted by Jesse Joyce; featuring Ari Shaffir, Joe List, James Adomian, Jon Rudnitsky, Matt Bearden, and more

Goddamn Comedy Jam – 10:15 p.m.; The Parish

Featuring Josh Adam Meyers, Jeremiah Watkins, Elemenope, Joe DeRosa, Brad Wlliams, and Matteo Lane

Ron Funches – 10:30 p.m.; Cap City Comedy Club

Featuring Ron Funches, Bob Khosravi, and Daniel Webb

SiriusXM’s The Foxxhole – 10:30 p.m.; The Velv Comedy Lounge

Featuring Jak Knight, Lashonda Lester, Raul Sanchez, and Tony Rock

The Tinkle Twins – 10:30 p.m.; The Townsend

Featuring Dana Gould, Arden Myrin, The Lampshades, and more

Nightcap with Kevin Smith – 11:59 p.m.; Paramount Theatre

SATURDAY, APRIL 23

Jay and Silent Bob Get Old live podcast – 5:00 p.m.; Speakeasy

Featuring Kevin Smith and Jason Mewes

Leslie Loves Colin – 7:00 p.m.; Paramount Theatre

Featuring Leslie Jones, Colin Jost, and Jon Rudnitsky

Jim Norton: Mouthful of Shame – 7:30 p.m; Stateside at the Paramount

Featuring Jim Norton and guests TBA

SuperShow – 8:00 p.m.; 800 Congress

Featuring Ian Abramson, Debra DiGiovanni, Dana Gould, Mark Normand, Martha Kelly, Matteo Lane, Randy Liedtke, and special guests

Ron Funches – 8:00 p.m.; Cap City Comedy Club

Featuring Ron Funches, Raul Sanchez, and guest TBA

This Is Not Happening – 8:15 p.m.; The Parish

Hosted by Ari Shaffir; guests TBA

Austin Towers – 8:30 p.m.; The Velv Comedy Lounge

Featuring Amber Bixby, Brently Heilbron, Brian Gaar, Duncan Carson, Ella Gale, Jay Wahitcotton, John Buseman, Lisa Delarios, Matt Sadler, Ralph Hardesty, and Sara June

Andy Kindler’s Particular Show – 8:30 p.m.; The Townsend

Hosted by Andy Kindler; guests TBA

Hasan Minhaj: Homecoming King – 9:30 p.m.; Stateside at the Paramount

Princess – 9:30 p.m.; Paramount Theatre

Featuring Maya Rudolph and Gretchen Lieberum

Goddamn Comedy Jam – 10:15 p.m.; The Parish

Hosted by Josh Adam Meyers; featuring Jeremiah Watkins, Elemenope, Fahim Anwar, and guests TBA

Ron Funches – 10:30 p.m.; Cap City Comedy Club

Featuring Ron Funches and guests TBA

Bye Felicia! – 10:30 p.m.; The Velv Comedy Lounge

Featuring Matteo Lane, M.K. Paulsen, Erin Foley, Daniel Webb, James Adomian, Maggie Maye, and Ralph Hardesty

Piranha – 10:30 p.m.; The Townsend

Featuring Matt Bearden and guests TBA

Jim Norton: Mouthful of Shame – 11:30 p.m.; Stateside at the Paramount

Featuring Jim Norton and guests TBA

David Cross to record comedy special at Moontower; Maya Rudolph added to lineup

Princess photoMoontower Comedy Fest audiences may eventually hear their own guffaws on David Cross’ next comedy special, “Making America Great Again.” The acerbic and thoughtful comic will tape his new special over back-to-back shows at the comedy festival in Austin at 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. on April 22. Tickets for the David Cross shows at the Paramount Theatre go on sale Friday at 10 a.m. at moontowercomedyfest.com.

The festival also announced that Prince cover band, Princess, fronted by “Saturday Night Live” alumnus Maya Rudolph and Gretchen Lieberum, will perform at the festival. (Check out their blazing cover of “Darlin Nikki” here.) Individual tickets for the Princess show go on sale Thursday.

The festival begins rolling out individual tickets sales for all the headliners Thursday, with sales spread out over the 11th (Maritn Short, Maria Bamford, Anjelah Johnson presents Bon Qui Qui’s Gold Plated Dreams Tour featuring Group 1 Crew), 12th (Kevin Smith, Leslie Jones & Colin Jost in “Leslie Loves Colin”), and 15th (Jimmy Carr, Janeane Garofalo, Piff The Magic Dragon, Jim Norton and Hasan Minhaj’s one-man show “Homecoming King”). Tickets will go on sale for the respective shows at 10 a.m.

For badge sales and complete details on ticketing process, visit moontowercomedyfest.com or call 512-474-1221.