Austin, TX: The Live Comedy Capital Of The World?
“We’re at a festival, and what is more beautiful than watching someone try?” squeaked Maria Bamford on Thursday night at Austin’s Stateside Theater. The comedian had just attempted a new bit that didn’t quite pay off the way she planned. But she was able to pull it off, thanks to an admission of her own failure and a happy, comedy-loving audience.
Bamford isn’t the only comic trying out new material in Austin: she’s one of a 109 stand-up comedians performing at this year’s Moontower Comedy and Oddity Festival (and one of the more recognizable faces at this year’s festival, either for her series of off-kilter Target commercials or her famously strange on-stage antics and voices).
Comedians young, old, famous and up-and-coming have descended on Central Texas to offer new jokes, familiar bits, recognizable characters and insight on every topic: from the inane, to the poignant, to the downright unprintable.
The Moontower Festival is halfway through its run inside a series of venues across Austin. Only in its second year, the comedy extravaganza is beginning to take the form of a stepsibling of more established fetivals, like South by Southwest. Comedians across Austin and the U.S. (with a sprinkling of Canadians in the bunch) have been invited to showcase their best material for tens of thousands of comedy-hungry Austin audiences.
Jim Ritts, the CEO of Moontower agrees. “There is in Austin a very strong and latent comedy audience,” Ritts says. "We have between 10 to 12 nationally touring comics who choose to be based here in Austin. And they’ve really done the groundwork for building an audience for comedy here in Texas,” Ritts says.
Not to mention the growing number of stand-up, sketch and comedy improvisation theatre houses that make Austin their home. Esther’s Follies, The Velveeta Room, The Hideout Theatre, Coldtowne, and The New Movement are just a handful of venues where Central Texans can find live comedy. Each of these theatres or clubs not only give audiences a chance to laugh, they offer Austinites from all over the city the chance to create laughs.
Kerri Lendo, is one of those Austin comics. She moved to the Capitol City eight years ago as a stand-up comedian and now tours with Maria Bamford.
“[Austin’s comedy scene] is pretty bumpin' right now,” Lendo says. “You can see comedy seven nights a week. I probably only do shows three nights a week, so I can actually have time to write and think, but you can do as much as you want.”
So in its second year, is Moontower poised to put Austin on the comedy map? Signs point to yes.
Last year’s premiere featured lots of familiar faces, but this year, like any good sequel, everything is bigger. Thursday night, fans lined up around the block to catch Dana Carvey, and trending newcomer Amy Schumer. On Wednesday at the Paramount, Bill Hader hosted his own show in a variety of characters (SNL’s Stefan showed up to proclaim, “Austin’s hottest new club is ‘Get In Here, Brother’”). Friday’s headliners Janeane Garofalo, Jim Gaffigan, and Michael Ian Black are sold out. Moontower’s second year has more shows, more sponsors and way more people in attendance. According to Jim Ritts, the festival’s four days will see between 20,000 to 25,000 attendees, which is 10- 15% more than last year.
And there’s way more badges.
“We know that everyone can’t commit to four nights, even though I think the $129 Fan badge is a great value, because it lets you hop around all the venues. What we did this year is we created the $50 daily badge," Ritts says. And if a daily badge was too pricey for some, single tickets were offered to many shows too.
According to Ritts, talk of tapings and a cable/broadcast partner are in the works for future festivals. All involved would like to see Austin become the comedy capital of the U.S., a title that used to be Aspen’s US Comedy Arts Festival. Ritts doesn't even see famously funny cities Chicago and New York as competition.
“The truth is, those aren’t really festivals the way I think of festivals,” Ritts says. “Those are basically linked together headlining shows: you buy individual tickets and you go and you chose and that’s a wonderful way. But it’s not really set up for you to buy a badge and then in a single night be able to go hop around seven or eight venues if you so chose. Pop in and see seven minutes of Chris Hardwick, pop in and see Michael Che over at The Hideout, hope over and see Moshe Kasher over at The Parish. That’s what a festival should really be about.”
Which brings us back to all that new material. The comedians aren’t just bringing their best bits. They’re willing to test out new jokes and get creative. Almost all of the comedians, whether established or up and coming, took risks on Thursday night. Chris Hardwick, the Nerdist, and
Talking Dead host, spent large chunks of the show improvising new jokes and material (again, mostly all unprintable) from his conversations with the front row.
“That’s Bane Jovi,” Hardwick laughed and shook his head after suddenly singing “Wanted Dead or Alive” in the voice of a famous villain from last summer. “He’s a new character I’m trying out.”
And yes, the bit worked.
The Moontower Comedy and Oddity Festival runs through (a very late) Saturday night. Visit ComedyMoontowerFestival.com for more information.