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Life & Arts

Chickens and Chaos: Why Austin Comedy is Sort of Like a Moon Tower

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Jeremy Fuksa/flickr
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Austin, Texas is the only city in the world known still to have moonlight towers.

Four years ago, non-native Austinite Jim Ritts thought it was time the Live Music Capital of the World had its own comedy festival.

“It’s a phenomenal festival town,” he says, and he figured that Austin could make room for a fest devoted solely to comedy. What with the recent “comedy renaissance” and the strong local comedy scene in Austin, he felt like the timing was perfect to launch the Moontower Comedy & Oddity Festival, which is taking place now through Saturday around town.

Ritts says it’s great that the festival draws big-name headliners like Patton Oswalt and Ron White, but as with many festivals, the coolest part is being able to walk from venue to venue and see intimate shows with big names, up-and-comers, and Austin comedy mainstays — like recent @midnight competitor Chris Cubas, comedian and local showrunner Maggie Maye, and Brian Gaar, the mind behind one of Playboy’s Top 50 Funniest Twitter accounts.

4 Questions for 3 comedians

Why comedy in Austin, not on one of the coasts?

Maggie Maye: I’m from South Texas, and I’ve been in Austin six years. I feel like Austin’s great, it’s definitely a great place to be and perform and to really cut your teeth. 

Brian Gaar: I’ve been here since the '90s, but mainly because my daughter lives here, she’s two years old right now, we spend a lot of time together.

Chris Cubas: I moved here from upstate New York, going on seven years ago, because I wanted to go somewhere you could get good at comedy. There was a lot of stage time here at the time, and there’s even way more now than there was then – back then it was like, 'Oh, there’s three open mics a week, that’s crazy.' Now there’s like two or three a night most nights.

Everyone’s always talking about ‘keeping Austin weird.’ What’s the strangest thing about it?

Maggie Maye: I would say it’s about a seven and a half, eight [on a strangeness scale of one to 11.] I don’t know if I’m just desensitized to the strangeness, but it’s no secret the city’s been changing. A lot of things that were around back in the day that were kind of hallmarks of it being a weird city are no longer there. But I also live up in north Austin, where it’s not really all that weird.

Chris Cubas: Probably how not-strange it is…I think people think it’s weirder than it is because it’s in the middle of Texas, you know what I mean? You’re compared to Dallas or whatever. But it’s like, 'Oh, is that guy wearing a thong?' It’s really not that weird. At Penn Station in New York I saw two homeless guys fistfighting each other because one said the other guy’s feet stunk.

Brian Gaar: I don’t think Austin’s really very strange. I think when people say that, they mean that sometimes there’s homeless people in swimwear riding around on bikes, but in the grand scheme of things, is that really that weird? I mean it’s mental illness certainly, but I don’t know if that’s really weird.

What’s the comedy scene like here?

Maggie Maye: There are a lot of really good comics, really funny people, and there’s an added benefit in that our crowds are generally smart, and comics tend to be smart and somewhat nerdy, and we have audiences and crowds that appreciate that sort of thing.

Chris Cubas: What’s cool about Austin comedy is that there really isn’t one style, the scene is so deep with talent, and what makes Austin unique is it can support all of it.

Brian Gaar: I would say it’s very, in L.A. for example, [the scene] is very high energy and polished. Austin, by contrast, is very low energy and not polished and very dressed down, but I think the Austin comics, there is a premium they put on intelligence and being clever. I think that’s a real Austin thing, and as a result I think that’s why the comics are so good, the audience demands you to be pretty smart.

And in what way is your comedy like a moontower? There are no wrong answers.

Maggie Maye: My comedy is like a moontower in that…I really don’t know how to describe it.

Chris Cubas: The only thing I know about a moon tower is, I feel like, in the '40s [ed note: actually, it was the 1880s], there was a crazy serial killer in Austin called like the ‘Servant Girl Annihilator,’ or some crazy name like that, and they put up the moontowers to light the streets because they didn’t want, they were afraid of this killer. In NO WAY is my comedy like that. It’s fun, and I would say ‘I kill' [on stage] sometimes, but…no.

Brian Gaar: How is my comedy like a moontower? It’s made of metal and it’s got a shiny light at the end. So in that way I feel like it’s exactly the same.

FYI: The real inspiration for the festival’s name?

Jim Ritts: It is iconic, like the moontowers, which have been here since the late 1800s. So it was a way for us to honor that. But more importantly, when those were brought into Austin at the time, the local citizenry was concerned that chickens would become confused about when daylight was, and they would lay eggs at the wrong time, that it would lead to chaos and wreak havoc in the city to have light 24 hours a day, and we kind of like the notion of a comedy festival that is, in its own way, supposed to have its own level of chaos and havoc. And all of that together worked beautifully, and then of course – Rick Linklater and the party at the moontower.

Disclosure: Moontower Festival provides underwriting for KUT programming.