After volunteering for two shows at the Moontower Comedy Festival here in Austin, Texas, I caught a late show, and last night I was back for more. But it’s hard to write about comedy. Repeating some of the jokes might get me in trouble. Photographs during the shows is forbidden (though some jerkholes do it anyway). And asking the talent for selfies is definitely discouraged. What I observed is that comedians are a diverse bunch, they work hard at their craft, have good days and bad like anyone else, and are either brave, crazy or both to do this work. The point is that the audience gets to laugh and enjoy themselves, and that’s what makes it all worth it.
Humor is an Art Form
For those amongst you who may not be fans of stand-up comedy, I would say this, “What, are you nuts?” and also ask, “Would it kill you to laugh a little?” But all seriousness aside, the men and women who take up the microphone to do stand-up, record a podcast, perform improv, comedic songs, tell stories, do impressions, offer some schtick — it’s all telling a story. Maybe it’s written down in some form, maybe it’s just in the oral tradition, but every culture uses stories to explore, create, preserve their culture. And make no mistake, whether one person thinks it’s funny or not, it is an art. Being funny is a tricky business.
The first show I worked was a podcast, Tim Dillon is Going to Hell. Due to my duties as a volunteer and having to get a replacement wristband, I did not get to hear the entire show with well-known New York comedian and interviewer Ron Bennington. But people were laughing a lot, and I was one of them. Both performers had not only creatively assembled words that strung together in unexpected ways were surprising, shocking or just true, but their tone and delivery was just as amusing. That may be obvious but it’s a key point: words can be unfunny if they’re just said. With added inflection, accent, emphasis and so on, boring words can be transformed into humorous ones. And these guys are pros at it. A good part of it was the anger of a New Yorker in Texas, questioning its priorities. You can check them out at links above.
Storytelling is Universal
The Canadians of Comedy was six different comics. As the program notes say:
Grab your Molson and get ready to giver a rip! Hosted by one of the most inventive minds in standup, Jon Dore (Big Questions Huge Answers, Conan). Moontower presents this amazing lineup of award winning comedians: DeAnne Smith (Netflix’s Comedians of the World), K. Trevor Wilson (Letterkenny, Netflix), Nathan Macintosh (The Tonight Show, Late Show), Bonnie McFarlane (You’re Better Than Me) and Kevin McDonald (Kids In The Hall). Eh? Eh! Eh. See why our comedy neighbors to the north are so celebrated.-Paramount Theatre
I was happy to see the legendary Kevin McDonald of Kids in the Hall fame. (The show on HBO from 1988-94 was like Monty Python for Canucks. Think less pyschedelia and more dresses.) For his short set — each only got about 10 minutes — he told a story about performing live with another member of KITH, and how everything that could possibly go wrong went wrong. The others talked about a variety of things, from their partners, kids, aging, Canada, abortion, diabetes and so on.
At one point I was standing right next to that very Kid in the Hall — quite literally, in the hall. Before the show I was taking Kevin (like we’re on a first name basis now, ha!) up to the green room for about 12 seconds. That was until the staffperson who was house manager butted in and too over. I wasn’t freaking out or doing it wrong — I’m a seasoned festival professional now after two South by Southwests — it was just her job. He’s short, by the way, but like many entertainers seems to get bigger on stage. Better looking, too. (Joking.) I liked all the Canadians, actually.
Afterward I was near a few including Kevin. So I said some dumb words like “Hey, great show!” to which they all replied “Thanks!” and went about their lives. Those were not very satisfying interactions, but it was neat to be around them. They’re regular people just like me except they have money, jobs, wives and lives. Once you’ve been on TV, that changes you. You know how it is when you’re hanging around famous people. You want to say hi but you don’t want to be a suck-up fan harshing their vibe. The best thing to do is maybe not even make eye contact or say anything unless you have to, and if they notice you exist then say hi. I don’t know, just depends on if they’re busy I guess.
I also caught another show at the Fallout Theater, a small venue I hadn’t been to. From an over-the-top husband and wife Christian comedy duo (it was an act) to a wonderfully erudite and sarcastic South African, a hilarious lesbian, a country and western loving hipster, a well-known comedy legend and a local guy, they were all very funny. Despite the small crowd in the small venue, they put on good shows. I bicycled home very late and tired to do my yoga and write, but it was worth it to have a good time and plenty of laughs.
Another Headliner: What a Joker!
On Friday, I got lucky again with the emails from the volunteer coordinator so biked back downtown and got into an otherwise sold-out show at the Paramount Theatre, which with its sister stage the State Theatre, host the festival. I used to go see old movies in the summer there, and still sometimes do, so I’ve been there alot. It’s just a great old venue.
Friday’s show was Sal Vulcano who’s from Staten Island and is on a show called Impractical Jokers. I had not heard of him but his long act was opened by the hilarious Steve Byrne, whom I had seen on television a few times. He’s Korean and Irish, did some great crowd work and added some fake punchlines to the real headlines.
Judging by the audience around me laughing really loudly at almost every thing he said and every gesture he made, Sal was very popular. Their laughter may have made it more funny for me, too. But I thought he was genuinely amusing. Telling stories about his family, dating, irritable bowel sydrome — he seemed believable and relatable. Like Nick Offerman and Seth Meyers, he had a well-polished routine but also interacted with the crowd a bit. I was supposed to see another comic but I’m glad this worked out.
Other Shows I Saw
After that, I caught a few minutes of Eddie Pepitone, an old school “comedians’ comedian.” I wished he had more time to perform and me more time to listen, because he was very good. After not getting into see another headliner, Jenny Slate, I intentionally sought out lesser known folks. Chris Redd is a performer on Saturday Night Live who talked about growing up as a gangbanger in Chicago with his terrifying cousin, who is now in prison. Along with him was a string of other people, and the same at another venue after that. But they were all funny in their different ways, some more than others. Good stuff, and free to me, so no complaints here!
As the night progressed and I got more tired, and without a proper dinner, I found myself laughing less out loud. Maybe the jokes weren’t as funny but also there’s a tipping point for laughing. At some moment, it’s just too hard to keeping smiling and laughing, even if what the comedian is saying is really hilarious. This happened to me once when I saw Louis CK on my birthday. I was front row at Cap City Comedy, before he became famous (and now infamous). He was so hilarious my facial muscles just froze. What’s cool is that afterward I posted something on his bulletin board and he replied something like, “Don’t worry about it man, glad you liked the show, Austin is cool!” I don’t know why this happens to me or if it happens to other people, but life — and the show must — go on.
The last show of my evening had, you guessed it — singing puppets! It was called Fragile Rock (a spin-off of Fraggle Rock from the Muppets). The lyrics were hard to hear over the solid rock trio. With only 20 people left watching, I felt bad for them that they put so much work into it. The two women singing even dyed their hair blue and red to match their puppets. That’s what you call commitment to your art.
Fragile Rock is the world’s only emo puppet band and has starred in their own NPR Tiny Desk Concert. This 8-piece band of puppets, musicians, and singers and comics launched in Austin, Texas in 2014. They are very real and very felt. Fragile Rock’s live shows are wild and unpredictable earning growing media buzz from NPR, SXSW, Nerdist, Yahoo Music, Variety, and many others. Let the Fragile Rock in and prepare yourself for the puppet pain.-Paramount Theatre
Comedy is Not Pretty
There are lessons for me as a struggling blogger and author of a book-in-progress, who has to figure out ways to pay the bills and find affordable housing in Austin, Texas. (Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! That’s a hilarious joke, if you know about the high rents and 100 people moving here every week). They are these:
- Comedy writing is difficult; performing it is even harder;
- Stand-up is a tough master and you need a very thick skin to do it;
- You have to somehow connect with the audience to get laughs;
- If jokes don’t land, you learn how to improve them or leave them out;
- Some things just aren’t funny to some people, but that’s ok;
- Laughing is univeral, especially if it’s at someone who is different.
I put that last one in to see if you were paying attention. It’s somewhat true that making fun of others is part of it. Which gets tricky in our politically sensitive times. Trump was a frequent and easy target. I think comedy may be the last bastion of free speech in the United States. Sometimes it’s not even that funny, but to reveal truths about our common humanity and the absurdity of modern life on Earth.
People pay good money to hear uncensored, honest and real talk, and humor is a way to address taboos and difficult subjects. And as The Daily Show, Real Time with Bill Maher, Saturday Night Live and the late night talk shows have proven, when serious subjects are given the comedy treatment, they’re alot more likely to be heard.
Tired after five hours of comedy, I rode my bicycle home. I’m grateful to the Moontower Comedy Festival for having me be part of it as a volunteer and guest. If you’re in Austin, you may still be able to buy single tickets. If not, many of the comedians have videos and podcasts available on line. Hopefully you can still go have a laugh wherever you are!
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