published Sunday, March 24, 2013
Live events are always bound in the moment, creating something unique in place and time. Comedy shows are even more so, because there’s no predicting what a comedian is likely to say, especially with other comics around. So when a comedy festival crams as many comedians as possible together in a short time frame, performing arts fuse with competiveness and unpredictability to create a raucous entertainment ride.
Texas has been late warming up to large comedy festivals. The City of Austin Cultural Arts Division started the Out of Bounds festival of stand-up, improv, and sketch comedy in 2000 and that’s the old-timer in the state. Houston Improv Festival started only last year and the city still doesn’t have a stand-up fest. Doug Ewart staged his tasty Dallas Comedy Festival in 2005 at the old West End Marketplace and then split for Austin, leaving North Texas sans laugh fests until a new Dallas Comedy Festival came on the scene in early 2010, followed a few months later by The Big Sexy Weekend of Improv. Then Moontower Comedy & Oddity Festival exploded out of Austin’s Paramount Theater in 2012, attracting multiple national stand-up talents, even film stars such as Dana Carvey. Texas had reached critical mass for festival talent—comedy flyover territory no more.
Creating a Comedy Scene
Brother-sister pair Kyle and Amanda Austin of Dallas spent time traveling and studying with comedy improv and sketch professionals in other cities, each time returning home all pumped up with no place to go. They gave the Dallas comedy scene a jolt in 2009 by opening (with a few other colleagues) the Dallas Comedy House at 2645 Commerce St. in Deep Ellum. It now percolates with a steady stream of stand-up and improv open mics and shows. Performers for the stage emerge from non-stop classes and workshops.
But to set fire to a scene, a festival is needed, so the club launched the Dallas Comedy Festival in 2010. “We started it because we didn’t know any better. It really was a ‘build it and they will come’ kind of moment,” said Kyle Austin. “Our hope is for it to become a household name in the comedy festival circuit. Chicago Improv Festival, Del Close Marathon, and other ones are top tier. People plan their vacations around attending them. I would love for us to be like that. I don’t think we are too far away.” The talent and vision is certainly there. All that’s needed to make it happen is a bigger place and a better budget, something city or corporate support could provide.
Festivals as Comedy Incubators
A big enough comedy festival would bring a national spotlight on the area talent. Paul Varghese, one of the top comics in Dallas, explained: “There’s no specific style to Dallas. No one’s trying to be like someone who made it big. But because of that our voices are super unique. The only reason Dallas is not discovered is that industry reps from television and larger clubs and chains don’t come here. That’s Amanda Austin’s idea with the Dallas Comedy Festival. If you create enough of a buzz, they eventually have to show up. All it will take is for industry to come here once to help the whole scene out.”
A comedy festival is not just a whole lot of people crammed into tiny dark rooms laughing at funny folks on stage. For the participants, it’s a comedy conference, where they go to develop their craft and make connections. Comedy Central star Keegan-Michael Key, who headlines the 2013 Dallas Comedy Festival with his improv group, The 313, said: “Key & Peele is a wonderful environment to work in, but there’s just this liberation you experience when you do an improv festival. I always have the druthers to go if I have the opportunity and the time.”
For Key, it’s all about the improv, the group interaction and being in the moment that produces comedy insights and big laughs: “It’s something that makes me feel very creatively wide. There’s nothing else like improv in entertainment. It’s kind of athletics for the mind.”
Dallas Comedy Festival 2013
Journalists are not supposed to drool, but this year’s Dallas Comedy Festival is simply astounding, not a bad one among the 68 comedy acts in five days and a few promise to be transcendent. Tuesday and Wednesday feature stand-up shows, and improv and sketch acts reign Thursday through Saturday. Each night top-notch talent from hot comedy enclaves like New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago, and regional laugh factories including Dallas, Austin and (yes, believe it) Oklahoma City, present their best 15 minutes of material. It’s like having a box of mixed Belgium chocolate truffles perform for you.
Two of this year’s headliners migrated from the now defunct Second City Detroit to the west coast, ultimately to be featured in hit shows on Comedy Central: Keegan-Michael Key of Key & Peele and Maribeth Monroe of Workaholics. They are paired in The 313 show of long-form improv—a 45-minute mini-play created on the spot—that caps Friday night. Saturday night culminates with Monroe’s solo show Horrible Women, plus a set with Monroe and David Razowsky, a legendary theater improvisation teacher who takes being in the moment and connecting with the flow to Zen master levels. This is choice stuff for attendees and being able to take workshops with pros like these is a huge boon for local talent.
The second shows on Tuesday and Wednesday will reek with unique madness. In the Blackout Diaries: A Comedy Show Where There Are No Stupid Questions, comics and audience members tell true tales of inebriation, with emcee and comedian Sean Flannery keeping it lively and on track. Dean Lewis, a guru among comedy coaches, hosts a creative sandbox with area top stand-up talents. Each is given 15 seconds to look at a list of topics and create an instant coherent set—sort of like Chopped of comedy.
Improv acts to watch for include TwinProv out of Oklahoma City, real-life twins Clint and Buck Vrazel who improvise epic comedy stories, often in musical format. At one performance, the suggestion of “physics” (the twins are science and math wizards) culminated in Buck standing on a chair imitating an exploding star as the audience chanted “supernova, supernova!” Shock T’s musical comedy trio from Chicago pulled off a very funny song about a 1500s-era alcoholic, complete with a gasp-inducing final stanza about a flasher at a public hanging that caused half the audience to stand and applaud. Dallas-based long-form improv duo Manick once spun a one-act play about a woman breaking free of self-destructive enabling, with a story arc that slid effortlessly from broad comedy into heart-rending pathos.
Fans of comedy are advised to get festival passes. Arrive early each night and plan to stay the duration. The small 110-seat Dallas Comedy House can get seriously crowded and shows will sell out. But the bar is good and there are restaurants nearby.
A delight of attending comedy festivals like these is the lobby chatter as comedians and groups from all over banter and bounce off each other. The floor show is almost as good as the one on stage, watching men and women in their native wild willing to be emotionally naked on a stage and endure the insular, hierarchal, competitive business of comedy, with the hopes they’ll make it big someday and never have to endure a boss or day job again.