Austin on April 23 to 26, 2014
Wednesday: From Theater to Blue Humor
Shenoah Allen and Mark Chavez of Albuquerque-based comedy/theater duo bring their A-game to Austin’s Moontower Comedy Festival.
Austin — Don’t eat the spider or you might end up in the belly of a monster. It’s not such a bad monster. Ingesting its fur brings about immortality. But that allows a foppish king over 700 years to procrastinate about saving the world. The king’s Igor-ish magician, Leopold, also ate some hair of the beast and goes along for the ride. And what a ride it is.
Such is Just the Two of Each of Us, the latest universe created by The Pajama Men, the comedy duo of Shenoah Allen and Mark Chavez from Albuquerque, New Mexico, that has been performing together for over 20 years. Sometimes it seems like you’re listening in to twins who’ve created their own language. But if you stay actively engaged with a Pajama Men show and commit to the universe they comedically forge, you are well rewarded. They perform a final show for Moontower Comedy Festival on Thursday night at Stateside.
In Just the Two of Each of Us, The Pajama Men present two-man theater fused with inventive physical humor and surprisingly realistic vocal sound effects, laced with a lot of sharp one-liners. They shapeshift between characters and scenes with split-second finesse. A myriad of storylines layer, braid and converge at the end. Multi-instrumentalist Kevin Hume provides a subtle yet effective soundtrack.
Allen exists at a Bill Irwin-esque level of talent, with a stocky body that stretches into any form and rubbery face that holds a world of emotion. He ranges from the impeccably created hunchbacked, lisping Leopold, a sly guy who cracks himself up, to the optimistic Franz who sees life as too easy (regardless of the circumstances) but saves the day in the end by doing something hard. With his infectious glee, Chavez embodies an inventive, subversive level of insanity, yet grounds the proceedings through his clear humanity. Both fling out punchlines at unexpected times that yank the laughs right out of you. And yes, they perform entirely in pajamas.
Pajama Men portray young girls and good-old boy sheriffs. They ride Harley choppers with Chavez acting as the motorcycle. They enact a playette with Chavez doing finger people on a stage created by the Allen’s palm, and vice versa. Midway they create a newscast and breathlessly perform all roles including dithering newscasters, on-the-street reporters, and commercial breaks. It’s a fun mocking of “news” mindset: “Dolphins, or are they? Some say they’re sharks on Ecstasy.”
The time-warp tale finally fuses as the King gets his act together, Beulah makes the ultimate sacrifice, and the Medieval Mountain Rock Casino & Family Fun Center Bouncy House Castle is saved from destruction. But Nadine never gets her arm back.
The Pajama Men spin truly transcendent stuff, but these are character comics, not jokesters. It is a duet of spoken word that reaches the level of vocal jazz and physicality so refined it approaches dance. No wonder they were rated No. 1 out of more than 2,000 acts at the 2012 Edinburgh Festival Fringe and were the highest-selling act hosted by The Soho Theatre in London, England.
Our comedy critic Amy Martin on her first day at Austin’s Moontower Comedy Festival, where she meets a Kids in the Hall director and catches sets by Godfrey and Jen Kober.
Austin — City of Austin, I have a new slogan for you: “Austin: It’s worth the drive down I-35” Always escalator-crowded, now large swaths of the interstate are rough and slow from being under construction for, I guess, forever.
Jangled nerves soothe with our entry into Zilker Retreat: a duplex with a cottage in the backyard where William lives. William’s been proudly keeping Austin weird for decades. We discuss peace, love and hemp while his flock of chickens pluck the bugs off his vegetable garden. We are given two eggs from “the happiest chickens in the world” for tomorrow’s breakfast.
Then off to the Paramount Theater, ground zero of the Moontower Comedy & Oddity Festival on Congress near Sixth St., to get our passes. The festival has taken over the second floor bar of the nearby swanky Intercontinental Stephen F. Austin Hotel. A top-tier comedy festival like this is as close to a conference as anarchy-loving comedians will get. A lot of networking between comics is going on, and television and club talent executive are talking animatedly.
While grooving to the sounds of DJ Mel, I strike up a conversation with a fellow who turns out to be Jim Millan, the director of the current Kids in the Hall show. A cool impromptu interview ensures. My hubbie Scooter takes some pics. An inside look at how the Kids show is created will post in the next day or two. (The Kids also hit Dallas on Sunday night, at the Majestic Theatre.)
Small crowd for The Pajama Men show at the Stateside. What is wrong with these people? Pajama Men spin truly transcendent stuff, but these are character comics, not jokesters. It’s two-man theater fused with inventive physical humor and surprisingly realistic vocal sound effects, laced with a lot of sharp one-liners. But if you stay actively engaged with a Pajama Men show and commit to the universe they create, you are well rewarded. Review on Thursday.
Headliners like Demetri Martin, tonight at the big Paramount Theater next door, anchor Moontower, as do national names like The Pajama Men and Colin Quinn in Stateside, but the buzz is in the clubs. A half-dozen comedy clubs, appropriated music bars and even a deli, host multi-act comedy lineups. Some of these club comics are very unusual, truly pushing the stand-up form, folks who would never be seen in our local stand-up clubs. This festival provides a terrific way to break out onto a national scene.
Sixth St. is an amusement park of inebriation and blaring bar music. We get to the Velveeta Room too late to get into the Comedy Jackpot show. Sure wanted to see Lucas Molandes and Laura Kightlinger; rather bummed about that. Missed seeing Dallas-based Paul Varghese, too, but did get to chat outside. He’s appearing at Just For Laughs in Montreal this summer. How cool is that?!
So we end up in the Parrish, a spacious upstairs comedy club, where profane Bobby Slayton is emceeing a show. That should have been the first tip. Caught the last bit of Kurt Metzger’s set; he seems like a bitter reprobate and says “f*ck” a lot. Bridget Everett, a gigantic floozy of a woman, comes out in a toga-like outfit cut down to her navel. She belts out X-rated songs in a fantastic voice while lap-dancing male audience members and showing a lot of breast. She’s a force, a very funny force.
Even after that, as Brad Williams, says, “When a midget like me walks on the stage you have to say ‘OK, now things are getting interesting’.” He riffed on his shortness and then got down to 10 solid minutes of material on sex. Some of it was rather, er, instructional. About that time it dawns on me why it’s called the Blue Moon show. But it finishes out with Godfrey presenting a sharp, aggressive, well-honed act, with just a smattering of sex, and Jen Kober on the frustrations—and the fun!— of being a lesbian in the South.
To think that this is just a Wednesday! Moontower CEO Jim Ritts has been quoted as saying “Our goal over time is to be the second largest in North America, behind only Just For Laughs.” I can totally see that happening.
Thursday: A Fine Mix
The comic shares unwanted thoughts for deep laughs at Austin’s Moontower Comedy Festival.
published Saturday, April 26, 2014
Austin — Maria Bamford is a woman of range. Insightful, even heart stopping, material on depression and suicide brought the Thursday night audience at Moontower Comedy Festival to a point of awe-struck silence. Yet another section had her lying on the stage floor faux-farting profusely while imagining criticism from fellow comics: “Geez, Maria, are you even writing any more?”
Because with Bamford, the internal observer of herself will always have commentary to share. You go to a Bamford show to watch a breathy confessional of her brain at work, often dealing with, as her CD title asserts, Unwanted Thoughts Syndrome. She doesn’t avoid discomfort. She brings out her worst fears for dinner and gnaws on them like a hungry dog devours a bone. Even if obsessive thoughts have edged her at times toward self-annihilation: “Just because you have crap ideas doesn’t mean you have to act on them. Like buying day-old raisin bread in bulk and freezing it. Or vacations with family.”
Bamford’s a comedian who’s not all that comfortable on stage, something she announced with a sweeping bow at the beginning of the show. Her latest, Maria Bamford: the special, special, special, was taped in 2013 with only her mom and dad present in the family’s Minnesota living room. It airson Netflix beginning May 15. More at ease before the camera, look for her super memorable turn as Tobias Fünke’s new love interest, Debrie Bardeaux, in the latest round of Arrested Development.
Once she got over her initial jitters Thursday, Bamford was a captivating and intimate live performer. Nobody does voices better, and with each voice came facial expressions and physical mannerisms. Even speaking more or less normally as herself, she got laughs just out of a wide-eyed description of a gas-station muffin as “huuuuge.” inflating the word with breathiness. As someone who wrestles daily with her OCD, she knows constant petty frustrations so well that the big ones are a breeze to talk about: “We’d all like to believe in something. I believe God is a wizard in an 18-story mountain who never lets me win.” More on that in her new CD Ask Me About My New God!
But it was her “suicide chunk” that truly stunned, using the art of humor to tackle the awful way that most Americans see mental illness as a choice or weakness. Why, Bamford asked, do we ooh and ahh over people with cancer, but are nasty to those whose minds are afflicted? She speaks often about her bipolar disorder and obsessive thoughts that have pushed her beyond the edge. The daughter of a Navy doctor, a catch in her voice was evident in her bit about soldier suicides that concluded with “More of them die here than over there.” Yet through extreme comical frustration, she made it all funny.
A comedian to the core, Bamford always returned to the joke. She related how a radio deejay told her: “ ‘I thought you were supposed to be funny. Frankly, you just seem schizophrenic.’ I tell him, “Silly, schizophrenia is hearing voices, not doing voices. ‘ ” She confronted the topic head on in The Maria Bamford Show, a web series also screened at the Museum of Art + Design in New York. The internal-reality show based on her deeply held terrors has Bamford enduring a nervous breakdown on stage and fleeing to the attic of her childhood home.
Ultimately, Thursday’s performance was all about love and empathy. She spoke about her boyfriend of one year and their cozy home in Hispanic-dominated Eagle Rock, California, where she is accepted in all her insecurity and lack of pretension, and shared a heart-breaking story about absent-mindedly moving a porch ramp used by her elderly pug Blossom, who didn’t notice and plummeted four feet to its death.
“If you Google, ‘I killed my loved one by accident,’ you will find many stories of people who have left their babies in hot cars. I mean, everyone’s doing the best they can, but sometimes that’s not very good.” In spite of her fears, Bamford fearlessly navigates the terrain of relationships and “letting people love me in spite of my words and actions.”
Check out Maria Bamford’s interview with Slate.com on mental illness and stand-up comedy, here.
published Friday, April 25, 2014
Austin — Thursday’s rambles bring a mellower vibe as we avoid Sixth St. in favor of Congress Ave. Even so, a bucket drummer bangs for tips on every block; none of them are capable of syncopation. The core downtown streets of Austin are lined with narrow two-story brickfronts, some historic, some not, and half of them clubs. Our current fave is Speakeasy, all decked in a Roaring ‘20s brick, bronze and wood-paneled vibe with the nicest club staff. Usually a dance music club, it’s been appropriated for comedy by Moontower. A second level is set up with rows of chairs for viewing shows, but only the front half can hear the show.
We’re here at the L.A. Movers and Shakers show to fill a half-hour before heading to Maria Bamford. The host is classic comic Dom Irrera, still sounding like an entertaining, storytelling Italian-American bar guy. Like many of the comics at Moontower, he expresses nervousness about being in the conservative Christian South. Dom being Dom, he faces it straight on: “Let’s start a show in Texas with three minutes of Jesus material.” Funny stuff on the squabbling of followers after the Resurrection ensues, but as an emcee he fumbles.
Arden Myrin, known for her four years as a MADtv cast member, is near omnipresent on television in a variety of comic roles, the crazy girlfriend among them. Crazy anything, actually. Her neuroses play across her whole body in a merrily tortured way that matches the softly screechy voice. Always a snappy dresser, she waxed on Spanx “a cross between panties and a wetsuit. How exciting for a guys to take a girl home and discover she’s packed in sausage casing.” In between making fun of a stoner on the front row, she stumbles through New York stories (in an L.A. themed show) on the shopper-eat-shopper world of Trader Joe’s and a vendetta against an uncaring subway official that are not quite funny enough.
A true revelation is Brent Weinbach who’s pushing the boundaries of standup. With no separation between this intense guy and the audience, he’s open-hearted yet seditious, as if The Yes Men did stand-up. A highly entertaining guy, he’s sort of a one-man sketch fest and improv show. Weinbach boasts a delicious sense of being not-quite-right-in-the-head that garnered him the Andy Kaufman Award at a HBO Comedy Festival. For most of his set he splits the audience into three parts and conducts us as we do sound effects, at times harmonizing, other times telling a story.
Maria Bamford’s show is nothing short of a revelation and the 1915 Paramount Theater is one heckuva hall, with the excellent acoustics of vaudeville-era palaces, and every inch boasting baroque revival filigree. Look for a separate review on that one.
Back to the pleasant Speakeasy for the last half of the 4 Eyes show featuring comics who wear glasses. Andy Kindler, known for his role on Everybody Loves Raymond, provides the best emcee presence so far, engaging and well-liked by the audience. Billy D. Washington shows a smooth, articulate intelligence of a well-read guy two decades in the business and still at his prime. As an African-American, he presents terrific sly twists on urban expectations: “I freaked this white woman out while I was parked in my car. She started walking toward it and I locked my doors.” A very funny bit layers one fantasy after another on how the roach in his kitchen died.
Dana Gould is headlining at the Stateside on Friday, but tonight he is here sharing his disturbing thoughts and far-left-field conclusions. Turns out, when a chimpanzee attacks live prey, it first breaks the jaw and chews off the hands so the attacker can’t be attacked in return. Then it chews the prey’s genitals off. Gould: “Chimps are so full of themselves. After step one and two, it still thinks you want a piece of him.” Gould’s on a roll ranting about religion, confounded by God as “an implausibly big guy with a long list of grudges” and the reality of Muslim martyr post-death sex with 72 virgins: “The next day, 72 whiny phone calls.”
Dry, obsessive and absurd comedy stylings are usually one of my faves, but I can’t warm up to nitpicky hipster Nick Thune’s long story on trying to find the baby penis in ultrasounds of his wife’s pregnant belly. It’s well past 1 am and the show seems over when Kindler announces a surprise appearance by Jackie Kashian, who warns us she is going to cram 30 minutes of material into eight. Great torrents of sweetly sarcastic words, it’s powerfully delivered, smart stuff. One story takes us back to her high school days where she goes psycho and slams down a kid tormenting her for being a nerdy girl. Kashian hosts The Dork Forest podcast.
Friday: Hanging out at the Paramount
Moontower Review: Mike Birbiglia
With Thank God for Jokes at Austin’s Moontower Comedy Festival, Mike Birbiglia delivers his funnieset material to date.
published Monday, April 28, 2014
Austin — The trend these days is to call Mike Birbiglia a storyteller because his last two shows were long narratives on a single topic: 2011’s My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend on his youthful misadventures in romance, and 2012’s Sleepwalk With Me on life with a sleeping disorder.
As his Friday Thank God for Jokes show at Moontower Comedy Festival proved, Birbiglia is above all a superb stand-up comedian. He may be telling tales, but they are super dense with funny lines. He’s a top-tier humorist—no wonder he was a Thurber Prize finalist—who possesses excellent delivery. Great waves of laughter rocked the Paramount. Not titters or chuckles or even reactionary guffaws, but deep satisfying belly laughs. At times people were gasping for breath and laugh-until-you-cry tears were streaming. My face hurt.
In this love song to comedy, Birbiglia asserted himself strongly as a comedian. A sub-theme of Thank God for Jokes was the trouble jokes could get you in, especially at work. He referred repeatedly to times when he knew he’d lost the audience, and vowed never use catch phrases like “Git ‘er done” as a crutch to end jokes. He tweaked his reputation as a “clean comic” and proceeded to be anything but. This tour, he asserted, was not much different that his early years roaming the Midwest in his mom’s borrowed station wagon, trying to get his foot in the comedy door, just with more practice and better confidence.
Birbiglia has a lovely way of starting his shows with congenial crowd work and sliding imperceptibly into the main show. It established an intimacy with the audience, as if he’s just telling jokes in a living room. Yet here Birbiglia was pulling it off in a 1300-seat theater. In this quick-to-offense age, among friends is about the only place you can wisecrack. It’s a delicious balance few comedians can pull off.
In the Thank God for Jokes collection of stories, Birbiglia recounted the embarrassment of:
• Being arrested in Weehawken, New Jersey, getting handcuffed and practically rutting with the police car in an effort to scratch itches he can’t reach;
• Getting chastised for bringing an unauthorized sandwich on walnut bread onto an airplane with a no-nuts policy, and being sent to the stinky bathroom to eat it;
• Alienating an audience by spontaneously cursing even before beginning his act as the inexplicable headliner at a live Muppets show;
• Finding himself compared to swoon actor James Van Der Beek and being found lacking by the audience at Late Night with Seth Meyers.
The Muppets section cascaded from humiliation to recrimination to giving into his inner badness and imagining some the puppet characters as heroin addicts “with Janice using Kermit the frog to tie her arm off,” concluding “I’m pretty sure that for this joke I am going to hell.”
Befitting the title Thank God for Jokes, a sub-theme was church, recounting his choirboy years and noting his desire to be a comedian was rooted in the way brother JoeBigs, as he’s known, would sing pop-culture parodies of hymns while everyone else was praising God. Birbiglia offered a very funny definition of the Holy Trinity and totally aced a description of Jesus as “a Jewish socialist. He’s the least popular demographic, especially with Christians.”
In between such anchor segments were a myriad of shorter vignettes. A piece on his cat Ivan’s protracted encounter with a brain-damaged mouse emphasized his superb skills as a physical comedian. His section bemoaning how he, as an on-time person, attracts “laties” who’ve vexed him all his life, was deeply relatable. As a “latie,” he totally made me laugh at myself even as he drew blood. A finely constructed show with impeccable rhythm, Thank God for Jokes deftly wove recurring elements and themes, and smoothly linked segments while allowing for applause breaks. The show’s extensive pre-tour workshopping at Union Hall in Brooklyn was evident in its polish.
Thank God for Jokes takes Birbiglia beyond being an ace at the embarrassing tale and honest chronicler of neuroses. Now we were treated to glimpses of the interior journey these incidents set off, a sense of how deeply frustrating it must be as the nice, naïve guy. Nearly 36 years old, he’s starting to see patterns and make connections. He’s facing head on his deep tendency toward self -delusion. There’s freedom in that. It’s more than 90 minutes of his best material yet.
Moontower Review: Kids in the Hall
The Kids in the Hall, performing in Dallas tonight, dust off the rust with two shows at Austin’s Moontower Comedy Festival.
published Sunday, April 27, 2014
Austin — The Kids in the Hall are rolling through Texas on their Rusty and Ready tour, a public outing of material destined for a longer Northeast tour in June. It’s a follow-up to their series of five reunion shows at their old stomping grounds, The Rivoli, in Toronto last December. (More on that project here.) After a two-night stint at Moontower Comedy & Oddity Festival in Austin, the show comes to the Majestic in Dallas on Sunday.
This was fresh-baked comedy, recently written and rehearsed that week at The New Movement in Austin. The newness was alluded to in an opening musical monologue by Kevin McDonald, which also recapped the Kids’ history for non-insiders, including the ill-fated movie Brain Candy’s five-million dollar loss. It was accompanied by a comically inept soft-shoe dance that provided the first of many references to their advancing ages: “We’re the group your grandpa told you about.”
The kick-off featured the sight gag of the Kids in wedding dresses, putting up front their well-known proclivity for cross-dressing. They waxed on the benefits of wearing them—“It’s easier to hail a cab”—and riffed about gay marriage, with Mark McKinney’s pregnant belly never mentioned. Bruce McCulloch tossed off a bit on a bank teller fantasizing about a wilder life. A bit on couples at a Brokeback Mountain screening, with the women oblivious to the men’s true relationship, went on a bit long.
McKinney and Scott Thompson spun off a sly satire about improv, portraying a pair trying to work-up a scene, parroting the phrases learned in improv class such as “Yes, and,” rather than actually learning from them. The scattered improv fans in the audience found it hilarious, causing others to look at us puzzled.
McCulloch’s surprising skills as an actor came to the fore in a skit on Canadian politeness and rush to apology. He genuinely copped to causing cancer, even Thompson’s near-fatal B-cell non–Hodgkin’s gastric lymphoma, an aggressive stomach cancer, as well as the other member’s divorces. McCulloch presented one of his trademark monologues with ruminations on being a super-nerd—“I’m on the spectrum”—and offered the best line of the night: “The conspiracy about government conspiracies is that they don’t exist.”
But it was the updating of classic characters that the fan base came to see, even though Headcrusher and Cabbage Head never showed up. Simply the appearance of Sir Simon Milligan (Kevin McDonald) and his evil sidekick Hecubus (Dave Foley) prompted huge cheers. Hecubus, the “boy toy of Hell,” got confused if he’s serving Santa or Satan in the Pit of Ultimate Darkness.
McKinney’s reprise of the lascivious Chicken Lady was well received. The aging avian femme fatale could no longer afford gigolos and was trying her hand at dating, but intended mate Foley would have none of it. Thompson turned in a polished Buddy Cole monologue on gay kids being bullied—“Trans is so much more chic than sissy”—and slacker teachers—“These days kids get stars for not waking up dead.”
Sketch acts now tend to go for satire, whereas the Kids prefer to tickle while whispering subversive nothings in your ear. They are Canadian warped, genuinely weird and Pythonesque, ever pushing their bits into absurdity. A skit on pretentious foodies went well past insanity. It’s a well-fluffed silliness with pointed messages embedded so deep they don’t kick in until two beats after the joke.
Rusty and Ready is a deeper show than prior reunions. Even if the rust flakes showed in the form of flubbed lines and performers frequently cracking up on stage, it’s good to see the group together again. The Kids fervent fan base was more than happy to laugh along. As McCullough signed off at the end: “Thank you for watching the rust fall off of us.”
Moontower Review: Marc Maron
Marc Maron proves why he’s a comedy god at Moontower Comedy Festival.
published Monday, April 28, 2014
Austin — Midnight on a Friday and the Paramount in Austin was packed. No matter that five solid hours of Moontower Comedy Festival in 10 venues had just gone down, people were ready for more. When comedy god Marc Maron of the famed WTF podcast comes to town, seats fill regardless of the time. True to fine Austin form, in spite of Maron’s cult following the two opening acts were treated well. Local comic Ryan Cownie proved to be an affable emcee, juggling three punchy comics and managing a well-lubricated crowd.
If you crossed Don Rickles with Richard Lewis, and mixed in a bit of Woody Allen, the result would be Andy Kindler, popping off insults, mainly of other comedians. It gets old. Really, more Jay Leno jokes? But at least he’s self-referential. He slammed Dane Cook and then wondered why he was poking a comic who peaked years ago. With his lean build and odd jerky, hunched pacing, he’s like a neurotic marionette. Best line: “I am not a practicing Jew. I’ve got it down.” He shines as Mort the funeral director in the popular animated FOX series Bob’s Burgers.
James Adomian is a classic stand-up comic in top form, with the strong stage command, verbal sophistication and audience mastery befitting a top 10 finalist of Last Comic Standing. A strapping, casually fit guy, he spun a set of gay humor from the perspective of “someone who doesn’t scan gay.” He explored the hyper-masculinity of beer ads that range from pastoral scenes with no women around, handsome faces sporting stubble that indicates the absence of women just “hanging out being bros,” to outright anti-girlfriend stuff one step shy of voodoo dolls. That pales to the high-gloss homoeroticism of shaving product ads, he said, with their slavish adoration of the male physique. Quite skilled in the manipulation of his voice, Adomian closed with a sharp impression of self-contemptuous Louis CK tucking a neurotically wracked Maron into bed.
Maron returned the volley, opening with impersonations of a schleppy, clueless Dave Attell (“Whaaat?”) and a perfect David Cross rife with hissing judgments, nervous heel hops and wriggling fingers. From there, he quickly morphed into classic Maron mode. Just a man and a microphone scrunched up on a high stool, sharing unfiltered thoughts. It’s a remarkable intimacy. Throughout his set Maron lived up to the personal disclaimer: “I may not always be funny, but I am compelling.”
A 40-minute version of the opening stream-of-consciousness segment of WTF ensued. The main entwined themes were Maron’s anger and relationships: “A river of rage runs through me all the time. I’m just trying to close the gap between angry outburst and apology.” Just a few minutes into his set, he began chastising a woman seated up front who was talking to a friend during his set. He repeated her excuse—“You don’t know what kind of day I’ve had”—to boos from audience; the Austin ethos is strong on artist respect. When she kept chatting, he aggressively razed her until she left: “I’ve been talking about anger and… there it is.”
There was plenty in the set to remind audience members that Maron was not just a personality, he was a comedian, one with many years in business. He even stepped out of his self-absorption to do material that had nothing to do with him. A fan of science, he presented a long depiction of gravity as interpreted by literal Christians, believers in visits by extraterrestrials, and hyper-rationalists. “Whatever bullshit you want to believe, you can find support on the internet,” said Maron. But it wasn’t the usual comic’s reactionary trashing of spiritualists. Maron went on to skewer the science establishment for freaking out when Dr. Rupert Sheldrake dared to postulate that the gravitational constant might not be so constant. Deep stuff, funny stuff.
Maron gave a heartfelt rap about the things he’s come to terms with, like no longer having drugs and drink as a crutch. He told of buying a pint of ice cream (“two servings, it says”) and then another to compensate, ultimately rising from a half-sleep later that night to finish them off. He shuffled over to the mic stand, the universal signal that a comic is closing their set. The audience shuffled in anxiety: the event they’d waited so long for was almost over. They leaned forward, hoping he’d stay a little longer. He obliged with a rant recapping his feud with Time Warner Cable and how even a service technician could deliver a jab to his psyche. And then he was gone, to be seen the next day on the streets of Austin, tracking down comics for the podcast, going about the very public business of his life.
Saturday: Finding the Oddity
published Sunday, April 27, 2014
Austin — On the final night of the Moontower Comedy & Oddity Festival, we went looking for the oddity part. The offbeat beat has long been my passion and there were plenty of weird and odd stand-up acts at Moontower, including Brent Weinbach, Daniel Webb, and the Sklar Brothers. There was also a giant chicken running around. Not sure what that was about. May be an Austin thing.
Certainly very Austin weird was on view at the PongRock Smack Down that took over the Stateside on Saturday afternoon. The Sklar Brothers dispensed commentary on the ping-pong competition and interviewed each round’s losers. Ari Shaffir made it to the final-four round, playing with his shirt off to intimidate the opposition (not) and eventually taking his pants off, too. Free booze was provided, but I guess you knew that.
The festival’s chief oddity was a seven-foot tall, morose, operatic clown called Puddles. He belted out numbers and interacted with the willing and not so willing. Appearing on stages, in bars and on the street, together with his diminutive and disturbing sidekick MonkeyZuma they are known as Puddle’s Pity Party. Some found him hilarious; others deemed him obtuse. We never managed to catch any of their appearances. But Dana Gould did, in a club with Arden Myrin, and described Puddles as terrifying.
Puddles’ cover of Lorde’s “Royals” has gotten over seven million views:
A more approachable version of Moontower oddity was the The Justin Willman Show featuring Bushwalla at the Hideout Theater on Saturday night. Willman brought the magic; Bushwalla provided the music and mischief. This was old-fashioned, close-up, misdirection magic, but done without traditional magician pretense or costume spangles.
Willman presented a good patter to the act, polished to distractable shiny-object brightness as a game-show host for Cupcake Wars on the Food Network. He’s a very likeable guy and you wanted to play along. Random suggestions from the audience were gathered, a sealed box opened, and all those suggestions would be written on paper inside. A banana was mashed up, folded into a napkin, and made to disappear. A bowling ball seemed to manifest instantly in the air and dropped to the floor with a thud. To conclude, numbers such as birthdates were compiled and added up to reveal that exact moment’s date and time. How the holy heck does he do all that!
While those tricks and illusions were flashy enough, Willman took the art of jacking with people’s perceptions a step beyond. He did a trick where a playing card seemed to get inserted inside a balloon. He then showed how it was done, a technique called palming. Then he actually did get that card inside the balloon. Or appeared to. You just never know.
Sure, a few inside magic props like reformulating string and magnets might be needed to pull a few tricks off. Doesn’t lessen a thing. Willman took his comedy and magic act into Moontower nightclubs where he had no control over stage and lighting. It required extreme dexterity and deftness on your feet to make it all look easy. An uncanny ability to manipulate common perception fallacies is essential, just as stand-ups manipulate ingrained thinking patterns. We’re predictable beasts. That’s why we’re easy to entertain.
Willman blows Jay Leno’s mind on The Tonight Show:
Providing a soundtrack to the magic, and serving as comic foil to Willman, was the impishly tuneful Bushwalla. Sort of a troubadour-jester played by Billy Galewood, he’s here to say what’s on your mind for you. Backing himself on keys and guitar, his music mashed folk, pop and hip-hop. It was Fallonesque in its silliness, with asides, one-liners and audience riffing that stretched a simple song into a minor epic.
A regular performer in Austin and Dallas, Bob Khosravi has a storyteller’s softness that drew you in. He led with material on his Middle East appearance, noting that no one wants to steal his backpack. He observed that Jews and Muslims were forbidden to eat bacon and perhaps that’s where the problem lay. What if they gave in to the porcine allure? “It’s way too delicious to be evil. What else could we be wrong about?”
Improv is where weird and odd thrives. Much too quietly inset into Moontower was the all-improv Hell Yes Fest, curated by Chris Trew, co-founder of The New Movement Austin where the events were held. TMN Austin’s fave groups—AC Lerok, Handbomb, Opposites and Waterpark—held down the performances. Austin’s elusive Girls, Girls, Girls musical improv group made an appearance.
But it’s the outside guests that made the Hell Yes Fest an official Big Deal. Trew brought in Apollo from The Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in New York City and HMS Death from California. Groups from The New Movement New Orleans included Dean’s List and Super Computer. Rich Talarico of Los Angeles, who is one-third of Dasariski and a staff writer for Comedy Central’s Key and Peele, came in for a special appearance with Trew and Vanessa Gonzalez, and to be subjected to The Megaphone Show.
TNM Talks, a live parody of TED Talks, seemed like a fantastically weird idea, but like most of Hell Yes Fest was well below Moontower radar. We visited The New Movement early Saturday night. The crowd was very small and the vibe extremely low key. Perhaps it was too early and the regulars were tuckered from workshops all day with out-of-town guests.
Improv events and centers often get tripped up by their insular tendencies. Those not in the improv circles can feel like outsiders and stand-up fans can be slow to understand the form. A festival like Moontower presents a tremendous challenge for improv to be noticed amid the stand-up rabble, and an equal opportunity for improv to break out of its clubhouse. Perhaps it should also be blended into the club lineups. Austin’s strong respect-the-performer ethic makes it one of the few cities that could pull it off.
published Tuesday, April 29, 2014
Austin — “Can’t you just see all that on Netflix?” So ask my friends about going to Austin for four days of Moontower Comedy & Oddity Festival. That’s their code for “Why submit yourself to the endless lines and crowds of a festival when you’re nearly 60 and have brittle bones?” Sure, I feel a bit zombified and asleep on my feet. I stayed up past 2 a.m. for nearly a week seeing two to four shows a night and writing about them all the next day. I may be too old for this, but I’m absolutely going to do it again.
Because through a television monitor you can’t hear people gasp when Maria Bamford makes a searing joke on suicide. You don’t see the guy next to you wiping tears from his face after laughing so hard at Mike Birbiglia. There’s no way to pick up the anticipation from a packed house as they tense up hoping that Marc Maron will extend his set just a little while longer—and the ecstatic release when he does. Life is made of moments, the only thing on your deathbed you’ll recall, and Moontower served up a banquet overflowing with moments.
For a Dallasite, it was more than a comedy experience extravaganza. Many of these comics will never appear in North Texas. The mainstream comedy clubs here book very conservatively—see Cap City Comedy for how it can be done in Texas—and those hip clubs that would love to don’t have the budget. Even though migration has brought us non-Southern blood, and most of the stereotypical conservatives we’re known for have moved north to Collin County, Dallas remains a tough crowd that likes it safe and is not willing to take many chances.
I am left with a heart full of gratitude that I got to see The Pajama Men, Maria Bamford, Brent Weinbach, Jen Kober and the unforgettable Bridget Everett. Same with Dana Gould and Andy Kindler who are also not likely to come here. Aggressive comics are not my thing, but I stumbled into sets by Godfrey and Brad Williams and was sincerely impressed. It changed my mind. All these exposures have accelerated my development as a comedy journalist and a person. And it would never have happened without Moontower.
Plus I got to know Austin a little better. I’m a jazz fan, so the town has never been a music mecca for me. In the five days I was there for Moontower, I discovered the oasis of sophisticated hippiedom that is South Austin, staying in the Zilker Retreat that had chickens and a vegetable garden outside our door. I hung out with funny people on the balcony of the Intercontinental Stephen F. Austin and marveled at the inebriated walking carnage that is Sixth Street. at 1 a.m. Frequent servings of really good healthy food and coffee helped counter the nights of drinking in bars. I had an Austin experience, worth the drive down I-35.