Running the Funny
Club manager Margie Coyle has kept the laughter going for 20 years
It's four minutes after 11 o'clock on a Tuesday morning, and Margie Coyle, hair framing her face in a tangled hemisphere of loose brown curls, walks into Austin's Cap City Comedy Club. In her hands is a large Tupperware container filled with something dark. "Good morning," she says, flashing me a smile, setting the container on the box-office counter. "We're going to have brownies later."
Coyle is the manager of the longtime comedy venue, the cavernous and carpeted double-staged emporium that helped launch the careers of Bill Hicks and Ron White and Mitch Hedberg and George Lopez back in the day. The place that has more recently nurtured and promoted Martha Kelly, Jimmie Roulette, Matt Bearden, and other talented locals. The place, anchoring its strip-mall corner in the lopsided triangle formed where Anderson Lane and Research Boulevard run in to North Lamar, that offers live entertainment every night of the week and is a regular focus of national attention.
"You haven't been waiting long, have you?" asks Coyle. "You wanna get some coffee? These guys have it set up in the kitchen." These guys: Travis Hagan and Andy Ritchie, two men prowling the office area, answering phones, taking reservations, making photocopies, updating the website. Hagan is a musician, an intentional stranger to the Cap City stage; Ritchie moonlights as a featured comic and emcee. The java is strong and hot.
"It's good coffee, right?" says Coyle. She's been Cap City's manager since 1989; these days, she's also a co-owner of the business, running the day-to-day and planning the months ahead from a small, paper-packed office adjoining the venue's lounge. And this day, I'm going to follow her like a shadow because I want to know: What does it take to run a successful comedy club? What is it like taking care of the steady rigmarole in order to showcase people whose main goal is to make an audience laugh and forget, for a few hours, the duller parts of their own quotidian lives?
"Oh, you're gonna be bored," says Coyle in her office. "I just make phone calls, answer e-mails, that kind of thing. Well, we do have a meeting at 2 o'clock with a Twitter expert – we're trying to get up to speed with that whole thing. The Internet, right? And there's a managers' meeting. We've got to go over the menu changes and get the drinks figured out."
Of course: Alcoholic drinks are very important to a comedy club, aren't they?
"Food and beverage sales," says Coyle, "are very ...." Her phone rings.
While Coyle attends to the call, I look around the small room, glancing at the dozens of weekly promo fliers that blanket the walls with multicolored planes of Cap City history. The club goes way back, beyond the fliers' reckoning, to a time before DVDs and cell phones and people who you barely knew in junior high sending you virtual Tom Waits memorabilia on Facebook: All the way back to March of 1985. Ronald Reagan was president then, the space shuttle Challenger was a year away from disaster, and Sandy and Howard Marcus opened an Austin comedy club that they called the Laff Stop. Ten years later, after new owners Bruce and Colleen Barshop had the place remodeled, the name was changed to ...
"My daughter's putting together a soccer tournament," says Coyle, setting her phone aside. "She doesn't understand why I can't drop everything and call the other parents right now."
"So you're Margie Coyle, Club Manager, and Margie Coyle, Soccer Mom?"
She nods, smiling. "What were we talking about? Drinks, right? That's how we stay alive; that's how we're able to pay the comedians and bring in the big names. We sustain ourselves on food and beverage sales. Without the minimum, every comedy club in the country would go belly-up."
Ah, right: People pay to see a show, and then there's a two-drink minimum.
"It's not drinks," amends Coyle, "it's a two-item minimum. We stopped calling it a two-drink minimum because of TABC [Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission]. And also, how ugly is that, to force somebody to drink alcohol?"
So the minimum could be, like, a Coke and some nachos?
"Absolutely," says Coyle. "We kind of get a black eye because we have minimums, but it's standard across the country. It's necessary for survival when you're doing shows seven nights a week. I also think that everybody that comes in here is an adult, so if you can just get past the fact that you're being 'told' to do something, because it's not about that, it's just ... be prepared to spend some money when you're here, right?"
That's necessary even when there are already 60 reservations for tonight's show? And 300 for Thursday night?
"Well, comedy clubs paper a lot; that's no secret. There are a lot of free tickets given out, to the press, to friends, radio promotions. It's hard to fill a room. I don't go out to other live venues a lot, but I wouldn't imagine, on a Tuesday night in Austin, that there are music venues with 300 or 400 people in them, right? I think people don't understand how hard it is to get the general public to get out of the house, get in the car, and pay a cover charge or a ticket price and come to see a show."
Still, 60 reservations so early in the day. For a Tuesday night show. And the headliner this week is a local guy, Matt Bearden, who's funny as hell, sure, but does ... Coyle's phone rings.
"Oh – hi, Rich," says Coyle.
That will be Rich Miller, one of the five other co-owners of Cap City. Rich Miller is the brother of Dennis Miller, a comedian who has (to put it mildly) made a bit of a name for himself. He's also the brother of Jimmy Miller, who manages Will Ferrell and produced Elf and Land of the Lost and is a principal in Mosaic Entertainment. Rich and another co-owner, Colleen McGarr, often travel across the country, scouting new and signable acts.
"That was Rich," affirms Coyle. "Andy," she shouts into the other room. "Tom Arnold's taking dates."
"That's great," says Ritchie, tapping at his keyboard.
"We didn't know if Tom Arnold was going to be doing shows anytime soon," explains Coyle. "Rich just found out."
So Miller handles the booking for Cap City?
"He's been doing it for a long time," says Coyle. "The headliners and the features, negotiating with the big names. But he's very good about keeping it an open forum, too, especially for the features. Like he'll call and ask, 'What do you think about this person? How about this person?' because he's not here; he's in Minnesota. He's also booking Helium Comedy Club in Philadelphia, which is a really hot club right now. And he's still managing comedians, setting up dates; he's got a roster of about a dozen. He worked with Ron White before Ron White was Ron White – so he's been doing this forever."
And Coyle, she tells me, books the emcees and openers herself. Besides dealing with the rest of the business?
"Well ..." she begins, but the phone rings. It's a freelance journalist, Steve Birmingham, calling about the possibility of interviewing some comedian.
"Yeah," she tells me, after hanging up, "sometimes it can be ..."
The phone rings again. It's comedian Martha Kelly calling to discuss the upcoming episode of her webcast video In the Can. I look around the office, scanning the fliers again. There's some image in the far corner – reminds me of that logo of Juan Valdez and his pack mule. As Coyle attempts to convince her friend to do a brief bit for the night's opening act, I head to the kitchen to replenish my coffee.
"These are the brownies I was telling you about," says Coyle to Chandy Popp at the managers' meeting. Popp is the club's director of operations. Marc McManus, the main bartender, is also there. It's 1 o'clock.
"They look yummy," says Popp, taking a brownie.
"We've been talking about them for a while," says Coyle, passing the treats around. "I think we should add them to the menu. Look at them, totally made from scratch in my own home. Hours of labor." The way she says it, you can tell she's bullshitting, that the brownies – way tasty, actually – are as store-bought as they look.
"We'll have to change the dessert cards," says Popp.
"We need to add those new drinks anyway, right?" says Coyle.
"Have you decided which ones?" asks McManus. "And what you're gonna call them?"
"The frozen mojito?" says Coyle.
"That's a frojito," says Popp. "They're pretty popular right now."
"Fro-ji-to," says Coyle.
"Frojito," says McManus. "Are we gonna need to get fresh mint for those?"
"We're gonna need to make space on the drink cards," says Popp. "Especially if you want to bring back that one martini."
"The oatmeal cookie one," says Coyle. "We sold a lot of those, didn't we?"
"Where do you think would be the best place to get mint around here?" asks McManus.
Eventually the dessert/beverage/card problems are solved, the bartender exits, and Coyle and Popp discuss the kitchen. One of the waitrons recently bailed; a new cook needs to be hired; the health inspector's due for a visit; the ice machine, which had flooded the week before, is finally running smoothly after six hours of repair. Typical food-service folderol, all in a day's work – in the comedy business. And how exactly does one ...?
"I had a finance degree from UT, and I was working at Paine Webber," Coyle tells me back in her office. "But I was waiting tables here at night – it was the Laff Stop then – to supplement my income. And Angela Davis, who produces The Dudley & Bob [Morning] Show on KLBJ, was doing the marketing here during the day – along with doing the Laff Staff improv troupe at night. That was back from '85 to '87, and I started working here in '87. And Angela decided to move to L.A., so her position opened, and I said, 'Yeah, I'll do it.' So I left the early-morning environment of Paine Webber and moved over here and started doing this job in, um, maybe '89. And then the Barshops decided to sell the club, and we took over in 2002, on New Year's Eve. Now it's owned by Mish Mash Inc., and that's me and my husband, Alex; Rich and Lisa Miller; and another couple: Colleen McGarr and Duncan Strauss."
And has comedy always been a part of Coyle's life?
"I've always loved pranksters and people that are funny – I love to laugh. And, professional comedy, well, I saw Gallagher when I lived up near Dallas – that was probably my first live comedy experience. And during his set, they actually kicked somebody out. Somebody up front wouldn't stop talking, so Gallagher just got a chair and sat there on the stage and waited while security escorted the people out."
Is that sort of thing a problem at Cap City? Not Gallagher but hecklers?
Coyle smiles. "I like to think we do a pretty good job of making people shut up if they shouldn't be talking. But you always have your drunk person who thinks they're gonna be the star of the show, right? Unfortunately, it's just part of the beast, you know – but we're not known for that; we don't get much of that here. That's another reason comedians want to play Cap City: We put an audience in front of them that is, in general, educated, mature, and hip. They know what's going on. And they're a good mix, too, because they'll laugh at Larry the Cable Guy and they'll laugh at somebody who's cerebral, like a John Ramsey or a Matt Bearden. That's why the ..."
"Margie," calls Andy Ritchie from the other room, "your Twitter person is here."
After the 2 o'clock Twitter consultation, Coyle meets with a man who's going to repair a few of the main room's many chairs. "What you're missing this afternoon," says Coyle as five worn chairs are hauled into the sunbaked lot beyond the club's cool interior, "is the excitement of having an out-of-town headliner come in, especially a big name. There's usually more of a sense of anticipation before the show. Matt, being local," she laughs, "we're kind of used to him." After another soccer-mom phone call and a brief copier misalignment, as the day begins to shift toward night, Coyle explains how Cap City brings local comedians to national attention.
"The Funniest Person in Austin is truly that vehicle," she says. "I'm really proud of it. The contest is also the major thing for us to gauge who we can use in the club. Because, in addition to the big headliners, we were bringing in features from out of town and putting them up in hotel rooms, and that gets expensive. And we realized: There's plenty of local talent here; we don't need to be bringing in features.
"I think that, in the last five years, the scene has become so strong that sometimes our feature acts can give the headliners a run for their money. Not very often, because Rich does a really good job of bringing in top names, but we've got such great talent here. And that's not just from the Cap City perspective: It's a perception outside the club as well. I mean, everybody knows that you go to L.A. and New York – that's where the industry is, where the shows are being made and the deals are going down, among ICM and Three Arts and Mosaic and all those guys, right? But now those guys are coming here to find talent. And people from Just for Laughs, the big Montreal festival – it's the South by Southwest of comedy; it's a monster – they come down here, too. And once a year we'll put together a Montreal showcase, and they'll come to see that, because they know this scene as a place for comedy. And the women from Comedy Central, JoAnn Grigioni and Anne Harris, they've been coming to the contest for nine years, and now Andy [Ritchie] and Chuck Watkins and Eric Krug and Daniel Jackson have been selected for their Live at Gotham series."
What Coyle leaves unsaid is her own role in drawing that national eye to Austin's comedy scene, in taking the time to work with young comics and to be there with the needed pep talks when the going gets tough, to match the fresh faces to gigs at her club and beyond: This is why she was inducted into the Austin Arts Hall of Fame in 2008 and why she's so well liked in the community.
So tonight's headlining gig is a good thing for Matt Bearden, and, of course, he (who was interviewed for this story; visit austinchronicle.com/webextra for a transcript) is a good thing for Cap City?
Coyle nods. "Matt's an unusual example of somebody who can headline even though he hasn't necessarily done much road work. He may beg to differ with me on that, but there's no way he can tell me he's done road work. But he knows how to close a room, how to do a complete 45 minutes. He can carry the audience with him for an entire set – like, you know, when you go to see Seinfeld." She turns off her iPod, shutting down a seemingly endless shuffle of contemporary country songs; it's almost 5:30pm and time to meet her husband for supper.
Eight o'clock, and the joint, as they say, is jumping. While the main room down the hall is quiet and sparse with citizens taking a defensive driving class – one of those odd revenue-generating situations comedy clubs have become known for – Cap City's bar lounge is packed with people. Regulars and one-time visitors alike crowd the tables in front of the stage, lean against the bar, mill around the edges of the room, drinking, chatting, noising the bright scene with a diversity of voices and the faint clinking of ice against glass. As tonight's opening act, emcee Dan French will do a long set featuring seven different comics doing five minutes each of their prime stuff: a sort of appetite-whetting smorgasbord, a variety of food for laughs before the ornately mustachioed Bearden takes the stage and gives the audience what for. Coyle, sitting next to me at the edge of the crowd, watches as Martha Kelly does her bit, as Bryan Gutmann and Kerri Lendo and others take their turns bringing the room to laughter.
"These guys are good, right?" says Coyle, as I chuckle into my White Russian. In fact, they are. They're like television, like YouTube – except that they're here, live in front of you, performing without a video-editing net and putting their excitements and anxieties on display for public amusement. Clowns without face paint, working words instead of props. "And Bearden," I suggest, "is even better."
"A lot of people like him," says Coyle, smiling. "He's definitely a professional."
French sends the last opener off and announces the headliner; the crowd claps its appreciation.
"But this place isn't just the talent onstage," says Coyle over the din of applause, making a very managerial, backed-by-two-decades-of-experience point. She leans close, emphatic and sincere, as Bearden steps into the spotlight and adjusts the microphone. "The people that work here, and the owners, they're all good people," says Coyle. "And if you surround yourself with good people, it pays off, right? Day after day, that's what it's all about: Work hard, be honest, and if it doesn't work after all of that, it's probably never gonna happen."
At Cap City Comedy Club, it's happening.
Read Matt Bearden's interview here.