The Ups and Downs of Comedy
Hanging with the stand-ups for a look into the life
It's not easy, making people laugh.
And, that's right, you heckling smart-ass: Next we'll tell you that water is wet.
But what's also not so easy, besides the jokesmithing itself, is the stuff comedians go through in and around their relatively few minutes in the spotlight. Especially when they're just starting out in the business, especially when they're still working some (barely tolerable or weirdly beloved) day job and grabbing gigs wherever they can in town, and maybe a show or two on the road every now and then. In the mean times, in the lean years before they become the next Chris Rock or Sarah Silverman or Louis C.K. or whoever, you know?
Well, maybe you don't know. Maybe you know even less than we knew (though that's unlikely) before we sat down with four local stand-ups to ask what it's like – what are the best things and the worst things about trying to make it as a professional comic in Austin?
Jake Flores. Kerri Lendo. Seth Cockfield. Lashonda Lester. You can often see these guys and gals onstage, maybe headlining at the Velveeta Room, maybe featuring at Cap City Comedy Club, certainly improving the boards at any comedy open mic in or around this city's limits.
They were chosen almost at random from the few dozen Austin-based acts we've seen in the past year. It's a sweet secondary thing that these four are equally divided between genders and are ethnically diverse, hells yeah, but there's a primary thing, too: All four of these up-and-comers are really funny.
No, seriously. Unlike some of what you might suffer at an open mic, none of these four are onstage and wasting your time as they attempt to live out some pathetic and talentless fantasy of Comedy Superstar; no, they're onstage and fierce and making you laugh your lucky ass off.
And what do they go through for the privilege of doing that? We start with the positive stuff, first.
Jake Flores: The best thing, I think, is just the scene here. Which is awesome. Every time I meet a comic who comes from out of town or has moved here from somewhere else, they're just blown away by the amount of stage time available here. And the people – it's a big community we have, it's fun.
Lashonda Lester: There are so many talented people here, with so many different styles. And even if it's not, like, your preferred type of comedy, they make you receptive.
Seth Cockfield: The best thing about this scene is definitely the accessibility, how much you can do comedy in this town. There's, like, nine open mics a week, and if one drops down, another one will sprout up somewhere else. It's thriving and ever-changing. And there are a lot of people to be influenced by, both negatively and positively. Like: What to do, what not to do. There are so many comics in this town; everybody's striving to be perfect; it's kind of cool.
Kerri Lendo: I remember when I first moved here, just getting to meet really big comics that I loved and watched on TV, that was great. Since it's such a small town, being able to walk right up to them and talk to them, and they'll watch your set at an open mic – which I don't think would happen if you were in a bigger city.
Cockfield: The headliner from Cap City came and saw my set on Thursday night, and it was dirtier than the stuff I was doing at Cap. And it was just an open mic, it was new stuff, but he came up to me, and he was like, "Why don't you do more butt material at Cap City?"
Flores: The other thing about the scene is, because Austin is such a creative, artsy kinda town, the scene here reflects that. There's a lot of room for growth for really unique, interesting, experimental comedic voices here. Whereas, a lot of other places, in some other city you might have just, like, a strip-mall club, it's like a business, and they're like, "We just need you to entertain these people" or whatever. But, here, there's a big crazy arena for all sorts of different types of comedy, so you see a lot of really interesting comics come out of here like Chuck Watkins. He came from Austin, and I can't really imagine seeing him anywhere else. Like going to El Paso and seeing a guy like Chuck Watkins? They'd kill him there.
Lendo: In another town, I wouldn't have been able to be featuring as soon as I did. Even at any point. Even being able to do a half-hour is hard in other cities. I know people who were featuring, who move from here – they go to L.A. or New York, and they can't do that anymore.
Cockfield: And industry has its ear here: They definitely know about us. Like, the past five or six [Funniest Person in Austin contest] winners have gone on to do TV, or, if not TV, they've gotten a lot more work and notoriety. Winning that contest is a big deal – big enough to where it's worth moving here and trying to win it.
Lendo: You get to experience industry here, but you don't have to pay a high rent.
Flores: Totally. And industry doesn't go a lot of other places. Most other cities don't have industry at all. It's just, like, L.A. or New York and, for some reason, they drop in here. Part of that is the FPIA – that's when all the industry comes here. It's once a year, so you've been working on your stuff all year and you get one shot to try to make something happen in front of industry.
Cockfield: It's great, because the way FPIA affects you onstage and offstage, it's pretty drastic. There are some people who have, like, a certain swagger going into it, and then the contest comes, and it's their night, and they just fall to pieces. But then they'll get up onstage and have a breakout set that you never thought you'd see them have, because rarely do they have the opportunity to do a solid set where that many people are there to see them.
Austin Chronicle: You all do the contest every year?
[nods all around]
AC: Okay, so what's bad about doing comedy in this town?
Lendo: I guess the biggest thing is that there aren't as many opportunities as there are in a bigger city, there's stuff you miss out on. But there are still spots you won't get here, too. It's pretty competitive, just because there are so many comics.
Flores: You can't monopolize the scene here, like you could in a smaller town.
Lester: It makes you work harder, though. Because you wanna get to that point, so you go back and you're like, "Can I fine-tune this?" So you can get where you want to be next year.
Lendo: But if you're not somebody's cup of tea at the club, then you're screwed. Because there's only, like, three. I mean, that stinks, when you're like, "Oh, I just can't work here very often."
Cockfield: And the rules and etiquette, each club is a little different. And the kind of comedy you have to do to excel differs at each club. Comics, as people, it's hard for them to be on their best behavior all the time. But it seems like the standard for comics is "You have to be on your best behavior all the time." Like, if you're working and getting paid to do comedy, you have to be pretty sharp – and that's a challenge for a lot of comics.
Lester: It's still a business, and I think a lot of people don't realize that – because it's comedy. Somebody's making a lot of money off it, and they don't want to get people who are, like, unbalanced. I mean, if you can't order a drink at the bar or whatever without cussing everybody out, you can't get onstage.
Flores: What it boils down to, and this isn't necessarily about Austin, it's just that comedy is really hard to do – anywhere. It's kind of a crazy, hard thing to do.
Lendo: Even some of the people, comics I love, who seem like they're working all the time, still don't make a living off it.
Cockfield: And sometimes you're in a groove, but then you're doing that last show of the week, and it hits you that you'd rather be doing anything else than doing your set one more time. ... It's those times that you're like, "It's fine, I'm gonna do this," but then the wind gets knocked out of you, they don't like your first joke, and you're like, "Okay, screw you guys."
Lester: You just never know. Like at the Velv, it's so – you just never know. You could be like, "Wow, I killed; I'm the shit." And the very next show, it's like, "What happened?"
Flores: The Velv is a really cool part about the Austin comedy scene, because it's constantly grounding you in reality.
Cockfield: Yeah, they'll bring you back down to Earth. I do the open mic at Cherrywood Coffeehouse, and we get a lot of newbies, a lot of people I've never seen before. They come to Cherrywood every week, and I never see them anywhere else. And I overheard this one kid, he was like: "Cherrywood's kind of like soft landing, you can do whatever you want. I haven't done the Velv, but I went and checked it out, and, man, it's like you gotta be serious if you're gonna do the Velveeta Room."
Lendo: Or you'll hear somebody say, "Yeah, I did the Velv, then I didn't do comedy for a while."
AC: What's the worst night you've had onstage doing comedy in this town?
Lendo: Just the sets, there are so many that go wrong, I just try to block them out. There were plenty where nobody laughed. And you just go through it like a robot and get off.
Lester: I bombed at the Velv when I first started, and I was only telling jokes to, like, three people and some chairs. It was just terrible, because I did this joke about ... bowling with people's heads. And everybody was looking at me like I was crazy. And it was 1 o'clock in the morning, and I was like, "I just wanna go home."
Lendo: The shows where you're like, "The audience doesn't wanna be here; I don't wanna be here; nobody invited me; I should just get off the stage." It's just some weird formality that I keep going.
Cockfield: Sometimes you think you're gonna have a great show, and you don't, and it's just compounded, it feels like The Worst Thing Ever.
Lendo: The worst is when you know that people are staying just to be polite.
Cockfield: And you're just finishing your set to be polite.
Flores: Sometimes it's the audience or the venue or the show – and the other half, it's you. Do you guys get that?
Cockfield: I try to never blame the audience. I'm like, I should have the ability to adjust and make these people laugh, even if it means reverting back to old stuff or being a little hokier or whatever. But then, sometimes there's nothing you can do.
Lendo: I did one set where there were six people there. And four of them were a bridesmaid party, and the bride didn't speak English. And most of the other people didn't speak English.
Lester: I remember that show!
Lendo: And at first I was like: "Are they just shy? Is that why they're not answering?" And then I realized they were translating it down the line. And I was like, "What am I supposed to do?"
Cockfield: If I'm gonna name any names, it's gonna be Homer's Bar & Grill, which will never die, because Homer wants to keep the show no matter what. It's the only place, beside the other two main clubs, where you can get paid to do a weekend show. But it's ridiculous, because it's so demoralizing. It's legal to smoke in there, and the audience is a bunch of people who aren't there for the show – they're there for karaoke. So the karaoke is like this carrot on a stick behind us, and the audience is trying to get at it, and they really don't wanna see us.
Lendo: The last time I did Homer's, the mic was stuck on reverb. So I had to do my whole set in reverb.
Cockfield: The worst night I had onstage was my first time getting knocked out of the finals of FPIA. Because I made it to the semis my first year, and I tried a new joke, and I ... blanked. In the middle of the set, I had good rhythm, and I tried the new joke and completely blanked. And it was just dead silence. And I took a sip of my beer and just abandoned it completely and finished my set. And Matt Bearden came up to me after, and he was like, "What happened?" And I said, "I tried a new joke." And he was like, "Ahhh, ahhh," and he just walked away. Didn't console me – it was more like, "You idiot."
Flores: We did these shows at Beerland, these roasts, and we roasted Santa Claus one year. And I got this idea that I was gonna be the Grinch. And I got really fuckin' – let's say, drunk – with someone. And I was telling them, "I'm gonna do this set as the Grinch, and I'm gonna do the whole thing in rhyme." And I thought it was a really good idea. And I ended up getting really drunk – actually drunk – at the show and trying to work out this rhymed joke set that made no sense. And so I was hammered on stage, with this green paint all over my face, sweating, and the whole thing just fell apart. It still haunts me.
Cockfield: You'll be happy to know, Jake, that I still think of that show as a success.
Flores: Yeah, the show was pretty good. That's a situation where it was my own brain that ruined it for me.