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Experience Joy

The quality comedy at SXSW 2012 is worth making extra time for

Reviewed by Dan Solomon, Fri., March 16, 2012

Experience Joy

People don't typically come to Austin in March just for the comedy at South by Southwest – but given the high-quality, freewheeling nature of the 2012 class of performers, you could do worse if you're looking to start. If you weren't prepared this weekend for the fact that virtually every act booked is a major draw, then you probably had to duck and weave, fitting showcases, live podcast recordings, and stand-up showcases into your slate of Interactive panels and Film screenings. (Now that you know, try to make some extra time in your schedule.)

That's how things went for me – I managed to squeeze in Kelly Carlin's one-woman show, A Carlin Home Companion, on Saturday afternoon. The setup wasn't ideal – the show is a tale fraught with drug abuse, betrayals, and loss (along with a good number of laughs), and a ballroom in the Austin Convention Center, where badge-holders listened with one ear while they checked email on their phones, isn't exactly prime. Not that the conditions mattered much to Carlin, who clearly picked up some of the performance chops that come with the family name.

Her monologue tells her full life story, but she's a sensitive and attentive enough storyteller that she knows that if she titles a show A Carlin Home Companion, then it's George Carlin that an audience is going to want to hear about. There's something remarkable about a performer who's so willing to cast herself as a side character in her own experiences if it serves the narrative, and her show is about growing up the daughter of a hero of the counterculture. While Kelly Carlin obviously shares her father's love of wordplay and imagery (on Milwaukee's SummerFest, where her father was arrested in 1972: "It was an ocean of beer surrounding an island of sausage,"), she may exceed him when it comes to grace and generosity as a storyteller.

Grace and generosity aren't among comedian Marc Maron's top attributes but give him insight, honesty, and curiosity, which made his Sunday taping of the beloved WTF podcast a unique live experience. On the podcast, Maron typically conducts an in-depth, one-on-one interview with a comic or comedic actor from his garage – for this edition, he spoke with Larry Sanders and Arrested Development alum Jeffrey Tambor at Esther's Follies. Initially, the things that make Maron's podcast such a gem – the fact that he tries on every recording to make a sincere connection with the person he's talking to and the open curiosity that makes him a fearless interviewer – were muddled in front of a live audience. Maron and Tambor are both performers, and the laughs from a packed room are awfully addictive.

This made the fact that Maron managed to build the sort of rapport that he typically reserves for guests in the garage all the more remarkable. At some point in the taping, the two performers decided to stop being ashamed of sincerity, and the audience was treated to a genuine conversation. Tambor talked about working as a stage actor and learning from George C. Scott; they discovered that they're both at least nine years sober and that the fear of never working again often lasts several decades into a successful career – the sort of things that people don't often talk about in public, and all with dirty jokes. At one point, Tambor shared a touching, personal anecdote, and Maron laughed. "What are you laughing at?" Tambor asked, seemingly worried that he'd exposed himself too much. "That's how I experience joy," Maron replied.

There was more joy to experience later that night at the stand-up showcase featuring the cast of Fox's Bob's Burgers. Sets from the animated show's stars Kurt Braunohler, Larry Murphy, and Dan Mintz were uneven, with a mix of killer laugh lines, bad impressions, and – ugh – rape jokes, those old comedy standbys. Those performances were bookended, though, by Eugene Mirman sharing his old report cards, letters to his parents from teachers, and high school notebooks – like a performance on Mortified by a stand-up who usually works theatres – and by Daily Show correspondent (and recurring 30 Rock actor) Kristen Schaal.

Schaal's brand of comedy is weird, in italics like that, and eschews jokes for absurdist performance art. She came onto the stage delivering a spoken-word rendition of Guns n' Roses' "Welcome to the Jungle," threatened a 90-minute knock-knock joke, read a prolonged riff on The Vagina Monologues about a "body part we're ashamed of" that has no medical name, and concluded by performing an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Match Girl," because – well, because it's SXSW Comedy, and it has entered some serious "anything goes" territory.

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