How Sweetlamb It Is
The Out of Bounds Comedy Festival's founder returns to power
Who is Jeremy Sweetlamb?
Yes, he's the producer of the Out of Bounds Comedy Festival that's turning Austin into a citywide nightclub of laughs this weekend, with more than 500 performers in 100 shows across six venues, but "producer" is just a title. Who is Jeremy Sweetlamb?
"Jeremy has championed improv in Austin for, what, like 15-plus years?" says Erika May McNichol of local improv troupe The Frank Mills. "Many of the improv hosses around town learned from him or were inspired by Well Hung Jury, his first troupe, so he's got both individual talent in his own right and improv legacy, to boot. And Jeremy's style of play as a performer has always defined the more typically 'Austin style' of improv: equal parts acting chops and 7-year-old goofball. Some people just spring forth as improvisers and don't really need much coaching to be awesome; Jeremy is that player. And he's a hustler. He started OOB. I think the first year was a single night, with local teams and troupes? Eleven years on, and he's producing one of the largest improv festivals in the U.S."
So the 32-year-old Texas native is the founder of the OOB, too. And the red-bearded impresario, whose family moved from Humble to the northern suburbs of Austin when he was two, is also a sort of autodidact savant of improvisation?
"Beyond him being the guy who had the initial vision and who is tremendously talented at simply getting shit done and seeing his plans through to completion," says former OOB producer Shannon McCormick, who runs Gnap! Theatre Projects, "I've always most respected Jeremy as a guy who wanted to build a specifically Austin approach to improv. He's not content in doing the kinds of formats that he might have learned elsewhere and brought here – he's always been more interested in seeing what we can add to the way improv is made. A lot of that comes from the Well Hung Jury being self-taught and working in isolation back in the day, but it also comes from his philosophical outlook: Why can't we make something new, why not try out all kinds of shows that might fall flat on their face, to see if we can learn something from the experiment? That spirit really informs the way our scene works now, whether people actively realize it or not."
But when did this spirit first begin to, ah, manifest itself? This year's OOB, as in all the previous ones, features a good slate of sketch and stand-up comedy, but is mostly predicated on improv. What got our innovative hero hooked on the art form?
"Probably watching it on TV, when I was 13 or 14," says Sweetlamb. "I was watching the old English Whose Line Is It Anyway? – those reruns on Comedy Central? And I was like, "Oh man, it'd be cool to do that." I didn't get into theatre until my junior year in high school, and improv is just so accessible. Eventually, it just grabbed me, like, 'This is what you're supposed to do for a long time.'"
And from there, Sweetlamb moved on to the live stuff. In his senior year of high school, he attended a ComedySportz show at Northcross Mall. "And they pulled me up onstage and I did some translation thing and I got a couple of big laughs, and it felt really great. And after the show, I was like, 'Wow, that was so much fun. I'm coming back every weekend!'" But he never went back. Mostly for one reason: He'd discovered Monks' Night Out. The now-legendary sketch and improv troupe was, in the Nineties, working at the Velveeta Room. "And there were several weekends," says Sweetlamb, "when I'd drive down from the 'burbs and go to Monks' Night Out shows." And was that what led to his own first troupe, the Well Hung Jury?
"In a roundabout way, yes," says Sweetlamb. "And I don't know that they remember this, but I auditioned for Monks' Night Out. They used to do these audition troupes, and I got in one of them. It was called Los Paranoias, and Pam Ribon was the director. And we were together for about three or four months, and then the Monks were like, 'Okay, you're not a troupe anymore – and those of you we like, we're going to put in Monks' Night Out.' So I got all my friends from Westwood, from the suburbs, and brought them down to the next Monks audition. And none of us got cast. Which, to be honest, kind of upset me a little. So we were like, 'Okay, we'll start our own group.' And that led to Well Hung Jury."
"The Jury was always working," says Mike D'Alonzo, another former OOB producer and former member of the Knuckleball Now, now with G4 Media in Los Angeles. "When Jeremy and I were roommates, they were rehearsing three and four days a week, and they already were so close and knew each other so well that it was like watching an alien hive discuss planetary invasion."
And when the Jury couldn't afford to book a venue and the Hideout was unavailable, "I just said 'Screw it, we can do this anywhere,'" says Sweetlamb. "And that spiraled into us doing five shows in one week at weird places: the No. 8 Cap Metro bus, atop a parking garage, in Barton Creek, on Hancock Golf Course, and on the steps of the Capitol. It made for some interesting interactions with normals and employees."
And then came the Big Stinkin' International Improv and Sketch Comedy Festival, started by a few of the former Monks, which flared like a Hollywood nova for a couple of years and then, almost as spectacularly, imploded.
"Big Stinkin' was an example of how not to do things, of the necessity of living within one's means," says McCormick. "And when OOB started up, Jeremy and the Jury being mostly college kids, the means were small. I don't think anyone could have pictured it becoming as big as it's become."
Over time, the Jury morphed into Available Cupholders, the troupe that Sweetlamb's still in and which will be performing at this year's OOB – where there will also be, mirabile dictu, a Monks' Night Out reunion on Friday, including MNO leader Marc Pruter, currently in St. Louis; Pam Ribon, now a novelist in L.A.; Jon Wiley, a design team leader for Google; local improvisers Estevan J. "Chuy" Zarate (Your Dad's Friends, the Latino Comedy Project) and David Lampe (Oxymorons, Austin Theatresports), and stand-up comic Matt Sadler, who hasn't done improv in Austin since the Monks dissolved.
And there's much more, of course (see Who's WhOOB), although the 11-year-old OOB is nowhere near the size, at least audience-wise, of relative newcomers to the scene: Moontower Comedy and Oddity Festival, and the comedy stages of South by Southwest and Fun Fun Fun Fest.
"But those other festivals," says Sweetlamb, "they focus on stand-up. And we do feature stand-up – we've got four nights at the Velveeta Room – but there's two angles that I'm rocking ad infinitum: community and improv-and-sketch. And there are those little moments that you can't really get at any other festival, where you just kind of stumble onto somebody in a 50-seat theatre, and you see something that's amazing and you get to share it with a small number of other people. So that experience is something else we can offer. And we just have tons of people from out of town and from Austin showing off the best that they can do. For a lot of performers, it's the show of the year for them."
Sweetlamb smiles a row of teeth into the clearing amid his neatly trimmed beard. "I just love the festival atmosphere of escalation and hype, everything happening all at once," he says. "And we've experienced this kind of measured expansion and we're very careful about not going into debt to produce the thing – that's my conservative look on business and also the fear of wanting-to-still-exist. So if we have to stay small or grow slowly, even while all these giants are popping up around us, then, that's fine. It's weird to say that, though. I mean, we've been here 11 years, and all of a sudden we're the underdog. But I love being the underdog. I love having the least money on the block. I excel most under lowered expectations. It's hard for me to sit here and say how important I am without sounding like a huge prick, and it's hard to know why scenes build, expand, and thrive the way they do. What I hate most at the festival is if there's low audience turn-out. Because it breaks my heart for the performers, and the audience feels awkward, and it's kind of a downward spiral. You want to hit that threshold where every house is at least half-full and everyone's having a good time and all the performers go back to wherever they're from and say, 'Yeah, that's a great festival.'"
Out of Bounds Comedy Festival, Jeremy Sweetlamb, Austin improv, Jeremy Lamb, Erika May McNichol, The Frank Mills, Mike D'Alonzo, Shannon McCormick, Well Hung Jury, ComedySportz, Monks' Night Out, Pam Ribon, Chuy Zarate, Shana Merlin, David Lampe, Marc Pruter, Jon Wiley, Matt Sadler, Gnap! Theatre Projects, Available Cupholders