South by Southwest is an annual bundle of joy for so many, but there's also a curmudgeonly faction of locals who find it an intrusive and obnoxious spectacle. Such stiffs should take note that there are eight days' worth of golden opportunities to laugh in the bearded face of adversity. One can circumvent the trademark channels by nesting on the Festival's uproarious margins along with the funniest people on earth.
SXSW Comedy has been an adjunct to the Music, Film, and Interactive wheelhouse since 2008: drawing the industry's best, most innovative, and undeniably promising to perform inside the city limits, despite its second-tier treatment by Festival organizers and publicists.
Perhaps indicative of an expanding footprint within the greater enterprise, SXSW Comedy's 2012 lineup doubled in size from 2011, and this year, for the first time, it will host events throughout the entire Festival. To boot, the North Door (501 Brushy) and IFC Crossroads House (302 E. Sixth) will supplement its previous lone outpost, Esther's Follies (525 E. Sixth), as official venues.
As in the past, this year's menagerie weaves up-and-coming talent with various comedy heavyweights for a rich ensemble of the celebrated and novel. Stars Fred Armisen (Saturday Night Live, Portlandia), Sarah Silverman (Jesus Is Magic, The Sarah Silverman Program), Michael Cera (Juno, Arrested Development), Marc Maron (WTF), Tim and Eric (Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!), and Scott Aukerman and Reggie Watts (Comedy Bang! Bang!) headline approximately 60 performers in a heaving slate of stand-up showcases, live podcast recordings, improv and sketch shows, comedy-focused panels, and exclusive television previews.
"I've been a fan of Sarah Silverman's for a while," says SXSW Comedy producer Charlie Sotelo. "I've been around since The Larry Sanders Show and Mr. Show. So I'm happy to have her here for the first time. But I'm most excited about the guys whose names aren't well known: Nate Bargatze, Adam Cayton-Holland, and many others."
Sotelo and programming coordinator Samantha Pitchel know the drill: Big names like Armisen, Silverman, and Cera jump off the page and help validate a given bill by generating an abundance of hype and enthusiasm. The buzz and the passionate capacity crowds that such luminaries garner are great for shaping Austin's image as a vibrant comedy city. But events like SXSW Comedy and April's Moontower Comedy & Oddity Festival also beget tremendous potential for audiences to discover new talent and for the performers themselves to take advantage of the platform and elevate their careers.
"The first year we had Janeane Garofalo, and we put Tig Notaro up right before her. People came out to see Janeane, but then I'd hear them leaving the venue talking about how great Tig is," Sotelo says. "There are so many great comedians, but people by and large only know the celebrities. So when they come out to see the celebs, they also see a fantastic act that they'll talk about later and they're gonna go see next time they're in town. So it's absolutely a conscious decision to mix the big guys with the small guys, the established acts with the nonestablished acts, because it's good for everyone. The audience comes out and they're gonna see an entire night's worth of really solid comedy, and these comedians who sorely deserve a bigger stage get that by being with the celebrities.
"If you look at those old lineups – like the 2008, '09, '10 lineups," Sotelo says, "there are so many comedians who are now famous, established comedians who just weren't well known back then, like Tig Notaro, Hannibal Buress, Anthony Jeselnik, Aziz Ansari, and Chris Hardwick."
The role of the comedy podcast at last year's Festival reflected the cutting-edge, largely self-produced, and conceptually fluid medium's cachet and legitimacy as a diverse and generally untapped vehicle for comedy. Arguably no two podcasts enjoy greater fanfare than Maron's probing and interpersonal WTF and Aukerman's Comedy Bang! Bang!, which last year blossomed into the irreverent talk show of the same name featuring idiosyncratic "bandleader" Watts. Both will tape live shows early in the Fest and six other podcast recordings, including Doug Benson's The Benson Interruption, will color SXSW Comedy's complete podcast schedule – all taking place at Esther's, March 10-16.
Maron will also host an exclusive preview of his upcoming IFC series, Maron, at the IFC Crossroads House on March 10. The show is being heralded as a fictionalized rendition of the veteran comedian's personal and professional triumphs and travails, based on his career's resurgence as creator and host of WTF.
In turn, Comedy Bang! Bang! will throw a similar event centered around its television show on March 9 at IFC. Aukerman and Watts will be on hand to weird-out with surprise guests that could skew from acclaimed film actress Elizabeth Banks to a flatulent dalmatian in a Reagan mask.
On the improv and sketch circuit, performers from the esteemed Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre's New York and Los Angeles locales will convene at Esther's on March 10 for a free-for-all of extemporaneous jocularity.
Some productions, however, can't be neatly classified as "stand-up," "improv," or "sketch," on account of a multifaceted and frenetic approach to comedy that smacks of personality disorder.
"One thing I'm really excited about is, last year we had these guys called The Super Serious Show come in. They do a monthly show out of L.A., and the producers are really fantastic," says Pitchel. "They do really innovative show formats, things that aren't necessarily straight stand-up showcases. They'll also have quirky themes and formats, and this year they're helping us out with shows at the North Door on Sunday the 10th and Monday the 11th, and they've programmed some really amazing-sounding stuff."
In sum, 17 SXSW 2012 alums are back for more, including James Adomian, Jerrod Carmichael, Brett Gelman, Eugene Mirman, Aparna Nancherla, and Kevin Pollak.
Several comedians appearing this year – Janine Brito, Emily Heller, Kyle Kinane, Maron, and Watts – will make return visits to Austin in April for Moontower's sophomore fest. But Sotelo and SXSW Comedy don't bristle at the genesis or proximity of Moontower to their program – nor do they perceive themselves as being in competition with this new comedy event.
"I think the more events that happen for comedy, the better it is for Austin as a comedy destination," Sotelo says, "and that helps everyone."
SXSW Comedy events will be held March 9-16 and are open to all SXSW badge and wristband holders. A limited number of single tickets will be sold at the door for events that take place during the Music Festival if space is available. To view the complete lineup and calendar of events, including information about SXSW Comedy panels and parties, visit www.sxsw.com/comedy.
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