Yo! MTV Laughs!
The Long, Strange Trip to TV for Three Austin Comics
There is a certain quality that's a hot commodity in the comedy world right now, a quality more easily described than named. Over the years it's been called "hip" or "cool," but neither of these terms adequately sums up the combination of ironic detachment, laser-sharp wit, and cultural relevance currently in demand. For lack of a better word, I'll just call this quality "IT."
In the current entertainment climate, characterized by an explosive proliferation of cable programming and intense competition between media companies, IT is sought after like gold in California circa 1849. Entertainment execs criss-cross the country, delving into smaller markets in an almost desperate search for fresh, new faces that will stand out from the sea of bland, homogenous programming that floods the airwaves.
Such a search brought MTV executives James Jones and Lisa Berger to Austin some three and a half years ago. MTV is an interesting case study in looking at the changing face of media. When the network began in the early Eighties, it revolutionized television in two major ways. First, it provided programming 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Not even the major networks had ever dared such a thing. Second, it created a synthesis between two media, music and TV. The birth of the music video launched an acceleration of the whole media process. Bands that might have otherwise languished in anonymity found that a catchy video could turn them into instant stars, and an entertainment-craving public devoured the new art form like voracious wolves.
Yet, like all revolutions, the new MTV order eventually spawned a backlash. The exponential explosion of programming meant that the attention span of the TV viewer was shrinking like a slug in a salt shaker. Which meant the shelf life of media products got shorter and shorter. Like Dr. Frankenstein trying to control the monster he created, the folks running MTV were driven to pursue an endless quest for entertainment to feed the media beast. The world of comedy offered a natural complement to music television, so MTV began branching out in that direction. The quest for entertainers is often a strange one, for the creative seekers often don't know just what they're looking for, but they know IT when they see IT.
The Austin mystique drew Jones, producer for The Ben Stiller Show, MAD TV, and Reality Bites, and Lisa Berger, MTV vice-president and director of development, to our city, where a burgeoning comedy scene provides a hotbed of hip young comics. Here the MTV scouts crossed paths with Chip, Laura House, and Howard Kremer, three local talents who have IT in spades. In the words of Laura House, Chip was "born to be on MTV." The winner of 1996's "Funniest Person in Austin Contest," Chip devotes much of his act to poking fun at the flashy but shallow MTV culture; his sarcastic renditions of pop songs have made him a Velveeta Room hero. And his monologues bounce wildly from topic to topic, almost like a remote flipping from channel to channel and finding a different angle on Chip at every click.
Howard Kremer shares a natural appeal to the MTV crowd. This graduate of New York's American Academy of Dramatic Arts has the kind of chiseled looks that get noticed by TV scouts, and his perpetual mischievous smirk and wide, slightly psychotic eyes tend to keep an audience on the edge of its seats, wondering what he'll do next. Kremer has standard, tried-and-true bits which are virtually guaranteed laugh-getters -- such as his shuffled pile of crazy fan letters that he writes to famous celebrities -- but rather than sticking to the safe stuff, honing the same material over and over, Kremer takes dangerous detours and follows obscure tangents to see where he'll end up. He loves nothing more than to bring a room to a deafening, uncomfortable silence with some rambling tale before winning them back with his "big gun" material. It's this willingness to gamble and the inventive, improvisational flair that set Kremer apart from the crowd.
Laura House is the kind of girl whose high school popularity was partly based on fear; you had better be nice to her or she'd let loose her verbal nunchuks and beat you to a pulp. A former middle school teacher, House is very in tune with the youth culture and she has a certain dark, cynical edge that is a splendid complement to Chip's playfulness and Kremer's wacky antics.
The trio were "discovered" at a showcase for MTV at the Laff Stop (now Capitol City Comedy Club). All three comics had to pull strings just to get into the showcase, which was designed for professional comics. "I was not supposed to be in the showcase because I had not been paid to do comedy," says House. "I had to weasel my way into the showcase -- God bless Margie Coyle!," she says, referring to the longtime Laff Stop staffer. "God bless her, she broke down." Chip's situation was similar. "I'd never worked the Laff Stop," he says, "but a couple of the comics helped to weasel me into the showcase."
Kremer really had to do some fancy shuffling. "I'd been doing comedy for almost three years. At the time we got word about this MTV showcase, I was on a college tour opening for J.R. Brow and we were up in Minnesota. Actually, I had committed to the tour and the day before we left I heard about the MTV thing -- but we left anyway because I had committed to it. But as the days went by, closing in on the showcase, I thought, `Man, I'm gonna really regret it if I don't do this,' so I left the tour, hopped on a bus, and took it from Minnesota to Austin. It was Super Bowl Sunday in '94 -- a 24-hour bus ride. I remember riding through Dallas at night and hearing all the horns honking because the Cowboys had just won the Super Bowl -- we just kept driving. I got dropped off in Austin, and the next day I'm doing this showcase at the old Laff Stop."
The day after the showcase, Chip, House, and Kremer, along with another local comic, Johnny Hardwick, were contacted by Jones. (Hardwick has since become a writer for and performer in Fox's popular King of the Hill show. "Where's the Chronicle story on that?" Chip demands. I'll get to it, Chip, I'll get to it!)
House remembers, "I was teaching at Bailey Middle School -- go Bears! -- so I do the showcase, the next day I'm grading papers, and then that night I'm eating dinner with the vice-president of MTV."
Though dinner with MTV execs was thrilling stuff, it was merely the beginning of a long roller coaster ride with the network that still isn't over. Jones and Berger weren't sure what they wanted. House says, "They didn't really cast us. They told us they liked us, wanted to work with us, and they wanted ideas." Adds Kremer, "They didn't want a sitcom from the beginning. They had, like, veejay segments in mind where we'd come on between videos and goof around. But when we sat down to write it, it kept getting longer and longer, so we wrote a half-hour show and they liked it."
That, however, was not what they first wrote three years ago.
"No," Kremer notes. "We wrote these little scenes...."
"Vignettes," House explains, "with a `g.' We had these video postcards. We were videotaping ourselves and sending them to MTV as the premise of the show. We had a bunch of different ideas...."
"Not all of them were reality based," Kremer adds. "We struggled with whether we wanted it to be real or bizarre and surreal, like hovercraft and weird shit happening."
"The streets paved with gold," House says.
"So you opted for reality?" I ask.
"They opted for us," Kremer says.
"Not that we were pushing for surreality," Chip throws in. "Is that a word?"
"So you were willing to do whatever it took to get them to say yes?" I suggest.
House answers, "No, I wouldn't say that at all. They basically liked us and wanted to do a show with us and they were looking for the best way to bring out our personas."
"So you kept trying different things until something hit."
"Yeah," House says, "more like 'til it felt right."
When the trio came up with the script for the half-hour sitcom, it seemed their dream was close to coming true. But the murky machinations of studio programming often deal out harsh fates. For reasons that are still unclear, MTV vetoed the show and the project looked dead in the water. Unsure of their future, Chip says, the three "kind of went our separate ways. Which was really our separate ways down to the Velveeta Room."
Kremer really did strike out on his own, however, heading west to Los Angeles. "When I moved to Austin, I had a thing about not getting stuck here, so I basically had a commitment to myself to leave if the show didn't work out. I didn't really have any connections out there, but it was about seeing if I had the balls to go out there because you can get comfortable here just sitting on your ass and not making anything happen."
"So what did you do out there?" I ask him.
"Well, that took balls to go out there and do nothing."
"Big balls," House adds.
"No, I did some showcases, did some comedy," Kremer says impatiently, "but that's got nothing to do with the show."
Yes, the show; it languished for two years, but MTV had retained an option giving it the rights to the show if it chose to produce it. Laura explains how miracles happen: "Last summer, two years later, they resurrected the show. The people that had said no -- can we say that? Yeah? -- they left!"
The end result of this laborious process was the "go ahead," which came last December, to shoot the pilot for a series to be titled Austin Stories. The three comics star in the show playing characters they developed themselves. House describes her part in the pilot: "My storyline is that [my friends] find out I've had this long-term boyfriend who lives out of the country, so there's some question as to whether or not he exists. Then I have another love interest here, so I try to break up with my boyfriend who lives in Prague and I end up breaking up with my friend -- even though we weren't technically dating. I sort of play out this neurotic, fear-of-intimacy storyline."
Chip's character, he says, "sneaks into movies using an elaborate scheme passed down from generation to generation. Except I get caught and have to go to work at the movie theatre. Mine's the most `sitcommy' of it all."
Kremer's character has to deal with his car getting impounded. "I don't have the money to get it out," he says, "so I sneak into the impound yard and start stripping parts off the car to sell in order to pay to get the car out -- it's a race against time -- but by the time I get enough money to get the car out, there won't be any car left."
Although each of the comics has his or her own separate story, all three still have to work together to shape the show, and that's something new for them. Kremer, growing serious for a moment, says, "It's a strange situation for stand-up comics, who usually work alone, to be grouped together. So that's where a lot of the chemistry comes from -- unique, different characters -- I mean, we're not like the Kids in the Hall or anything, coming from the same sensibility -- we come from very different areas and they threw us together and that's where a lot of the conflict and dynamics come from."
"It takes some getting used to, working with other people," Chip says. "One difference is that in stand-up, you're solely responsible -- if you suck, it's your fault. But on the show, there are other people and they can make you look good even if you're not at your best. It's cool that way."
House counters, "Yeah, but in stand-up if you suck, it's your fault but only five people were there to see it. But if you're writing your own character on a show, it's on film forever, on MTV every night -- forever! For the rest of your life!"
The strength of the pilot gave MTV the confidence to sign House, Chip, and Kremer to produce 13 episodes. The three now split their time between Austin and Hollywood, where they work in the MTV studios.
"How much do you guys write a day?" I ask.
"A pound," House responds. "Every day we crank out a pound of funny."
"Sometimes," Kremer adds, "I put my thumb on the scale so we don't have to do as much."
Chip says, "We write all day every day."
"They lock you in the room with a typewriter and a bottle of bourbon?" I ask.
Kremer says, "Yeah, with a bunch of hard-smoking, snotty MTV interns."
"It's basically a sweatshop," House says.
"Yeah," Chip says, "then from 5 to 6 we have to make MTV T-shirts!"
"One arm's chained, the other one's typing," House says.
Jokes notwithstanding, these three are serious when it comes to their careers, and their stars have been rising even before their show has aired. This spring, House performed in the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, Colorado, and this summer, Kremer will perform at the big Montreal Comedy Festival. All three appreciate where they are given the career they've chosen. Kremer says, "It's weird when you choose to go into the arts. There's no guarantee that it's going to pay off. You never know that, hey, these are my struggling years and in two years they'll be over and I'll be famous. You have to keep plugging along. It's really nice when that turns into something. It's very gratifying and it's also very lucky. You have to keep plugging away. There's nothing else you can do. I mean, when you find out how little you're really good at, you have to stick with it."
"My message to the children," House says, "is to believe in yourself and quit your job, follow your dream. Because two months later MTV will call you -- I like to get specific with my advice -- and they'll apologize and give you your own show."
The first episode of Austin Stories is supposed to air some time this summer but, as the three comics know, there's often a large gap between "supposed to" and "reality." But whenever it comes out, we're sure it's going to be a hoot.
J.C. Shakespeare is an actor and a stand-up comic who contributes regularly to the Chronicle