115 Comics Walk Into a Bar ...
The open call audition for the Aspen festival was scheduled to begin at 11am. I pulled into the club parking lot at 9:45am; the first time I've been over an hour early for anything in my life. A cloud of cigarette smoke hung in the brisk morning air as dozens of comics and wannabes already lined the sidewalk out front. I stopped by Tom Bates' tent at the front of the line; he had camped out to assure himself of the first time slot so that he could also enjoy the longest wait to find out if he'd made the finals.
When you find yourself standing in the middle of a line of 115 comics, knowing that 114 of you are in for a disappointing day, the twin demons of Doubt and Fear begin to gnaw at your soul. You wave and say "Hi" to all your friends, hiding in a cool cloak of nonchalance. All the while, however, you find yourself calculating your odds and counting how many people in line you know are funnier than you. Then you start thinking about other things you could be doing that would be more enjoyable, like steam-cleaning your engine or sucking down nitrous oxide before a root canal operation.
I noticed that the line behind me was now stretched all the way past the Weight Watchers center next to the club. "My God," I thought, "imagine showing up for your first session at Weight Watchers to find your way blocked by 115 comedians! It would be enough to send you screaming to the nearest buffet."
Mark Pruter, Monks' Night Out founder and one of the driving forces behind the Big Stinkin' International Improv & Sketch Comedy Festival, worked his way down the line with a clipboard signing everyone in. I drew number 63; yeah, that's a good number, I'm ready to go. When Pruter finally had everyone on the list, the doors to the club open and we are admitted into the holding pen of the front lounge. It is dark and quiet, filled only with the desperate hum of nervous conversation. The air conditioning is cranked down colder than the set of the Letterman show. Leave all thoughts of light and warmth behind you, intrepid traveler, for you have entered a dark inner sanctum where you will spend the next five hours in Comedy Hell.
The format of this audition is devilishly designed to make each contestant test his comic faith. The first problem is the time constraint. Two minutes does not allow any room for comfort. There is no time to establish a character, develop a premise, or gradually warm up to a stunning crescendo; you'd better know who you are and what you are doing right off the bat. The second problem is truly horrifying; when one comic is on the stage, he is performing for a crowd which consists of the other 114 comics in the contest! What a crowd!
After some brief introductory comments, Gary Mann politely asked that all comics remain seated in the showroom for the entire performance. The normally friendly staff at Cap City suddenly transformed into a pack of brown-shirted stormtroopers, confiscating water bottles and sodas from the shell-shocked comics and viciously barricading the closed sections at either side of the showroom. Manager Betty Shelton took out a cattle prod and rode herd on recalcitrant comedians, jolting them back into their seats with an evil gleam in her eye.
With all the pomp and ceremony out of the way, the long day's journey into night began. Cap City's Director of Operations, Rich Taylor, manned the two-minute clock with obvious delight. If a comic's two minutes expired in the middle of a bit, Taylor broke in on the off-stage mike like the voice of God, "Give it up for number 32! Please welcome number 33!" And so on, and so on, and so on.
It quickly became evident that this was, indeed, an open call, meaning anyone who signed up could audition. Some of the acts were so green that they would step onto the stage and mumble, "Damn! These lights sure is bright!" - an obvious sign of a first-time open miker. Others seemed oblivious of just how short two minutes can be. One poor woman lugged an accordion and a huge bag of props onto the stage. By the time she had her tablecloth set up and her giant salami and margarita glass arranged, she had used up nearly half her time. She then launched into a parody version of "My Favorite Things" and promptly forgot her lyrics.
The other factor that was soon apparent was that playing to a roomful of comics was not going to be easy. Any bit that smacked of stock material was met with deafening silence. Heckling was kept to a surprising minimum, but balloon-twisting acts and yo-yo "artists" were met with appropriate levels of scorn. To have any shot at the finals, a comic had to follow Howard Beecher's age-old advice: "Do your good stuff!"
After 62 comics had been ground through the mill, it was my turn. My first couple of jokes got absolutely nothing. I had a sudden epiphany, like a veil lifting after years of darkness: I had chosen the wrong material to open. I plowed through the rest of my hurried set, all the while berating myself for not opening with the "Gorditas" bit and closing with Louis Armstrong smoking a spliff. Oh well, there's always next year.
Any comic who is honest with himself knows at the end of a set whether he has a chance of progressing to the next round or not. I knew that I had not risen to my potential, so the rest of the afternoon was darkened by a bitter cloud of self-loathing. How quickly it all had happened! The longest three hours of my life, waiting in line and sitting through 62 sets, was followed by two minutes that passed like a Japanese commuter train on a rush-hour run. All that preparation squandered in the blink of an eye. I had to breathe deeply and get in touch with my internal Zen master who told me, "Write better jokes, you stupid fuck!"
At the end of the preliminary round, when the finalists were announced, Mann complimented all the comics at the showcase by saying that the talent at the Austin venue was the strongest he had seen in eight different cities across the country. Of course, he may say that in every city he visits, but it was still nice to hear. These industry showcases are a real gauge of a comic's professional progress and commitment. When you see how much talent surrounds you, it forces you to either raise your standards and work even harder or get out of the business.
I congratulated my friends who had made it, paid my tab, and staggered out into the bright afternoon sun which hit me like a sledgehammer. It felt like midnight, for chrissakes! Stand-up comedy is a distinctly nocturnal activity; having to perform like a trained monkey in the middle of the afternoon was just plain criminal! But as the Spartans used to say, "That which doesn't kill you only makes you stronger."
The final-round showcase, which began a mere three hours after the afternoon's Bataan Death March, was an excellent, eclectic mix of comedy. Nearly everyone on the bill was well-received by the crowd. Several young comics had impressive outings. Matt Sadler and Brently Heilbron, both members of the improv troupe Monks' Night Out, turned in fresh, inventive performances that were completely free of stock references and premises that had been beaten to death throughout the day. Isaac Witty from Tulsa and Houston's Tommy Drake and Matt Kirsch also showed that they had excellent material and distinctive stage characters. Nancy Reed, our resident Velvetian Queen, looked stunning in an elegant evening gown; her performance was also quite a crowd-pleaser. This year's "Funniest Person In Austin," Megan Mooney, had an impressive, polished set. Despite the fact that Fred Bothwell, a lovable loony from Sixth Street, made it into the finals and I didn't, I have to say that Gary Mann did an excellent job of selecting the strongest comics for the finals showcase.
Once the smoke finally cleared from this marathon Battle Royale of comedy, one man stood alone: Dallas comic Chris Cannon. Cannon, who began his career here in Austin in the mid-Eighties and snagged the "Funniest Person" crown in 1995 before he left, turned in a powerhouse performance which was clearly the winning set of the evening. Two other seasoned veterans, Dallas comic Mark Britten and Austin's own Eddie Gossling, came close to Cannon, but judging from the audience response it was definitely Cannon's night. Dressed in his trademark black suit and skinny tie, Cannon's persona as an angry, stressed-out nerd evoked Michael Douglas' character in Falling Down. Loaded on caffeine, Cannon stormed the stage with a relentless energy and a machine-gun delivery that soon had the crowd howling. The thunderous applause at the end of his set made it clear he had set a mark that no one else would top.
Unfortunately for Cannon, the competition doesn't stop with his success last Thursday. The climb to Aspen is a long and tortuous journey. Having won the Austin showcase, Cannon must now perform at the Comic Strip in New York City this Sunday night in front of a host of network executives who will decide if he makes the grade for this spring's festival. For Cannon, this climb has been going on for a long, long time. He has suffered through a dozen of these high-profile auditions for the Aspen festival, the Montreal "Just for Laughs" Comedy Festival, and the Letterman show. I asked him how difficult it was to keep plugging away after being passed over so many times.
"Sure, it's hard," he answered, "but when you see someone like Johnny Hardwick - who went to Montreal and had things start popping for him - end up as 'Dale' on King of the Hill, you see what something like a comedy festival can produce. You just end up feeling really great about your friends and their success, and the possibilities that are out there for all of us. After losing all the others, you do feel somewhat disillusioned, but once you actually win one, you think, 'Yeah, it's my turn, I'm ready for this, and I'm going to enjoy every minute of it.'"
"What do you think the judges are looking for, particularly in that first round?" I asked.
"I think stage presence is a big factor," Cannon said. "After that, they determine if you can back that presence up with material. They also look for a certain undefinable something that sets you apart."
Whatever it is the network folks are looking for, they certainly seem to have found it consistently in Austin. Former local comics such as Hardwick, Laura House, Chip Pope, Howard Kremer, and Colom Keating have all made their mark after starting out right here in the capital of Texas. And events such as the Big Stinkin' festival, now in its fourth year, have brought industry executives to the city in droves. So to my 113 colleagues who were not selected this year, be of good cheer; the big shots will be back.
Cannon said that Texas comics should take heart from the incredible talent around them, even when the competition is fierce. The fact that Mann was impressed with what he saw here "should be real inspiring for comics in Austin. You have the tools; put 'em to use the best you can and eventually... you will know you have what it takes. The magic comes when they know it, too."