Getting the Joke
Seven Austin Comics on the Current State of Stand-Up
April is the cruelest month for the Austin comedy scene. That's the time of its annual rite of bloodletting and renewal: the Funniest Person in Austin contest hosted by the Capitol City Comedy Club. The contest attracts controversy like bare feet attract fire ants; after all, the very nature of a comedy contest places objective value on a highly subjective performance. Is there any way to fairly and accurately assess the intangible elements involved in the art? This year, however, proved unusually controversial, in part because I lampooned a bunch of fellow contestants in a private e-mail that subsequently was made public. That sparked a rather heated debate among local comics about the scene and the craft of comedy. Of course, instant karma kicked my ass when I failed to reach the contest finals for the first time in four years, but the churning of the collective comedic consciousness in town was refreshing, I believe, for all involved. The final night of the contest spurred further controversy. While the winner, newcomer Martha Kelly, was the clear choice to take the title, the judges' selection of Fred Bothwell for the third-place prize opened a new can of worms. Fred is a large, eccentric gentleman who has been lurking at the fringes of the comedy community -- not to mention the fringes of society -- for years. His act, which has remained virtually unchanged for years (it still contains a reference to Culture Club!), consists of puns and slightly humorous observations about Texas, punctuated by random, spirited shouts of "Yee-haaa!" and "Waa-hoo!" Despite performing the act for years, Fred took a "set list" onstage and referred to it between each bit. Many observers, myself included, felt that perhaps one of the other comics, some of whom garnered more laughter and applause than Fred, was more deserving of recognition. This launched another round of debate woven loosely around the theme, "What is comedy?"
The events of April served as a catalyst to take that discussion one step further. Arts editor Robert Faires (who helped judge the contest finals this year and has for several years) and I thought the Chronicle could provide a forum for comics to discuss their art. What is it like to put your opinions on the line every night? What motivates you to keep forging ahead in a difficult, intimidating profession? What makes comics laugh?
We also wanted to look at the current state of Austin's stand-up scene, which has generated interest from industry types in New York and Los Angeles in the past and spawned a short-lived series on MTV. Many of the performers who starred in the heyday of the original Velveeta Room and the Laff Stop (now the Cap City Comedy Club) have moved on to L.A., New York, or, sadly, real jobs in the corporate world. However, new faces are popping up, and some are already attracting national attention. Plus, a spate of new comedy club/theatres opening downtown -- The Hideout on Congress and the Bad Dog Comedy Theatre on Riverside -- makes the time ripe for a serious conversation about comedy.
Our panel of comics contains both longtimers and newcomers on the scene. Matt Sadler has been performing stand-up in Austin for years. He won the HBO Aspen Showcase competition last fall, although he did not get to perform at the Aspen Festival. Mark Fradl is a veteran touring comic who moved to Austin about a year ago, quit doing stand-up, and is now devoting himself to writing and making short films. Chris Fairbanks is a young comic who recently left Big Sky country in Montana to join Austin's comedy circle. Three of the comics are winners of the Funniest Person in Austin Contest: Howard Beecher (1997), a scene veteran of 12 years, makes a comfortable living in the high-tech industry and he and his wife Sue had their first child three months ago; Megan Mooney (1998), arguably Austin's hardest-working comic right now, is managed by Margie Coyle and Rich Miller and works coast to coast in some of the better clubs; and Martha Kelly, this year's reigning queen, moved to Austin from Los Angeles several months ago and is delighted with her new hometown, where she believes the abundant stage time, supportive community, and quality of life will more than make up for the show business opportunities on the West Coast.
Austin Chronicle: Is anybody else bothered by the fact that anybody can walk in and sign up on an open mike night and call themselves a comic? Should there be some kind of selective control over stage time, or do you think the absolute democracy of stand-up is a good thing?
Chris Fairbanks: I think it's bad when those people chase away audiences.
Howard Beecher: You know, in the past if you were new, then you went up at the very end or the very beginning [of the open mike]. At Cap City, the very beginning is where it's at, but most comedy clubs it's about the middle. And usually you put the horrible people at the end, so that it doesn't matter because nobody's left [in the audience] anyway. But if you screen people, you could exclude some gems that might come in.
Matt Sadler: You know, everybody in this room sucked when they started. Everybody sucked when they started. Nobody was rockin'. I started out last at the Velveeta Room, went dead last.
AC: So you think it's a good thing.
Sadler: Absolutely. It hurts when you lose the audience, so there definitely should be a construct within the list so that doesn't happen. But I think everybody should be allowed to go up. I mean, that's how you start. It's open mike. You can't tell somebody: "You're not funny, and you never will be, I've decided, so you can't go up."
Megan Mooney: It's the avenue you use to become a comic, open mike. The fact that people think they're comics because they do two open mikes a month ... you can't control that anyway. Let them live their little dream and as long as you're getting work, who cares?
AC: Well, a lot of times when I meet people and say I do stand-up, they say, "What do you do?" And I say, "The Velveeta Room. You know, they have open mike on Thursdays." And there's an automatic reaction that people don't want to go and see stand-up comedy because they've been to some show and seen some asshole with no point of view just talk.
Sadler: And people who see that will never go again. I've heard that from a lot of people in the bar. "Yeah, I went to the Velveeta on Thursday. Blah."
Mooney: But that's kind of the misconception about comedy in general. Everybody knows what a teacher does, a lawyer does, a banker does. When you say you're a comic, their view of you is either, you know, Jeff Foxworthy -- "He's a fucking genius!" -- or it's some jackass that they felt bad for for 15 minutes onstage at the Velveeta Room. And that's just a first impression. They don't need to get it from the Velveeta Room. They could have gotten it from TV or anywhere.
AC: Is it a misconception?
Sadler: I hope it is.
Mooney: That's all people see. We live in this world that people see at a glance. They see their office and their buddies and their bars. They don't see what we do.
AC: If you say you're a musician and you get up onstage, you've got to be able to play an instrument. To me, stand-up is on the same level as karaoke: Anybody can get up and do it.
Mooney: So are you frustrated by the fact that you're grouped together with the same people that suck at comedy and do it once a month?
AC: I think so. It's the fact that people won't come and see a stand-up show because they know part of it is going to be torturous. Anyone can get into the business and unless someone takes an interest in you, there's nobody to really tell you how to become a comic. Howard and I have been criticized for being mean to newer comics and creating an atmosphere at the Velveeta Room where some people are afraid to go do comedy because they're afraid that we're going to give them a hard time. To me, that whole Velveeta pecking-order thing or the fact that we give people shit if they don't change their act and we heckle people, yeah, it's ugly and it's mean, but it will make people better comics, I believe. Maybe some people disagree with that.
Beecher: That's how it was before any of you guys came into the scene. Even before you. [Points to J.C.] Matt goes back far enough. The same thing back then. The Laff Stop on Monday nights when there was a hot little open mike? Oh yeah, they'd give 'em a hard time, some guys. The funnest times for me were when the guys onstage were just suckin' wind, and the heckles were better than the guys onstage. Then the whole room had a good time, because you didn't have that pain of suffering through somebody going "oooh," and everybody's all polite and quiet. And once that guy [getting heckled] gets better, he can come back to those heckles, and then pow! pow! pow!
Sadler: At the old club, I thought that aspect of it ... To an extent, people were playing to the comics, but you were also trying new shit all the time. You were trying really weird shit, too. When Johnny Hardwick would play up there ...
Beecher: Little Johnny Cigarette.
Sadler: Little Johnny Cigarette, Little Johnny Jazz. Little Johnny Hypnotist -- he was a different "Little Johnny" every week. And he would do really weird shit. I used to fuck the backdrop, and I'd have [someone] come up and beat me with a newspaper and feed me treats when the jokes would work, you know, really weird stuff. It was totally exciting, made it totally different every week, and people used to come to see those shows. Whereas now they get dragged by a friend.
AC: So what's the difference now?
Sadler: I think it's a lot tamer. I think a lot of the comics now are doing the same sets over and over again. I stress this: Every time you go up for an open mike, you should try something new. One thing. You have the same open and closer, try to do one new thing.
Martha Kelly: So what if you don't have something new and you decide you're going to wait a couple of weeks to go up? Then sometimes people will be like, "Oh, you think you're too good for the open mike?" Do you think it's better to go up with stuff that's old, just for the stage time, or wait until you have something new?
Sadler: I don't think either one of them is good. You should go up all the time, always, and always with something new.
Beecher: I'm not the most prolific writer, but I can go up with nothing. I just go, "Give me a subject."
Kelly: See, I can't do that. I'm not comfortable unless I have something.
Beecher: I wasn't able to do that, but that was one of my goals in comedy, and I learned how to do it. Don't go up if you don't want to. But he's right, though. Always going up will make you better. Even if you go up with the same material all the time, you'll still get better.
Mark Fradl: You may not have something new, but you have something you could re-work. You can try linking this old joke with that old joke in a new setting. There's always that joke that you love that the other comics love that never has worked. Go in and retry it. 'Cause I've got jokes that adding one word, adding three words [made them work. Open mike is] not just new material. It's doing old stuff in new ways.
Fairbanks: Maybe we should just come up with a new open mike and not tell everyone about it.
Fradl: You can tell people about an open mike; nobody shows up anyway.
Fairbanks: You know, how the Swingin' Dick [show at Cap City] works; that's kind of an open mike, but it's kind of private, too. It's not a show. Maybe there should be other options out there.
Mooney: Like a booked open mike. You just have to have someone real objective booking open mikes, somebody that doesn't have any self-centered motivation.
AC: There's no one like that in the business, is there?
Mooney: No. That's why it's never gonna work.
Beecher: You know who was good at that? [Laff Stop manager and Laff Staff improv performer] Angela Davis was real good at that. She gave people chances. Was it because I was young, or were those truly magic open mikes back then? I think it may be a combination of the two.
Sadler: I think they were really magic. I thought [Velveeta Room manager] Beau [Bahan] was good, too. Beau was so good at it.
Beecher: [Those open mikes] were packed all the time. But also, that was 10 years ago, and 10 years ago was a different environment. It was before the bust happened in comedy. Openers would make big money. I mean, opening at the Velveeta would pay, like, $120. About as much as you make there as a headliner now, you made as an opener at the Velveeta Room.
AC: That's what Mark was saying: People back then weren't tired of comedy. Which gets back to my original premise.
Mooney: Are they tired of it because they saw so much crap?
AC: Right. So many of the people who are coming and doing the open mikes are doing derivative if not directly stolen acts from all these other comics.
Sadler: You take that back! [laughter]
AC: So how do you change that?
Fradl: It'll change itself, I think.
Mooney: I think you need a weeding-out period anyway. Somebody told me, "Funny people are a dime a dozen, and everyone thinks they can get onstage and do what you do." There's going to be too many people wanting to do that job. You need to weed them out and start again.
Sadler: How do you weed them out?
Mooney: Through the lull. I don't get paid anything to go on the road and do this kind of crap. I don't do comedy because I want money. I do it because I want to get good at it. And people have to do that. And if $1,000 a month is not what you can live off, well, then get the fuck out of this business.
Beecher: Not necessarily. When I got into it in 1988, I couldn't afford to live off what comedy paid. And I don't like traveling whatsoever. I still want to do stand-up comedy. So it's more of a labor of love. I mean, I have every skill that it takes to be a road comic, but I just don't go on the road.
Mooney: Would you say your goals are different from that of a road comic?
Beecher: I don't know. A lot of road comics are trying to get real good and get funny, so we have that in common. But then a lot of them want to move to L.A. and get a sitcom or something. I don't care about no sitcom. To be raw funny every time I go up, that's my goal. I just want the funny part of comedy, not the business part of comedy.
Fradl: But besides the people trying to to get funnier and the people trying to get to L.A. is this third category of people that went into it when it was easy -- and I saw this on the road all the time -- and they got their half-hour or their hour [of material] and now they can't imagine themselves having a normal job again. Some of them are decent comics, but they've got this niche and they never want to go any higher, and they don't want to go back to working an 8-to-5 job.
Sadler: I opened for a guy in San Antonio. You could tell that he wrote this act -- it was 45 minutes -- you could tell he wrote it 12 years ago. We did four shows, he did the exact same thing every single time, word for word. Every pause, every beat was exactly the same. He never brought anything new to it. He was a touring headliner, he's probably never gonna get a sitcom or anything like that. He knows that. He lives in Arizona and tours, and that's what he does. That's his niche, and he's been doing it forever.
AC: That goes back to one of the reasons comedy's nose-diving again. Why do you want to go see somebody who's not bringing anything new to the table?
Kelly: That bugs me more than new people who suck.
AC: Old people who suck? [laughter]
Kelly: Seriously, on the one hand, I understand that mentality of "This is better than having a regular job." I've had so many regular jobs, I can understand that desire to escape. But on the other hand, you're setting the expectation of audiences when they go to clubs. There is now an audience mentality at clubs that expects a certain kind of mindless entertainment. And if you want to do something different, sometimes people will go with you, but sometimes they won't just because you're different, and the people who encourage that mindset, that infuriates me. That's ruining comedy. That's making it something where people go, "Tonight I want to go drink and laugh," and they don't listen to what the comic is saying. They listen to the rhythm so they know when to laugh, and that bugs me a lot.
AC: A lot of times people expect a confrontational "Oooh, let's don't sit up front, the comic will make fun of us" attitude that I think is very limiting.
Mooney: I think a lot of people don't want to do their job, and they're like, "I'm sick of my act. Hey, nice sweater, dickhead." And I think it's a booker's responsibility to make sure that doesn't happen to their club. When you go to fuckin' Louisiana, they don't want to hear anything about your family; they want to hear about you fuckin' and drinkin' and smokin' and doin' crack, or get off the stage, you bitch. They have no tolerance.
Fradl: Megan, I must be high or something. I thought you used the word "booker" and "responsible" in the same sentence. [laughter]
Mooney: There are certain clubs that market to a specific audience.
Beecher: Yeah, they paper the room and you get all the cheapskates ...
Fradl: There are clubs that paper all the time and the crowds are great. You go to the South Bend Funny Bone, little pissant college town: packed houses. Amazing crowds. They paper left and right, but they do it smart.
Mooney: But I've also seen who they book. They don't book jackasses, like "I'm gonna pull a rabbit out of my ass. That's a big show." There are so many retarded comics that people get used to, then all they want to hear is, "I fucked a hooker. Woo!"
Sadler: That's a good bit. Don't knock it. [laughter]
AC: So you think that whether a club is good or not, who they book is the number one factor.
Mooney: That's my experience.
AC: Expand on your goals in terms of working the road. I did it for most of 1997 and got to the point where I realized my writing was actually dropping to the level of the crowds on the road instead of getting better. I decided to quit it rather than continue down that road and become one of these bitter old guys that hates his act and never changes it and 12 years down the road is going, "Wait a minute, where's my sitcom? How come no one knows me?"
Mooney: Everyone has the responsibility to themselves to make the decision where they want to go in this business. If you're clear on where you want to go and what you're willing to do that, then working the road can help you. But I'm not going to be a road whore and stay out there 12 weeks at a time. I have a hard time more than three weeks out.
Fradl: That's not what the writing in the green room says.
Mooney: "Megan Mooney: Road Whore!" But you need to be clear. There are so many paths to the same goal. You have to choose which one you want, and sometimes things will fuck it up and you can't go that way. I'd feel awkward ever telling somebody else how to do what they want to do.
AC: What's your ultimate goal?
Mooney: I haven't decided yet. Right now, I'm at the point where I want to be so good at stand-up that I can choose four or five different avenues, and I haven't gotten to that point yet. I have a lot of work. I don't headline clubs. That's my next step.
Fradl: Headlining and getting good are not necessarily the same things. There are headliners who suck. On the flip side, some of the best talent out there right now feature at a lot of clubs.
Mooney: Because it's a lot easier [laughs]. Some of the best talent out there is lazy.
Fradl: Well, yeah, but some of the best talent also is just not going to be able to headline.
Fairbanks: I didn't even know there was a difference between headlining comics, then I opened for those two headliners [at Cap City]. All they did was set-ups and punchlines the whole time. They got tons of laughs and they did it exactly the same every time, down to the breaths they took. The only time they improvised was when they were talking to someone.
AC: Who are you talking about?
Fairbanks: They're really funny guys. I was really impressed by them. John Bizarre and his hack/clone that opened for him. They had me do five minutes between them because they hated each other because they were so similar and did the same jokes.
Sadler: No way. That's amazing.
Fairbanks: "Yeah. 'Cause I have a joke about traffic where I flip some guy off with two fingers, too." [laughter] So I got stuck in the middle. John Bizarre was reading from his book on the air, and I heard stuff from his book that Chris Johnson had in his act, and he hated his ass, and they were bitter and they'd been doing it for a long time, and they told me, "Oh, you're doing something different." Yeah, I don't have jokes.
AC: What does it take to make the jump from feature comic to headliner these days?
Beecher: Look at Eddie Gossling. He's pretty much done it. He came in and was the house emcee, then he kept getting funnier and funnier, then he went on the road, and from what I've seen, you go on the road as an opener and you come back the next year, if you do real well, you go as a middle, then you can be stuck as a middle forever, but if you do really well, like Eddie does, then you come back and you're a headliner.
AC: I think Eddie Gossling has proven the point that even in these shitty conditions we've been talking about, if you work hard and go out there and write new material -- I mean, Eddie is always, always writing -- that will eventually pay off. I don't have that kind of drive. I stay in Austin and do acting, and stand-up is something I do just because I like it. It's not like I'm driven to become a headliner; that's the farthest thing from my mind. I think for someone who does want to be a headliner, I have no doubt that you'll get there. [points to Megan, general agreement] But that's kind of a weird goal. What does that get you? "I'm a headliner. Aw, fuck, this is my life." Does anybody know any of these working comics who are happy with their lives?
Sadler: Clinton Jackson. He's very funny. Lives in Oakland, and he's married, has a great family life, and he tours two weeks at a time. He goes out for two weeks, then he's home for two weeks. And he loves it.
Kelly: I think Eddie's happy on the road.
Beecher: He's lonely.
Sadler: He is lonely.
Beecher: He's said that on the radio. He said it at the hotel. It's a lonely, lonely gig to be a traveling comic.
Mooney: He also doesn't moderate what kind of road experience he has. Like he'll go out nine weeks at a time.
Sadler: That's insane.
Mooney: I cry every day after four weeks.
AC: Do you guys feel you can build a viable career living in Austin?
Beecher: Everybody who's good enough, they go somewhere else. They get their chops up here, then they go somewhere else. That's the natural progression that I've seen over the last 12 years.
AC: Martha, you disagree.
Kelly: Well, I disagree because I have a vested interest in wanting to think I can make a living here. I don't want to go back to L.A.
Kelly: What you're saying is true: If you want to be on TV and have auditions for TV, then you have to go out there. But it's so hard to live there, and all the people I know from here are struggling, except maybe Chip [Pope] and Howard [Kremer]. But that's so rare. There are so many comics who get good where they start and move there because they think it's more opportunity. And they get there and it's miserable. If I'm going to be struggling, I want to struggle here.
Beecher: You might be right to do it the way you're doing it because you're a dime a dozen over there. You come over here, you shine real bright. People have made it from here.
Kelly: Do you think that people like Johnny Hardwick who are successful in L.A. are actually happier there than they were here? I didn't get that impression. I only met [Johnny] once, but I didn't get the impression that there's a lot of genuine "I'm happy, this is a good place to be, my life is a quality life." It's more like, "Oh, thank God I'm successful now, so now I don't have to be one of the miserable people at open mikes not getting paid." To me, money or fame -- yeah, I want that, I totally do or I wouldn't be doing this, but it's not worth living in a hellhole.
Beecher: You're hitting on something with this happiness thing. That's a whole separate yet interlocking subject. A lot of times people get into comedy but they aren't happy. There's a lot of sadness being a stand-up comic.
Sadler: You have to have something kind of wrong with you to want to do this.
Kelly: I agree.
Sadler: It's the hardest of all the performing arts. It's the art form with the most immediate criticism.
Mooney: It's the one with the ultimate control. You have to be a complete control freak.
Fradl: But there's immediate gratification.
Mooney: Not some nights. Immediate tears.
Fradl: I mean, it's amazing. You're on the road, you wake up, you read something in the paper. The rest of the day, it's stewing in your head while you're working out, you're eating, you're trying to scam the waitress. And it's amazing to be able to go up there and talk about it that night and get that response. Everybody else has to go to work and bitch about "I can't believe that bullshit current event" and you're able to say something about it onstage and get that gratification.
Mooney: I think you're drawn to [comedy]. It's like life is a puzzle, and comics think a certain way: "I can put this together in this way and present it and people will laugh."
AC: I had a thought that comics are like sin-eaters were in medieval times. People would pay them to take their sins into the next world as a way of getting off the hook. To me, it seems like comedy serves as a cathartic process for people, who can come out to a club and hear someone actually say the things that they wish they could say but know they can't get away with in decent society.
Beecher: If there's such a thing as karma, a comic is getting gobs of it because you're making all these people happier all the time. You're right about that. You bring out, "D'ya ever notice this?" and [they go,] "Yeah, I have!" [laughter]
Sadler: That's my favorite bit of his. [laughter]
Fradl: On the road, sometimes you get into that rut and you're not quite up to par, you're getting a little discouraged, and you play some pissant little town and some couple comes up after the show and they say, "Thank you so much for coming to this town. It was so wonderful, and we really needed this." And you feel like shit for taking this for granted. Or I do. I try to remember, this might be the shit Thursday night, but for some of these people, as corny as it sounds, they work their asses off, this is their only night away from their kids, they've got a shit life. That's why I try not to feel bad if I did something political or socially relevant and people didn't really want to hear it. I try to remember, maybe it's not that they're assholes who don't care about this whatever. Maybe they want to listen to a fart joke because their life is so shitty right now, they don't want to hear any more dark humor. They want something that's just going to make them laugh.
Beecher: You know, I think audiences are like people. They have different personalities.
AC: They are people. [laughter]
Beecher: No, a single entity. A hive mentality. Like Thursday nights, all the dancers come in, or a bunch of frat boys come in, or the crowd is all old people. You can have a personality to shows.
Fradl: This might be an odd thing to throw out, but has anyone ever had the audience that you're absolutely killing, and you hate them because they're too easy? It's like, "This isn't any fun. I could be up here spitting pumpkin seeds and you guys would be laughing this hard."
Mooney: Yeah. "My mom doesn't even like me this much. Why are you laughing?" [laughter] Audiences are like this dysfunctional relationship. The more they laugh at you, the more you're like, "Fuck you. I don't respect you." And the more they hate you, the more you're, "Okay, now I'm gonna act like I love ya and try to win you over." It's like the more fucked-up relationships you have, the better a comic you are.
AC: Is it more important to enlighten or entertain?
Beecher: Depends on the audience. Depends on the comic. Depends on the mood.
Sadler: It's awfully nice if you can do both, but I think the most important thing is just feed your soul. If you're okay with what you're doing and can look at yourself in the mirror as a comic, do what you want.
Beecher: Chris Rock and Bill Hicks would have a real good statement and they'd do it really funny. To me, that's high art comedy.
Kelly: Just personally, I think the most important thing is to entertain people, and if you can do it by being different and not reinforcing shitty ideas that people have, like when comics go, "Who's with me, you should hit your kids?" And the audience goes, "Yeah!" [laughter]
Sadler: That's your closer!
Mooney: "If you don't have kids, beat somebody else's!" [laughter]
Beecher: You make a good point because it is a show, and it's comedy, so they should laugh. At the very least, they have to laugh.
Kelly: To entertain, that's your job, in my opinion. If you enlighten without being entertaining, then you're not doing comedy.
Sadler: You may be giving a lecture on social mores, but you're not being funny.