Bad Dog's Good Deeds
"You Got Your Theatre in My Comedy Club." "You Got Your Comedy Club in My Theatre."
Before the Bad Dog Comedy Theater opened its doors to the public, Marc Pruter, co-owner and artistic director, came up with a bizarre idea. That in itself is not surprising; Pruter is full of bizarre ideas. But he wanted to christen the new club with a roast -- one of those shows where comics bare their steely claws and rip each other to shreds with ruthless barbs, unsheathed insults, and mean-spirited inside jokes. Usually, a roast is thrown to "honor" someone for a long, illustrious career or, in the case of Austin comics, to send off one of the brethren headed for New York or Hollywood. Pruter, however, invited a large crew of comics, performers, and fellow club owners to come down to the Bad Dog and rip on him, his club, his co-owners, and management staff. This was a novel idea that, to many, seemed to fly in the face of reason. Why would you invite such abuse on yourself and your new business? Is Pruter a masochist? Yes, but that's not the point; there's a method to this madness. Comics are notorious backstabbing trash talkers, so why not get it all out in the open right off the bat? In fact, Pruter invited management from competing clubs, such as Rich Taylor from the Capitol City Comedy Club, Tyler Bryce from ComedySportz, and Austin Jernigan from the Velveeta Room, to step up to the plate and take their best shots. The Bad Dog took heat for its bright "Nickelodeon-style" color scheme, the tableless rows of seats, and the dubious legacy of failed businesses in that location ("With the number of joints that have gone under in this spot, it must be built on an ancient Indian burial ground.") And the verbal lashings were lavishly, though lovingly, bestowed upon Pruter, his co-owners Jon Wiley and Anna Bartkowski (who is also Pruter's girlfriend), PR man Matt Bearden, and bar manager Matt Sadler. Bartkowski's family was in attendance that night and probably learned way more than they needed to know about their daughter and her beau.
Such an unusual opening ceremony, however, is indicative of the bold spirit behind the Bad Dog. Much as the Linux folks and their "open source" movement have infused the computer world with a sense of sharing instead of competing, the Bad Dog hopes to enter the Austin market as a place that adds to and nurtures the entire comedy scene. By booking both stand-up comics and improv/sketch groups, the club will also bring together two veins of comedy that are almost always separate, if not openly hostile to one another. The owners hope this unique approach will make the Bad Dog an interesting entertainment option, not necessarily the only game in town.
While all this may sound a bit naive, Pruter and Wiley are not. Seminal forces in turning the idea for the Big Stinkin' International Improv Festival into a reality, these guys aren't idle dreamers; they get things done. And the comedy industry is already taking note. Top-level talent such as the Upright Citizens Brigade from New York and the Impromptones from L.A. have leapt at the chance to play in Austin, and Comedy Central is making inquiries about booking a private party at the club. So the talent is there, the venue is there, and the only variable is the Austin audience. They have built it; will you come?
We recently managed to make the three owners of the Bad Dog actually sit still for a few minutes and answer some questions about this zany proposition.
Austin Chronicle: Was the idea of owning your own theatre a sudden epiphany, or has this been part of some twisted master plan for years?
Bartkowski: I've been involved in the theatre all my life, yet I've never considered myself a performer. Somehow I'm attracted to the element and have been for many years. So, I got a degree in Business Administration, with every intention of becoming the administrator of something incredibly lucrative, but I got involved with Monks' Night Out about 21é2 years ago.
AC: So much for that idea!
Bartkowski: Well, I thought they were good enough to support their own venue and I proposed it to Marc.
Pruter: Actually, I am the twisted mastermind planner behind the Bad Dog. My goal was to get my own pool table.
Wiley: From the very beginning of Monks' Night Out, and certainly during the Big Stinkin' Festivals, Marc and myself were very intent on MNO having its own theatre. Over the last several years, when it looked like there was even the hint of opportunity to launch our own space, we were out looking at buildings. I was roving the downtown warehouses long before it became a "district." For one reason or another, it never came about. Finally, over a year ago, having worked on it themselves for a year, Marc and Anna invited me to become part of the team. I'm the tiebreaker.
AC: What makes you think that the Austin market will support another comedy club?
Wiley: What? There's another comedy club in town?
Bartkowski: I think that if we have a kick-ass show, with great service, and a cool place to hang out and have a couple of drinks, the people will come. In fact, I've been very encouraged about the responses we've received. People come into the space and are blown away by the atmosphere in the lounge area. They don't even realize we've got a 5,000 square-foot auditorium for a performance area.
Wiley: Austin has doubled in population in the past decade. Economically speaking, it's doing very well. Comedy did very well in the Eighties because of the yuppies and the economic boom. Comedy sells when people are happy and making lots of money. Austin is a city where there a lot of very happy moneymakers.
Pruter: Also, most of the acts we're bringing in, most comedy/theatre fans have never had a chance to see. For one reason or another, these artists have never been showcased here. But our strength is that we are a hybrid between a comedy club and a theatre. It's like the old Reese's commercial: "You got your theatre in my comedy club." "No, you got your comedy club in my theatre."
Wiley: It's a new business model. As a comic actor myself, I want to see comedy receive the respect it deserves as a theatrical art. Stand-up isn't the only thing that is funny and we intend to broaden Austin's horizons in that regard.
AC: What sets you apart from the other clubs in town?
Wiley: We have giant spandex columns. And a better Web site. But seriously --
Wiley: Right! We're not interested in starting up the same old strip-mall comedy club. We are a comedy theatre. The distinction is in the acts we book. It isn't just stand-up road comics. We book world-class improvisation and sketch comedy. We have variety shows. We have funny films. We take a broad definition of what is funny and put it up for all to see. Also, like a lot of community theatres, we offer classes in the art of comedy. Not to mention the Bad Dog Lounge with two full bars.
Pruter: All that, plus we have a dog act!
AC: Are you more excited about owning your own business or about the creative freedom of owning your own club?
Bartkowski: Freedom! That's a good one. If I had known how hard it was, and how much work was involved, and how many hours it would take out of every day, I might have been a little more reluctant to take on the responsibility.
Wiley: I'm more excited about owning my own business. I'm more interested in making a great deal of money than wallowing in artistic freedom. Having performed for several years in Austin, I've gained a healthy respect for the creativity of my fellow performers. There are comic talents in this town that, if properly nurtured, will turn out a top-quality comedy performance worthy of plopping down more than a few bucks. I'm more excited about owning my own club because I'll be able to better promote the creative freedom of my fellow artists.
Pruter: I like creative freedom. Monks' Night Out has been limited in sketch and improv content because of the constraints of our previous venue. The Velveeta Room was very good to us, but we found we couldn't do certain types of things because of the size limitations of the stage. That, and George [the bartender] kept yelling out, "Unicorn sexer." If you've seen Monks' Night Out before, it's nothing like what we'll be doing two months from now. Right now, one of my favorite shows at the Bad Dog are the midnight shows [Howard Beecher's Mean Doggies Variety Show]. The performers are putting up things they've always thought about doing, but couldn't because of a lack of a consistent venue and time.
AC: Are you at all frightened by the failures of other businesses in your current location? Have you performed any voodoo rituals or exorcisms to get rid of the ghosts?
Pruter: What other businesses?
Bartkowski: We've burned sage throughout the club and we brought in a priest to perform an exorcism, what of it? Actually, [that's] not a source of stress to me at all. We're in a building that has been a series of failed dance clubs. And not to knock dance clubs, but a dance club normally has a very short life span. A dance club is hot when it's new, then it's not hot anymore.
AC: How much did you spend on the renovation?
Bartkowski: None of your business!
Pruter: More than even your big money residuals from Jammin' 105.9 could cover.
Wiley: All told, about a million bucks.
AC: Don't incriminate yourselves, but how does a bunch of comic actors raise that kind of money?
Wiley: The toof fairy.
Pruter: We all stopped drinking and smoking for a year.
AC: I happen to know that's bullshit.
Bartkowski: They find a rich girl with management capabilities.
AC: That has the ring of truth to it. I know you'll be offering a variety of improv and acting classes. How important is it to develop new talent?
Bartkowski: That's one of our biggest goals. Developing new talent is essential in our plan. It's our mission to nurture talent in Austin and encourage growth as a coherent community where we support and encourage each other, not only as friends, but as professionals.
AC: [singing] We are the world, we are the children ...
Pruter: Developing the local talent pool is a big part of the Bad Dog vision. As the local talent gets stronger, Austin becomes even more respected as a comedy hotbed. It's a symbiotic relationship between talent and venues. For years, we've had talented Austinites moving to L.A. and New York, so it's important to provide opportunities for new faces to improve to the level of a Johnny Hardwick or a Howard Kremer.
AC: Marc, you and Jon were instrumental, along with Ed Carter, in building up the Big Stinkin' Improv Festival to an international happening. How did that experience prepare you for the Bad Dog? Pruter: It was a perfect match. It allowed me to see the various ensemble comedy groups out there. Also, the frenzied pace of running Big Stinkin' made the frenzied pace of opening a theatre less stressful.
Wiley: Yeah, the Big Stinkin' opened up a lot of doors for us as far as getting talent and promotional partnership. [And] I achieved a masterful ability at stress and crisis management. The Bad Dog Comedy Theater is almost like running a Big Stinkin' Comedy Festival each and every week. Except without the naked debauchery.
AC: Anything else we need to know about the Bad Dog?
Pruter: Did I mention we have 11 stalls in the women's room? Eleven!
Jason Stuart and Rob Nash play at the Bad Dog Comedy theater Aug 4 & 5, 8 & 10pm. Call 804-BDOG.