Is Anybody Laughing?
Economic Hard Times and Terrorism Have the Comedy Business Wondering What's Funny
Right about now, the whole city was supposed to be doubled over with laughter. See, this was the week that scores of improv troupes from all over the country, along with a host of nationally known comedy talents from the big and little screens, were set to invade Austin for the fifth Big Stinkin' International Improv and Sketch Comedy Festival. With hundreds of these merry pranksters on the scene, dishing up their various versions of instant humor and scripted bits in the Bad Dog Comedy Theater and assorted other clubs and theatres in town, complemented by the screening of assorted funny films and television episodes as in previous BS fests, the populace would be guffawing so hard they'd be weeping.
But here we are, third week of October, with no bands of comic improvisers roaming the streets, generating peals of laughter. BS5 isn't happening, not this year anyway. While festival producer Ed Carter had plenty of troupes eager to come on down for a 2001 BS, he wasn't able to get all the resources in place to make a Big Stink happen by this October. The downturn in the economy made the search for sponsors -- a challenge even in the flush times of the festival's early years -- particularly tough. As it happens, there is no longer a Bad Dog for visiting troupes or anyone else to perform in; the club shut its doors in July, a victim of economic troubles of its own. And any weeping that's going on right now is likely for the victims of September 11, the day the whole world stopped laughing.
It's a tough time to be in the comedy business. And it is a business, let's remember. There are people who make their living by making people laugh. And those people work with other people -- club owners and agents and bartenders and office staff and on and on -- whose livelihoods are intimately connected to the delivery of punchlines and gags. To pay their bills, they all depend on other people being willing to shell out good money to laugh.
Now, on the surface, laughter might seem an eminently bankable commodity -- after all, everybody likes a good time now and then -- but as Margie Coyle, longtime manager of the Capitol City Comedy Club, says, "It's not a mainstream product that you're selling." A sense of humor is a peculiar thing, as individual as a fingerprint, and a joke that causes one person to fall out of his chair howling may fail to elicit even a titter from his neighbor. The core of what stand-up comics and comedy groups have to sell is a sense of humor, and that may not translate into more than a few thousand consumers in a given city.
That makes comedy a niche market, especially on the local level. So when it comes to the funny business, success is about knowing how to target your audience. Find out who thinks what is funny, and get them into your club or theatre. Then give them a good enough time that they'll come back again and again and again, even if it's to hear the same jokes. Look at some of the comedy shops in Austin, and you'll see how true that is. How long has Shannon Sedwick been pulling half a hardware store out of the top of her dress while she sings Patsy Cline's "Little Things" down at Esther's Pool? Oh, only a couple of decades, yet audiences never seem to tire of it, so it's become a staple at the Follies. Likewise for the "Cry Me a River" finale and Lyova Rosanoff's evergreen "Jalapeño Chorus." Look over the roster of stand-up artists touring through at the Capitol City Comedy Club, and you'll find a number of comics who get booked into Austin on a regular basis: Todd Glass, Mitch Hedberg, Kathleen Madigan, Bob Zany, Billy D. Washington, Craig Shoemaker, not to mention local hero Eddie Gossling. Even an improv troupe such as the National Comedy Theatre of Austin, which draws some of its appeal from the fact that every show is different since the comedy is being created on the spot, still employs the same tried-and-true format -- teams competing in improv games monitored by a referee -- that it did when it debuted as ComedySportz Austin in the late Eighties.
That said, for a niche market in a less-than-major metropolitan scene, the Austin comedy scene boasts some impressive staying power. National Comedy Theatre has been operating steadily as a comedy troupe for 13 years, five of those in its current converted-bank performance space behind Northcross Mall. Capital City Comedy Club on Research Boulevard has been a continuous site for stand-up comedy for 15 years (the first 10 of those under different ownership and a different name, The Laff Stop). The Velveeta Room, home of the cheesiest stand-up -- and hardest-working comics -- in Austin, has been around nearly as long, having been started by the Esther's Follies folks in 1988. And Esther's itself, which has endured through flood and fire, is starting its 25th season of homegrown musical satire this month. That's not to say such businesses aren't vulnerable in hard times -- everyone in the comedy business is vulnerable at all times -- just that several of the locals have demonstrated an uncommon tenaciousness in what Margie Coyle calls, "a tough business to make it in."
How tough? According to Coyle, "This business is incredibly, incredibly hard." She points to the costs involved in bringing acts to town and housing them, overexposure of stand-up on cable and stiff competition from other forms of entertainment, the challenges of luring audiences in on weeknights and filling clubs on any night, changing tastes in audiences. In short, "Comedy is expensive," she says.
Bad Dog Comedy Theater may be a case study in how expensive -- and how quickly that can take a comedy club down. The Bad Dog was supposed to usher in a new era for Austin's comedy scene. It was the largest comedy venue to debut locally in a dozen years and the first of its size intended to showcase improv and sketch comedy troupes as well as stand-up acts. The team behind the club had good connections and made some notable bookings -- Upright Citizens Brigade, Margaret Cho, and Richard Lewis, to name a few -- but the million-dollar renovation of the former dance club delayed the grand opening by several months, not a good thing for a fledgling business.
Tale of a Bad Dog
"I started to get nervous before we ever opened," admits co-owner Marc Pruter, who launched the Bad Dog with co-owners Anna Bartkowski and Jon Wiley. "We opened with just exactly the amount of money we needed to get by. But we opened six months later than we had planned to, and in that six months we had money going out and nothing coming in. And we had agreed to pay rent at a certain point and there was no way to negotiate that." Making matters worse was the fact when the Dog finally opened its doors, it was the dog days of summer -- a notoriously slow period for clubs. "When we opened, we were losing about $60,000 a month," says Pruter. That situation improved, slowly, but in October the club was dealt a crippling blow: the loss of its primary investor. The club's other investors "were either unable or unwilling to contribute more money," according to Pruter. "Then I got real nervous."
The club tried to adjust. It scrapped the programming innovations it had hoped would distinguish it on the Austin comedy scene -- booking improv and sketch comedy troupes, including troupes without name recognition -- and focused on that comedy club mainstay, stand-up. It filed for Chapter 11. The club began to build an audience, and it was losing less money: "At the start of the summer, we were down to losing about $10,000 a month," Pruter says. He even thinks the Bad Dog might have begun turning a profit by the end of 2001.
Unfortunately, the Bad Dog didn't have that much time. In May, the club's cash flow situation was so dire that Pruter sent out an emergency plea to customers on the club's e-mail list. "This week is make it or break it for us. We won't have cash to operate on Monday if this weekend doesn't go well for us," he warned. "So this is our last shot to make it work before the doors are closed for good." Pruter urged fans of the Dog to patronize the club that week, even if it was only to watch the NBA finals in the bar and drink. The results were enough to keep the wolf from the Dog's door for a little bit longer. And in June the club scored a surprise hit when it booked three locals -- Tom Hester, Nancy Reed, and Wammo -- under the title "The Penis Monologues," a jokey response to Eve Ensler's show The Vagina Monologues, which was playing its second sold-out run at the Paramount Theatre that month. Pruter says he "got about eight times the attendance" he would have gotten if he'd "just booked Nancy Reed, Tom Hester, and Wammo." But while dick jokes have been the saving grace of many a comic, even a show filled with them couldn't salvage the Bad Dog. What the club needed was an infusion of money to help it through this crisis. Investors were courted, but when the ones they'd been talking to pulled out, it was "the nail in the coffin," says Pruter. Four days later, the club closed.
Pruter's colleagues in the comedy business are sympathetic about the closing of the club, but they're also quick to point out that even for the boomtown Austin was two years ago, the Bad Dog was an ambitious addition to the comedy scene. "I'd like to see the numbers that warranted thinking that they could pack a room that size," says Margie Coyle. And Shannon Sedwick suggests "the problem with Bad Dog was that their nut was too big. When you give yourself that big of a bottom line ..." She trails off. "Comedy has to start small."
Size matters, in comedy anyway. That seems at least part of the lesson to be found in the collapse of the Bad Dog. It also shows up in the saga of the Big Stinkin' festival that almost was. When the BS was launched in 1996 -- by a certain Marc Pruter and his colleagues in the now-defunct comedy troupe Monks' Night Out -- it featured around 20 different improv and sketch troupes from cities as far flung as Atlanta, Chicago, and San Jose, Calif., the talents of which were showcased in eight shows over five nights. It was an impressive debut, especially considering that it managed to bring comedy talent scouts from Disney, Comedy Central, and Trimark sniffing around Austin. By the time the festival turned four in 1999, it had tripled the number of featured troupes, was presenting almost 60 separate shows, including six gala shows at the Paramount, starring cast members of the network programs MAD TV, Whose Line Is It, Anyway, Dharma and Greg, and King of the Hill, had added video screenings, and secured major sponsorship from Comedy Central, Jose Cuervo, RC Cola, and Time Warner Cable, among others. It was a big deal.
The Stink That Wasn't
And therein lay the problem. Ed Carter, who had acquired the festival in 1998, was the sole financier and executive producer of the festival. He shouldered all the financial responsibility for BS, and when it fell short monetarily, there was no one with whom he could share the burden of debt. When it did fall short in '99, he took a big hit. As he explains on the festival Web site, www.bigstinkin.com, he "had taken something of a beating financially and personally, brain, heart, finances and spirit were worn thin," so he "deferred the festival till October 2000 to create time to find the right value matched partner," a financially sound company that believed, as Carter did, in the form's artistic value and "inherent healing quality," and could relieve Carter of some of the pressure of mounting what was now a substantial event.
That partner proved elusive. For a year after BS4, Carter looked for one in vain. Having not found a match by the summer of 2000, he postponed BS5 for another year, to October 2001. Given Carter's achievements in positioning the festival, getting media coverage, diversity of talent, participation by celebrities, sponsorship, and growth, he wasn't interested in shrinking BS. He didn't "want to produce anything that could not be as good and better than the previous festival," he says, and that set a substantial bar for anyone who might join him in financing the event. Enough of one that he was still hadn't found his partner by May 2001.
By this point, BS4 was two years behind Carter and the long-awaited BS5 only five months away. Comedy troupes were registering for the festival on its Web site, and even with the long delay from the previous festival, the numbers surpassed anything BS had seen before. Close to 100 troupes were interested in attending. Over the next two months, that number grew to almost 150. At first, Carter had thought it was "quite realistic and conceivable" to produce "a basic, no-frills event." But by summer, he was having second thoughts. He did "a fact-finding inventory to evaluate whether this would be feasible for October 2001 and found that the timelines were crunched and realistically a lot of folks were going to get screwed, including myself, if I continued on." On August 10, Carter posted a lengthy notice on bigstinkin.com that "the festival is not going away but has been deferred once again till October 2002."
Carter is aware that his latest announcement puts his credibility just about on par with the Boy Who Cried Wolf. But he's adamant about the festival's future. "Let me put it this way," he wrote in an e-mail. "We have the interest, the talent, the passion, the desire, and the reason to make the BS festival happen again in a glorious way. We just don't have the resources. I think people want and need comedy now more than ever before. Unfortunately, we've hit a recession, so bouncing back has been more difficult than we anticipated. But Austin is unique. We will come back ... but it might take a little more time to convince the business community that comedy is where it's at."
"I think people want and need comedy now more than ever before." From the vantage point of mid-October, 2001, Ed Carter may well have a point. But a month earlier, no one was sure anyone would ever want or need comedy again. When four hijacked airliners went down on the morning of September 11, laughter became an alien concept and spending an evening listening to jokes almost as inconceivable as the unprecedented death and devastation that day. Just like everyone else in the country, stand-up artists and comedy performers were appalled and grief-stricken. They didn't feel like being funny. But because that's their job, they had to consider how soon to get back onstage and start telling jokes. "It was such a mind-boggling thing. We were all just shell-shocked," Shannon Sedwick remembers. The Esther's cast "met on Tuesday, and we said we can't cancel the show because there are going to be people who want to come out and see something."
Sure enough, there were. Audiences started coming back to the Follies as soon as there were shows to see. There were fewer people than there might have been on a regular weekend, but they came. "The first people were just leery," says Sedwick, as if they were thinking, 'Are you guys gonna say some bad things and make us mad?' But the troupe had considered the mood of the audience. "We didn't do any George Bush bashing," she says, "and we put in a red, white, and blue Uncle Sam in place of the Long, Tall Texan we usually have, and Lyova wrote a new number on bin Laden. Most of the other humor was generic." Initially, the crowd was guarded. "They were kind of holding their breath," says Sedwick. "Then they just erupted. People gave us that immediate feedback."
Next door at the Velveeta Room, the response was less enthusiastic. "Nancy Reed was headlining that week," says comic J.C. Shakespeare, who covers comedy for the Chronicle and also works for the club. "Bush had declared that day of mourning for Friday. We talked about whether or not we should even have a show that night. The Velveeta was really dreadfully slow, and we ended up closing early. If I had to do it over, I would have closed. A lot of people came to Sixth Street with the purpose of drinking, but I don't think at that point they were at all ready to laugh yet."
Over at the Capitol City Comedy Club, the decision was made to offer shows again starting Wednesday, but according to Margie Coyle, that decision was not without complications. "The week it happened, every comedy club in the country had to scramble," she says. With the airlines not flying, many touring comics had no quick way to get to their next gigs, and clubs had to either cancel a week of shows or find a substitute headliner close enough to their city to get in without flying. "We didn't get hurt that week," she notes. "We had Eddie [Gossling], and that pulled us through. If we hadn't had somebody that people knew, it might have hurt us, but Eddie has a strong following in town, and people knew it was safe to come see Eddie. There was a comfort zone."
Gossling admits to being reticent about the gig. "I was supposed to be off that week, but the guy who was supposed to headline [at Cap City] couldn't get in, so they asked me if I would cover," he says. "I was like, 'Really? There are gonna be shows this week?' I just didn't think they were going to do shows. Maybe the weekend. But they wanted to do shows on Wednesday and Thursday. I didn't look forward to doing 'em, but I figured if I'm gonna be sad, I might as well do it in Austin, be with my friends.
"Before that first show, I dreaded it the entire day. But when I got onstage, it was okay. I had two acts in front of me, so I wasn't the first person who was going to have to make them laugh. I opened with my observations about the whole thing. I didn't really plan it. It was just how I felt. Whatever happens, happens. Then I eased into the funny stuff."
He agrees that not everyone was ready to laugh right away: "Wednesday and Thursday were very weird. The first night, there was this one couple, and they weren't laughing at anything. I think they just wanted to get out of the house, and it ended up being a bad idea. But other people were enjoying themselves. On the weekend, though, the crowds really wanted to be out there. I think the second show Friday was one of my best shows ever. I was supposed to do 45 minutes, and I did an hour and a half, just because the audiences were really there."
What most people in the comedy business discovered that week were audiences who were coming to see them not just because they wanted to but because they needed to. Shana Merlin, a member of local improv troupe We Could Be Heroes, puts it this way: "We cannot not laugh for a week even if we wanted to. There's that release." Her troupe didn't have to cancel any shows, but, she says, "I ended up canceling one of my classes and people were really disappointed. They were really looking for permission to play."
Most of the comedians who performed that week heard from their audiences just how much their jokes and good humor helped. When he would see people after his shows, Gossling says, "Some were very grateful. It was like, all I do is tell jokes, and they were so thankful. 'We just needed to get out of the house, not think about this for awhile.'" Sedwick says that after her Follies shows, "I always stand by the door, and that week just about everybody thanked us. I didn't really expect that the crowd would be so needful. But even in the darkest times of World War II people needed comedy."
In the weeks since, audiences have continued to make their way to comedy clubs and theatres. Most of the club managers interviewed for this story say that business is either back to normal or, in a few cases, better than normal. And the mood is better than ever. "Audiences, when they do come out, are much more responsive," says Marc Pruter. "The people who do come out seem determined to enjoy themselves."
It's led the people whose job it is to be silly, to be frivolous, to make light, to reconsider the importance of their business. Todd Glass, who returns to Cap City October 23-28, has been performed in Los Angeles, all over Alaska, and in El Paso since September 11, says, "There's definitely a different feeling in a comedy club now. But it's a good thing. You can feel it everywhere you go. People just come up to you and say, 'Thank you. I had a tough week.' That's the best compliment. I know that sounds corny, but it's true. It feels sort of awkward to say, 'I make people laugh. That's a good thing.' How am I gonna get up on stage and make jokes at a time like this? But you have to tell yourself that it is good. If ever there's a time to tell yourself that, it's now."