Keeping It Bearden
Stand-up comedian Matt Bearden was the headliner on the night (June 23) our "Running the Funny" feature was in utero. Wayne Alan Brenner interviews him for this Chronicle online exclusive:
Austin Chronicle: How did you get started in comedy? I mean professionally, not just being funny. Because I'm sure that came, ah, genetically or something.
Matt Bearden: It came from too many ass-kickings in the school yard. You're theatre folk, too; you know how we got here: You couldn't play sports, and you had to find some other way to defend yourself, so you became a smartass.
AC: Yeah, but professionally?
MB: I'm trying to remember exactly. I did improv for a while, and I was an actor for a long time. I don't remember exactly how I transitioned into stand-up, to be honest with you, and I've tried to remember. But it was around the 2000s.
AC: That recently?
MB: I graduated from high school, and, well, I was gonna go to college, theatrewise. But I had a meeting with my parents, and they were like, "Look, the problem is that you might toil away for four years in a theatre program, and when you're out, you'll end up working a dead-end job, auditioning for things and hoping for a lucky break." And I was like, "Yeah, I don't know if that's how I want to live my life." So I got what's probably considered a more standard degree, in American studies, and I got out. And I worked a dead-end job and started auditioning for things and hoping for my big break.
AC: American studies?
MB: It's like cultural anthropology of the United States.
AC: That's gotta be helpful to you as a comic.
MB: It's shaped a lot of what I've ended up writing. Because when you use history, it's sort of like GPS points. And I find, studying cultural movements, I find America to be fascinating. I have a writing partner who kind of teases me about that at times. I have some friends, especially comics, who'll just go after a topic that they find stupid, and they'll break it down, and they'll insult, like, Wal-Mart America. But I find Wal-Mart America fascinating. I guess that's the cultural anthropologist in me. I find it really easy to make fun of Wal-Mart America and much more challenging to understand and find enjoyment in that whole thing. But I'm also buffering that with trying to make a living by making what are, well, essentially Wal-Mart Americans laugh – because that's what comedy has become.
MB: I'm sure that's the only quote you're gonna use from this conversation.
AC: Only quote? Hell, that's the whole interview right there. [Laughs] But, even though you can play to the Wal-Mart crowds, you seem to have, ah, tinges of being what's called a comic's comic. Right? You're relentlessly postmodern onstage; you're breaking yourself down, breaking down the act you're doing while you do it.
MB: I think that comes out of my natural self-loathing. I don't know, I haven't figured it all out, and I think that comics who think they have figured it all out are really boring. My favorite comics are always the ones who, after they get offstage, they're like, "God, that show fucking sucked." They're never happy, because they just keep working at it.
AC: So how about around when you started working professionally? What were your early gigs?
MB: Well, I was briefly on a show that was on MTV about a dozen or so years ago called Austin Stories. There were maybe 13 episodes. And I moved to L.A. after that and started auditioning for things and became really quickly disheartened. Because I like doing stuff. And L.A., at least at the time, people who were at my level seemed to be into just hanging out. And my life was built around just waiting for my manager to call and say, "You have this audition; you have that audition." And I liked acting, and I wanted to do more with it, not just hang out. I don't want it to sound like I have the world's most incredible work ethic, because that's not true, either. There's just something about doing nothing in a city that seems like you're wasting time. And I really enjoyed going to watch stand-up. I really wanted to do stand-up, even when I was younger, but I didn't want to start in L.A. – it's a brutal town for starting. So I figured I'd come back to Austin. And the scene was much different than it is now, but it was similar in that other comics berated you if you took the easy way out too often. I think Austin has one of the best comedy scenes anywhere, but it's sort of a secret, locally. There's so much to do in Austin, especially with the music scene, that, short of a comic throwing himself off the Capitol building and then exploding into fire ... and, even then, I think you could only get people out to one show. You know how hard it is to fill a house: You have to fight against everybody's cover band that's playing down the street. Music's always going to be the number one thing; you can't fight that in Austin. It's a music town – deal with it.
AC: Are you from Austin?
MB: I'm from Texas, and I consider myself an Austinite. Like every other Austinite, I ended up moving here from somewhere else. There's only, what, 10 Austinites who can claim growing up in Austin? My family moved all the time when I was a kid, but I went to high school for a couple years in Houston. And even then, in my senior year, I started lying to my mother, "I'm gonna spend the night at a friend's house," and we'd all hop in the car and drive over to Austin. I used to go to the Black Cat on Sixth Street. It was all ages, we could sneak in there, and I'd watch the Reverend Horton Heat, who I thought was amazing. And you'd always meet somebody at the club, and they'd be like, "Yeah, you can crash on our floor." Because that was the height of the slacker era, when 15 people living in a house was, ah, it was a really comfortable place. So I came here for school and moved away a couple of times, but Austin feels ... it feels very good to me. It feels like home to me.
So after L.A., I moved back to Austin, and I wound up working for a theatre, because I needed money. I was working for the Bad Dog Comedy Theater, which was a huge cluster-fuck and a giant failure. And, ah, I was part of that failure – I guess it's time to own that. And so after that, I still wanted to pursue stand-up and pursue it professionally. So probably 2000, 2001, I said, "I'm gonna put together a seven-minute set and do this contest." And at the time, the Funniest Person in Austin contest, its big prize was that, when you made it to the finals, Rich Miller would be the judge who watched you. And so I put together a package, hoping to be seen by him and get sent on the road to make some money. Now the contest is an even bigger thing. The judges are way up in the industry, and you can literally launch a career from that contest, which is nice. People have actually started moving to Austin to do stand-up. It's become a destination, as opposed to people doing a little stand-up here and then moving immediately to L.A. or New York. And that feels good, because I'm part of that, along with a lot of other people who've made it a nice place.
AC: It's nice to have an audience, too.
MB: The audiences who come to stand-up, by and large – and this is weird for me to say, because these are the people who pay my bills, and I adore them – I've chosen to stand up in front of them, but you can get a lot more points across to a theatre audience, say, who will be more patient with you and much more appreciative of what you're saying than a stand-up audience. Who tend to be a lot more, ah, NASCAR caps and talk-about-your-dick. Like, "C'mon, man, talk about yer dick!" Which is why it's really rewarding if somebody comes up to you after one of those shows and is like: "Hey, I really enjoyed your show. You talked about reading, and I thought you were making fun of it, but I felt like you were also telling people they should read more. And I've never seen that in a stand-up show before, and I really liked it." And I'm like, "Oh, great, that's what I'm trying to do – I'm glad somebody heard that."
AC: You did eventually win the Funniest Person in Austin title, right?
MB: I won it in 2002, which was my second attempt. And then, once you win, you kind of bow out.
AC: And did you go on the road after that?
MB: I did some road work. But there are, ah, personal things that keep me from that – a variety of reasons. And it's hard to build a road career that way, because for a lot of bookers and clubs, it's really just a bar industry. They're using you to get people in so they can do these two-drink minimums and whatnot, and if they can't consistently rely on you to come in regularly and build an audience, well .... And I've since dropped out of that and started trying to create a career in a different path. Where a lot of people might go just to L.A. and work the scene there, L.A.'s still not really an option for me. I enjoy the city, but it's not how I want to do it. I've had a bit of national exposure, a couple of little TV appearances, some club dates. But the festivals are much more fun and kind of a bigger deal, and some friendships with bigger comics who've been nice to me and dropped my name in articles and whatnot – it gives you exposure so people can find you. But the comedy business is changing so much right now. With YouTube and all these other sites, I don't know how it's gonna pan out.
AC: Seems like the Internet's changing everything, doesn't it?
MB: The Internet is my best friend and my worst enemy at the same time. Finally, I'm provided with all the information I want; unfortunately, now I feel like I have to pursue all the information in the world. It's hell on my relationship. My wife is very jealous right now, I think, of Twitter. But yeah, the idea that the only way to build yourself is to get on the road and hammer it out, that's kind of dead and gone.
AC: Margie [Coyle] did mention that you're a rarity in that you have what it takes to be a headliner, but you're at that level without a lot of road work. She even compares your skills with an audience to Seinfeld. Fuckin' Seinfeld, man.
MB: That's flattering – bizarrely flattering. Especially because, you know, Margie wouldn't let me open her room when I first started doing comedy. I never got hired to emcee at her club. In fact, she heckled me once – she got drunk and heckled me. So that's awfully flattering.
AC: So do you think you've improved with training or practice?
MB: I think what's served me the most is that I did improv for years, with a group called Monks' Night Out. We had a residency at the Velveeta Room, which is the little, crappy, hole-in-the-wall club Downtown – and I say that with love. We did five shows a week down there, and this was years before the great improv boom that's happening in Austin right now. At the time there wasn't a lot of improv going on, and we had some good marketing and got people in there, five shows a week, and I stayed and watched the stand-up after every show. There sometimes seems to be, in some circles, animosity between improv and stand-up. Which I don't understand, because I feel there's a lot of close relations there. So I watched so much stand-up. And, you know, it's not that hard to make people laugh. You know what I mean? There are lots of tricks you can do where you can set up a gag; there are hacky tricks. It's probably why improvisers can't stand that short-form game-style stuff: because it's built around a structure and you kind of know what's coming, and there's an easy out. What I like about myself, if I can ring my own bell, float my own boat – I'm not sure of the metaphor I'm looking for – and it's not just me, actually. Not everyone in Austin is a true comic's comic, there are some guys who do kind of Middle America, Mall of America comedy. But what Austin comics try to impress upon other Austin comics is, no matter what you're doing, do it at the top of your intelligence – and that's going to absolve you from criticism from other comics. And I think that's what makes this scene, ah, I don't want to say unique, because I don't know enough about other scenes. But it's certainly what makes me proud of this scene. There are sort of frattish boys who do sort of frattish humor, which I think would be looked down upon in the very hip, alt-scene of L.A. But it's impressed upon them that they do it in the smartest way possible. Am I being clear with what I'm saying?
AC: Yes, you are. And it's a good rule to work from, too, because there are a lot of different kinds of comedy out there, a lot of different comedians – in Austin or wherever. So if there's some expectation of whatever it is being the most intelligent ...
MB: The sad thing about comedy is that, you know, so many people are sullen, and sullen people find their way into comedy. And I think we all go through our existential crises. Like Lucas Molandes, a local comic I like who moved to New York to do some stuff, and now he's back here and he's working on the loading dock at Macy's. And every time I bother him, he's like, "Ah, I'm not sure that comedy's important; I think I want to do something that matters." And I get that myself, probably twice a year, where you read a story in the Times about somebody who quit their engineering job and now builds houses for the poor in Nicaragua. You think, "Now that guy's really doing something." Me? I stand on a stage and try to make drunks giggle. How am I contributing to the greater good?