Where Comedy Lives
Austin stand-ups have a complex – and it's called the Sandstone Apartments
By Wayne Alan Brenner, Fri., Nov. 25, 2011
In the heart, of course, that's where comedy truly lives: in the frequently complex, sometimes substance-enhanced, occasionally bitter heart of every stand-up who ever tried to make a living behind a microphone.
But those hearts, the actual physical ones, are in bodies; and those bodies, eventually, need a place to crash; and, in Austin, deep in the heart of Texas, many of those bodies of comedy will be crashing – and doing laundry and watching TV and microwaving Hot Pockets and practicing their schtick – in the Sandstone Apartments on Manor Road.
Why Sandstone? Maybe because that's where comedian Seth Cockfield moved after fleeing what Hurricane Katrina had wrought in New Orleans six years ago. He was, they say, the first comic there and so possibly inspirational? But these days the reason is more obvious: The Sandstone Apartments – Sandstone I on the north side of Manor Road and Sandstone II across the street – are now managed by a comedian. Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Joe Staats.
"I knew this guy who was the apartment manager here," says Staats. "And he was like, 'Hey, I'm going back to school, and I can't be the manager anymore.' And I was like, 'Well, get me an interview so I can do the job.' And he was like, 'All right, I'll set that up.' And then I got the job."
Well, sure. And then Staats just grabbed some friends and had them move on in?
"Yeah," he says, "because there's always a few vacancies, and the traditional rule of apartment managing is you need a 9-month or a 12-month lease. But I can be lenient and be like, 'Well, this guy's gonna be here; he's gonna pay his rent. He's not gonna be on a lease, but, hey, it's an extra $800 a month' or whatever."
"It's really hard to get away from Joe Staats when he's your boss, and he works here, and you see him at the clubs," says Kat Ramzinski, who's been working stand-up locally for five years and regularly graces Cap City Comedy Club's Monday night "Chick Schtick." "No matter where you go, he's like, 'Where's my rent?'"
"It's more than just not paying rent," says Isaac Harigle, alcoholic-in-training and inveterate warrior at the Geeks Who Drink pub quiz. "It's like, if I don't come through, my friend gets fired, my friend becomes homeless."
"Yeah, he lays an incredible amount of guilt on us," says Ramzinski. "But we learn to deal with it and just power through."
So what's it like, this Eastside hotbed – or, at least, lukewarm and slightly beer-stained bed – of offstage comedy camaraderie? Is there any camaraderie? Do these funnymen and funnywomen have nothing to do with one another, truth be told, or do they actually get together and, what, hang out and drink? Concoct possible ways to achieve total world comedy domination? Play board games? That's what I went to find out at Sandstone itself, on a Sunday afternoon during Fun Fun Fun Fest.
It was Ramzinski who first told me about the Sandstone community. And it was she who corralled all her fellow Sandstoners, current residents or recent escapees, for a gathering on the porch stairwell of Sandstone I so I could pepper them with questions or – and this was more like it – just make sure my recorder was working while listening to the brief and scattered oral history of the place, to the trash talk and the badinage and the gossip that erupted among the group like an audio version of gin blossoms on the cheeks of some old lush captured in a decade's worth of time-lapse photography. Yeah, just like that.
The afternoon's cause célèbre, as if there had to be one, was about how 90% of the people at Fun Fun Fun Fest kept mistaking Austin comedian Chris Cubas for the much more famous NYC comedian and musician Reggie Watts and how Cubas capitalized on the situation by telling autograph hounds and starry-eyed interviewers things in the third person: "Reggie Watts doesn't tip – Reggie Watts doesn't believe in tipping" and "Reggie Watts says Glenn Danzig sucks" and so on. Twitter, unsurprisingly, was blowing up with the hoax.
But this story's not about, ah, Wattsgate, although it is about Cubas – and Ramzinski and Staats and Cockfield and Harigle and the other stand-up stalwarts stopping by the chair-strewn porch where most of them still live: Natalie Cox, Andy Ritchie, Ruby Collins, Blake Midgette, Jake Flores, Joe Hafkey, and Bob Khosravi. This story's about them and where they live.
Austin Chronicle: So you're here mostly because Joe's the manager?
Seth Cockfield: The location is also good. If this place was in West Lake? It wouldn't matter, even if Joe was manager there.
Kat Ramzinski: We're right next to Tenderland [burger joint].
Cockfield: We're right on the [Capital Metro] 20 line that takes you straight Downtown. Takes you 10 minutes to get to the Velveeta Room with one bus. That's pretty awesome.
AC: Is there anything you'd change about Sandstone to make it better?
Chris Cubas: What I would like is some sort of pulley system that can get Tenderland delivered without having to walk and get it.
Joe Staats: And I would like that same pulley system that would put your rent in the door.
AC: You guys see each other in the clubs all the time. Don't you get sick of living in the same place?
Cubas: Yes. [laughter all around]
Ramzinski: When we're not tired of each other, we come to the porch.
Cockfield: To answer your question, yeah, I get real tired of these people. [laughter all around]
Ramzinski: Yeah, I hate these motherfuckers.
Isaac Harigle: Seth has probably kicked more people out of his apartment more often.
Cubas: That's mostly because he has more people in his apartment. Like he'll have a dance party going in there, and sometimes nobody else will be there. It's just Seth, and he'll be having a dance party by himself. And he's moved the couches, which doesn't make any sense.
Ramzinski: Sometimes Seth's friends come to my house, and my friends come to Seth's house, because we –
Joe Staats: False premise, Kat, you don't have friends. [crickets]
Picture it: Cockfield lives on the second floor of Sandstone I, with Hafkey as a roommate; Midgette's on the third floor. On the first floor are Cox, Staats, and Khosravi. At Sandstone II, all on the second floor, are Ramzinski, Ritchie, and Collins. Cubas, Harigle, and Flores have ditched the complex but visit as regularly as barflies; a somewhat legendary Nick Mullen has long since fled. And where this interview's taking place? That's where the comics often hang.
AC: So whose porch is this, here at the bottom of the stairwell?
Ramzinski: This is LuLu's porch. She's an honorary comedian. And I think it should be pointed out that everyone but me is a Funniest Person in Austin finalist.
Cockfield: No, that's not true.
Ramzinski: Really? I thought every single one of you –
Harigle: Oh, you really wanna open some wounds?
Ramzinski: But aren't –
Cockfield: No, Kat! We're telling you: no!
Cubas: Kat, stop saying that.
Staats: The word is not "finalist." The word is "funny." [big laughter all around]
Ramzinski: I'm not paying rent next month. Not gonna do it. [laughter] But, really, there was one year when everybody from Sandstone swept in the competition.
Cockfield: Yeah, that was two years ago. Eight of the 15 finalists lived here.
Rasmzinski: And a lot of them this year – and first and second place.
That's Andy Ritchie, 2011's Funniest Person in Austin, aka FPIA, with Cubas second, as judged during Cap City Comedy Club's heavily industry-attended annual contest. Ritchie's a successful touring comic who's performed for Montreal's prestigious Just for Laughs Festival and Comedy Central's Live at Gotham; Cubas, when he's not impersonating his putative doppelgänger, is perhaps the most rising star around, as suggested by his crowd-slaying set at this year's South by Southwest showcase. The FPIA gig's the reason a lot of comics from out of state, whether they wind up at Sandstone or not, move to Austin. It's a competition-spurring event that comics work toward all year long, but does it weaponize the scene away from a sense of community? Or do these funny people, at least at Sandstone, get together to try out new jokes before they hit the road or go onstage for their headlining gigs at the Velveeta Room, their opening or feature spots at Cap City, whatever open mic will take them?
Cubas: We might do that in conversation. Like, me and Seth hang out a lot and watch movies, and we might be like, "Hey, I've got this joke I'm working on." But very rarely do we all get together for that stated purpose.
Ramzinski: If somebody said, "Hey, I've got some new jokes I'm working on" and just started spilling them? They'd probably get hit in the dick. No one cares.
Cockfield: There's certain comics that – it's typically comics that don't know us, you can tell they're telling a joke –
Harigle: They're testing out new material.
Cubas: Yeah, there's a particular term, when they're ...
Cubas: Yeah, they're paneling!
Ramzinski: It feels like they're violating you.
Cockfield: The other night, he-who-shall-remain-nameless came over and kept on going with a joke. And I was like, "Oh, you should do that at the open mic." And it continued and continued, and I was like: "Whoa, this is a long joke. Stop telling this joke."
AC: Besides that, when you're not onstage, are you really competitive? Like, "He just said something funny, I've gotta top that"?
Cubas: I feel like that's a natural state of comics anywhere. That happens at the Velv or Mugshotz or wherever comics are together.
Cockfield: It can get pretty brutal and –
Cubas: Yeah yeah yeah, and –
Ramzinski: Yeah, it's –
Staats: And we never talk over each other. [laughter all around]
Cubas: Oh, that's gonna be awesome on the transcript. That joke's gonna translate into text really well. But, yeah, I feel like maybe we're particularly mean. Or, not mean, but we all know each other really well, so we've labeled all the buttons, you know what I mean? So now it's really easy to push 'em.
Ramzinski: But when someone has a nervous breakdown, then everyone's cool with them.
Cubas: No, are you kidding? That's where you go harder. Now they're on the ropes!
Ramzinski: No, see –
Cubas: Nick Mullen, who used to live here, he might've been the king of it, the most brutal shit-talker on the planet. He still does it on Facebook. Like, you'll get a pop-up text from him shitting on someone. "Tell them I said this." But he's hilarious.
AC: What are some of the advantages you guys find living around so many other comedians? If any.
Cubas: Yeah, right?
Ramzinski: Hey, how many of you have a car? [counts partially raised hands] Okay, cool. I just didn't know who to ask for a ride. [laughter all around]
Cubas: Oddly, I think the shit-talking we were just talking about? It helps. It keeps you on your toes. Like, nobody wants to be the guy that just sits there getting shit on, so it keeps you always looking for a joke. It helps you think fast.
Cockfield: Also, for comedy, you gotta have a thick skin in general. So if you're surrounded by people who are constantly trying to take you down, you're either gonna go down or you're gonna try to take them down. So it helps.
AC: Is there anybody who used to live at Sandstone who moved away because they couldn't stand it any more?
Staats: Uh, Brendon Walsh?
Cubas: Yeah, but that's also because he got famous.
Staats: Seth made him famous.
Cockfield: Yeah, I hold myself responsible.
Andy Ritchie: I moved across the street because I couldn't stand it here. Sandstone II is like the retirement Sandstone – this side's a little too intense. [laughter all around] The year I lived on this side, the cops were called several times. Sandstone I is like the bad part of town.
Harigle: It's easy to get distracted here. I've actually done more writing since I've been away. Because, when you're here, it's so easy to be like, "Oh, I'll just step outside and smoke a cigarette." And then Natalie will show up and somebody else, and somebody shows up with beer, and then it turns into Afternoon Drink-a-thon and you're fucked for writing for the rest of the night.
Ramzinksi: I'll make time to come to the porch if Norm's here.
Cubas: Norm Wilkerson's a comic who used to run Austin Trainwreck. Norm's fuckin' hilarious, and he hangs out here a lot.
AC: Kat tells me that y'all, uh, play board games sometimes?
Ramzinski: Well, that was a phase, but it's starting to come back. It started with Settlers of Catan at Seth's. And then it became Magic: The Gathering at Blake's with some people who don't live here included.
Harigle: It's the only time I ever wanted to be a dork, because I don't play board games or Magic, but all my friends do. So I had nobody to hang out with for three months.
Ramzinksi: And Catan is fuckin' fun. So we play the shit out of it, and we're all pretty fuckin' good at it. I don't wanna brag.
Cubas: At least you're not bragging about comedy. Which is accurate.
Cockfield: "Local Comedians Really Good at Board Games!" [laughter all around]
AC: What's the worst thing that's ever happened to Sandstoners, that people had to help them out of the situation, and you were able to do it because you all live here?
Cubas: Jake and Joe got jumped –
Ramzinski: Got the shit beat out of them.
Cubas: Yeah, by a bunch of fuckin' hoodlums, and they –
Ruby Collins: But we had a potluck dinner.
Staats: That was the worst thing. [laughter]
Cubas: Jake and Joe were going under the I-35 overpass, got jumped by like 20 dudes. So JT [Habersaat, of the Altercation Punk Comedy Tour] organized a benefit over at the Vortex, got them money for the hospital bills – mostly for Joe, who was more fucked up. Because Jake knows how to tuck – tuck and block. And then, a little later, Blake got a staph infection. From, ah, being gross? But we had a benefit at Cherrywood Coffeehouse to raise some money and help him out. We help if we can but mostly only after significant hoopla.
AC: What was the biggest party you ever had in this place?
Cubas: A lot of the post-contest nights, those were pretty big.
Flores: It's not really a matter of big parties; it's more of a quantity thing. It's just a long constant stream, always. There are people who will literally drive up here just to see if there's shit going on.
Ritchie: It's not so much a party as it is just drinking. It's not fun; no one's smiling. [laughter all around]
AC: A place this homey, people must be jonesing to get in, right? You have, like, a comedians' wait-list, Joe?
Staats: No, because in order to live here you have to have a part-time job making $8 an hour. Which 90 percent of comedians do not have.
Cubas: That's very true.
Cockfield: Ah, I think most comedians have a job. It's just that, the ones who don't have a job talk about it all the time. Most comedians are employed in some fashion.
Cubas: In some minimal amount.
Harigle: Yeah, a minimal amount. But in order to live at Sandstone, especially in a two-bedroom? You have to make a whopping $400 a month. Which requires working 10 hours a week.
Cubas: Isaac, you're scaring me; you need to shut up.