All Over Creation: A Brief History of Laugh Riots in Austin

As April overflows with comedy festivals, an overview of Austin's celebrations of funny

Shana Merlin and Shannon McCormick at the 2011 Improvised Play Festival
Shana Merlin and Shannon McCormick at the 2011 Improvised Play Festival

Pardon me while I plant a coconut-cream pie in T.S. Eliot's poetic puss: April may be the cruelest month elsewhere, but in our town, it's damn near the funniest. In addition to all the ongoing hilarity in Austin's large and varied comedy scene – Esther's Follies, Master Pancake, Punch!, No Shame Theatre, the Cage Match, stand-up at Cap City Comedy Club and the Velveeta Room, plus about a hundred other improv and sketch shows – the month boasts the biggest bevy of special comedy events on the calendar. The day after April Fools' saw the first of the preliminary rounds of the Funniest Person in Austin Contest, which continue Mondays, Tuesdays, and Sundays throughout the month. This week sees an invasion of narrative-based improv troupes for the Improvised Play Festival at the Hideout Theatre. Then the last week of the month sees the return of the New Movement's Hell Yes Fest and the debut of the Moontower Comedy and Oddity Festival, which, with more than 75 local and national comics commanding a mic, is the biggest single comedy celebration the city has seen in a dozen years.

So what is it about April that attracts comedy festivals like breakfast tacos to hungover musicians? Hard to say since it hasn't always. The granpappy of local joker competitions, the O. Henry Pun-Off World Championships, has been a May tradition since it kicked off way back in 1978. And when the FPIA began eight years later, it was in March initially, then in May. It wasn't until the fourth year that the prelims settled into the fourth month, where they've been since. As for the first true comedy fest that my enfeebled brain can recall – the SouthWest Improvisation Festival, which lasted a couple of years starting in 1992 – host ComedySportz Austin chose autumn to lure improvisers here from across the state. In the late Nineties, the Big Stinkin' International Improv Festival (later the Improv and Sketch Comedy Festival) did shower April with yuks for three of its four glorious years – at its height, this comedy bacchanal showcased more than 50 comedy troupes from coast to coast, with special guests on the order of Fred Willard, Stephen Root, Wayne Brady, Saturday Night Live's Chris Kattan and Ana Gasteyer, and MAD TV's Alex Borstein, Will Sasso, Michael McDonald, Mo Collins, Phil LaMarr, and Nicole Sullivan – but after BS flamed out in 1999, the comedy fests that followed soon after staked out other parts of the calendar: late August for the Latino Comedy Project's Latino Comedy Fiesta (1999-2005), Labor Day weekend for the Out of Bounds Improv Festival and Miniature Golf Tournament (2002-present), and the weeks before Thanksgiving for the improv/breakfast pig-out WaffleFest (2002-present).

So special comedy events trending toward April is really a fairly recent phenomenon. The Ladies Are Funny Festival launched in April 2007, though it's since shifted to May. Then last year saw both Hell Yes and the Improvised Play Festival debut in the fourth month. And, of course, this year Moontower has squeezed onto the schedule. There isn't much of a point to all this rehashing of hometown humor history, except perhaps to note that the local comedy scene is more expansive, ambitious, and connected to the national scene than it often gets credit for and that it's been this way for some time. There's a book waiting to be written that threads the story of Austin comedy from, oh, O. Henry through Cactus Pryor and John Henry Faulk through the University of Texas humor mag The Ranger through Gilbert Shelton and Jack Jackson through Esther's and Bill Hicks and Austin Stories and Big Stinkin' and Les McGehee and Master Pancake and LCP and FPIA and OOB and everything else along the way. There's a helluva lot of funny there.

While we wait for that, though, let's indulge in the bounty of comedy awaiting us this month. The above provides a great kickoff – schtick-off? – to what I think of as the silly season in Austin: all of the April foolishness, then the Pun-Off, the Funniest Person finals, Ladies Are Funny, and the Austin SketchFest in May, and the Hideout's 43-Hour Improv Marathon in June. Can you think of a better time to laugh it up?

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