Party Out of Bounds
Talking reunions with members of Fatbuckle, Squirrel Buddies, and the Amazon and the Milksop
Don't think for a second that Kaci Beeler won't enjoy performing with her friends in Parallelogramophonograph at the Out of Bounds Comedy Festival this weekend. She adores playing with Kareem Badr, Valerie Ward, and her husband, Roy Janik, and they with her. Why else would the foursome still be improvising together after 10 years? And their OOB gig at Spider House Ballroom on Saturday will mark a major milestone for Pgraph: its 600th show. It's just that Beeler gets to play with those three every week. With Curtis Luciani, she isn't as lucky.
Luciani is Beeler's colleague in the gender-flip duo the Amazon and the Milksop, and the F. Scott to her Zelda Fitzgerald in their whacked-out re-imagining of the notorious literary couple as Jazz Age assassins. The pair's partnership, now in its sixth year, originated as "one of those improv crush moments, I think," says Beeler. "After a show, you compliment each other and realize that both parties are jazzed about further collaborations. It just felt like there was something there to explore."'
Luciani felt it, too. Their early impulses to upend the traditional comedy dynamic in gender roles – putting her in the power position and him in the submissive – quickly evolved, he says, "into this unspoken idea of pushing the limits in all sorts of ways: limits of good taste, boundary between us and the audience, etc. That makes it sound very deliberate, but it just came down to us having a lot of fun together and feeling safe doing whatever the hell we wanted onstage and trusting that we could make it work for the audience."
"We're both total weirdos, and we can let our freak flags fly with one another," Beeler says. "In our shows, we scream at each other, we jump on each other, we grapple. Audiences always seem to love it. Maybe because there are no holds barred. Maybe because we've both written and performed enough by now to not give a shit. We love performing. We love pushing each other. We can be gross and sweet and silly and sad and dark all in one show. It's freeing to know that all those things are possible onstage and acceptable at any time."
Alas, the only thing standing in the way of all that liberating limitlessness was time. "When we met and starting working together," Beeler says, "it was different around the Hideout: fewer performers, and we were significantly more committed to just doing improv every week, as much as possible. Now we have a lot of other responsibilities in our professional and personal lives. There was a time when I was genuinely worried we wouldn't be able to create together anymore. Just because ... life. All the 'adulting.' It made me profoundly sad."
Since playing together is just "too much fun," says Luciani, he and Beeler make a point of partnering on at least one major project a year and as many one-off shows as possible. That makes their OOB appearances precious collaborations.
And that's a special aspect of this fest that receives less attention than it should. You always hear about the leading lights of improv that fly in to headline Out of Bounds; about the wealth of troupes from Chicago, NYC, San Francisco, Atlanta, and elsewhere; and, of course, about established local troupes like Pgraph, the Frank Mills, Girls Girls Girls, and Confidence Men that have been major contributors to building Austin's rep as an improv hotbed. But quietly nestled among the prominent troupes – your Dasariski and Annoyance Theatre, your Nice Astronaut and Knuckleball Now – are the Amazon and the Milksop, Squirrel Buddies, Bad Font, and the like – projects that pop up just a half-dozen times a year. But one of those times will always be OOB, and those shows are routinely exceptional.
Just ask Beeler's husband, who's in a similar spot with the aforementioned Squirrel Buddies. That partnership dates back to 2007, when Janik and his pal Jon Bolden both noticed how quick novice improvisers were to rush into conflict and negativity when starting scenes. That led them to form a duo rooted in, Janik says, "relentless positivity." Adds Bolden, "Roy and I thought it would be interesting and fun to perform a show where we explicitly focused on not having any fights or conflict, even when it would make sense to, [as in] a scene about divorce or someone being fired. We failed at it pretty miserably, but even attempting to be more positive gave us a great freedom. We also discovered that we have an exceptionally good time creating together, and it doesn't feel like anything else we do."
"Jon and I work together on lots of artistic projects," says Janik, "but when we perform as a duo, I have absolutely no idea what is going to happen. I'll be positive that the scene will go one way, and within seconds it's spinning off in a completely unexpected direction. Basically, the show is out of our control from the first moment, and I love that. Also, Jon is a whirlwind and an incredible improviser, so I'd be a fool not to perform with him as much as possible."
The trick is finding time. Both men are on the road much of the year. Moreover, Janik is the Hideout's artistic director, so "he has a sense of guilt when it comes to booking his own projects," says Bolden. The two play as Squirrel Buddies about once every two months, so OOB has become a rare time for them to share the stage.
It's special to them – and not just because they help run the festival. "We're both producers of OOB, and with any other show, there's an internal pressure to be amazing," says Janik. "But Squirrel Buddies is deliberately low-pressure. We sing a dumb song at the beginning, we pause the show and discuss what's going on as actors, we comment on scenes that just happened. So doing the show at OOB is like a celebration and a chance to cut loose."
That celebratory attitude is reflected in where on the schedule Bolden and Janik put Squirrel Buddies this year. You might think that producers with the power to set their own festival slot would give themselves a juicy prime-time gig with a headliner. This pair, though, opted to open OOB and be literally the first to perform. "That's what makes it special," says Bolden. "We get to be ambassadors of our festival and of Austin." Adds Janik: "We hope our dumb, relentless positivity will set a good tone."
Jeremy Sweetlamb, a fest co-founder who's taking his final bow as executive producer with the 2015 Out of Bounds, is aware of these groups that perform rarely but always play OOB – in addition to the groups named, he counts Get Up, Audience of Two, and his old team Available Cupholders among said "perennials." Some of the phenomenon he ascribes to the nature of the beast: "Out of Bounds, like any festival, is an elevated showcase of a niche medium. The audiences are filled with other performers from across the globe – and who doesn't want to impress visiting contemporaries? – as well as locals who may be just discovering what live comedy is. They're usually eager to enjoy this thing that's been somewhat artificially pumped up and made pre-exciting. Some groups have key members who live in another city but always come back to Austin for the festival. So why not do a show with old collaborators to get back in line with your fundamental fun?
"We try to have at least one reunion show in the festival for those of us who long for the old days. [This year,] Fatbuckle, One Hit Wonder, and Snackers are all reuniting simply because there is this festival happening that they've been involved with in the past. If there were no festival, these shows would almost certainly not happen."
You won't get an argument from Fatbuckle. In the 15 years since its last show, the late-Nineties comedy group launched by students at St. Edward's University has seen its members scatter across the U.S.: Matt Cross to L.A.; Cristi Miles to Portland, Ore.; Alan Metoskie to Chicago; Jarrad Apperson and Patrick Daniel to DFW. "I really don't think this show happens without OOB," says Brad Carlin, now managing director of Fusebox. It has "such an amazing reputation and provides the infrastructure, marketing support, and cachet to make pulling this show together feasible and fun."
And when Out of Bounds reunites a crew like Fatbuckle, it's typically more than just "getting the band back together." To Lee Eddy, the group was "a huge influence on me as a performer and as a human; the bonds of friendship that came out of doing Fatbuckle are at the core of my makeup as a person today. I'm psyched to just be on the same stage with them again."
For Carlin, the excited chatter he heard around town and on social media made him realize that a Fatbuckle reunion show would be "more than just old friends onstage waxing nostalgic as funny characters. It's the reunion of audience members, guys in the tech booth, even the same venue we performed in dozens of times that makes this show special. Look, Fatbuckle is no Eagles, and Jeff Mills is no Don Henley" – he says, throwing a fellow group member under the proverbial tour bus – but "the fact that audiences are excited about a 15-year reunion for an improv troupe is pretty remarkable. Or sad. But sadness can be funny."
"I hate the Eagles. There, I said it. That feels good," Mills retorts, before adding earnestly: "I can't speak for everyone, but for me, life moves fast. You get so caught up in 'what is the next thing' and the inevitable slowing metabolism and paying your phone bill that you sometimes forget to stop and appreciate the incredible journey you've had in this life so far, the people you've met and the extended family you've become. It's amazing to stop and feel gratitude for where you came from and to share that experience with the people who were so integral in getting you there. We are so grateful to OOB for creating a platform where this can even happen. Never in my wildest fever dreams – and I've had some wild ones – did I think everyone would actually be game to fly into town and make it happen. We are like a middle-aged Voltron, but with more pudge."
Beeler and Luciani are grateful as well. "OOB is basically homecoming week for Austin improv," he says. "Lots of old friends come to town, and it's nice to be a part of that big ball of energy. It's really fun as hell. And audiences seem to like our thing, whatever it is. We still haven't found the thing the audience won't let us get away with."
"So," she says, "maybe we have to keep performing until they literally kick us out of the theatre?"
"Until they literally come onstage and club us to death."
The Amazon and the Milksop perform Fri., Sept. 4, 9:30pm, at the Hideout, 617 Congress.
Fatbuckle's 15th Anniversary Reunion Show will take place Fri., Sept. 4, 11:15pm, at the Hideout.
The Fitzgeralds Save the World will be Sat., Sept. 5, 7pm, at the Stateside, 719 Congress.
The Out of Bounds Comedy Festival continues through Sept. 7 at various venues. For a full schedule, visit www.outofboundscomedy.com.