Chris Cubas: King for a Month
How comedian Chris Cubas talked his way into being one of the wealthiest people in Austin – temporarily
Chris Cubas is sitting on the small front porch of his modest Eastside home, drawing deep puffs on his electronic cigarette and reminiscing about the time he was rich.
"Every morning, I got up at 9 or 10 o'clock, put on coffee, then went for a swim in my giant pool while I waited for it to brew. I could skinny dip if I wanted. Then I got out, got my coffee and my laptop, and read the morning news." As he talks, a delivery person drives up with his dinner of Chinese food. "Up there in West Lake, I couldn't even see my neighbors," he continues, watching the driver attempt to parallel park on the narrow, potholed street. "Until I decided to engage with the world, I was in my own bubble of quiet calm solitude. There's something about that – I'll get to you when I'm fucking ready – which immediately starts your day off on a better note."
At the end of the month, he was hitching a ride out of West Lake Hills to get to the nearest bus stop, then taking a sobering hourlong bus ride home. Cubas only had a temporary passport into the world of extreme wealth. That's because he happened to think up, pitch, sell, and film the best idea for a television show starring oneself ever. Chris Gets Money will premiere on the Fusion network Oct. 21 at 7pm (simultaneously streaming live on Facebook), and the premise of the show is right there in the title: The producers gave him enough money to live like the richest Americans to see what he could find out about income inequality in America.
For those who have somehow missed Chris Cubas, he has quickly become one of the most visible Austin comics in the country. A large, loud, outspoken presence onstage, he has parlayed a quick wit and politically barbed sensibility to become a frequent guest on Comedy Central's@midnight and numerous national podcasts like Doug Loves Movies and Gilmore Guys. He also produces two weekly podcasts (Canceled, about one-season TV shows, and Wigsnatchers with Ralphie Hardesty and Kath Barbadoro), as well as a popular monthly stand-up showcase called The Sting at King Bee Lounge (1906 E. 12th, first Wednesday of every month). He walks, talks, and laughs in an expansive, gregarious way that dominates whatever space he's in, but his comic sensibility is still light and playful – more playground smart mouth than schoolyard bully. Who wouldn't want to let this bull run loose in the china shop?
The show came about earlier this year when his manager told him that Fusion was looking for pitches around "comedians with a cause" ideas – matching the network's blend of social justice documentaries and quirky personality-driven comedy shows like The Chris Gethard Show and Trump vs. Bernie. On the bus ride to the pitch meeting – this time an L.A. bus, so even slower and dicier than Cap Metro – the idea to do a fish-out-of-water documentary on income inequality struck him like lightning when he saw a Bentley pull up next to the bus.
Cubas pitched that he would get enough cash to live like the top 1% for a month ($30,000, literally carried in a suitcase with a security guard following him around), then film himself meeting wealthy people and "yelling at them." The concept was an instant hit, but he did have to do a bit of work to pitch himself as the ideal host. "I talked about being poor my whole life while eating a salad in Beverly Hills," he says. "Luckily, I can talk about myself all night long, so that wasn't hard."
The special filmed all over Austin this summer with an eye on airing right before the election. Cubas set up home base in a spacious mansion he rented in West Lake Hills. The pad had countless bedrooms, a kitchen with more cabinets than most people have in square feet, and most stunningly, an elaborately manicured back garden surrounding a pool big enough to comfortably fit 15 sloshed adults. (Full disclosure: This reporter and several comics about town were invited to test the swimming pool's sloshed adult capacity one day. It's good to know the king.) From his pool, he could look at a hill across the way and see Michael Dell's house. He bought himself a new 60-inch flat-screen TV, a top-of-the-line laptop, and a few other assorted toys, including a custom-tailored thousand-dollar suit. He even sat a few friends down for a night of $100-an-ounce whiskey. But the show was about more than indulging himself and his friends. His goal was to confront America's ever-widening wealth gap, and that turned out to be trickier than he'd imagined.
"I felt like I couldn't meet a single rich person," he says. "Regardless of where I live, they don't want to talk to me. I threw a barbecue and invited the whole neighborhood, and nobody showed up." He tried to pull a stunt where he sat down with John Paul DeJoria, one of Austin's most well-known wealthy residents. He had a number of tenuous connections to DeJoria through media friends and other, stranger avenues. "The hotel where the crew was staying, the owner of the hotel's husband was his lawyer," he says. He even bought a dedicated cell phone and took out a billboard for $2,500, asking anyone who spotted DeJoria to call the number so he could, ideally, rush to his location and get the interview. But none of this is in the documentary, because ultimately DeJoria said, "No thank you."
"It's weird writing for a documentary," he says, "because I have all these ideas for what I want to happen, but what actually happens is obviously completely different."
To help him with the ropes, he had Dan Taberski on board – a veteran producer of The Daily Show field correspondent pieces, as well as numerous other reality TV documentaries. For Taberski, rolling with the punches is exactly what draws him to these kinds of projects time and time again. "If you're able to plan it perfectly and nothing changes, then it wasn't that revelatory in the first place," he says of the process of making the show work. "Chris was really open to actually experiencing the things we were doing. He wasn't afraid to be not funny if something was really surprising or touched him."
While the special still features some "yelling at rich people," and certainly involves plenty of silliness around the idea of becoming a 1-percenter for a month, Cubas says the focus also grew to examine an equally interesting concept he encountered: So many members of the 99% blame themselves for not being wealthy, rather than taking aim at systemic issues. The documentary even dips a toe into the income gap designed into the very fabric of Austin: riding around town with University of Texas assistant professor Eric Tang and talking about the design of I-35, historic deed restrictions, and other measures meant to keep Austin racially and economically segregated.
Cubas can't be sure how much race played into his lack of success in crashing the wealth party in Austin. "It's not like I was followed around by a white guy also trying to do the same thing," he says, "so I don't know how much of it was race and how much was just me looking like a crazy person."
Regardless of the slight shift from the initial premise, it's a show he's proud of, and an exciting jumping-off point for a big-time career. "This is the first thing that's me and me alone, so it's a coming-out party of sorts. I was really focused on being as Chris Cubas as possible. You only get this kind of opportunity once."
And if it takes off, and he gets the kind of opportunities that allow him to really, truly join the top 1%? Now that he's had a taste, does he know what rich Chris Cubas will be like? "Absolutely the same," he says. "I'll just throw bigger parties."
Chris Gets Money airs Fri., Oct. 21, 7pm, on Fusion. For more information, visit www.wearefusion.tumblr.com.
Chris Cubas hosts The Sting Wed., Nov. 2, 9:30pm, at King Bee Lounge, 1906 E. 12th.