Confessions of a Mind on Overdrive

Troy Dillinger has so much to give

Confessions of a Mind on Overdrive
Photo by John Anderson

You can call Troy Dillinger a lot of things – boisterous, headstrong, generous, selfish, talented, bawdy, crude, disciplined, scatterbrained, adolescent, libidinous, self-involved, self-obsessed, self-destructive, funny – as long as you realize that Troy Dillinger has beaten you to it.

Dillinger, the creator and host of The Austin Variety Show, loves to talk about himself – unapologetically and devotedly and with a practiced ironic grandiosity to keep you from taking him too seriously. He's one of his favorite subjects. The only thing he likes to talk about more is Austin.

Dillinger adores Austin. Like Woody Allen's Isaac Davis in Manhattan, he romanticizes the city he lives in all out of proportion; he's convinced Austin is the place everyone in the country is talking about, or should be.

Which is a good thing. Because Dillinger is busy trying to sell national TV producers, agents, studios, and networks on the Variety Show, which is about Austin, based in Austin, and features entertainers from Austin. If Dillinger doesn't believe Austin is the place everyone is curious about, he won't be able to convince them that it is. And if he can't do that, they're not going to give him their money.

To help his cause, Dillinger has put together three minutes of show highlights called a "sizzle reel." Last week at a meeting of the Variety Show production staff (all of whom, except for Dillinger, work for free), Dillinger summarized nicely the aim and appeal of the Variety Show while describing the basic outline of the sizzle reel to his editor, Cassandra McManus: "First we say, 'We're from Austin and what we're doing is ridiculous.' Then I say, 'I'm the host, Troy Dillinger, and I'm an asshole, and I have no business doing this show.' And then there's all these clips of me being a dick. I call that section, 'Who's Troy?'

"And we close by saying Austin is great."

The Austin Variety Show is Dillinger's scatological love letter to the city he says saved him – from failure, from poverty, from himself. And since Dillinger writes The Austin Variety Show, hosts it, stars in it, co-edits it, casts it, and markets it, it's also a celebration of all things Dillinger, not just his tastes but his faults and his failures, as well. All of which he's happy to talk about.

When he was a young man in the Eighties, Dillinger played in local punk bands, several of which, he says, got to the cusp of fame and stardom before misbehavior sabotaged their opportunities. In the early Nineties, the modest success Dillinger had with Del Dragons turned him, by his own admission, into an insufferable jerk who flaunted his small fame and celebrated his cultural significance at the expense of those around him.

"I thought I deserved to be the biggest rock star in the world. I felt entitled," says Dillinger. "Plus, I was on my way to a really nasty alcoholic bottom. I just kept self-destructing. It got to the point where I would go off on waitresses and bartenders who were just doing their job. I was just not cool to people."

Dillinger bottomed out in 2002, when a tour-van accident left him physically and emotionally battered. His mood darkened as his prospects receded. Very little money was coming in. For a while, he lived on the streets. Later that year, Dillinger was hospitalized with a case of viral pneumonia. He was released on Christmas Day. The whole year of 2003, he says, was terrible from beginning to end.

In 2004, however, a chance recording session with a friend led to the Troy Dillinger Dirty & Hairy Film Festival, a collection of short movies from local film directors shot to accompany the 11 songs Dillinger had recorded. "That was the culmination of everything I was doing at the time," he says, "and it was just successful enough that my head kind of came up above the water a little bit."

The next years saw Dillinger evolve into something of an Austin impresario. He started Austin Swim, which, during its three-year run, was the only officially licensed viewing party in the country for Comedy Central's Adult Swim programming block. Every week, Dillinger would set up a giant screen at a Downtown bar; invite different bands, comedians, and burlesque dancers to perform; and host a game show. "We even had an inflatable 15-foot swimming pool to go with the theme of the evening," he says. "So people would get loaded and jump in the swimming pool. It was pandemonium. It was a great time."

Still, Dillinger says, something was missing. It had taken him five years to climb out of the emotional low he'd reached in 2003, but, he says, "I started realizing that I wouldn't get anywhere until I started to set stuff right. So I looked at my relationship with music and with Austin, and I started realizing that I'd expected everyone to hand me more than I was giving them. And then when I was given it, I would give less. I needed to do something to make it up to the Austin music community."

In 2008, Dillinger's relationship with the executives at Adult Swim was souring, and he decided to shut Austin Swim down. Late that year he started Save Austin Music, which was a support group for the Austin music scene as it struggled to adapt to the new Downtown reality of expensive condominiums and more restrictive sound ordinances as well as a sort of political action committee meant to promote policies that would benefit musicians, clubs, and other stakeholders. These days, Dillinger talks about his decision to start Save Austin Music with an almost religious enthusiasm.

"One day, I got this grand vision, and the whole thing came together. It was like I'd been charged with a duty," he says. "The vision was so clear, I had to do it. So I started putting one foot in front of the other. It was amazing: As I put my foot out, the ground would appear beneath me. It ended up being the voice of the community at a very vital time."

Even though Save Austin Music didn't accomplish everything Dillinger had hoped it would, "I felt like I got to get right with the music community that gave me a career," he says.

Things were looking up. As Save Austin Music was reaching its end, a promoter approached Dillinger about starting up Austin Swim again. But since his first experience with the show had ended on a sour note, complete with intimations of copyright thievery, he passed. Instead he decided to take the basic format – the live emcee, the licentious game shows, the local performers – and simply drop the affiliation with Adult Swim. The Austin Variety Show was born.

The Austin Variety Show is really two shows. There are the live performances, held at a large studio space in the largely abandoned Highland Mall, with Dillinger acting as an emcee full of raunchy puns and lurid innuendos. In this he's like his hero, Gong Show creator and host Chuck Barris, who is credited by many with dragging American culture into the schlocky reality-TV morass it's drowning in today. To accentuate the comparison, between acts by local comedians, bands, and burlesque dancers, Dillinger brings members of the audience onstage to play raunchier, more suggestive versions of Barris game show classics like The Newlywed Game and The Dating Game. Onstage, Dillinger never misses a chance to use a curse word or make a joke about bodily functions or human anatomy. He riffs with the raunchy abandon of a 13-year-old who can't believe someone's handed him a microphone and placed him on a stage with girls.

To be a modern version of Barris has always been in Dillinger's line of sight, even if he didn't know it. His father moved his family to Austin from Canton, Ohio, when he was 8 to avoid trouble with what Dillinger calls "the wrong crowd," and his parents' marriage dissolved not long after, leaving Dillinger in need of an escape.

"I'm this idealistic, creative, sensitive kid, and in the midst of all that, The Gong Show debuts, and it filled my entire fancy," Dillinger says. "It was funny, it was lighthearted, but it was also a little dark. And it was insane and it shouldn't be on television, yet it was one of the biggest things on television. I saw a place where it looked as if all adults wanted to do was be silly and there was no limit to how wild things could be. As a kid I wanted to be Chuck Barris, and maybe, at some level, there's a part of me that still wants to be Chuck Barris. Now here it is years later, and I get to be Chuck Barris."

The other half of the Variety Show is composed of scripted "behind-the-scenes" sequences inspired by shows like The Larry Sanders Show, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and The Office, where Dillinger plays an exaggerated, more fatuous, self-mocking version of himself, a character blind to the fact that his oversized ego is getting in the way of putting on a show called The Austin Variety Show. These portions of the show are Dillinger coming to terms with and capitalizing on the needy, attention-seeking corner of his personality that had nearly been the end of him on more than one occasion. "I realized that my experiences being just a self-centered idiot and screwing up everything I touched makes for great TV," says Dillinger.

Last month, to celebrate the show's new national campaign, Dillinger and his crew put on a performance that featured a viewing of the two completed episodes that Dillinger will be using to help sell studios on the idea. In those episodes, Dillinger, playing Dillinger, is forced to come to terms with the reality that his trusted stage partner Tom has quit because of Dillinger's narcissistic need to control and claim credit for every little aspect of the show. In the pivotal scene of the two-episode arc, the fake Dillinger is charged with committing sins the real Dillinger will admit caused the end of numerous bands, projects, and relationships over the course of his life. "Your insecurity and your drive and your need to succeed has blinded you from what other people need," one of the show's staff members tells him, reading lines Dillinger wrote. "You can't see shit anymore. You run them over. You treat them like hell."

Even a great egoist like "Troy Dillinger" can recognize the truth when he hears it.

Still, there's a difference between tamping down your in ego in the name of doing right by the people you love and throwing a perfectly healthy sense of self-worth out the window. And the new, modest, decent, humble Troy Dillinger is still unafraid of speaking about himself in the most grandiose terms. He can relate to Francis Ford Coppola, he says, "because of his commitment to making Apocalypse Now at any fucking cost." When he talks about his numerous failures over the years, he points out that Walt Disney once lost a studio and that Henry Ford took years to come up with the eight-cylinder engine. And, like Jesus, he isn't afraid of dying, as long as he does what he was sent here to do first.

"We don't know how my story's going to end," Dillinger says. "Maybe it will end tragic, but no matter; I had some really good years. And hopefully, I'll be able to say I made a lot of people laugh. Hopefully, I can say I helped my city maintain its heart. If I can say that, then fuck, put me on a cross; I died for your sins. My ego would love that: 'Austin, I died for your sins!'" Dillinger laughs at how outlandish that must sound, but he doesn't deny the sentiment. "Fuck, you have to have that kind of ego to do what I'm doing, to make your own life a television show and to think that show should be on national television and to think that you can single-handedly affect your entire city for the good," he says. "You have to have a huge ego, and I do."

This Saturday, The Austin Variety Show is putting on a performance to coincide with Troy Dillinger's birthday. In honor of the occasion, Dillinger has tapped his own musical alter ego, Stinky Derringer – a "despicable human being" who dresses like Elvis and sings "filthy songs" about groupies and nipples – to fill in for the band Shinyribs, which had a scheduling conflict. In addition, everyone who attends will get a piece of Troy Dillinger birthday cake.

"I wanted the cake to say, 'Don't you know who the fuck I am? I'm Troy Dillinger,'" Dillinger laughs. "But I'm having a hard time finding a bakery that will write 'fuck' on a cake."

The next live taping of The Austin Variety Show takes place Saturday, Feb. 25. See for ticket info. Televised episodes air Saturday nights, 12mid, on KBVO-TV.

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Troy Dillinger, The Austin Variety Show, Austin Swim, Save Austin Music, Del Dragons, Troy Dillinger Dirty & Hairy Film Festival, Chuck Barris, Cassandra McManus, Stinky Derringer

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