SXSW 2008: John Wenzel’s journalBy John Wenzel | March 23rd, 2008 | 9 comments
Hordes of scribblers and photographers race back from Austin, Texas each year to capture South by Southwest in blogs, magazines and newspapers, desperate to get their words and pictures out before the rest of the unlucky bastards (i.e. 99 percent of the non-attending world) grow fatigued by the numbing sameness and overwhelming amount of “I was there! You weren’t!” coverage.
The magnitude of the festival (a couple thousand bands across five days) certainly justifies a spectrum of voices. In fact, you’ll notice more than half a dozen well-written, legitimately interesting/unique SXSW blogs here on Reverb. But few outlets in general write about anything except the music. While it’s not a huge chunk of the festival, the comedy offerings at SXSW and other indie music festivals have exploded in recent years, warranting their own examination.
Of course, I’m biased as hell. I’ve attended SXSW the last couple years (this was my fourth overall) mostly to do research for a book on indie comedy, based on this Denver Post article from Nov. 2006. I still try to catch bands that have inflamed my musical organs over the preceding months (Land of Talk, Bon Iver, Evangelicals, Helio Sequence), but the increasing amount of hipster stand-ups, improv types and sketch comedians excites me far more than most rock shows do these days.
Maybe it’s because people like David Cross, Eugene Mirman, Maria Bamford, Brian Posehn, Tim & Eric, Patton Oswalt, Morgan Murphy, Todd Barry, Earles & Jensen and others are filling the same flavor hole that music once did (and still occasionally does), affording me excellent new ways of chewing on the world’s absurdities, shredding logical boundaries left and right, and channeling the ethos and energy of punk rock into painfully hilarious nuggets of truth.
To be sure, indie comedy is not the largest or most diverse scene out there. Comedy nerds like myself that weekly devour Adult Swim and SuperDeluxe offerings tend to notice the same several dozen people (mostly white dudes) popping up at these fests. And if you live in L.A., New York, Chicago or Seattle you’re also likely to see the same handful of comedians at shows like Comedy Death Ray, or touring indie music venues in general, or releasing albums on indie music labels like Sub Pop, Drag City and Matador. In other words, overlapping with the indie rock sphere in a way that implies an inexorable, blessed blend of the two.
I could go on, and will in my book — shameless plug — due out later this year on Speck Press. But for now I’ll focus on the offerings at this year’s SXSW. I suspected the trickle would only grow to a strong, golden stream for 2008, especially since the union was semi-legitimized least year at a panel devoted to the subject. Jon Wurster, Aziz Ansari and others popped up at day parties at Emo’s, absurdist Adult Swim duo Tim & Eric and MTV sketch show Human Giant performed to a packed house at Friends, and David Cross and other comedians hosted the Mess with Texas day parties, curated by Chunklet editor Henry Owings.
Me, enjoying a bratwurst from Best Wurst on 6th Street last year.
This year, however, found comedians scattered in every mother-lovin’ direction, from one-off shows by Michael Showalter (MTV’s “The State,” Comedy Central’s “Stella”) and Matt Besser and Matt Walsh (Upright Citizens Brigade) to full-night offerings at Esther’s Follies and the day-long Mess with Texas 2 party at Waterloo Park.
I stumbled into Esther’s late on Friday, March 14 just as prank call duo Earles & Jensen were taking the stage. Earles is a swarthy, sleepy-eyed writer from Memphis, Tenn. and Jensen is a Mets cap-and-jacket-clad New Yorker. Together they craft some of the funniest, sharpest, oddly un-cruel prank calls this side of Neil Hamburger. However, their stage act could use a bit of polish.
While never awkward or botched, the conversational, gently-teasing bits merely acted as setups for the inevitable pre-taped calls that crackled softly over the speakers. Without the requisite experience to exude authoritative stage presence, they kept themselves from being a highlight of the evening (although many of their calls killed).
New-ish face Reggie Watts, however, easily projected confidence and deft timing during his set, incorporating beatboxing and a synthesizer into his dizzying music-comedy act. The frizzy-haired Seattle comedian has lately been garnering deserved notice on the scene, so expect to see more from him soon.
The sotted maelstrom of humanity that is SXSW.
New York comedian Leo Allen, a friendly, self-deprecating hipster that toured a couple years ago with “The Daily Show’s” Demetri Martin, also popped up, but his set lacked the energy or timing to push it over the “ehh…” mark. I’ve seen him do better, and he probably will again.
Since many of these cutting-edge comedians are alumni or unabashed devotees of HBO’s brilliant “Mr. Show,” it was unsurprising to see lots of their ilk around. The Fun Bunch — the duo of Scott Aukerman and BJ Porter (a.k.a. the minds behind Comedy Death Ray) slayed the Esther’s crowd with a verbal argument bit that escalated into a “clothes off” fist fight and ended in the two guys kissing, mostly naked, on stage. I’d seen the pair test the bit at Comedy Death Ray in L.A. three weeks prior, and the lack of variation on their initial experiment proved how laser-honed their instincts are.
“Mr. Show” and VH1′s “Best Week Ever” regular Paul F. Tompkins brought his suave, hilarious monologues (click here for a review of his Friday set at the Oriental Theater), while metal hero Brian Posehn provided arguably the night’s best-received set, cobbling his act from new observations and bits of his stand-up CD, “Live In: Nerd Rage.” His intentionally awkward material, which often mocks his freakish size and appearance, went over well with the drunken (but polite) crowd. Weed jokes never hurt, either.
Jonah Ray at the Mess with Texas 2 party.
I failed to make it next door to the Velveeta Room where more comedians were performing, but did chat with Posehn and Andrew Earles (of Earles & Jensen) for a bit before and after their shows. Nice dudes, they were, although both seemed justifiably distracted.
The next day at Waterloo Park was the Mess with Texas 2 party, an all-day fete that takes place outside the official festival offerings. The party attempted to condense into one day/area what previously took place over three days last year at a much smaller (and virtually impossible to get into) venue.
My friends and I showed up just as Matt Walsh was leaving the comedy stage (they thought he sucked — I didn’t really catch any of it) and just in time for up-and-comer and SuperDeluxe regular Jonah Ray. He peppered his bits with references to hipster catnip like Neutral Milk Hotel and the Courtney-killed-Kurt theory, the crowd quickly eating out of his hand.
The hot, crowded, dust-ridden park ($3 for a bottle of water? Give me a break), nominal sight lines and quiet sound mix likely prevented more souls from seeing/hearing the goodness, especially when larger crowds gathered for marquee acts like Janeane Garofalo. Her wit and experience were nearly sabotaged by her omnipresent self-deprecation and nervousness, which found her jumping from subject to subject schizophrenically and barely following through with punchlines. Unsurprising but spot-on political jabs and limited crowd interaction rounded out her jumbled set.
Host Matt Braunger (an L.A. regular that also MC’d at the previous night’s festivities at Esther’s) provided needed, welcome links between comedians, his slightly tipsy, confident segues translating into cool breezes for the audience.
The last comedian I caught at Mess with Texas was Todd Barry, whose employs dry understatement to slip burning slivers of awesomeness into your brain stem. Barry’s material was familiar to anyone that has caught his recent round of talk show appearances or listened to his new CD, but it went over surprisingly well in the increasingly antsy, sweaty crowd.
It’s impressive for any comedian to hold the attention of more than a few dozen people, but when that group is composed of hundreds of drunks that have been on their feet in the sun all day, every day for nearly a week, it’s a feat rivaled only by the more energetic musical acts of the festival like Monotonix or Dark Meat. It’s unsurprising that more festivals around the country (Bonnaroo, Coachella, Noise Pop, Sasquatch) are jumping crotch-first into the comedy tent. That they can still procreate is a bonus.
John Wenzel is an A&E reporter for The Denver Post, co-editor of Reverb and editor of the Get Real Denver blog.