Moontower Friday: Patton Oswalt and Jonathan Katz

Patton Oswalt headlines at the 2015 Moontower Comedy and Oddity Festival. MANDY EARNSHAW / BIRDSONG IMAGING
Patton Oswalt headlines at the 2015 Moontower Comedy and Oddity Festival. MANDY EARNSHAW / BIRDSONG IMAGING

I didn’t have to go see Friday’s “Dr. Katz Live” at the Stateside Theatre, part of the 2015 Moontower Comedy and Oddity Festival. My colleague Omar Gallaga went on Thursday and did a great job in his write-up of the event which, except for a few different comics (I got to see Eddie Pepitone, Todd Barry and Marc Maron instead of Dana Gould, Maria Bamford and Andy Kindler) seemed pretty much the same.

But, like Omar, I could not resist the chance to see a memorable part of my past played out live onstage. For those not in the know, comic Jonathan Katz plays a psychiatrist named Jonathan Katz whose patients are all stand-up comics.

As in Thursday night’s outing, Emo Philips (he played both shows along with Dom Irrera) best embodied the spirit of the original squiggle-vision cartoon, and not just because of his spastic movements. He drew great laughs from the crowd throughout his visit, mostly with cleverly placed lines from his stand-up act, while Katz sat by and watched.

Phillips is not a Scientologist, he insisted, explaining that he’s “not a fan of stupidity even when it’s not evil.”

Jonathan Katz in "Dr. Katz Live" at the 2015 Moontower Comedy and Oddity Festival. MANDY EARNSHAW / BIRDSONG IMAGING
Jonathan Katz in “Dr. Katz Live” at the 2015 Moontower Comedy and Oddity Festival. MANDY EARNSHAW / BIRDSONG IMAGING

The neurotic Maron, as you might imagine also fared extremely well on the bogus therapist’s couch (well, chair). At one point, he told Katz he was uncomfortable talking about his problems in front of a theater full of people, asking, “Are we still in the bit?”

After a brief stop at the Moontower Lounge on the second floor of the Intercontinental Stephen F. Austin Hotel, I headed next door to the Paramount Theatre to see Patton Oswalt (“King of Queens,” “Ratatouille”), the festival’s hottest ticket.

The Moontower organizers did a stellar job of arranging the openers for Oswalt. Mike MacRae ably warmed up the crowd for Brian Gaar, who absolutely nailed his set with stories and jokes about parenting, video games and the city of Waco, where he grew up. Gaar explained Waco with a single sentence: “They built a new road … and they named it New Road.” Later, he told the audience he was awakened by a police officer at 3 a.m. because the cop wanted his help in stealing the New Road sign. A joke about a Master’s Degree in English was a masterclass in comic timing.

Gaar was followed by “Mr. Show” actor Karen Kilgariff who, with beatboxer Drennon Davis, entertained the crowd with original musical numbers, the funniest of which was a song about horrible tattoos. “I think we struck a nerve,” Kilgariff cracked in the middle of the number, which really couldn’t have been more tailor-made for the Austin crowd.

Oswalt, naturally, delivered in spades.

He began with a 10-15 minute bit about waiting on the Congress Avenue bridge for the bats to appear, a visit he had just made prior to the show. The brand new routine was, remarkably, as polished as his standard tour material. It contained detailed descriptions of crowd members and ended with a killer line about a man who had been waiting in front of him for an hour, only to finally turn around and ask the other crowd members what they were all waiting for.

Other material touched on religion, his worst gig ever, his parents, clowns, and the song “The Little Drummer Boy.”

Oswalt was also in hilarious form during his crowd work. He nearly whiffed with the first two audience members he singled out — a woman who did marketing for start-ups, and a Family and Sports Medicine doctor. But he struck comic gold with his third victim, an author who wrote modern feminist fiction under a pen name. When pressed about why she used a pseudonym, Oswalt got the woman to admit it was because some people would consider the work to be erotica. Oswalt then guessed that her pen name must be “Vulva Fantastic.”

I’m sure that wasn’t the woman’s actual nom de plume, but “fantastic” is actually a pretty accurate way to describe Friday at Moontower.

Moontower Thursday: Tim Minchin and Emo Philips

Emo Phillips and Tim Minchin at the Moontower Comedy Festival. DALE ROE / AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Emo Philips and Tim Minchin at the Moontower Comedy Festival. DALE ROE / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

The last time I was this close to comedian Emo Philips was 30 years ago. He was performing in front of a few dozen people in the basement of a Jake’s Pizza Parlor in Lisle, a western suburb of Chicago, Ill. (Philips is a native of another nearby suburb, Downer’s Grove).

I wasn’t sure what to expect these days from the extremely weird stand-up, but his hilarious (and far too-short) set at the Speakeasy Thursday during the Moontower Comedy and Oddity Festival capped off a terrific night that began at the Paramount Theatre with the musical comedy of Tim Minchin, who I mainly wanted to see so that I could stop hearing people tell me “You’ve got to go see Tim Minchin!”

These folks, mainly organizers from the Paramount, played the atheist and skeptic Minchin’s performance up to ironically biblical proportions.

And Minchin over-delivered.

The eccentric-appearing singer, pianist and composer walked onstage wearing heavy eye make-up (the better to see his hilarious expressions); a stylish, fitted suit; and neither shoes nor socks.

Tim Minchin performs musical comedy during the 2015 Moontower Comedy and Oddity Festival.
Tim Minchin performs musical comedy during the 2015 Moontower Comedy and Oddity Festival.

You know that expression that somebody was “played like a fiddle”? That’s the best way I can explain how Minchin manhandled and caressed the grand piano at which he sat for the better part of an hour and a half. Perhaps those dark eyes hypnotized his audience, because I can clearly remember him ripping the keys from the instrument, mashing them together, remixing them — bending and shaping them to his will.

It would have been a great show had he simply played — and played anything — on the piano. But the songs he sang were similarly twisted, full of witty jabs at politics, war, religion and family life. Like a magician, Minchin repeatedly led the crowd down a path and then took sharp turns, veering in directions we never expected to go.

I should qualify that “we,” because so many members of the audience were thoroughly familiar with Minchin’s songs; if you can sing along with the intricate and silly, Tom Lehrer-style rhymes Minchin composes, then you’re a fan.

Minchin claimed that he’s not a comedian, but his occasional non-musical interludes between numbers proved otherwise. I was especially impressed by his crowd work.

He ended his performance with a touching rendition of “Seeing You,” a number he wrote for the stage musical version of “Groundhog Day” he is putting together with Danny Rubin, who penned the script for the Bill Murray movie and is writing the book for the musical.

It was a sweet, but oddly conventional ending to the unconventional show — another surprise twist.

Emo Philips put the odd in the Moontower Comedy and Oddity Festival.
Emo Philips put the odd in the Moontower Comedy and Oddity Festival.

Speaking of odd, let’s get back to Philips.

Still sporting his familiar page boy haircut and a wide-sleeved, prison gray tunic, the comic appeared in a curated set hosted by the Sklar Brothers (who were great, but repeated some of the same material they presented at last year’s Moontower).

He’s got the same slow, affected, falsetto delivery you remember, but his non-sequitur barbs (think Steven Wright or Mitch Helberg, who must have been inspired by Philips) seemed edgier than I had recalled.

Even old gems such as, “A Mormon told me that they don’t drink coffee. I said, ‘A cup of coffee every day gives you wonderful benefits.’ He said, ‘Like what?’ I said, ‘Well, it keeps you from being Mormon …'” sounded fresh and drew belly-laughs from the crowd.

“I prefer smart audiences because smart people don’t heckle,” one of his newer jokes began. “If a smart person doesn’t like a comedian, he just blames himself for not having more assiduously researched his entertainment options. Stupid people shout, ‘You suck.’ Smart people think, ‘I suck, for not Googling him.'”

Philips appears again at 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Stateside’s “Dr. Katz Live”; at 8:15 Friday at the Parish for “Stars in Bars”; and at 8:30 p.m. Saturday in “Stars in Bars” at the Vulcan Gas Company.

 

The old magic returns in fits and starts at Moontower’s ‘Dr. Katz Live’

Jonathan Katz (left) and Dana Gould (right) do a therapy session at Stateside at the Paramount on Thursday, April 23, as part of Moontower Comedy and Oddity Festival. Credit: Birdsong Imaging, Mandy Earnshaw, contributed by Moontower
Jonathan Katz (left) and Dana Gould (right) do a therapy session at Stateside at the Paramount on Thursday, April 23, as part of Moontower Comedy and Oddity Festival. Credit: Birdsong Imaging, Mandy Earnshaw, contributed by Moontower

“Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist” started as a low-budget, low-key animated show on Comedy Central show just a few years before “South Park” would become the animated show the network would become known for. It featured stand-up comics doing some of their material playing against the bone-dry wit of comedian Jonathan Katz, who played a put-upon therapist with a passive-aggressive secretary (Laura Silverman) and a dopey, lovable, layabout son (the brilliant H. Jon Benjamin, who’s become a voiceover star with “Bob’s Burgers” and “Archer”).

Despite rosters of impressive comedic talent and a cleverly home-brewed animated style that became easy to love the more you watched it, the show was never a gigantic hit. At a live performance Thursday night as part of the Moontower Comedy Festival, I heard more people before the show explaining what the show was to others than recollections of bits from the show. “Dr. What?” one older gentleman asked his companion, who was about 25 years younger. The show was explained.

Another guy, sitting behind me at the show, explained to his friends, “I used to watch it, but I was too young to understand it when it was on in the early ’90s. I was 14.”

On stage, the energy was a little different, sometimes flailing, other times absolutely matching perfectly in tone what those of us who remember the show fondly came to see. Jonathan Katz, who moves slowly with a cane due to multiple sclerosis, did a few minutes of stand-up comedy at a microphone before the main set and it began with a rape joke. As horrible as date rape is, Katz suggested, even worse would be “Double-date rape.”

Improbably, the joke earned laughs, as did the rest of Katz’s short set, which mostly consisted of well-crafted wordplay and, memorably, short musical performances of Beatles, Rolling Stones and Eagles songs performed Bar Mitzvah-style. Who knew Dr. Katz (not a real therapist) could sing?

But the meat of the show was mock-therapy sessions featuring comedians Dana Gould, Andy Kindler, Maria Bamford, Dom Irrera and Emo Philps, all of whom had appeared on the original show except Bamford. On the stage, two chairs and a fern were set up, though Irrera complained multiple times that he missed the couch and was hoping for some cuddling.

Gould went topic with material about Bruce Jenner, joking that he’s confused about respecting Jenner’s privacy now as a transgender individual given the distinct complete opposite of privacy we’ve come to expect from the Kardashian clan.

Bamford turned out to fit right in and got some of the biggest laughs with material about her new marriage and a ridiculous song about her couples’ therapist.

Andy Kindler appeared with a non-working wireless microphone and, as Kindler does, turned the awkwardness into its own hilarious bit. “This is the story of my life, Dr. Katz,” he whined, as the microphone was swapped out. Kindler went trademark-meta, asking if he’s using humor as a defense mechanism (“No,” Katz said definitively, to huge laughs) and exclaiming, “even my psychiatrist has better material!”

As on the original show, Irrera got weird and overly affectionate quickly, having left a voice mail for Katz and asking for some snuggle time.

But it was Emo Philips who perhaps captured the original spirit of the show best with his quirky timing. While much of the show had the awkward pauses (completely appropriate for “Dr. Katz) that came with mixing improv with prepared bits, Philips’s felt most like the the animated series, with Katz serving as more of a straight man than a fellow comic breaking the fourth wall.

Apart from the Kindler microphone gaffe, there were other timing issues. It took a while for the show to begin after an introductory Moontower Fest video was shown and sometimes the lengthy pauses and fits-and-starts pacing of the therapy sessions felt less than intentional. But it was a delight to hear Laura Silverman’s familiar, grumpy voice played as an intro to each comic. And the play-off music meant to signal the end of a therapy session turned out to be its own comedic highlight as it always seemed to happen just as a comic was making a point or on the edge of a revelation. It was all about timing and the joy of getting a large dose of Katz’s absurdist, punchline-driven humor, which still kills.

On the matter of an aunt’s death, Katz revealed to Kindler that she was cremated. “We think that’s what did it,” he said.

The show happens again 7:30 p.m. Friday night at Stateside at the Paramount.

Never caught the original show? Here’s some classic bits: