Moontower of babble: Reflections on the music of comedy

Patton Oswalt performs at the Paramount during the Moontower Comedy Festival.

By Wes Eichenwald
Special to the American-Statesman

The Velv, aka the Velveeta Room, is Austin’s comedy analogue to the Continental Club. Twenty-nine years after its founding, it’s become a local institution: a performer’s club, intimate without inducing claustrophobia, it’s definitely one of the classier joints on the carnival midway that is Dirty Sixth. Matt Ingebretson — an Austin native living in LA who, besides standup, writes, makes amusing YouTube videos and has a deal with Comedy Central for a sitcom, “Corporate” — is there emceeing a Thursday early-evening Austin Towers showcase during the Moontower Comedy Festival, with a dozen performers doing sets averaging about seven minutes apiece.

Some use their seven minutes more effectively than others. Brassy, stalwart local fixture Kath Barbadoro, with a date to open two nights later for Patton Oswalt at the Paramount, starts out with some inevitable remarks like “I like weed” but really energizes the room with some grade-A lines like “I’ve gone on so many dates in Austin that I know how to brew my own beer now.” Fellow Austinite Bob Khosravi, 35, bearded and cranky, gets laughs with rants like “I don’t like things if they make things easier for younger people. They don’t deserve it.”

If you spend enough time in comedy clubs – and I did three straight Moontower nights, seeing headliners Jay Pharoah, Colin Quinn, Margaret Cho and Oswalt, plus that showcase – you’ll realize the parallels with the music scene. Not just Austin’s, but any music scene. Instead of notes, comics play truths. Or at least, their particular truths. Some routines play like Coltrane-style jazz (solid, smoothly flowing), others like punk rock (aggressive, no prisoners taken), others like funk or salsa. And the 12-person showcase? That’s just another record-company promo sampler given out at South by Southwest; explore further if you’re interested, otherwise toss it.

The obvious musical analogue for Pharoah is freestyle rap; he’s done some of the actual stuff himself, and he streams his consciousness as he stalks back and forth across the stage Paramount stage, discussing Uber and drugs and President Donald Trump and marriage (“Marriage is hard. God knows it’s hard — that’s why he ain’t married”) and flowing from one to the other of the scores of impressions he’s famous for: Obama, Denzel, Eddie Murphy and Eddie’s recently deceased brother Charlie, a mentor of his whose death he mourns. “Be gangsta!” he advises towards the end.

Friday night over at the State, Quinn, a 57-year-old Irish-American from Brooklyn, holds forth with his working-class, self-taught philosophy, squinting into the lights like a mongrel cross between Cliff from “Cheers,” a vaudeville comic and a crusty old police sergeant in a 1940s Preston Sturges movie. Quinn titles his show “Bully,” and though he touches on the schoolyard anecdotes you’d expect, he veers off into the roots and history of bullying, from the Greeks (“Socrates: the passive-aggressive friend’) and Romans through to communism, capitalism and our current dysfunctional world.

What kind of music does Quinn’s monologue suggest? Garage rock with literate lyrics, maybe, or an experimental post-punk cult band from the ‘80s. Prowling the stage like Burgess Meredith’s Mickey, the aging boxing trainer in “Rocky,” he defines intellectual bullying in addition to the physical kind, and bemoans the shortage of democracy in even a supposedly democratic society: “Work is a dictatorship. Family is tribal. Traffic, a failed social experiment. Then you’re asleep for eight hours. You maybe experience democracy about two and a half hours a day.”

By the end, when the audience, rising, applauds vigorously, you realize that even considering everything, and despite all his faults, there’s something noble about Quinn’s quixotic endeavor to explain why things are the way they are. You also realize that this former “Saturday Night Live” news anchor, though he may have been a gigantic jerk at certain points in his past, may fit the living definition of “too smart for his own good.” Colin Quinn: the last of the moralists. In 20 years, he’s going to make a great old man.

As with musicians, the best comedians make it look effortless, a grand illusion of ease and simplicity. This was certainly the case with Cho and Oswalt in their back-to-back headlining sets at the Paramount on Saturday, Moontower’s closing night. About 80 percent of Cho’s set can’t be mentioned in a newspaper; let’s just say that she mounted the stage in ultra-high heels and black leather shorts, making a point to discuss her outfit and its effect on her, and things spiraled away from there. Cho is the extrovert’s extrovert, even for a comedian, and after her riffs on celebrity feuds and one-nighters, and extended bits on bodily functions and malfunctions, you felt directly wired into her thought process in real time. Her musical parallel: gutsy mainstream pop, probably.

Finally came a brilliantly woven set from Oswalt to a packed house, likely Moontower’s hottest ticket this year. If you wanted to design the perfect thinking man’s standup comic, it might look and sound a lot like Oswalt, who showed quicksilver wit and impeccable timing in his interactions with the audience (“Everyone here is well-adjusted!” he complained. Nothing to work with!)

The actor/comedian took the stage just one day after the first anniversary of his wife Michelle McNamara’s untimely death. Everyone waited for him to talk about it, which he did towards the end (it’s hard to follow that kind of material with jokes about fast food).

Expressing his disgust with platitudes like “I wish you strength on your healing journey,” Oswalt, who described his experience as more of a “numb slog,” spoke movingly about breaking the news to his young daughter, about suddenly having to be the point person at her school, and his feeling of unreality about it all.

In the end even this, too, is great material for standup. Oswalt was an outstanding comedian before his wife’s death; now, with his venture into widower standup, he may be something close to inspirational. To me, it sounded for all the world like one of the better classical symphonies.

How are comedians reacting to life under Trump?

Colin Quinn at the Moontower Comedy Festival.

By Wes Eichenwald
Special to the American-Statesman

If stand-up comedy in America is an expression of the national psyche, one problem in particular these days is afflicting its practitioners: How do you make jokes about a reality whose very possibility was, until very recently, widely considered to be itself a joke?

Whatever your political preferences – and yes, the vast majority of stand-up comics lean to the left – the Trump Hangover must be acknowledged to be as real as the current situation in Washington. To comedians, this is one elephant in the room that everyone has to talk about, but even for the more politically vocal standups, the risk of Trump overload and burnout seems ever-present.

At least from my observations at the just-concluded Moontower Comedy Festival, President Donald Trump is mentioned, more often than not, with weariness by the comic near the beginning of their set, more out of obligation than burning desire. But most seem to feel the elephant must, at least perfunctorily, be addressed.

At Thursday night’s Austin Towers showcase, where a dozen comics performed for an average seven minutes apiece, Kerri Lendo compared Trump negatively to Bill Clinton: She preferred the latter because at least, she said, Clinton “was a fun pervert.”

PHOTOS: ‘My Favorite Murder’ from opening night at Moontower

The ever-popular standup topics of online dating, sex, drugs, rude bodily functions and the comic’s physical flaws were mentioned both more often and more enthusiastically than the present occupant of the White House.

“How do you feel about the president?” Matt Ingebretson asked, emceeing a Thursday night showcase at the Velveeta Room. “I just don’t think anyone should ever have children again…”

“Why did Trump win?” asked cranky, middle-aged barstool philosopher Colin Quinn at the Stateside on Friday. “Trump is the manifestation of all of us, for the past eight years,” arguing past each other on social media. “There’s going to be another civil war,” he said. “Instead of the blue vs. the gray, it’s going to be Dunkin’ Donuts vs. Starbucks.”

At the top of her Paramount showcase, Margaret Cho speculated that Trump was “our punishment for everything that didn’t happen during Y2K,” adding, “I’m not sure if Trump is an alien.” Echoing a few other comics’ thoughts, she applauded legalizing marijuana but said it wasn’t enough to cope during a Trump presidency: “They should legalize heroin and meth, too!”

Many comics alluded to a feeling of unreality, or of living in an alternate universe; Patton Oswalt, whose Twitter feed is chock-full of anti-Trump tweets, played with this theme with his usual adeptness, at one point wondering if a Trump presidency was just a hallucination induced by his grieving his wife’s recent death.

But perhaps Jay Pharoah had the most adroit adaptation of the theme, opening his Thursday set at the Paramount: “It has been rough as (expletive) …I cannot believe this actually happened … the Verizon man switched to Sprint!” He later imitated Trump, though it sounded more like an imitation of Alec Baldwin’s Trump impression.

Although for professional comics, Trump has long been a gift that keeps on giving, you do get the sense that most of them would just as well prefer to take the gift back to the Returns and Exchanges counter, with receipt in hand.

PHOTOS: Ali Wong at the Moontower Comedy Festival
PHOTOS: Thursday night at the Moontower Comedy Festival
PHOTOS: Chris Hardwick and more from Friday at Moontower