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

 

‘Jay and Silent Bob Get Old’ and really dirty at Moontower Comedy podcast recording

Now that Dick Clark is gone, Jason Mewes might be America’s oldest living teenager.

Kevin Smith (left) and Jason Mewed record an episode of their podcast "Jay and Silent Bob Get Old" at Speakeasy during Moontower Comedy Festival on Saturday, April 23, 2016. Credit: Omar L. Gallaga / AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Kevin Smith (left) and Jason Mewes record an episode of their podcast “Jay and Silent Bob Get Old” at Speakeasy during Moontower Comedy Festival on Saturday, April 23, 2016. Credit: Omar L. Gallaga / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

The perpetual adolescent co-hosted “Jay and Silent Bob Get Old,” a taping of his intervention podcast with filmmaker and prolific podcaster Kevin Smith at Moontower Comedy Festival on Saturday.

The podcast, which began in 2010, is described by Smith as a way of keeping Mewes clean and sober after some harrowing years of drug abuse. But over time, the podcast, which is always recorded live in front of an audience, has also become an entertaining excuse to keep up with Smith’s career moves and for Mewes to tell incredibly raunchy stories.

After six years, you’d think Mewes would have run out of material, right? You’d be surprised!

Playing to a crowded and friendly house at Speakeasy, Mewes unloaded some lusty masturbation stories, including one so fresh it described an incident from the same morning’s flight from Detroit. He also talked about a recent sexual encounter with his wife Jordan that resulted in a knocked over nightstand and waking up their 1-year-old. Mewes, not content to just tell the story, also got up and gave some visual demonstrations and provided sound effects. He’s actually pretty good at this.

This shouldn’t work, especially if you stopped hanging around with horny teenagers after you yourself aged out of the demographic, but Mewes’s particular talent (his superpower, if you will) is somehow remaining boyishly likable no matter how ridiculously raunchy he gets. Some of that is due to Smith’s incredulity (and at times, awe) and the way the two friends make it clear they are far from ladies’ men.

Apart from the sex stories, Smith got to talk about his recent stint as a guest director on the show “The Flash,” which resulted in a guest star role for Mewes (who urged Smith to watch the show in the first place) and the news that he’ll return to direct another episode for the CW series in its next season.

The recording will likely pop up on their podcast feed in a few weeks, and there were enough laughs that you should seek it out when it’s available.

FIlm director and podcaster Kevin Smith performs at the Paramount Theatre for a Q&A event as part of Moontower Comedy Festival in the early a.m. hours of Saturday, April 23, 2016. Credit: Rustin Gudim / contributed by Moontower
FIlm director and podcaster Kevin Smith performs at the Paramount Theatre for a Q&A event as part of Moontower Comedy Festival in the early a.m. hours of Saturday, April 23, 2016. Credit: Rustin Gudim / contributed by Moontower

 

Comedy’s David Cross proselytizes to the converted in Moontower Festival taping

David Cross performs at Paramount Theatre Friday, April 22. Mandy Lea Photo / via Moontower Comedy Festival
David Cross performs at Paramount Theatre Friday, April 22. Mandy Lea Photo / via Moontower Comedy Festival

On Friday night, comedian, writer and actor David Cross taped two shows at the Paramount Theatre for an upcoming TV special. The prolific “Arrested Development” actor and “Mr. Show” co-creator is calling the special “Making America Great Again!” and for potentially wary longtime fans of Cross, the title was a clear tip-off of what he’d spend the most time covering in a 90-minute run with no opening act. 

Were Moontower Comedy Festival attendees seeing these shows going to get a playful, silly, brilliant comic performer Cross, maybe a guy who has mellowed with marriage, fatherhood and the successful Netflix reunion of the “…With Bob and David” gang? Or would it be cranky, outraged, politically ranty David Cross?

Emerging in a gray Santa beard, Cross told a great story about a dicey tattoo shop in Santa Rosa, told an elaborate family Thanksgiving story to arrive at one golden punchline and made stops at vaping and artisinal gasoline for dumb hipsters before landing on Donald Trump. 

And that’s when the bitterness and the ugliness started. You get the feeling when watching the behind-the-scenes documentary of “…With Bob and David” that comedy partner Bob Odenkirk can be counted on in their collaborations to keep some of Cross’s worst instincts in check. But solo, Cross indulges his often startlingly petty lectures on obvious political and social points without the insightful twists of logic of, say, Chris Rock. He trots out the names of Ted Cruz and Rick Perry for easy boos and makes hay of unoriginal targets like cops who target blacks (“Blue Lives Murder”) and the NRA. 

In front of a hostile audience that might come across like a form of brave (if  obvious) truth telling, but at least at the 9:30 p.m. show, much of the audience was eating the morsels right out of his hand.

Cross moved on to a gross, graphic bit about school shootings and the Newtown massacre victims with a groan-inducing conclusion he warned the audience they weren’t going to like. Then, noticing that some audience members had bailed, he reminded “Those of you still here” that he has 8.5 hours of recorded stand-up comedy out there that’s similar, so no one should be surprised or offended. It wasn’t a great look. 

He’s very funny. Even the dicey bits had moments of great performance and delivery. He did a great impression of  Matthew  McConaughey at a future Oscar ceremony and his encore was a short piece of whimsy about Einstein-inspired dishware.

But at the moment Cross employed the punchline “Raping  children”and a man two seats over from me rocked in his chair and screamed “YES!” it was clear to Cross could say anything at all and the remaining majority of his audience would look past shocks that could have used more laughs.  

Moontower Comedy Fest announces first wave of performers; badges on sale now

The Paramount Theatre, which produces Austin’s annual Moontower Comedy and Oddity Festival, has announced the early lineup of comedians who will appear in 2016 and has placed discounted, early bird badges on sale. The festival takes place from April 20-23, 2016 at venus throughout Austin.

Martin_ShortSlated performers thus far include Martin Short, Kevin Smith, Maria Bamford, Jim Norton, Debra DiGiovanni, Piff the Magic Dragon, Sklar Brothers, Ron Funches, and Anjelah Johnson (who will present her popular character Bon Qui Qui’s Gold Plated Dreams Tour featuring Group 1 Crew).

Short, Smith, Bamford and Johnson will headline on the Paramount Theater stage, while writer, comedian, podcaster, and film director Smith will also present a live taping of his “Jay and Silent Bob Get Old” podcast with buddy Jason Mewes as a special badge-only event.

Returning favorites include Andy Kindler, James Adomian and the Sklar Brothers, and newcomers include new “Saturday Night Live” cast member Jon Rudnitsky and “America’s Got Talent’s” Piff the Magic Dragon.

Here’s the current list of performers:

James Adomian, Maria Bamford, Ahmed Bharoocha, Joe DeRosa, Debra DiGiovanni, Sean Donnelly, Jo Firestone, Ron Funches, Goddamn Comedy Jam, Angela Johnson, Jesse Joyce, Andy Kindler, The Lampshades, Matteo Lane, Annie Lederman, Joe List, Josh Adam Meyers, Jim Norton, Johnny Pemberton, Piff the Magic Dragon, Tony Rock, Jon Rudnitsky, Martin Short, Sklar Brothers, Kevin Smith, Beth Stelling, Brad Williams, and Jenny Zigrino.

Moontower FAN, ACE, and VIP badges are now on sale at an early bird discount at www.moontowercomedyfest.com, at the Paramount Theatre box office, or by calling 512-474-1221. Single-show tickets for Paramount headliner shows will go on sale at a later date.

For the most current festival skinny, follow on Facebook and Twitter.

Here’s how to attend KLRU’s free ‘Overheard’ taping with Mary Lynn Rajskub

Mary Lynn Rajskub
Mary Lynn Rajskub

Evan Smith‘s KLRU series, “Overheard with Evan Smith,” is taking advantage of comic/actress Mary Lynn Rajskub‘s September stint at Cap City Comedy Club to get her into the studio for a taping.

Rajskub, a touring stand-up and Moontower Comedy Festival veteran best known for portraying hacker Chloe O’Brien on Fox television’s “24,” sits down with Smith at 3:45 p.m. on Aug. 28 (doors open at 3:15 p.m.). The taping takes place at KLRU’s Studio 6A, located on the east side of Guadalupe St. between 25th and Dean Keeton Streets.

Admission is free, but RSVPs are required. They can be obtained by clicking here.

The comic is also a veteran of HBO’s “Mr. Show With Bob and David,” poised to make a comeback on Netflix, and can be seen as a panelist on “Chelsea Lately.” She plays Cap City Aug. 27-29.

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.

Pete Holmes and T.J. Miller tag team a gala of goofiness at Moontower

Weird things happen after midnight, man. Just some real bananas stuff. Moontower Comedy & Oddity Festival attendees who packed the Paramount Theater after the witching hour know this firsthand, thanks to the insomniac lunacy of Pete Holmes and T.J. Miller, who closed Friday out in fraternal, tag-team style.

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The pair co-headlined the time slot, which got off to a slightly late start thanks to a late-running Patton Oswalt set. Holmes, current host of the “You Made It Weird” podcast and former host of an eponymous cable talk show, and Miller, star of HBO’s “Silicon Valley” and a “Big Hero 6” voice actor, made frequent reference to their long-running friendship throughout the show, including their roots in the Chicago comedy scene.

Pete Holmes. (Birdsong Imaging/Mandy Earnshaw)
Pete Holmes. (Birdsong Imaging/Mandy Earnshaw)


The rubber-faced, unfailingly amiable Holmes took the audience on a sleep-deprived mission to find joy in the little moments. Among his best bits along the way: his memories of attending an Enrique Iglesias concert alone; his encounter with a flute-playing cab driver and ruminations on the trustworthiness of different instruments (saxophones are honest, trumpets are hiding something); and the power of the phrase “What you know green eggs and haaaaaam?” (Guaranteed to lift your spirits in both TSA and holiday shopping situations.)

Miller took the goofiness baton from Holmes and made a dead sprint into surrealism. The comedian, wearing an ill-fitting suit that he might have gotten from Steve Harvey’s swap-meet, told what he guaranteed would be the only textile loom joke the audience would ever hear (at Eli Whitney’s expense, obviously); speculated on George Washington Carver’s sex life (with his wife Martha, which may or may not have been the name of his wife); and laid out his ultimate nightmare prank scenario (build an exact replica of a person’s bed so that it’s facing theirs, jolt up and scream just as they do, turn on an array of floodlights).

T.J. Miller (Birdsong Imaging/Mandy Earnshaw)
T.J. Miller (Birdsong Imaging/Mandy Earnshaw)

The duo closed the night/early morning out with a little team hijinx, sharing the stage to reminisce and, in one of the best parts of the evening, do their impressions of each other’s early-career jokes. Miller’s recreation of Holmes’ early material — piñatas teach children that if you hit animals, candy will fall out — was amusing, but Holmes’ brought it home with a re-enactment of Miller’s bit about a family sharing a tandem bicycle. By Miller’s estimation, his pal did the joke even funnier than he did.

At Moontower, Wanda Sykes re-enacts colonoscopy, reflects on racial injustice in America

Mixed-race families. The trials of getting older. Genetically modified organisms. Wanda Sykes swam deep into the complexities of life Friday night at the Paramount Theater during her blisteringly funny and effortlessly relatable Moontower Comedy Festival headlining set.

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Sykes is a pop culture fixture, familiar to fans of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “The New Adventures of Old Christine” and a respectable bundle of animated films. She’s quick with a barb, at ease with exasperation and an auteur of raucous, withering observations. The comedian served up all of that from the stage of the historic Austin theater, but it was her sane, sympathetic humanity that shined through the set.

Wanda Sykes (Birdsong Imaging, Mandy Earnshaw)
Wanda Sykes (Birdsong Imaging, Mandy Earnshaw)

After opening with a hilarious bit about her fear of black women with baby powder on their chest — she can explain it better — Sykes waxed upon what it means to be a woman getting older. The 51-year-old comedian, who had a double mastectomy in 2011 after being diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer, spun gold from the contrast between her old breasts (which, she said, could be mistaken for the opening sound effect from “Law and Order” when she removed her bra) and her new breasts (which she is sure are scheming and plotting something, as they are far too alert in the morning). Also, her poise in recreating her colonoscopy, balancing on a stool, was more impressive than any Cirque du Soleil feat.

Another complication, though a welcome one, in Sykes’ life: Married to a white French woman, Sykes now finds herself the mother to two blond white children who speak French and terrify her nightly when they recreate scenes from “Children of the Corn” at the foot of her bed. Which, she said, is an unexpected turn of events for a woman who attended a historically black college. And Sykes’ jokes about race relations — which doesn’t sound funny when you type it like that, but that’s why Wanda Sykes in a standup comedian and this is a blog post on a news website — rang with righteousness and funny-bone vibrations. Watching news reports about the shooting of unarmed black men alongside a Caucasian wife from a different culture, refusing to watch “12 Years a Slave” out of knowledge of her patience limitations, imagining throwing down with Mitch McConnell’s wife were she in Michelle Obama’s shoes: Sykes tackled all with razor wit.

At another point in the night, the state of food in America (including the aggressive sales tactics behind McNuggets despite their questionable composition) served as a perfect punching bag for a gleeful Sykes. The line of the night, or at least in the top ten: “I don’t (expletive) with tilapia.”

In ending with the heights of insanity that her love for her wife inspires, the comedian tied a bow around a performance that exuded contentment through the travails of society. Earlier in the set, Sykes said she is now the happiest she has ever been, and even if her relationship leads her to snowboarding misadventures and romantic getaways that feel like hostage situations, the audience is lucky that she finds the laughs. That’s what a Wanda Sykes show is all about at every turn, saying in one way or another or another:

This is crazy, right? We both know, so let’s just say it aloud.

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.