Comedy in Austin is exploding. Sure there’s New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, but do any of those have queso on tap? There are comedy industry towns, but Austin truly has a scene. Not only can you see the most diverse breakers of the new wave seven nights a week; if you’re lucky you just might see a familiar face dropping in unannounced.
Take the legendary Velveeta Room’s Thursday Night Speed Open Mic. This was the first place I performed in Austin years ago as a 17-year old fresh out of Dallas and where comics like Bill Hicks have cut their teeth. The room is shotgun narrow and literally carved out of the Esther’s Follies building. The audience, fresh off dirty Sixth, makes you earn every laugh. A few weeks ago, I popped in and noticed the next comic waiting to be called up. Like most, he was scrawling last-minute notes. The emcee announced him as “a comic from New York.” The crowd went wild. It was Louis CK, in town for several sold-out shows at ACL Live. CK went incognito like any other comic and did an open mic set, notebook and all. This is why I love the Velv and open mics in Austin. Bonus points to longtime doorman Mike for making Louis CK pay $5 to get in. Drop by every Thursday. You’ll never know who will show up.
Here’s a run-down of just a handful of comedy you can check out this month:
The First Annual Southwest Berkeley Fest at The New Movement Theater: Improv your thing? Cool. Dig John Belushi and Bill Murray? They are just a few who studied under the mentorship of firebrand Del Close. Close was a cast member in the early years of Second City. Among other eccentricities, he wanted to donate his skull posthumously to a Chicago theater so he could be the first actor credited with the role of Yorick in “Hamlet.” He casually told me these plans years ago when I was an 18-year-old assigned to be his driver for a day in Austin. I thought he was kidding. He wasn’t (alas, the skull donated after his death likely was not his). Close invented the Harold improv format, so for one weekend the best Harold groups in town as well as a handful of visiting acts are taking over the programming at the New Movement Theater. Various performances and workshops; information: newmovementtheater.com/austin.
Smile More! at Institution Theater: The future of comedy is female. Look at the recent exports of Austinites Martha Kelly on FX’s “Baskets” and Maggie Maye on “Conan.” Smile More! is a feminist standup comedy show curated by Valerie Nies that’ll have the audience smiling, but not because some random dude on the street suggested it. The March lineup features Samantha Stepp, Zaeli Kane and Tess Hermes, headlined by Austin fave Avery Moore. This showcase of veteran and beginner standup comics recurs the first Saturday of the month. (10 p.m., $5, the Institution Theater, 3708 Woodbury Drive. www.theinstitutiontheater.com.)
SXSW Comedy: We all know Austin is no longer a municipality but one long festival with occasional nap breaks. March means the return of South by Southwest to dominate our hearts and wristbands. Comedy at SXSW has grown to an official branch of the fest, thanks to the curation and dedication of booker Charlie Sotelo. (In my college days at UT, I spent hours watching his legendary pre YouTube public access “Show with No Name.”) The stacked lineups feature rising stars like Natasha Leggero, established greats like Upright Citizen’s Brigade, and surprise guests. Recently announced comedians include: John Hodgman, Wanda Sykes, Janeane Garofalo, Big Jay Oakerson, Horatio Sanz, Matt Besser, Scott Thompson, Whitney Cummings and Wyatt Cenac, among many others and more to come. Information: sxsw.com.
Tone Bell at Cap City Comedy Club: Born and raised in Atlanta, Bell began his career in Dallas, where he was voted one of the Funniest Comics in Texas. He can next be seen starring in the new NBC comedy pilot “Bad Judge,” which was recently picked up to series. Go Texas comics! (Multiple shows; capcitycomedyclub.com)
Greetings From Queer Mountain 4 Year Anniversary Show! Ralph Hardesty and Micheal Foulk have been hosting a monthly LGBTQ Storytelling showcase every month at Cheer Up Charlie’s. Comics such as Daniel Webb, Carina Magyar and Roxy Castillo are regulars; they weave stories that floor me every time. Seriously, this is one of the best shows in town. Join me and help them celebrate! 4 More Years! 4 More Years!
Waterbed with Mac Blake at Spider House Ballroom: Mac Blake is a versatile performer and a past Funniest Person in Austin winner and, lucky for us, he hasn’t confined his generous talents to any one category. His monthly show is a full feast of experimental promising “stand up, sketch, and the dark arts.” A favorite segment is a monthly mail call from “Postmaster” Aaron Brooks. Spider House, with its deep, red, Twin Peaks-esque décor, is an underground gem on the local comedy scene programming comedy throughout the month.
Brently Heilbron is a writer, comedian, and host of the PBS series Stand Up Empire.” Follow him @Brently on Twitter.