Moontower 2015 has wrapped up, and our team has combined forces to recap this year’s festivities, from the good to the bad to the ugly. We did our best to catch as many of the comedians as possible, whether they were established stars like John Mulaney and TJ Miller or up and comers like Emily Heller and David O’Doherty. Read on to find out what we thought of this year’s festival and who we’d like to see in 2016.
I took to the Moontower Comedy Festival with the same aggressive gusto I approach all activities, which is to say, with careful moderation and the ever-present awareness of my day job. (People love me at parties.) Which is to say, I didn’t get to see nearly as much as I would have liked. What I did see, however, was pretty compelling, though far from perfect.
First, on Friday night, I went to the premiere screening of a Comedy Central stand-up special, Full Time Magic, by comedian Nate Bargatze, which was followed by a live Q&A with the comic. While I might have been better served spending this time with live comedy over a film screening, this seemed an intriguing exercise. Most of my consumption of stand-up comedy is mediated through the format of a televised or Netflix-exclusive special, and a chance to experience that with other people and then hear the comic talk about the craft behind one of these specials was one that seemed interesting to me. And it was a good time—Bargatze was a funny, populist comic, offering anecdotes and stories of the everyman, inoffensive variety of say, Jim Gaffigan, but sharper and more personal than Gaffigan’s stuff, which sometimes borders on the pandering. There was one joke about a Native American that landed particularly flat (and was a worse version of a joke that Dave Chappelle did fifteen years ago), but otherwise it was smart, funny work, and the Q&A was interesting, though a bit shorter than I would have liked.
Afterward, I stayed in the same venue for Four Eyes, a showcase of bespectacled comedians, where I was joined by fellow bespectacled critic Morgan Davis. It was, um, mixed. Some of the work was very good—Judah Friedlander was supremely entertaining as the host, confrontational and bizarre, and Floridian comic Mike Lawrence made my night by making a Castlevania 2 joke that I’m pretty sure only I understood (I gotchu, Mike). Some of the other acts, though, including seasoned comics like Blaine Capatch, one of the writers behind Comedy Central’s @midnight, just… kinda bombed. It was rough.
On Saturday, I saw John Mulaney. He was opened for by Kerri Lendo, who also performed at Four Eyes. At Four Eyes she performed a middling, abbreviated set, but her work seemed much stronger in the more substantial, refined version she gave at the Paramount. She’s a savvy, promising local voice, and I look forward to seeing her work develop in the future.
The main show, though, was simply fantastic. I love John Mulaney. He’s clever, self-deprecating, and has a sharp eye for working subtle absurdism into his slice-of-life comedy. All the material I heard here seemed to be new, and, while not quite as revelatory as his last stand-up special, New in Town, I had a blast. Mulaney is coming off a defeat this year, after his self-named sitcom was panned and subsequently axed (“My wife and I bought a house this year,” he remarked, “because we don’t understand how showbiz works.”), but the Mulaney I saw was as vibrant, as fun, and as darkly optimistic as ever.
This was my third straight year of Moontower. That’s pretty good, right? I’d say it officially makes me a Moontower regular, along with Marc Maron, Andy Kindler, Dana Gould, Dom Irrera, Maria Bamford, and Puddles (who was sadly MIA this year). In other words, there have been more Moontowers featuring sweaty, irritable John Bender failing to get into Paramount and Stateside shows than there have been without him.
I found myself thinking about the Moontower regulars a lot this year, actually. It seems that every annual festival eventually finds itself with a tier of constantly touring performers that it can count on to show up each year, and it’s this cluster of familiar faces that gives a festival its identity over time. You can count on Marc Maron to find his way down to Austin every April just like you can expect the Black Keys, Foster the People, and Arctic Monkeys to be at Lollapalooza every year. These are typically acts with staying power but not a lot of buzz; they’re more exciting than local or regional performers but not the sort of thing that prompts people to book flights.
To put it bluntly, though, I worry that Moontower’s group of regulars is losing its sheen for me in year three. In 2013, it seemed like the festival had the potential to be a sort of “rising star” convention each year, similar to the reputation that SXSW has tried to cultivate for itself. That year had Anthony Jeselnik, Amy Schumer, Michael Che, Moshe Kasher, and Pete Holmes, all of whom eventually went on to create their own projects or to join formidable comedy institutions within a year or two. Last year pivoted a bit, with an emphasis on a big sketch reunion (Kids in the Hall) and moderately popular but established comedians (Demetri Martin, Mike Birbiglia, Colin Quinn). This year was kind of all over the board, ranging from former A-list comedians like Ron White and Wanda Sykes to musical acts like Tim Minchin, David O’Doherty, and Karen Kilgariff/Drennon Davis to fringe acts like Bridget Everett and Emo Philips. Of course, there were also a handful of reliable alternative acts like John Mulaney, Patton Oswalt, and TJ Miller, but every year usually has 3-5 of these shows.
Through each year’s shifts, though, we’ve always had the regulars: Maron, Bamford, Kindler, Irrera, Gould, a few others, and the local acts. I’ve seen all of these performers over the past three years in some capacity, and they’re always good. They’re competent, reliable, and they’re well attended. But they don’t really excite me anymore. When I don’t want to catch a headliner, say, or when I just can’t work up any interest in a local bill, I’m supposed to turn to these acts for a pleasant and occasionally surprising few hours. But I can’t bring myself to do it anymore. A lot of it is the fact that many of them recycle most or all of their material each year. I realize that not everyone can throw out a large portion of their act on an annual basis, but at the very least they should feel safe riffing at a comedy festival to keep things fresh. If I don’t think I’ll get something new or interesting at a show, then I’m far less inclined to spend $15 on two beers while waiting for something better in the late slot.
That sounds whiny, I know. But I can’t help but think that there are plenty of comedians at the Bamford/Maron tier of fame—Tig Notaro, Chelsea Peretti, Paul F. Tompkins, to name a few—that would be a little more vital from year to year than the current crop of regulars. Maybe more podcast recordings are in order, or sketch reunions, or improv-based bills—anything to prevent regularly touring, fairly well-known comedians from doing the exact same set they did two years ago.
Maybe it would be the same with anyone other group of performers coming every year, though. I don’t know. I just know that I no longer feel compelled to see many of the names that I see on this lineup every year, which worries me. Your regulars have to like each other.
Things I Liked
As always, I loved Pete Holmes this year. He’s putting together a new hour right now, and the material went over very well with the crowd at the Paramount’s midnight show on Friday. TJ Miller was great on the same bill, and the two of them casually catching up with each other onstage after their sets was a real treat. Mulaney was also great, more polished than I’ve ever really seen him before. He did about a 90-minute set and had the Paramount in the palm of his hand the entire time. The few musical acts I saw really caught me off guard this year, as I really enjoyed David O’Doherty as well as Karen Kilgariff and Drennon Davis. O’Doherty uses a shitty keyboard to create bed music for his half-sung, half-spoken song-jokes much like Zach Galifianakis, while Kilgariff/Davis built looped, absurdist songs about celebrity GPS, getting way too high, and dreams that nobody wants to hear about. Todd Barry was great as always, although both of his crowd work subjects got up and exited after their respective roasts. Maybe he was too hard on them, but whatever. That’s been his thing for like a year now.
Things I Didn’t Like
The opener for Mulaney, Simon Amstell, had an uneven set that bottomed out with him asking a front-row woman as she got up and left, “Bitch, where are you going?” It was just a weird use of “bitch.” I don’t call people that. Dr. Katz Live was sadly plagued by sound issues and crosstalk, which resulted in a lot of pity laughs and forced enthusiasm. Dana Gould’s set at Andy Kindler’s Particular Show was really off-putting, although I can’t fault the effort. His material often hinged on punch lines about how crazy or twisted his worldview is, which is a tedious angle that I couldn’t hear in my head as anything but Neil Hamburger’s catchphrase, “But that’s my life!” (speaking of which, Neil Hamburger or Tim and Eric Live would be solid Moontower targets in future festivals). I didn’t see Patton Oswalt or Ron White, but I can assure you that I didn’t like either of them. I also don’t like the way that Moontower differentiates between single tickets and badge holders at different venues, as I find the system confusing and mean-spirited.
Overall, it was a pleasant experience, but I would really like to see the festival shuffle up the second tier for something a little fresher or more experimental next year. Also, they should stop letting corporate sponsors produce their own “funny” preshow commercials. These are my demands. You have one year, Moontower.
Like John, I was a little disenchanted by Moontower this year. I still had fun at it, and there were enjoyable sets, but it didn’t seem to reach the same high as previous years. Granted, that might be because of my own burnout, but one thing I noticed was that when I put together the preview post for Moontower I just didn’t feel inspired to check out the bulk of the new comedians Moontower brought up. I went through video after video and struggled to find worthwhile new acts, which was a huge shift from previous years where there have been too many to choose from. The tickets vs. badge conflict that has been an issue with Moontower from day one felt worse this year, too. This was especially clear to me on the first day of this year’s festival, as I got into Dr. Katz relatively easily with my badge, but when John showed up a little after we did, he was told the show was full and they couldn’t let him in. This was total bullshit, though, because at that point in time, the theatre was maybe a third full. I told John to wait and see if they were just holding out hope that a flood of premium badge holders or rush ticket purchasers would fill out the venue, but right when Dr Katz Live was about to start, he was still outside, as the staff still told him it was at max capacity. So I sent this photo of the venue for him to show the staff how “full” it was:
The Press and Fan badges have the same “rights” at Moontower, and if John had been a Fan badgeholder, I think he would have been right to go demand a refund and buy single tickets for the rest of the show in order to guarantee his place at shows. It has always been arguable whether buying a badge for Moontower is even a sound investment, but this year there was no question about it. The limited number of must see shows and the ridiculous system where badgeholders were given tickets to guarantee their place inside was hampered by the fact that the earlier you got in line with your badge, the worse your seat was. In previous years, I showed up for headliners about an hour early and always got seated in the bottom of the Paramount, maybe not in front but at least in an area that had a good view. This year, I showed up even earlier for headliners and never got a remotely decent seat. For John Mulaney, my group showed up an hour and a half early and we were maybe the 10th badgeholders in line and our seats were literally the furthest seats back in the theatre. Can you imagine paying a couple hundred dollars for a badge up front and learning these were the kinds of seats you’d get for every headlining show that week? Or that, in John’s case, you wouldn’t even get in despite the fact that the show did not fill up?
The Dr Katz show John missed out on wasn’t even particularly notable. It was the first Dr Katz Live event of the festival, and there were some visible hiccups. Katz himself seemed to struggle to hear many of the comedians on stage as it didn’t look like there were any monitors placed, so he would interrupt punchlines to figure out what he was even being told. Katz’s interactions with Dana Gould and Maria Bamford were especially awkward, I got the sense that he was trying to find his groove and get back into the swing of things. That said, Andy Kindler got the worse sound issues and he managed to turn that into comedy gold. Kindler entered the stage only to discover his lapel mic wasn’t even working, so he riffed “Doc, I feel like I’m not even being heard!” and continued to improvise bits around that until a tech came out to fix his mic. Kindler is always one of my favorite performers to catch at Moontower because he never repeats his sets. A manic and propulsive comedian, Kindler’s sets are often meta without seeming stuffily intellectual, his material peppered with outwardly spoken internal commentary, and that made him an ideal foil for Katz in the live setting.
Kindler was even better later that evening at his own showcase, though, as he riffed on the weirdness of doing a set in the sterile, open spaces of the Google Fiber Stage (i.e. Google Fiber’s Austin offices), calling it the “Andy Kindler Half Full House Tour,” then suggesting an “Andy Kindler Ladies’ Night– three seats for every woman! put your coat on the seat next to you, and your purse on the other seat, and then a third, more hilarious object on the seat behind you and create your own personal bubble!” It’s hard to describe Kindler’s material properly, because the humor of it comes as much from Kindler’s delivery as anything else. He’s not too dissimilar to fellow Moontower vet Moshe Kasher in that sense, but Moshe’s manic energy seems more controlled while with Kindler there’s a purposeful clumsiness to it that is the opposite of Kasher’s thinly controlled rage and acidic wit. Kindler was the strongest comedian on the Four Eyes set we caught with Jake, too.
As good as Kindler was, Pete Holmes was almost certainly this year’s Moontower MVP. His double headlining set with TJ Miller actually had me in tears at one point, but what made it even better was the competitiveness it brought out in Miller, who started his own set a little slowly, bluntly saying he wasn’t sure how to start after Holmes had so thoroughly killed it. But Miller quickly found the right balance between his trademark darkness and an unpredictable side commentary about the nature of life, the universe and everything. By the time they joined each other for an encore, it was less of a stand up show than a behind the scenes peek at the camaraderie and competition between two comedians on their way towards tremendous success.
There was more of that behind the scenes element at Holmes’ You Made It Weird live broadcast, where Holmes was joined by David O’Doherty, the slightly musical Irish comedian who opened for Holmes and Miller at their show. I was unfamiliar with O’Doherty before this, but he has a goofy charm to him that makes you feel like you’ve known him forever. I say he is slightly musical because he utilizes a cheap ’80s keyboard for some “songs,” like one about life that includes a bit about recently being told by a cancer specialist that every man over the age of 85 is 100% at risk for prostate cancer. But most of O’Doherty’s set is conversational, and his slack charm enabled him to be an ideal “co-host” for Holmes during the podcast.
Emily Heller joined them and I always enjoy her, but I don’t think she has really hit her stride yet. At the Four Eyes set with Andy Kindler, Heller was one of the stronger performers, but it didn’t hurt that she was flanked by some very flat performances, including Dana Gould’s, which was basically identical to the material Gould performed at Dr Katz Live and at Kindler’s showcase, complete with whiny material about Gould no longer being able to make fun of Bruce Jenner due to Jenner’s coming out as trans. Heller is consistent and has an intriguing comedic voice, but she really came to life at Holmes’ show, where she mostly just spoke bluntly about getting an IUD and thus feeling like she had “to poop out a knife.” The excellent rapport between these three was disrupted by Kate Berlant, a comedian whose chief talent seemed to be exaggerated facial expressions. Berlant mugged the entire time, and the only thing funny about it was that this was a taping for a podcast, not a video, so who knows what the fuck those jokes sounded like.
I closed Moontower out by seeing John Mulaney’s headlining set and although the Moontower staff seated us in the Paramount Theatre equivalent of Mt. Everest, it was an excellent show. I was worried that Mulaney’s recent sitcom failure would impact his performance, but he put on an incredible set full of new material. The only joke he told that I had heard before was his closing anecdote about the time he met Bill Clinton, while the rest of his material focused on settling into domesticity now that he’s married. That makes it sound boring, but in actuality, Mulaney’s new “maturity” suits him well, like he’s crafting a stand up comedy narrative of his life and now we’re in the present rather than the childhood that made up a lot of his previous material. I never watched Mulaney, the ads made it seem like the worst kind of archaic sitcom, but I was nonetheless sad to see it fail because John Mulaney is such a lovable personality. Mulaney might not have succeeded, but it’s only a matter of time before John Mulaney the person finds the right project and achieves massive success. Maybe that means he’ll soon outgrow Moontower altogether.
Another year of the Austin’s Moontower Comedy Fest, and I had a pretty great time yet again. I missed a couple of the nights (and is it just me or was this year a shorter run?), but still fit in enough entertaining shows to have my cheeks aching by the end of Saturday night.
Thursday night I decided to head to Tim Minchin’s show, a musical comedian I had just learned of the week before. His name was familiar to me because he’s the author of the Matilda musical that cleaned up at the Tony awards a few years back. Minchin looks like a blonde, stringy haired Russell Brand, and treads a little in the same territory of religion and love. But that’s where I’d stop the comparison. Minchin proved himself a HUGELY talented pianist riffing up and down the keys in between witty lyrics and wordplay of “Magic Woody Allen Zombie Superhero Jesus” zomg others that had the audience rolling with laughter (and the clearly die hard fans in the back orchestra singing along proudly). Oddly enough there was no opener for this show (Mac Blake, one of my Austin favs, wasn’t to be found but I ended up getting a double dip of him later on), so when the lights came up, Minchin was just standing on stage, shoeless, staring at the (annoying) Chaotic Moon promo we were subjected to throughout the fest. Fortunately, this allowed for Tim to actually take an encore! There was a tonal shift in the two songs he closed with, however, one being a sweet-ish love song, the other I got very excited about, a new song from his “in progress” Groundhog Day musical. As the show has yet to premiere this was a fun preview of what’s to come. I loved it. It reminded me of Ben Folds (the band t-shirt I was wearing, oddly enough) style of storytelling lyrics, and double meanings on top of a beautiful melody. As I said, this hasn’t been released officially yet, so all I have to offer you is some shaky concert cell phone footage from YouTube. ENJOY!
After Minchin I hauled ass over to the Google Fiber stage for a bit of the “Supershow!” I just missed the end of the always fun Matt Bearden intro-ing the show, but lucked into catching the very funny Nate Bergatze. Bergatze’s style made me think a bit of Mike Birbiglia (and their initials are almost the same, ga-hyuk), in that they’re both fairly low key storytellers with the looks of an old college friend “nice guy.” His tale of going for gold while playing little league yet failing miserably and confusing all the parents in the crowd was a highlight. After a few more comics at the Google stage (which I never returned to, did every show there entail someone just making search engine puns?), I hustled over to The Velv to settle in for the Blue Moon show. I’d been sad to miss the “dirty” show the past couple of years, but honestly it didn’t feel too different from other show’s subjects. Many comics are just dirty to begin with. The host, Satan, started us of with a lounge act schtick. Yes, it was a dude in red body paint, a mask, and a crushed velvet tux complete with ruffled shirt. Cornball puns on heaven and hell throughout, but he was a fun host. Stand outs from this show were the veteran comic and festival mainstay Dom Irrera, Michele Buteau whom I recognize from a recurring skit on Key & Peele where she fits right in, as well as MTV Guy Code’s Monroe Martin. Buteau’s set felt breathless. She would hit with something big and have a button ready on top of it immediately, not waiting for any lull in audience laughter. I don’t know if this was due to set time constraints, but I loved her never letting up from the gas as she floored it through her jokes. Monroe Martin had more of a chill style, but still brought a number of great dirty and timely bits. I expect to hear more from both of them in the coming year.
I missed the first two rounds of comedy on Friday night due to a prior work commitment (filming a corporation’s private event…a staring contest. It was interesting, to say the least). I did however make it out in time for the midnight double feature of Pete Holmes and TJ Miller, and boy they did not disappoint. Austinite host Chris Cubas did a great job warming everything up, though I’d seen most of his set before due to the numerous appearances he’s done around town. David O’Doherty followed with his old school keyboard and rambling hilarious songs. From my far back seat at the Paramount I thought he was a Chris O’Dowd lookalike, but after spotting him on the street the next day I saw they’re markedly different from one another. I loved his style and complete disregard for song structure or differentiation. That’s a backhanded compliment, but it’s indicative of his show, and I truly enjoyed him. Pete Holmes was next up and was just as likable and self effacing as ever. Some might get tired of Pete laughing at himself, but I feel it shows he keeps things pretty fresh and off the cuff. “Riffin’ bits, yeah!” To close us out TJ Miller came out looking like a mad man in an oversized three piece tuxedo with the extra large shirt untucked, pouring water over his head as he found his center spotlight. I love TJ’s manic voice and style and how much that belies his smarts. He dropped numerous references to philosophy and other highbrow topics most comics seem to not delve into. If you haven’t seen his story of having a brain tumor, get ready to open up your mind about the guy.
At the end of his set, the audience was clearly growing restless, and numerous folks started heading for the door (it was the most insanely humid night Austin has had this year, and the show was delayed nearly 25 minutes), however those that stayed were treated to a bro down between Holmes and Miller as they took the stage together to trade stories of when they first hung out, knocking on each other’s various successes and failures. The love between them was overly apparent as they both attempted to carry one another off the stage.
On the final night I finally figured out how to work the totally backwards seat assignment system the Paramount has (why pass out tickets to the top of the balcony to the people who have waited in line for an hour, and front row to those walking in at showtime?! WHY?), and on my third ticket collection got my self FRONT ROW for John Mulaney. I loved his writing on SNL for quite awhile (he’s the co-creator of Stefon you guys!), have watched many of his specials, and have even done the back to back to back Tom Jones prank he’s described pulling on an unsuspecting captive audience. Also, and this is a weird third degree connection, my girlfriend’s best friend in New York is now Mulaney’s brother in law. He’s brother to Mulaney’s recently wed wife, and this made all of the stories of their relationship that much more enjoyable. I was well prepared for some interaction being on the front row in a loud as hell hawaiian shirt, but it never came. Instead Mulaney focused his attention at a front row tester (I mean, c’mon)and a 15 year old sports star whom he felt the need to apologize for cursing so much (right before launching into multiple shits, goddamns, and motherfuckers). He set up a great bit to prank a guy that left for the bathroom mid show, only to forget to pay it off. But I think all of the tweets at him in between shows helped remind him during the second show to get the audience to respond to “You know what they say in Austin…” with “We want a milkshake!” Sad to have missed out on that audience interactive moment.
Next I made the State theater home, and with its self seating policy went for the front row again to check out Dana Gould. Another comedian I’ve known of for a very long time, but had never actively seen much of. The lovely Kate Berlant opened for him, and I was smitten. I liked her new agey (but jokey) speeches to the crowd. Much mugging ensued, and while it might not have connected fully with some of the crowd I loved her wild eyed life coach like persona. She claims to not have formal acting or dance training, but I find a tiny bit hard to believe with how precise and well timed her facial ticks and placement of limbs would be.
I had a generally great time again at this year’s Moontower. I’d just hope they take some criticism on their ticketing system for badge holders (ostensibly more valuable fans than an individual ticket holder) and also work on getting more name stars again (this year’s lineup felt woefully lacking in big audience names that had not appeared before). I mean where is Garfunkel and Oates, Paul F Tompkins, a State Reunion, any Daily Show correspondent, or some sketch groups from outside of Austin already? I still love the festival, and it’s after parties are a blast (even at Stephen F’s prices) since EVERYONE comes to chill for at least a bit. My friends got a Mulaney pic, the bastards. I still love this festival dearly and look forward to what they have to offer next year!