Keep Austin Laughing: Why the Weird City is Becoming a Mecca for Comedians

by Dany Recio

Photos by Carlos J. Matos

Austin Bat Comedy

In the last ten years Austin has seen an explosion in the comedy community. The quaint city of the weird now boasts a number of comedy festivals, five Improv/Comedy Theatres, and two comedy clubs that are regular stops for touring comedians from around the country. Most wouldn’t have guessed that Austin would become a hotspot for comedy but comedians from around the country are choosing to move to the capitol of the Lone Star State in lieu of more popular cities like New York, LA, and Chicago. For the rising stars of comedy, LA and New York will still eventually come calling if you want to break into movies and television but for comics still working on developing their act, Austin feels like the natural next step when leaving smaller cities.

Michael Good has been performing for close to three years. On stage he’s laid back and sarcastic. He doesn’t believe he’s the smartest person in the room but he is the only one paying attention to the world around him. Since arriving in Austin in October of 2014 Michael has become a regular in Austin comedy. He frequently features at local showcases, is the host of Mr. Tramp’s Sunday night open mic, and even hosted for Mike E. Winfield at Cap City Comedy Club.

Michael came in from the snow swept fields of Iowa in Ogden, where he grew up. Comedy was always something that interested him. He regularly watched Letterman with his parents and says he comes from a funny family. Michael was always more shy and so didn’t feel like he stood out amongst his jocose family members. Then on his first day of his senior year in high school he had the distinct opportunity of giving a speech at a school assembly. He took what he had learned from David Letterman and roasted the faculty. He describes it as an easy crowd, “of just high schoolers who are going to have their mind blown by speaking ill of the principal so…” That was it; the feeling of making an audience laugh had made an impression on Michael.

Conceptual portraits of comedian Michael Good hitchhiking to Austin.

Michael Good forgot where the Gulf of Mexico was

By his senior year of college he was up at his very first open mic, the M-shop in the student union at Iowa State University. Like most comics, Michael wasn’t pleased with his first set and it would be another year before he would go up again. In that year, he would move to Des Moines to pursue comedy. Des Moines, unlike Austin, was only host to two open mics with a third a few hours’ drive away. So after a short time Michael knew he was going to have to move. After a year Michael started to consider where he would go next. His decision became more obvious when he read an article in Splitsider, a comedy website that described the explosion of Austin comedy. His choices came down to Austin or Chicago. What made his decision was the weather. Austin’s lack of seasons was much more appealing than Chicago’s unforgiving winters, which Michael had plenty of in Iowa.

The appeal was not just the weather, as Michael said, “You can see a lot good comedy too.” Cap City Comedy and the Velveeta Room will regularly host performances from some of the best comics touring today. Then there are the festivals: Moontower Comedy and Oddity Festival, The Out Of Bounds Comedy Festival and even FunFunFun Fest. Moontower, which is one of the largest comedy festivals in the country, has seen headliners like Martin Short, Maria Bamford, John Mulaney, and Mike Birbiglia as well as a number of up and comers. Having some of the best comedians perform in this city is great for up-and-coming comics to see and appreciate. It also gives them the opportunity to impress and network with industry professionals.  Austin comedians have had the chance to open for some of the biggest names, an opportunity that isn’t available in many cities.

Six years ago Derek Kopszywa was living in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Derek was spending a lot of time listening to podcasts while working as a dishwasher, one podcast in particular focused on comedy and standup. Derek thought standup sounded interesting and he thought he might give it a shot. “It took me about a year to figure out what a joke was but it has gone from horrible to decent,” Derek described. He spent four years performing one open mic a week in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. “The problem with having only one open mic a week is that if you bomb that week, you get a whole week to think about how you sucked.” The comedy community in Mississippi is small and so Derek was close friends with many of the other comedians, with them Derek helped host an open mic that on average had fifty people in the audience.

After five years though, Derek was sure he needed to move if he was going to grow as a comedian. No matter how much time and money he could put into comedy in Hattiesburg he couldn’t evolve as a performer, “I knew I couldn’t get that in Mississippi. It’s not in the culture. There’s only one open mic even after six years of comedy.” For a brief moment he considered Atlanta but it was a spontaneous trip to Austin in 2015 that cemented his decision. His first night here was a tough one. After a 12 hour drive he arrived in Austin only to find out he did not have a place to stay. If that wasn’t bad enough he performed his first set dead last at the Cenote open mic to no audience. It all worked out though; nowadays Derek is firmly rooted here in Austin where he frequents the open mic circuit and is a regular on showcases across the city.

Derek is known for taking a simple approach to his jokes; he gives them short setups and packs them with a heavy punch line.  One of his favorite parts of Austin comedy is what he refers to as, “guerilla comedy.” These are shows or open mics at places where the audience is more than likely not expecting to watch standup comedy, places like donut shops, laundry mats, or Chinese restaurants. The challenge of winning over an unexpected crowd can be thrilling for some comics and a nightmare for others. Derek loves having to win the crowd over because, “if it’s always easy then it’s not fun.”

There really isn’t anywhere you can’t perform in Austin. Showcases step outside the realm of traditional standup and offer audiences an alternative look at comedy performance. One popular show at the New Movement– one of Austin’s five comedy theatres– is Rob Gagnon’s “Stoned v. Drunk v. Sober.” This show puts together three pairs of comics up who perform either stoned, drunk, or sober; at the end the audience gets to vote for their favorite. Joey Zimmerman was in the middle of what he called his little adventure out of Nebraska when he spent a week here in Austin last June. While he was here he got to perform a few open mics and two showcases, one of which was, “Stoned v. Drunk v. Sober.” After some time in Kansas, Utah, Arizona, and Colorado he settled on moving to Austin.

Conceptual portraits of comedian Joey Zimmerman hitchhiking to Austin.

Joey Zimmerman learned how to dress for Austin by watching the Real World

Joey started comedy on his 21st birthday at Duffy’s tavern in Lincoln, Nebraska. Duffy’s is on “O St.” which Joey compares to Dirty 6th, an avenue filled with bars and a never-ending supply of college students. It was a prime place for an open mic. For two years Joey performed in Nebraska while working at a local music venue that a friend of his owned. Outside comedy, Joey has always considered himself a creative person and has a deep interest in art and music. So it’s no surprise that Joey was drawn to the live music capital of the world for more than its comedy.  He had the most excellent honor this year of hosting the “Hear Nebraska” SXSW music showcase, where he told jokes between bands and got to represent his home state of Nebraska right here in his new home.

Joey’s comedy is grounded for someone seemingly eccentric; he looks through the monotony of the everyday through a lens of the unusual and awkward. For Joey one of his favorite things about the city is how welcoming it has been to him. Joey says performing at Duncan Carson and Brendan K ‘O Grady’s “Sure Thing” at Austin Java has been a highlight since arriving here. At “Sure Thing,” Joey received the sweetest intro from Brendan when he said, “This guy just moved here and everyone really likes him.” Joey has embraced the Austinite lifestyle; he regularly enjoys the great weather and the outdoor parks and trails the city offers. He even boasts about being the proud owner of a bike.

Still, for some comics even with everything Austin has to offer, they can quickly become restless. Tanya Nascimento has been here for a little more than a year but doesn’t plan on staying for much longer; she’s given herself another year or two. Tanya still gets homesick for Raleigh, North Carolina and is always contemplating returning home or taking the next step and moving to New York. She started comedy in May of 2012 while in college in Charlotte, North Carolina. She was 13th up at her first open mic and may have been a little nervous as she downed a forty in the parking lot. Every couple weeks though she would return to that open mic until she graduated. After a short time working in an immigration law firm, Tanya had a “fuck it” moment and decided she was ready to move on from North Carolina but had not decided where. Then her mother told Tanya she had a seasonal position waiting for her in Austin if she’d like to join her in going to Texas. Tanya looked up Austin comedy and found an emerging community. After seeing the number of open mics she could be attending, the numerous showcases, and great comics that regularly visit Austin the question was settled.

Conceptual portraits of comedian Tanya Nascimento hitchhiking to Austin.

Tanya Nascimento has her priorities straight

Tanya brought with her a brand of comedy that was designed for a less progressive audience. She talks about how, compared to Raleigh, Austin is a city that holds its comics accountable. “Here you have to be more PC,” Tanya says, describing how in Raleigh race was a more common theme in comedy. Tanya enjoys pushing the boundary of what the audience is comfortable with. She embraces the audience’s reaction as it shifts from surprise to laughter.

Tanya also enjoys that there are many more women doing comedy here than where she came from. Just a few months after she arrived, she hosted a comedy competition at Gypsy Lounge, featuring a panel of judges made up of a few of Austin’s funniest comics including Avery Moore, Ella Gale, and Rachel Streitmann. She had 12 comics perform at her “In the Gutter” comedy competition with Derick Fields being declared the winner. It seemed inevitable that while talking about Austin at least one comic was going to mention tacos. Tanya counts Austin’s obsession with tacos as one of her favorite things about the city. She doesn’t give Austin the credit of having the best food around but she does like that tacos are seemingly everywhere.

Of all the comedy transplants, one of Austin’s freshest faces to comedy is Andrew Horneman. Andrew has been performing for over four years and got his start at Laugh’s Comedy Café in Tucson. The Arizona native has always had a passion for film and performance. So when he finished his degree at the University of Arizona he found a community in comedy and started performing standup. Comedy became more than a hobby after he started performing regularly at the Laugh’s open mic. He would watch road comics come through sometimes two to four times in a weekend.

After years in Tuscon Andrew had felt he hit a wall and was ready for something new. A good friend of his was living in LA and would constantly pressure him to move out west and pursue comedy in California. He was apprehensive at first but it wasn’t until that same friend moved to Austin that he gave moving more serious thought. He spoke to a few road comics about the emerging comedy scene and decided to take the leap and leave Arizona.

Conceptual portraits of comedian Andrew Horneman hitchhiking to Austin.

Andrew Horneman at least had a fun time failing his wilderness survival class

Andrew has only been in Texas for three months but in that time the city has left quite the impression on him. He set a personal record of going up at 52 open mics in the month of January alone; more than was possible in Tucson. Andrew has enjoyed bringing his brand of comedy to the Lone Star state. He takes an inward approach to his comedy. He begins most sets discussing the obvious first impression his unique voice makes on an audience before honing in on more personal thoughts and remarks about the less obvious things we see.

The comedy hasn’t only impressed Andrew; the Alamo Drafthouse has quickly become a favorite spot for him to explore new, alternative, and classic films. In a city that values its artists and filmmakers; Andrew has found a home that can offer him more as a comedian and artist.

For some, a city is more than just a home, it represents the hope they have for their future. The air in Austin is not only filled with tacos and BBQ, it’s filled with opportunity. Like New York, Chicago, and L.A. before it, Austin is a magnet for people looking to create and share. In the years to come, Austin will not only act as a beacon for entertainment but the birthplace of America’s next comedy wave.

Dany Recio looks like he’d vote for Bernie Sanders but wouldn’t gentrify an entire neighborhood. He’s about as opinionated as your grandfather but never fought a war. Words that have been used to describe him are: young, wears glasses, lost (while not wearing glasses), and hopeful. A couple nights a week he tries to make everyone in Austin like him, one person at a time. (It’s going okay) If you feel like engaging in appropriated rap battles or a couple of twitter feuds you can google him, if you’re into it:  @saidthedanny