Austin isn’t exactly known for its dearth of festivals. We have a festival for everything. Want a whole festival dedicated to Hot Sauce? We got you covered. Big fan of all things Celtic? Come on down. What are your thoughts on kites? Wanna see a whole fest dedicated to them? You’re in luck.
But for my money, The Moontower Comedy Festival might be my absolute favorite. For a comedy nerd like myself, it’s four days of nirvana.
The performers run the gamut from club comics to outright variety acts, which is great because the diversity of the shows almost guarantees you won’t get burned out on one type of performance.
Moontower is also very well run. That might sound like a dumb thing to love about a festival, but let me tell you, some of the fests in Austin might as well be run by monkeys. Okay. I’m sorry. That’s insulting to monkeys. If they were run by monkeys they might go smoother. But the people behind Moontower have their shit together. The badge levels are easy to understand. The calendar tells you what you need to know without having to wade through 300 links. And when something does go awry, the people in charge are efficient and apologetic. In this town, that’s a breath of fresh air. People outside Austin are starting to notice, too.
But looking back on the 2016 fest, several shows really stick out in my mind. Martin Short headlined on Thursday night, and although I certainly love Short’s work in film and TV, I wasn’t sure what to expect from a Martin Short live show.
What we got was an honest-to-goodness Martin Short one-man variety act. He sang. He danced. He joked and he mugged for the audience. It was like Marty was channeling the spirit of those old, Copacabana Martin and Lewis shows, except Marty was playing both the Dean and Jerry parts all by himself. He oozed energy, and when he sang the closing song, I knew we’d just seen something special.
I also adore the participants of this fest. On various podcasts and in interviews, Judd Apatow has repeatedly said how growing up a comedy nerd is a lonely affair. Lots of D&D nerds out there. Lots of computer nerds with which to commiserate. But comedy nerds? When I was growing up, we were thin on the ground.
But at Moontower, I’m positively surrounded by comedy nerds. When I’m chatting with people, I don’t have to explain my references to Dennis Wolfberg or the old HBO Young Comedian specials. Mencia’s plagiarism is common knowledge. There’s no need to ask if someone is a fan of Pete Holmes or if they’ve heard the new episode of “You Made it Weird.” We’re all comedy nerds at Moontower.
I do need to add a caveat to that last thing. There are a very small number of big donor VIPs at the fest, and they always get priority seating, which is great. That’s not the annoying bit. But this year, an old couple who had obviously donated loads of cash, angrily walked out of two shows. They were sitting up front at David Cross’s show, and apparently his political stances were just too much. The old man got up and left in a huff. They were in the second row at Jimmy Norton’s show, and as soon as Jimmy started in on a bit about have sex with transsexuals they became visibly and audibly disgusted and left. Cross even mentions it in this clip:
How the hell do you go to a David Cross show without knowing his politics? I guess they thought he was just gonna get onstage and blue himself for 90 minutes. And how do you go to a Norton show and get disgusted at his sex jokes? I mean, Jimmy calls himself a disgusting human being, and he’s got a low bar.
Don’t get me wrong. It was hilarious watching this old couple self-righteously storm out of the theater, and it was even funnier when Norton noticed and bashed the hell out of them as they left, but their anger confounds me. Why pay money for comedy and then get annoyed when there’s comedy? That’s like going to a Kevin Smith movie and going, “There’s just too much dialogue!” Very confusing.
The highlight of the festival had to be Maya Rudolph and Gretchen Lieberum’s Prince coverband Princess.
I know these acts are booked months and months in advance, and obviously Prince’s death was shockingly sudden to everyone. Consequently, I didn’t know how the band intended to handle the situation, but the show ended up being a moving tribute to a musician both Rudolph and Lieberum loved dearly.
When Rudolph opened the show, with the opening sounds of “Let’s Go Crazy” hanging in the air, she told the crowd “This is gonna be hard, and we’ll probably cry. He was our hero, and we love him. And he has completely shaped our world. But we’re gonna do this together. Alright?” And from that moment until the very end of the show, Rudolph and Lieberum shaped our world.
For the next 90 minutes, the entire audience at the Paramount Theater sang and danced as Princess, bathed in soft purple light, grooved onstage. At the end of the show, a visibly shaken and crying Rudolph stood alone at the front of the stage, illuminated with a single spotlight, and told the audience she wasn’t sure if they’d ever perform as Princess again. “But,” she said, she wanted to keep singing songs because “that’s what Prince would do.”
I don’t think I’ve ever been to a more emotional show. It was raw and real, and Rudolph and Lieberum’s love for Prince was palpable. I left the theater completely drained from dancing and singing and crying. It was unforgettable, and I feel lucky to have been there.
In a city full of festivals, The Moontower Comedy festival is truly something special. I’m already pumped for next year.