Following the Comedy on Monday at SXSW: Jesse Ventura Will Haunt Your Dreams
In Case You Missed It:
Sunday at SXSW Interactive: Jeffrey Tambor Is A Spiritual Healer
I couldn’t do two straight days of SXSW interactive panels. I just couldn’t. It would have been easier just to have had a quick lobotomy back home and save Paste whatever money it took to get me down here. So on Monday I decided to steer clear of any conference rooms, ballrooms, exhibit halls or anywhere else I ran the risk of hearing about innovation or any type of “presence” I’m lacking. There’s plenty of great comedy at SXSW. And comedy’s fun and not soul-crushing, right? Let’s have a few laughs.
I GUESS EUGENE MIRMAN IS A BIG FAN OF THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS
A comedian interviewing a band? The intersection of two artistic disciplines? Isn’t that what SXSW is supposed to be all about? Unfortunately, no one really showed up to this. It was held in the cavernous Dell Hall (where Cory Booker spoke on Sunday), which is across the river (kind of far away). The relative emptiness prompted Mirman to joke, “I can see why they decided to hold this in a three-story theater,” before regarding it’s size earnestly. “This…makes sense.”
Anyway, here are some things we learned about John Flansburgh and John Linnell:
1. They were bad students.
1. At a show in their early days, they were opened for by a man dressed as a vagina.
2. At another early show a guy with no arms undressed on stage while counting backward from 100.
4. Flansburgh’s mom was at both of these shows.
5. The ’80s were weird.
6. They Might Be Giants was one of the first bands to shoot music videos on film.
7. They were influenced by the hip hop scene in New York, particularly in the use of drum machines.
8. Linnell once met Madonna and she was really short.
At the end they opened the floor to questions and some guy stood up immediately and told a story about how when he was growing up in east Texas he and his friends only could buy beer at certain gas stations and that they would name these certain gas stations after different They Might Be Giants songs. Nothing could top this question/statement, so I got out of there and headed back across the river.
STANDUP A-PLENTY AND A WEIRD GAME SHOW
Just east of I-35 is The North Door, the small stage and large bar of which make for the perfect comedy venue. At 3:30, it hosted a bizarre kind of free-form comedy “Mischief Beta Show” in which a host would give a topic or word—such as “guns” or “parents”—for a trio of comedians (Jon Dore, Rory Scovel and Andy Peters) to take turns riffing on it. There were also two guys with a laptop playing sound effects the whole time. I want to say this was a combination of improv and standup, but that’s giving it too much credit. It was more of just a wheels-off mess of trying to make people laugh. And it kind of worked. Point being: Comedy comes in all shapes, sizes, formats, dimensions, etc. at SXSW.
Here’s Jon Dore at the North Door Mischief Beta Show. From one of his “responses” to the “parent” segment: “My mother’s dead. It’s a funny story. She got hit by a train…Actually…it’s not a funny story.”
For some good old fashioned standup and a little local flavor, I went by The Hideout, a small, dark room in the back of a coffee shop, for a “Best of Austin Showcase.” This was low profile and felt more like an amateur open mic night. Chris Cubis and Kevin Iso were both legitimately funny, though, and Cubis looks exactly like Reggie Watts. Here’s Iso in action:
The best standup of the day, though, was done by Mark Normand at a mid-afternoon IFC Crossroads House showcase. (IFC is hosting a lot of the best comedy at SXSW; Marc Maron did standup at the Crossroads House on Sunday.) Normand was introduced as having appeared on Conan and Comedy Central, but probably about zero of the jokes he told live were appropriate enough to make air even on cable. His delivery was clean, his jokes were well-crafted and he eviscerated a heckler, which is always fun.
LIVE IMPROV IS THE BEST KIND OF COMEDY
A lot of the comedy events at SXSW aren’t exactly well-attended, probably because most people aren’t familiar with mid-level comics the way they are with mid-level bands. Renowned LA/NY improve troupe Upright Citizens Brigade, which was co-founded by Amy Poehler and has produced too many notable comedians to list here, is well-known, though, and as a result Esther’s Follies was at capacity and buzzing with anticipation for the UCB All-Stars at 8:00.
So here’s how a UCB show works: First off, everyone is really, really, really funny and quick-witted. Second, they get a topic or suggestion from the audience. The first one was “desperate recruiter.” Then someone, on the spot, tells a funny story from their own life about the topic. Next, the troupe goes through a number of interconnected sketches based off this story. The comics sub in and out of the sketches on the fly like they’ve been rehearsing for months. It’s all improvised.
The crowd, including myself, was in stitches the entire time. It’s amazing how much more powerful something can be when it comes out of spontaneity. With premeditated, pre-written, pre-rehearsed standup, part of the process is hidden from attendees. With improv there’s total transparency. Everything is laid out on the table, the comics on stage couldn’t be more vulnerable and, because of all this, it’s all the more amazing how they never fail to deliver.
THIS MAN WAS THE GOVERNOR OF A U.S. STATE
“Gravelly” is one of the most well-worn words used to describe someone with a harsh, abrasive voice. It’s actually a fact of journalism that Tom Waits’ voice has never been written about without using some variation of the words “gravel,” “whiskey” and/or “smoke.” So when I say Jesse Ventura’s voice is gravelly, I mean it sounds like he is literally gargling small, jagged bits of rock as he’s speaking. It was borderline frightening and when I walked in he was having a conversation in Spanglish (are fake languages capitalized?) with one of the members of his “Conspiracy Theory Live” panel at the IFC Crossroads House. Ventura was also wearing a bald cap with gray mullett attached to the back, some type of pillow or stuffing to enhance his gut and a shirt that said, in pink, “9/11: Got Doubts?” in the “Got Milk?” typeface. Like I said, terrifying.
As for what was actually discussed by this four-member panel? I was in the audience for about an hour and I honestly have no idea. The panelists were impersonating, or were possessed by different celebrity figures or characters of their own invention. One guy was in character as Mark Wahlberg the whole time, which was probably the funniest part of the show. Conspiracy was not really “discussed” so much as it was occassionally and half-heartedly brought up and then dropped so someone in a wig could talk about child molestation or something else controversial. Here are some questions Ventura posed to the panel:
1. “Do you think Mickey Mouse can only be sold to asexual creatures?”
2. “How do you test someone for reptilianism?”
3. “Do you think Vine could be a cultural programming technique?”
I hope you read all of those to yourself in a gravelly Jesse Ventura voice. If not, go back and start over. And like I said, none of these questions were actually answered; they were really more things Ventura just happened to say.
The takeaway, though, was Ventura’s jovial but almost demonic presence and voice, which sounded like what Will Ferrell might have been going for in that SNL sketch when he played Lucifer teaching Garth Brooks how to play guitar. I guess that kind of guttural verbal ballast is just what it takes to be a professional wrestler/elected government official, and I’m actually kind of afraid to go to sleep tonight for fear that he’ll show up in my dreams to body slam me, or, worse, to forcefully “educate” me about the existence of aliens or government mind control.