Three New Paths for SXSW Comedy

Well, this is frustrating.

After another year at SXSW Comedy, and taking some time to sort through my feelings about this year’s event, I’m dismayed to report that my views on the Austin-based festival aren’t all that different from those I shared this time last year. In a year where South by Southwest at large debuted new offerings in a number of areas, it felt as though the comedy portion of the festival did little to mirror that growth. Rather than echo much of last year’s piece, I want to instead propose a few prospective ways forward.

Plan A: Lengthen the Laughs

For the most part, the comedy portion of South by Southwest starts at 4pm, running well into the night. One possible way to deepen the impact of the festival might be to lengthen the days- but not by staging comedy shows during the day. Most of the daytime at SXSW is filled with panels, talks, and podcast recordings. As many of the shows at this year’s festival were in fact podcast recordings (The Randown with Robin Thede, Doug Loves Movies, Comedy Bang! Bang!, Stuart Goldsmith’s The Comedian’s Comedian, and a few comedy-themed editions of Maltin on Movies), I’d propose moving those to the daytime, freeing up more space and time for shows in the evening.

Further, there isn’t an established track at any part of the conference that deals with the business, art, and conversation around comedy the way there is for film or music. The panel I moderated on the News and Journalism track, Memes and Monologues: Lessons in Laughter for News, was one of a handful of sessions on the considerable schedule that talked about comedy. Were this to change, it’d give attendees another opportunity to engage with the form at large.

Plan B: More “Crossover Episodes”

Lest you believe that there were no good surprises on the lineup this year, I’d point out the breath of fresh air that crossover events provided. Film and comedy collided several times at the festival, between the Maltin on Movies podcast recordings with Bill Hader (promoting HBO’s Barry) and Jim Gaffigan (talking about his You Can Choose Your Family), and the Most Likely to Murder cast’s storytelling show at Esther’s Follies. Further, the Ally Coalition’s Audible Impact concert and comedy show provided a chance for music and comedy to intersect.

More opportunities for comedy to shine in conjunction with Film and Music could inject a feeling of newness to the proceedings. Whether that comes out in an awards category for the existing film festival, a comedic short film competition, or more shows like Audible Impact that intentionally blend music and laughs, could expand the profile of the festival and bring new folks into the fold.

Plan C: Cede the Ground to Moontower

It’s worth noting that a substantial comedy festival, Moontower Comedy Festival, takes place in Austin each year within a month of SXSW Comedy. This festival, which this year boasts the likes of Tig Notaro, Tiffany Haddish, Weird Al, and dozens of performers at satellite locations around the city, in many ways surpasses SXSW Comedy’s offerings. Is it worth it for SXSW to simply end their eleven year experiment in the form, and instead promote Moontower with a single show (not unlike Clusterfest did this year with a preview of their San Francisco lineup)?

Although it would be a tremendous loss to the SXSW experience to lose comedy, it would accomplish a few positive things: participating comedians wouldn’t have to force a choice between two Austin trips so close to one another, it would prevent competition between comedic Film offerings and the comedy shows that happen each night, and it would allow comedy to stand out- where, at SXSW, it often feels like an afterthought.

Ultimately, I have no say in the future of SXSW Comedy. I can only look on as an observer of the proceedings, an avid fan, and someone who wants to see this form grow at the annual festival. It deserves a bigger and more distinct space in the landscape of the annual festival, and I can only hope that – through one of the first two plans or some other measures – it gets to take a rightfully earned larger role in the years to come.

Did you go to SXSW Comedy this year? What did you think? What suggestions do you have for its future?

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Amma Marfo

Amma Marfo is a writer, speaker, and podcaster based in Boston, MA. Her writing has appeared in Femsplain, The Good Men Project, Pacific Standard, and Talking Points Memo. Chances are good that as you're reading this, she's somewhere laughing.