Moontower outdid itself again! This year, the 7th annual Moontower Comedy Festival in Austin Texas promised a tremendous four day comedy festival, and even with high expectations going in, we can say they over-delivered. A fan-first festival that takes comedy seriously (but not too seriously), if you are a comedy superfan, this is the place to be every April. There were so many highlights this year, but with only two writers in town, we couldn’t even begin to cover it all. But we’re going to try with ten of our favorite and most memorable performances from the four day fest.’
Is it possible I’m biased because I worked with our Bennington Show friends to put this show together? Of course, but let’s put that aside because Judah 2020: The World Champion’s Presidential Press conference was the most fun I had at Moontower. Part interview, part stand up, part crowd work, part experience, this was the most unique show at the festival, and one of the most fun to attend. The show started out on the sidewalk with a line that was long a full hour before showtime. The show’s producers handed out flags, political candidate cards (small posters that were a take-off on the Shepherd Fairey Obama “Hope” posters), patriotic face paint, and face stickers. Once the doors opened, a political-rally style playlist kept the mood high until host and moderator Ron Bennington came out to talk up Judah Friedlander’s accomplishments (he created sea monkeys that actually look like the ones on the package, he single-handedly delivers all Amazon prime packages, you get the picture), and brought up a big surprise- The Goddamn Comedy Jam came out to perform an original song they wrote that afternoon about the Champ. When Judah entered the room the crowd went crazy, waving their cards and flags, and Judah spent the next 45 eating a burrito and laying out his campaign strategy. Q&A from “bloggers” finished the hour, and then Judah was cool enough to hang around and sign shit even though he had just finished clobbering all comers in the Ping Pong tourney, and had to head off to headline a show a short while later. There was chanting, flag waving, music, and tons of laughs. It was a blast for everyone, and a truly unique event.
It started earlier in the evening with Joe List letting everyone in the green room know that he hates crowd work, and in fact, crowd work is the exact opposite of everything he wants to do in comedy and in life. Joe’s anxiety over the idea of doing crowd work was enough to make all of the comedians want to come out to watch him perform at Big Jay Oakerson’s What’s Your Fucking Deal- an all crowd work show. Nobody knew quite what to expect, but we all wanted to see it go down. When Joe opened his set saying “I’m terrified. I’m going to be quite frank, I hate the show. I don’t like the concept, I don’t know why they picked me” we knew it would be one of those moments people would talk about all weekend long. It only got better from there, and became one of the funniest and most unforgettable sets of the festival. Lucky you, you can hear the set if you subscribe to Tuesdays with Stories on Patreon.
I saw so many New York comics who I know well and already love kill at Moontower this year, but perhaps the most well crafted set came from someone I’ve never seen perform live before- Kurt Braunohler. His set at Saturday Night’s Stars in Bars show- which took place not in a bar, but at 800 Congress, was tremendous and explosive. He came out of the gate strong, and finished with a set about a woman who found 120,000 bees in the ceiling of her home in Decatur, Georgia. Brilliantly written, layered, nuanced, and perfectly performed, this was the kind of performance that is unforgettable, and upped the game of every comic in the room.
Moontower hits full stride on Thursday night every year, but those in town early get to experience the true opening show on Wednesday- Dudley and Bob + Matt’s Sideshow Live Podcast at Cap City. The entire show was so much fun and the best way to start off a whirlwind of comedy shows- Dale Dudley, Bob Fonseca and Matt Bearden preside over Austin comedy on their daily morning show, Dudley and Bob + Matt, and they know how to throw a great party. This year their guests were Ron Bennington and Ron White, and the show was filled with incredible showmanship- there were giant laughs, cringingly uncomfortable moments, and hilarious stories from everyone on stage, and then the show closed with a huge surprise- Ron White asked if he could do a set. Bennington, Dudley and Fonseca immediately cleared the stage for White- a giant in the stand up biz- and stood aside to watch White deliver 25 minutes that left everyone laughing so hard they didn’t know what hit them. A phenomenal night all around.
Some of you might not know his name yet…but you will. I saw Torres perform at an industry showcase a few years ago at the PIT in NYC, and never forgot him. He is an ORIGINAL in all capital letters, and the type of performer that is difficult to describe. This year he got a gig writing full time for Saturday Night Live, and this Friday he’s going to appear on the Tonight Show- this kid has got a very bright future ahead of him. White haired, soft spoken but with a deep voice- he’s from El Salvador, he calls himself a unicorn, and his bit on Cinderella was brilliantly funny. On SNL he wrote the hilarious commercial parody “Well for Boys” and the cut for time parody “My Little Stepchildren.” Keep your eye on the El Salvadorian unicorn and Space Prince, Julio Torres.
Getting to see Ron Bennington perform stand up comedy at a festival- all I can say is it’s about time. Ron has been a part of Moontower, Just for Laughs, Skankfest and the New York Comedy Festival for years- either with great interviews from his Unmasked series, or hosting live shows like Comedy 101, and those shows are always highpoints, but to finally get to see Ron perform sets at various stand up shows throughout the week was so much fun. It’s been just over a year since Ron returned to stand up performing regularly at The Stand in New York City but you wouldn’t have known he hasn’t been doing it all his life. His take on Austin’s homeless, and ceiling-less unfinished architecture, the progression of racism, and near death experiences at The Parish on Friday night was yet another festival highlight.
Moontower knows that Austin is a music town, and they know how to incorporate music into a comedy festival. The last few years, stand out festival moments have included Bridget Everett tearing up the stage, Maya Rudolph’s Prince tribute band, Princess, and Puddles the Clown with his Pity Party. This year it was Weird Al Yankovic, and his Ridiculously Self-Indulgent, Ill Advised Vanity Tour, bringing another side of Weird Al to the stage to perform original songs- not parodies. It was a blast. And equally stand-out was Weird Al’s opening act- Emo Phillips who brought pure, clean and simple yet brilliant jokes. Emo’s weirdness was a perfect match for Austin, and a perfect match for the family-oriented crowd. It was a gigantic night that everyone in attendance will remember for a long time to come.
Also part of Moontower’s skills of finding comedy blending flawlessly with music, the Goddamn Comedy Jam with Josh Adam Meyers continued its tradition of closing down the festival every night with a party. The Jam had a strong (but unfortunately un-renewed) season on Comedy Central last year, but really the GDCJ needs to be properly enjoyed live, loud and in person. It’s a thrilling live show, and they closed down Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights with killer performances from several all-time favorites (like Big Jay Oakerson who always crushes) but also from some newcomers to the JAM stage. Ask around who had the best performance all week, and even the band themselves will likely tell you it was reluctant performer Chris DiStefano with the most unforgettable set. This is why you can never miss a night when the GDCJ is in town.
Big Jay Oakerson and Dan Soder are two of my favorite New York comics, and seeing them go full Texas again was so much fun- this year adding Texas duster coats to their cowboy cosplay. In just a few short years the show has evolved from the new kids on the block to a well-oiled machine, with non-stop laughs at Antones. Mark Normand’s live improv soundboard is always a killer addition to live shows, and Big Jay and Dan were in top form. But you know that a show has reached its stride when the hosts feel confident enough to let someone else on their team shine- and this year it was their producer, Jacob, who gave a killer performance with a surprising heel turn as host of a radio-producer rematch version of the Newlyweds game. If you missed it, you can hear the Bonfire Live on SiriusXM on demand. And you should.
It was literally the last set of the last show of the festival and an absolute stand out moment. Despite being exhausted, sick and medicated, Liza Treyger delivered a phenomenal set closing out the annual New York’s Finest show at the IFC Stage Stateside. Treyger is such a powerful writer and performer, and her delivery of a caustic reprimand to men’s entitlement in 2018 was so goddamn funny that even the staunchest misogynist has to admit that she’s got a point about the male-female sexual dynamic in the modern age. There’s a joke about a visit to a Holocaust museum that had the by-now-exhausted audience wide awake and crying laughing. She is a powerhouse. A phenomenal end to a fantastic festival.
And that’s just the beginning. There were too many great performances to write them all up, but gigantic compliments are in order for Tuesdays With Stories, Mark Normand and Joe List can now add killer live shows to their list of compliments about their weekly podcast, Jeff Dye who had an outstanding set at 800 Congress, Big Jay who is one of the best performers in the country hands down, Janelle James- a rising star in the making, Nikki Glaser who deserves to be a super star, David Cross who keeps reinventing himself, Dan Naturman- always hilarious, New York comedy in general- which dominated throughout the festival this year, the Comedy Resistance, the Story Wranglers (see our Comedy Junkie review of Moontower for more on that), and looking over the list of talent at Moontower there are so many performers we never even got the chance to see, so there are likely so many more performers who belong on this list.
And while not a specific performance, it would be criminal not to mention that the #1 reason that the Moontower festival consistently outshines every other festival is that it is run by two superwomen. Lietza Brass and Colleen McGarr not only know how to spot and book the best established and up and coming talent but they set a tone for the festival that is laid back, cool as fuck, and yet still keeps everything running like clockwork. Whether you are a performer, a producer, or a fan, your experience at Moontower is first rate because of Brass, McGarr and their outstanding team. Every year we get to see so many comedians who we already know and love, and always discover a list of new favorites to pay attention to, and we can’t wait to come back next year.
See you in 2019, Austin!