The first time I attended South by Southwest (SXSW or “South By”) was in 2012, primarily for music. However, I was pleased to find that there were also comedy shows happening nightly; the Comedy portion of SXSW was in its fifth year. It seemed as though it was poised to explode into a marquee-level part of the festival, as Film and later Interactive had in the years prior. But in 2017, on the SXSW Comedy’s tenth anniversary, the milestone was passed with nearly no fanfare and relatively little growth. Which led me to wonder: I believe that SXSW Comedy has a chance to grow up. Does it want to?
In all other areas, South by Southwest as an event seems to be growing. It attracts larger and larger films and musical acts each year, taking over the city as venues are packed with festival and conference-goers (there’s a difference, more on that later) from all over the country. SXSW Interactive – my main reason for attending this year – has twice in two years attracted the attention and attendance of the Oval Office; President Obama keynoted in 2016, and recent former Vice-President Joe Biden spoke this year to overflowing rooms and satellite locations. SXSW Film attracts indie films and future blockbusters alike. And SXSW Music continues to grow, this year attracting over 2,200 performers from 67 countries. Yet the Comedy Festival showed relatively little growth, confined to two venues in the city and fewer than thirty shows over nine days (with several being repeat performances).
The relegation of comedy to a second-tier element of SXSW was especially evident in the way shows were announced and displayed. The eventual announcement of talent was considerably later in the days leading up to “South By” than any other element of SXSW, and the schedule was considerably more difficult to navigate online. Finding shows and experiences for this portion of the festival was difficult on the website, and next to impossible on the mobile app- the ostensible Bible of the whole experience. Whereas one could stumble upon experiences in the Film or Music portions of the conference, Comedy was something you either (a) knew was happening and knew to look for, or (b) found purely by accident, roaming the streets leading up to the venues. As Joel Kim Booster, a New York-based comedian who performed on three festival shows put it, “it’s like this secret thing going on that only some people know about.”
With all that said, the shows that I did attend were well-attended and skillfully done by the comedians that did participate. Podcast recordings like Comedy Bang! Bang! and Doug Loves Movies are mainstays of the festival and have been for years, as are performances by UCB Presents ASSSSCAT!, and a live @midnight with Chris Hardwick was featured for a second year and streamed to a Facebook Live audience. This year Seeso hosted four nights of live editions of their shows Night Train, WYFD with Big Jay Oakerson, HarmonQuest, and two performances of Doug Stanhope and Friends, which were also streamed via Facebook Live.
The nature of the comedy at SXSW differs from that of several other festivals I’ve been to, in that there were far more opportunities to see comics who really enjoy each other do so onstage, or even abandon comedy in favor of a larger point. Seeing a sketch performed onstage that was written that day from John Reynolds (Search Party), Mike Luciano (Animals.) and Sasheer Zamata (SNL) at Above Average Live was a weird, but hilarious experience, as was seeing Joe DeRosa appear twice on the same show (Would You Bang Him?) after his first set went over…oddly with the panelists judging him and his jokes as “bangable” or not. At one point, Bob Odenkirk switched gears entirely as “guest monologist” for UCB Presents ASSSSCAT!, insisting “this isn’t a joke” as he aired his grievances about the recent election and what it’s turned him into. John Hodgman’s set on Night Train did something similar, taking repeated shots at the craziness of Dr. Ben Carson’s first speech to his employees at HUD.
Despite my wishes for more, I really did like and appreciate the atmosphere that the present festival offered. I loved that for the regulars at the festival, it felt like a time they could look forward to being among friends and play things a bit looser than they normally would. I loved that I kept seeing Doug Benson, everywhere. My beef is not with the comedy that I was able to attend, I assure you.
Here’s my issue: the rabid comedy fan in me is eager for more, and believes this wildly profitable event can support such growth. As it stands currently, the Comedy Festival portion of SXSW is a haven for currently established comics, but could realistically also support up-and-comers- both regionally and nationally. Alongside well-known shows with nationally touring comedians, could there also be showcases that burgeoning comedians submit to, in a manner similar to upcoming musicians or filmmakers?
This feels like a missed opportunity, one that could allow for expansion.
After a decade of flirting with marquee level placement, can the SXSW Comedy Festival take (what I believe is) its rightful place alongside Interactive, Music, and Film? I wish I had an answer. But I do know this: until the organizers and participants of the festival alike decide to reckon with this question, SXSW Comedy will likely remain in its current state: small, successful, and yet capable of so much more if given the opportunity.