Be sure and follow Chris on Twitter and catch him at Moontower next month. Also, check out his podcast Cancelled where he and a guest talk TV shows that only aired for one season (the most recent one is Cop Rock with Norman Wilkerson).
Saying Mike MacRae is an impressionist is a bit like saying Michelangelo painted ceilings. MacRae’s Don Draper impression is spot on but the routine is more than mere mimicry. His Draper delivers a pitch that ultimately breaks the fourth wall to reference the bit itself before folding in on itself in a surprising way. His comedy is smart, thoughtful, and most of all hilarious. Ask any comic in Austin who their favorites are and MacRae is often at the top of the list. So when I heard Mike was putting together a podcast where he interviewed rock legends and would be playing every single character, I was intrigued. I spoke with Mike about his first time performing, performing for Letterman, and why he decided to focus on classic rock.
What can you tell me about your first time on stage? What kind of comic was young Mike MacRae?
I used to bring my “act” of teacher impressions to the assembly stage in high school and in college I would do whatever my post-adolescent conception of what stand-up was at campus events at Rice and U of H (tapes of both exist, locked away forever in that warehouse at the end of Raiders of The Lost Ark), but I suppose you mean the first time in a proper comedy club. That would be the Monday night open mic night at the Houston Laff Stop on West Gray. It was either the last Monday of October or the first of November, 1999 – it was also the first time for my dear friend Sarah Tollemache, and we both never could quite remember which it was. Once and I was hooked. The first few times on stage I was presenting my college act, which got some cheap laughs from the crowd but garnered nothing but scorn (rightly so) from the local comics, who, naturally, I wanted dearly to impress. Eventually I came to the realization that I could get away with doing impressions if 1) I did ones that people were not used to hearing, and 2) couched them in a genuine joke or otherwise funny concept. The structure of my act was forged in the crucible of the scrutiny of my soon-to-be peers. And I’m glad for it.
You started out in Houston doing shows at the now defunct Laff Stop. What do you remember about the scene? Any favorite stories?
As a young dope interested in stand-up, I could not have walked in to a more fortuitous place and time than the Laff Stop in 1999. Then-manager Mark Babbitt had admirably groomed the already hoary venue to be one of the premiere comedy clubs in the country. Louis CK (among many others) chose to record his first CD there; you can hear all of us laughing in the background. Babbitt joined his mission of booking original and fearless yet warhorse-funny headliners with an almost zealous preoccupation with cultivating the local “scene”. His favorites were given ample stage time in front of some of the hottest crowds in the country. He even changed the show format to have occasional split-feature sets (one doing 10-15, the other 15-20) so we could work on honing a solid road-worthy 30. That was the goal back then: travel, the road. Making people laugh for a long amount of time. Looking back, it was ridiculous the stage time that I and others got WAY before we were ready. But it helped develop us. Then everything slowly went to shit, like it does.
As Letterman inches closer to retirement, what do you remember about your appearance on the show?
What can I say? It was great, nerve-racking, a monumental headache getting the final go-ahead (wanna know how much “same-day” Fex-Ex from Louisville, KY to NYC costs? No, you don’t), and the greatest sense of accomplishment when it was over. Also, David Letterman is painted traffic cone orange and it’s weird when he walks up to you. Eddie Brill told me after my set that Indiana native Dave asked, “that guy, was he a Midwesterner?”, Eddie asserted yes, and Dave said, “I could tell. He clearly has our sense of humor”. I will always be very thankful to Eddie for telling me that. As a kid growing up watching Late Night I always marked that Letterman was from the same region of the country as I was. I think there is a certain sense of humor that comes from growing up where everything is kind of boring.
What people can expect to hear on your podcast? How did you come up with the concept?
Well, it ain’t for everybody, that’s for sure. It’s pretty niche. But hey – that’s what podcasts are for, in my opinion. “Legends of Rock with Mike MacRae”. Yeah, so I’ve always liked (for lack of a better term) Classic Rock, but also found it – and the culture surrounding it – to be very amusing. I’ve always have had bits about it here and there over the years; I had a track on my first CD called “British Invasion Bands”, there was a bit about why Southern Rock bands had like 12 people in them (that only Henry Phillips liked), and I did an Ozzy Osbourne impression (going back to the Laff Stop days, my Kurt Loder interview with Ozzy was my first “signature bit”). But since I grew up steeped in the culture of midwestern classic rock radio, with the Sunday night obscure album shows, the retrospectives, “Rockline”, plus the remastered CDs with bloviating interview tracks that I’d actually listen to and liner notes that I would assiduously study in the pre-internet age, I have much more of a “nerd” pre-occupation with the topic than what could elegantly inform a functional stand-up act. This project is an outlet for all of that stuff. It’s basically a fake interview show where I (as an eponymous character, a la Colbert) interview David Gilmour, Ian Anderson, Lemmy Kilmister, Robert Plant, Gene Simmons, etc., but, you know, it’s all me. Just a bunch of fake bullshit. And interspersed with other bits, conversations with Musical Director Pat Dean, fake commercials, and other fun stuff. I hope people like it. My goal is to make it amusing for people who aren’t necessarily well-versed in the subject matter, but not at the expense of making it really something special for Classic Rock boneheads such as myself. We’ll see. Either way, it will be done season by season. We’re gonna do about 7 or 8 and if people like it we’ll be doing a second batch. It all depends on the schedule of my trusty EP Dustin Svehlak. He’s got his hands full dealing with that diva Norman Wilkerson.
Mac Blake is one of the most talented and celebrated performers to rise out of the Austin comedy scene. He’s performed at the prestigious New Faces of Comedy Showcase at the Just for Laughs Festival in Montreal, the Moontower Comedy and Oddity Festival, Funny or Die’s Oddball Festival, SXSW Comedy, and more. In 2013, he won the Funniest Person in Austin contest. In addition to stand-up, Blake is part of the acclaimed sketch group STAG Comedy, a regular performer at ColdTowne Theater, and co-host of The Mascot Wedding Show podcast. And he’s just released his first comedy album.
I spoke with Mac about comedy influences, his all time favorite standup albums, and a drifter named Patches.
Photo by Lauren Logan
Who inspires you comedically now?
I just did a weekend with Dave Attell at Cap City. Name drop! He’s in the hall of fame of face-melting. Watching him was inspiring in that if I ever want to be half as good I have a lot of work to do and better get to it. Also Tom Scharpling, host of The Best Show, is an inspiration for a lot of reasons.
What about when you were growing up?
Growing up there was an old drifter in our neighborhood. Patches was his name. He would entertain us kids with stories about airplane food and the differences between black and white people, men and women, cats and dogs, you name it. I feel like those stories laid a lot of the groundwork for who I am today. It’s a real shame Patches was shot to death by cops who thought he stole a Diet Coke.
Also. The Simpsons, Hartman/Foley era Saturday Night Live, and my family.
What’s the most recent joke you wrote and how did you come up with it?
Probably something dumb I thought of in the car on the way to a show. I talk through jokes a lot when I’m driving. For some reason being focused on something else, the road, kind of frees up the rest of my brain.
What makes a good comedy album?
I honestly just want a comedy album to be funny. On Joe Mande’s album slash mixtape he mixed his live recording in with hype sounds & skits. It certainly wasn’t a traditional stand-up album, but it was great.
What are your top five all time favorite comedy albums?
Look, I don’t claim to be an expert on comedy albums. Tae Kwon Do? Yes, I am an expert in that. Come at me and I will crack your skull open. But here are some of my favorites.
Feelin’ Kinda Patton by Patton Oswalt. I think his second album, Werewolves in Lollipops is probably better. But Feelin’ Kinda Patton was the album that made me want to do stand-up. I can’t understate its importance to me.
Bigger and Blacker by Chris Rock. This was the first comedy album I ever bought. It hit so huge. Everyone I knew, regardless of what they were into, loved this album. So damn good.
Chewed Up by Louis CK. You could probably switch out a couple Louis albums for this one, but Chewed Up is my favorite. Cinnabon. Hating deer. Great.
The Art of the Slap by Scharpling and Wurster. “Whoa, a non stand-up comedy album? This guy Mac Blake is an edgy motherfucker.” Calm down, guys. The Art of the Slap is a collection of calls from former radio show, now podcast, The Best Show. The host, the aforementioned Tom Scharpling, takes calls from a variety of characters all voiced by Jon Wurster––who is also the drummer for Superchunk and the Mountain Goats. Everything they do is solid gold. The first call is from a computer repair technician named Horse who works for Jock Squad, a bizarro roided-out version of Best Buy’s Geek Squad. I could not love these guys more. There’s an homage to them on my album if you listen to the end.
The Top Part by John Mulaney. The title of this album, like Chewed Up, is a great reveal when you find out the context. Mulaney is just a perfect writer. His story about selecting Tom Jones’s “What’s New Pussycat”, twenty one straight times, on the jukebox of a diner––I think the first time I heard that I laughed so hard I ripped a whole in the space time continuum. Sorry universe!
What’s next for Mac Blake?
For the rest of the month, I’ll be co-hosting All’s Well with Mac & Joe, with the very funny Joe Hafkey. That’s every Tuesday at 8pm, at Cap City Comedy Club, until the Funniest Person in Austin Contest starts.
I’ll also be going on a Sure Thing Records mini-tour with Brendan K. O’Grady and Duncan Carson, the comics who run the record label. Those dates are all on my website. Then some festivals in the summer.
Oh and I’ll be at a certain thing April 22nd to April 25th, but I don’t think I’m supposed to say anything yet so I won’t. You certainly couldn’t find out more information about that thing on this very blog. Again, I wish I could tell you more about super fun mega festival, but I can’t.
Then later this year I’m getting married to my favorite human on the planet, so that’s pretty cool.
Mac Blake’s Bird Drugs is available now. Check out a clip below and follow him on Twitter.
On the heels of his critically acclaimed comedy album, Never Gonna Be Famous, Moontower favorite Brian Gaar has just released his very first comedy special. Recorded at the Spiderhouse Ballroom, Jokes I Wrote at Work is an intimate affair that shows Brian is not only a gifted writer (he counts over 80,000 Twitter followers), but he can hold his own with the best of them. I spoke with Brian about the recent release, his day job as a reporter, and Pokemon.
The title of your special is “Jokes I Wrote at Work”. Some people may not know that in addition to being a stand-up, you are a respected reporter at the Austin American-Statesman. How do your careers inform each other?
Well, one career allows me to eat and pay rent and the other allows me to get yelled at by bachelorette parties who thought they were going to a piano bar. Also thank you for calling me respected. One time I wrote a story about elephants eating leftover Halloween pumpkins at the zoo. So it’s hard to tell which career is more degrading (jk it’s comedy).
You make no secret about being a gamer. What’s your favorite game right now and what’s coming out that has you excited?
I tried to play League of Legends but I’m too slow now to compete with children. They’re like, “Yo, SavedByTheBell353, you suck.” And I’m like “Look, I had to get up at 5 a.m. because my daughter wouldn’t stop singing songs from ‘Frozen.’ Give me a break.” And they’re like, “LEARN 2 PLAY NOOB.”
So now I’m playing this card game called Hearthstone. And the newest Pokemon because I’m fucking creepy.
How has the comedy scene changed in Austin since you started?
There are more and more people doing it. I don’t talk to any of them because I’m a big shot now and I don’t want their open micer germs getting on me. But I’ll see them at open mics and think, “Huh, I don’t know who any of these people are.” If they have a good set, I’ll let them make eye contact with me.
What’s next for Brian Gaar?
I’m thinking about lunch right now. Do I want to go get something? Should I just eat a Lean Cuisine at work? I should really learn another language. Wait, what’s that under my arm — is that cancer. Ok, I need to figure out who gets my Playstation games, I don’t want a nasty legal battle after my death.
Also get your kids vaccinated. Don’t be the dad who’s like “Well son, when you were a baby, the internet and your mom’s yoga teacher told us that vaccines were bad. Anyway, sorry your legs don’t work.”
If you think you have what it takes to make the grade, you can pick up a submission form at the club or download a form here. Or, if you’re like me and just want to watch the circus, the prelims begin on Tuesday, April 6th, and will continue on Sundays, Mondays & Tuesdays through Tuesday, May 5th. Semi-Final nights are currently scheduled for Sunday, May 10th through Tuesday, May 12th. The Final night of the contest will be Monday, May 18th. It’s a great way to go deeper into the Austin scene and see all that it has to offer.
Here are the rules according to the submission form:
1. Contestants must be currently residing in or around the Austin area. Qualifying zip codes are 787xx, 786xx, 789xx.
2. You must perform at least five minutes, but no more than six minutes during preliminary rounds. No exceptions!
3. In order to qualify to compete, some contestants may be required to submit a five-minute audio/video tape or provide references from funny people.
4. Material must be original. If it is not, you will be disqualified and everyone will hate you.
5. In order to compete, entry forms plus a $15.00(no t-shirt)/$25(includes t-shirt) fee must be submitted to the Capitol City Comedy Club by midnight Monday, March 30th. If available, please submit any headshot/bio information along with application.
3. Ford’s assembly line – December 1, 1913. Henry Ford lined up cars to enable the mass production of an automobile and reduced the time it took to build a car from more than 12 hours to just 35 seconds! More than seventy people were mutilated in the machinery and these early cars were recalled but the opening night party had penny candies.
2. Bathroom line-up at Woodstock – August 15, 1969. Held in the Catskills in Bethel, New York, Woodstock featured 32 acts, 400,000 young people, and a single bathroom in the guest house on Max Yasgur’s dairy farm. Many attendees were in line for the entire three day festival and several died of dehydration. Groovy, man!
The holidays are here and you haven’t done any shopping. Why do you always do this? Don’t beat yourself up, we’ve got you covered. Here are a few ideas for the comedy fan in your life, most of which you can buy from your couch.
2. Tickets to a stand-up show: Go online and get your friend tickets to an upcoming comedy show. There are some great shows coming up at Cap City and the Paramount. Or go big and get her a Moontower badge! Early bird priced badges are now on sale and start at just $99. All badges provide access to all four days of the festival which runs April 22nd – 25th. For more information, click here.
3. Comedy albums: You already know that Austin is a great town for comedy but you might not know that many comics who came up in Austin have records available for sale. Brian Gaar’s Never Gonna Be Famous debuted at #2 on the iTunes charts earlier this year and is a great place to start. Former Funniest Person in Austin winners Ramin Nazer and Andy Ritchie likewise have albums out. Also check out records from Jake Flores, Chuck Watkins, David Huntsberger, Howard Kremer, and JT Habersaat. In many cases it might be too late to get a physical CD (though Amazon is still shipping today and tomorrow) but most if not all of these are available online on iTunes or a similar service.
Here at Moontower, we are BIG Saturday Night Live fans. We’re lucky enough to have had several SNL MVPs at our fest like Bill Hader, Fred Armisen, and Seth Meyers. Here now are some of our favorite holiday sketches from the Bill Murray and Gilda Radner era all the way to last week’s “Back Home Baller”. Happy Thanksgiving!