A Brief Oral History of Matt Bearden’s Punch

When Punch debuted seven years ago, the comedy scene in Austin was a vastly different landscape. Aside from a handful of open mics and the occasional week at Cap City, no legitimate showcase existed for developing local talent. Matt Bearden’s weekly changed all that. The heavily curated show shone a spotlight on Austin comedians in a way that was often imitated but never duplicated.

Photo by Erin Holsonback, An Indoor Lady

Photo by Erin Holsonback, An Indoor Lady

Punch ended in 2014, Bearden citing a combination of booking problems and no-shows. But he may have just needed a break. “The original Punch was supposed to last for six weeks,” he says. “Then we got five years out of it.” What follows is a brief oral history of Punch on the occasion of its return.

Margie Coyle (owner, Cap City Comedy Club): Back in the day, comedians would come in on Tuesday and run through Sunday. They would be here for almost a full week. I’m talking the big headliners: Greg Behrendt, Dave Attell, Marc Maron, Tom Rhodes. They all came down and would work through Sunday. As the explosion of comedy clubs escalated, comedians wanted to cut back. It wasn’t really what we wanted to do necessarily, but that was just the way it was trending.

Mike MacRae (comedian, The Jimmy Dore Show): Tuesday was always a hard day. They were always open on Tuesday, which most clubs weren’t at that point. Most full-time comedy clubs either had an open mic or they just weren’t open, but Cap City always wanted to have a show. They had experimented with things there for a long time, even back when I lived in Houston. They always tried to have a good lineup of locals, but it was hard to get people out.

Bearden (2002 Funniest Person in Austin): I went to go see Invite Them Up in New York and I was like, “Why the fuck don’t we have anything like this in Austin?” It was packed, there were great acts and they were all doing really good material. It wasn’t an open mic. There were only two kinds of shows I’d ever done: open mic and working a week at a club. There wasn’t just a show where comics were coming in and just destroying for ten minutes, and that was it. I was like, “We should do this.”

Coyle: I remember calling him and just saying, “Hey, what do you think about doing a show?” Of course I was trying to also parlay a bit of his notoriety and celebrity on KLBJ, hopefully.

Bearden: When Margie pitched the show, she was like, “Why don’t you do a show called Matt Bearden and Friends? I was just like, “No, that sounds horrible.” My whole point was, “Let’s just brand it with a name because it’s too hard to try to convince people to go see someone you’ve never heard of.” I thought if people like the show Punch, they’ll tell friends, “Oh, you should go see this show Punch.” It’s worked with Master Pancake Theater.

PunchCoyle: I remember him telling me, ‘I’ve got all these promotional materials; I have the name,” and it just kind of came together like that.

MacRae: He’s good at that. I don’t think that’s something most comics have a sense of. It was just this magical combination of good marketing and a good product that lived up to its marketing. It kind of became a permanent institution.

Mac Blake (2013 Funniest Person in Austin): Right now there are so many different showcases, but when Punch first started there weren’t that many curated shows. I think Punch might have been the only one. And “curated” is definitely a Matt Bearden term. Punch might have been the only indie showcase in town that was a consistent weekly show [and] wasn’t also an open mic. You couldn’t sign up for Punch. It honestly changed Austin in that regard, because the next thing you know this giant crop of booked shows popped up.

Maggie Maye (Austin Chronicle’s 2016 Best Stand-Up Comedian): I was on the first ever Punch. Since its inception it was clear that the show was going to be a big deal.

MacRae: It was the first show here locally in Austin of its type. There’s probably a lot of imitators now, and a lot of people trying to do the same thing. It was the first time I ever heard the term “curated” used, referring to what I would previously have called “booking.” That has some significance. I think Matt was trying to create a show where all of the performers fit together.

Bearden: I tell the audience, “You may not like everyone you see tonight, but you’ll definitely find someone that you love.” I watch a lot of open mics. People tell me, “You got to check this guy out; he’s great.” I watch the guy and I’m like, “No, that guy’s your friend and he’s awesome offstage, and you confused how awesome a friend this guy is for his ability. This guy you shit on over here is actually really funny. It’s just that you all keep putting him at the end of the open mic, and everyone’s talking over him. He actually has the better jokes.”

Blake: Punch is such a consistently good show, and Matt’s been around long enough that he knows all the pitfalls that makes shows bad. Punch isn’t overbooked, it doesn’t last too long, and he knows how to put acts next to each other so the show will go nicely.

Bearden: What Austin comedy had for years was this idea that we were against the audience. It was almost like this pride we took in alienating the audience, and then walking people: “They just don’t get us. All these audiences are dumber; we’re smarter and better than them.” I just thought, “Let’s do a show where we don’t do that.” One of the reasons I started Punch was, “Let’s put out an example of what a good, well-booked, well-run showcase would look like. Then see what the community does with it.”

Maye: Not only has it gotten great attention from comics around the country, every comic in town knows about the show and wants to be on it. Even if they’re not on the lineup, it’s a show that comics regularly love to watch.

DannyBearden: Everything I’ve done for Punch has simply just been stolen from some other show. I always try to be above board on that, because sometimes I think I get more credit than I deserve.

Coyle: Matt Bearden is the quintessential host in comedy. He’s really the standard, and so that’s one of the reasons why it is successful. He’s very good at what he does on the stage in the lounge.

Blake: Matt doesn’t want to book a show that he won’t sit through, and that’s a really good guiding principle for people booking shows. I know a lot of people are booking shows [who] don’t want to see everyone on their bill.

Bearden: I realized for a lot of people, their context with comedy was simply superstars. That’s the weird thing about stand-up. They were just like, “Well, I like Carlos Mencia, Larry the Cable Guy and Zach Galifianakis.” I’m like, “All right, basically people who’ve done movies or tons and tons of specials.” They had no other knowledge of any other comics. I think that’s why I started putting credits down, because I realized for most people, listing a bunch of names doesn’t matter.

Blake: It definitely gave a sense of community too, because he’d mention other shows in the credits. It wasn’t always a festival or something like that. Honestly when we started our showcase, we definitely ripped that straight off. We were like, “We’ll do it just like Punch did it.”

Bearden: I talked to a lot of other people who started shows, and they said, “Hey, we stole ideas from you.” I’m like, “No, I stole. We’re all sharing these ideas to make ourselves better.”

Coyle: Sometimes the headliners will pop in early, and he gets to put them on the show.

Blake: There have been so many awesome drop-ins, but something that Matt has always stressed with Punch is that his primary concern is promoting Austin people. I remember somebody who has a laundry list of TV credits stopped in and did a guest spot, but she had to follow Martin Urbano. Martin is awesome, but no one knows who the fuck Martin is outside of Austin. Martin just destroyed. He was so funny. He just annihilated, and this person just couldn’t follow him. It’s a show that puts Austin people in the thick of it, and usually they deliver. You’re not always going to get an L.A. stop-in, but if you are consistently promoting Austin talent, that’s a never-ending well.

Bearden: We’re bringing back a lot of people who only had seven minutes five or six years ago. A great example is Chris Cubas. I literally watched him develop over a year onstage, and I clearly remember the night where I thought to myself, “I can no longer have him in the middle of the show. He has to go at the end, because people can’t follow what he’s doing right now.” I feel like I’ve seen that with a lot of comics, and that feels great. What you’re going to see now is an entire scene that’s grown up and become better, and more competitive on a national scale, easily.

Coyle: There are shows all over the city, so you can’t shy away. You have to jump in there and be creative, and try to be original. It’s not a bad thing, either. You got to try different things to see what works and see what people want.

Bearden: There are somewhere between 60 and 100 new comics that have moved here in the last two years that never went on Punch. When Margie and I first started talking about doing this again, I said, “You know, Margie, we’ve had so many comics leave in the last two years. I don’t think I can actually book a whole season.” In my mind I felt that was true. Then I sat down and start booking this. The entire season of Punch is already booked. In the past, I was booking maybe two weeks out, and this one’s booked. People are excited to be on Punch again.

Punch is back tonight at Cap City Comedy Club. 

mm John Merriman

John Merriman has worked with the Moontower festival since it's inception in 2012. He is the co-host of the festival's long-running interview series "Inside Joke" where he has interviewed luminaries including Steven Wright, Maria Bamford and Patton Oswalt. Before Moontower, he spent five years at the Austin Film Fesival as a film programmer where he helped launch the Comedy Vanguard program and the Funniest Filmmaker in Austin series. He has called Austin his home since 1996.

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