The ‘Funniest Person in Austin’ contest turned 30 last year and Funniest, a new documentary featuring several Moontower favorites, world premieres at the Austin Film Festival this weekend. I reached out to directors Dustin Svehlak and Katie Pengra who spoke with me about the film’s genesis, the challenges associated with documenting a comedy contest with over 200 contestants and how a betting pool helped them pick the subjects.
How did this documentary come to be?
Dustin: I’d been the main videographer for the contest for about three years by the time I had the idea. I already had so much b-roll footage of the contest and I watched [the contest] play out in this perfectly constructed narrative. At the time I thought it would be really easy to make a documentary of it. Then about that same time, Katie was in graduate school and made a short film following two comics, Terrence McDavid and Maggie Maye. It got her and I talking about about doing a full length doc and following people throughout the entire contest. That was the impetus. Both those events came together real nicely for us and that was it.
Katie: I was getting my graduate degree in a digital media program at Texas State, San Marcos and I had to make a thesis project and so I decided to do a short documentary. I was super interested in following some comics in the contest, just kind of what our full length documentary ended up being, but it was just me so I had to do it on a super small scale. I just chose two comics, followed them each for one night and then put together a little ten minute attempt at my first ever documentary. It’s not exactly Oscar winning, but it made me even more interested in exploring the concept further. Like Dustin said, we both kind of started talking about it from that point and slowly started making a movie.
For those unfamiliar with the Funniest Person in Austin contest, can you tell us a bit about it?
Dustin: Over 220 people a year enter the contest at this point. I think the year that we filmed had maybe the most that had ever entered. The contest lasts 7 weeks and there are 19 different actual shows. So it’s a pretty significant thing and a pretty exhausting thing from both a comic’s perspective and a fan perspective. It’s so long and there’s so much going on. It’s hard to keep up, but it’s very entertaining to say the least.
You did a great job of selecting your subjects. Can you talk to me just a little bit about how you decided who you were going to follow and maybe a little bit about that process of selection?
Katie: We started just by making a list with a couple different criteria on it. We wanted A) people who we thought had a really good chance of making the finals or winning, B) people who had a really rich and interesting personal life and personal story and would allow us to be a part of that for a few months and C) we really wanted to showcase the Austin comedy scene and all of the kinds of people that it represents. We wanted to make sure that we had a really diverse cast of characters and ones that really helped showcase all of the talent and the kind of people that are performing comedy in Austin right now.
Sadly one of the comics that you follow passed away. Can you talk a little bit about Montgomery Wayne Seitz?
Dustin: I think the big thing about Monty was the film basically opens with him and I think it’s a great introduction to the scene. Thanks to Monty we have tons of shows every night now. They may be open mics, but they’re still entertaining and it’s giving comics a lot of stage time. I think that’s the biggest thing for me is, I don’t think any of us really understood his impact until he was gone and hopefully we capture a little bit of that. Of him doing guerilla comedy and stuff in the scene and how that’s still going on to some extent.
Katie: I was just going to say we had finished filming with him like literally a week or two before he passed away and it was very unexpected. He was such a sweet, gregarious guy and I’m super super grateful that he is a part of our film and that his family is still being super supportive and are happy that their dad was involved with it. Hopefully it will be kind of a nice love letter to leave them with.
One of the ways that I think the documentary succeeds is that you really feel an intimacy in the interviews. I think a lot of that comes from you guys having an inside track and knowing so many of the players for so many years. Everyone has a real easy back and forth with the camera and with you guys.
Dustin: It definitely helped for us to know everybody so well and case in point with [Matt] Bearden. I think he actually was the last interview that we taped and the reason was because we knew he was an encyclopedia of the scene and the history. He would be a good person to fill in any narrative gaps that we had and he absolutely did that. It was never planned to have him bookend the film with statements, but while we were doing the interview, I remember sitting there going “That’s the beginning and that’s the end of the whole thing.” Knowing these folks before we went in, knowing who the good people to talk to in the scene were really gave us an advantage. If you think about it in a way, we’ve been making this thing for 5 years because of how embedded we are in the scene with me taping and Katie performing and everything. We had a ton of background to come in and make it what it is.
That really shows I think, when you watch the film. What were some of the surprises you encountered? Either through the filming or just things that might’ve happened that affected the course of the documentary?
Katie: We didn’t really have too many things necessarily pop up during filming. I will say some of the narrative scenes that we ended teasing out of it, we weren’t necessarily expecting. We didn’t really know what our thesis of the movie was. We were just kind of following our comic friends around got to kind of figure it out as we went along. I think that some of the main through lines that came out, we weren’t necessarily expecting. We know for example that a woman hadn’t won the funniest person in Austin contest for 16 years, since Martha Kelly in 2000. We also knew that no African-American had ever won the contest.
Which is crazy.
Katie: Yeah absolutely. Also that there seemed to be a propensity for straight white males with beards to win. These are the kind of things that ended up kind of getting explored and turned over and over and over again and ended up being through lines of the film. We weren’t going into this trying to make any big social commentary, but those are kind of the things that ended up rising to the surface with it which we thought was pretty cool and interesting.
And amazingly, one of the people you picked to follow, won the contest.
Dustin: Earlier, Katie mentioned our criteria. One other criteria that she didn’t mention is, we also had some statistical data, through nefarious means perhaps. Everybody bets on the contest. It could be on one night or in the case of the information we had, it was the raw data from an entire betting pool with all of the comics from the scene that wanted to be involved. We had the information from the 2014 contest, which Cody Hustak won and he was definitely at the top of the list, but just below him was Danny [Palumbo] and then just below Danny was Lashonda [Lester]. It made perfect sense for us to follow those guys.
Danny has an interesting story as well. I think the big thing that I keep hearing from people that have seen the film is, “I had no idea that people have to have another job when they do comedy.” It’s very much demonstrated in the film. Like, yeah this dude has to go and wait tables, he can’t just make his living off the jokes he has. He’s getting there but yeah I’m grateful we had him for that.
You guys did a fantastic job of capturing the scene. It really is a love letter to Austin comedy. Anything else that you guys are working on? Has this kind of whet your appetite for more filmmaking or are you just ready to take a break for a long time?
Dustin: I think we’re definitely ready to enjoy the screening at the film festival and see what comes from that. We both have a couple of different projects in the pipeline. I just shot a pilot with Joe Barlow and Larissa Cartwright from ATX Uncensored[ish], so working on that and just a couple of other things here and there.
Katie: I’m getting married a month from today actually, so I’ve been planning that. I’m also gearing up to start applying to veterinary school. I will always do comedy, and I will always work with Dustin and always work on projects, but I think right now were mostly just really excited to have people see this movie that we spent so much time making, that no one has really seen yet.
Funniest screens Sunday, October 16th at 9:15pm at the Rollins Theater and Wednesday, October 19th at 9:30 at the Stateside at the Paramount. More details are available at www.austinfilmfestival.com