Tag Archives: Comedy Moontower

June 16: BAM Festival Presents Trailblazing Comedian PAUL MOONEY

Comedian, writer, actor, author, and social critic Paul Mooney’s impact on contemporary stand-up comedy and sketch television cannot be overstated. Mooney’s singular point of view, his groundbreaking originality, utter fearlessness, and manifest funniness continues to directly influence generations of comics— many of whom became household names like Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock, and Dave Chappelle, which is not to mention the many names who’ve outright cribbed Mooney’s act. Yet, Paul Mooney is the perfect example for fame not being the harbinger of artistic greatness.

For many people, Mooney first landed on their radar in the Aughts from his “Negrodamus” and “Ask a Black Dude” segments on Comedy Central’s Chappelle’s Show. However, as Richard Pryor’s writer, collaborator, and best friend, Paul Mooney was the man behind the man, the brilliance behind brilliance, but always an esteemed stand-up in his own right.  Mooney has said he’s “too black for Hollywood,” but comedy-wise he’s the most relevant septuagenarian.  So it is understandable, gentle reader, if you have yet to become familiar with Mooney’s distinguished body of work— he did perform in Austin for the first time in the summer of ‘09 but it is essentially Comedy Moontower heresy to miss a rare opportunity to catch Paul Mooney live.

Mooney’s unvarnished commentary on race, politics, history, and popular culture can prove challenging for a small segment of Caucasians. For sure, his aim is to make everyone think and laugh and Mooney certainly doesn’t hold back on black-on-black criticism, however his insight still has the power to make some white folks get utterly batshit infuriated. Being able to witness Mooney perform (usually closing) the Comedy Store on a near-nightly basis for over two years is one of my great joys, along with telling the (mostly Orange County) walkouts “No Refunds.” These were people (with “the complexion for protection”) who never ever once considered why white nostalgia doesn’t truck with African-Americans (especially those who lived under Jim Crow laws). How dare Mooney not revel in the beloved Back to the Future movie and not think that the ‘50s were anything but neat-o? Can you imagine why The Help could seem, at best, quaint, in the 21st Century? Part of Mooney’s genius is riffing on current events, one of the reasons comedians always stuck around or came for his set, and I’ll never forget the night Mooney had the Store’s OR room absolutely howling by mercilessly mocking Disney’s just-released “The Adventures of Huck Finn.” This is not to say Mooney has no respect for Mark Twain (he calls Pryor “Dark Twain”), but he took great umbrage with the Disney-ification of slavery. I couldn’t possibly do his routine justice but let’s just say Mooney envisioned Jim as not being particularly fond of Huck, whom Mooney imagined falling off the raft and drowning… to Jim’s great delight. Just Jim’s feigned rescue attempt with the sunny-side line, “But I got his shoe, boss,” still makes me beam.  Mooney tells jokes and trades in satire. No one with a modicum of purity in his or her heart should feel “attacked” during a Paul Mooney performance.   Continue reading

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The 3rd Annual Austin Sketch Fest runs May 23 – 27. Q&A with ColdTowne’s Michael Jastroch

For more information: visit atxsketchfest [dot] com

The third annual Austin Sketch Fest is upon us, and Comedy Moontower was fortunate to check-in via email with the extremely busy Michael Jastroch, Executive Director of the ColdTowne Theater, which produces the festival.  In addition to ColdTowne, shows will also be performed at the Hyde Park Theater and the 29th Street Ballroom. The ATXSF is the little festival that can and does and for Austin comedy fans, it is turning into a jubilant holiday staycation tradition (yeah, you hoid me: f-in “jubilant,” I says) and a rising triumph for showcasing some of the funniest and most promising sketch comedy purveyors. As beloved as household troupes are like Monty Python, The Not Ready For Prime Time Players, Kids in the Hall, Mr. Show, and Upright Citizen’s Brigade, experiencing live sketch comedy still isn’t on the entertainment/arts radar for a lot of folks. But fair warning you laughter fiends, you fuckers, you screwheads, jackanapes, lollygaggers, noodleheads, you Johnny-come-latelies, you Sally-cum-nevers, you crazy diamond and huddled masses: the Austin Sketch Fest is here!

Steve Birmingham: Congratulations on the Austin Sketch Fest’s third year! How do you see the festival having evolved and/or refined its mission?

Michael Jastroch: Thanks, man. It ain’t easy building something like this up from the grass roots. It takes a lot of elbow grease, knuckle grease… a whole lot of grease.

When we started the festival, there was this huge vibrant stand up scene and this huge vibrant improv scene— both of which were getting a lot of national attention. There was this small, extremely talented pool of people doing sketch comedy— or scripted comedy in general— in town, and they didn’t know each other. Didn’t hang out. Didn’t collaborate. And their shows weren’t really pulling in the same audiences numbers, but the content was just as good.

If I’ve learned anything from being in Austin, it’s that creating a relatively open creative atmosphere allows everyone to flourish. A rising tide lifts all boats. Even during a drought.

That’s why we started the festival— to get people from different theaters and in different sketch groups talking to each other. That’s our primary mission: to do for the Austin sketch comedy scene what the Funniest Person in Austin contest and Moontower have done for stand-up and what the Out of Bounds Festival has done for improv.

As we go on and more local sketch comedy groups start to come together, we’ll continue to be as inclusive as quality controls allow. Obviously, it’d be counter productive to be pumping up sketch only to have the audiences leave with a bitter taste in their mouth.

From a national perspective, as we go on, we’ll be looking to bring in more and more headliners. We’re trying to grow that aspect responsibly. We don’t want to lose our shirts— we don’t even have shirts to lose. That’s how broke we are. We want to build a solid reputation and grow this gradually. We’re bringing in Paul F. Tompkins this year. Next year, we’ll be reaching out to some larger groups.   Continue reading

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Happy Birthday Don Rickles

Today, Don Rickles turns 86 years old but not that Comedy Moontower needs a specific reason to toast this American original. When I was a tyke, I thought Don Rickles was one of the meanest men around but I was still captivated by his fearlessness and put-downs. My older brother Fun Bobby (or “Rob” as he was known at that time) hipped me to the reality that professional rassling wasn’t real and that Don Rickles was doing shtick. I immediately lost interest in the antics of Da Crusher, Jesse “The Body” Ventura, and the High Flyers (Greg Gagne & Jumpin’ Jimmy Brunzell), and I became all the more enthralled by Rickles’ act (which, as far as I could tell, seemed to be primarily improvised on the spot) and by his ability to elicit laughs from audiences instead of having the crowd brandish pitchforks and torches. It always made my week anytime Don Rickles appeared on The Tonight Show or a celebrity roast. Despite my total appreciation for the man and his talent, I only first saw him perform live on December 30th, 2007, at the Mystic Lake Casino’s new showroom in Prior Lake, Minnesota. I lucked into second row center seats and the seats in front stayed unoccupied. For stand-up geeks, getting goofed on by Don Rickles is akin to a baptism. The woman I was dating at the time was Chinese-American and despite her rad taste in rock-n-roll and film, she somehow managed to be totally unfamiliar with Don Rickles (freaky, right?). Midway through the show, Mr. Rickles asked me, “Hey pal, is that your wife?”

“No,” I replied as cheerily as one syllable can sound.

“Your girlfriend?” he queried.

“My date,” I said because we weren’t bf/gf yet. And while making that famous pout-n-nod, Don Rickles proclaimed to me, “Well, I’m sure your parents are real proud.” Half of the couple in Row B, Seats 58 & 60 was beaming but by the end of the show, Julie was a freshly christened Rickles fan.

In late November 2009, I had the great fortune to conduct a phone interview with Mr. Rickles for the Austin Chronicle in advance of his December 10th & 11th Paramount Theatre appearances. Below is a short excerpt of that conversation (someday I will transcribe the whole exchange because it was rather illuminating if you’re also a fan or simply carbon-based). As you likely have heard by now, Don Rickles is one of the nicest guys in showbiz and his entire consortium is a lesson in pure class. Please forgive the any implication of braggadocio, but Don (as he later asked that I call him) gave me my highest professional accolade by graciously thanking me for “being such a well-informed guy to do so much homework about me. It’s really a pleasure to talk to you because not many guys are on top of things like you are— about who they talk to, and I really appreciate that… If you come to the show, come back and say hello.” So before his first show, Don’s ace tour manager Tony O (formerly Frank Sinatra’s confidant), arranged time for us to have a little visit. This would be an instance where meeting one of your heroes is entirely uplifting. Since it was a private encounter, I have yet to recount the things Don said (other than asking me to call him Don instead of Mr. Rickles) or repeat the amazing words he inscribed in my copy of his autobiography, Rickles’ Book. I do know he and Tony O gave me extra face time because I was with a beautiful woman. I know this because they said so. Before shoving off, I gave him some Austin T-shirts for his grandkids. The show was hilarious and reminded me how much I dig hearing big bands live. I still get a laugh when I think of the “Wanna party?” offer Don made to an elderly woman in a wheelchair after she revealed her age. And to my utter disbelief and pleasure, at the end of his show, Don Rickles thanked me from the stage and rolled his eyes saying that I had brought him some T-shirts. Twice goofed— I’m still over the moon. Thank you and Happy Birthday Mr. Warmth!

Steve Birmingham: Mr. Rickles. It’s hard to imagine such a fearless performer as you as a shy kid but that was the case, huh?

Don Rickles: Well Steve if you investigate you’ll find out that most actors and actresses when they were kids were very shy. It seems to be the trend and that’s why most of them become outgoing after they get older. And yeah, I was a shy kid like a lot of others but it wasn’t so unusual in those days. I had a very strong mother who was very influential in keeping me going and wanting to be a performer.

SB: I found a newspaper ad for the Wayne Room strip joint in D.C. from January of 1954 boasting the 22nd consecutive week of Don “Glass-Head” Rickles. Was it at the Wayne Room in D.C. or the Elegante in Brooklyn where you felt you’d developed your voice?

DR: The Wayne Room was a joint in those days with a lot of striptease girls (and those striptease girls are like dressed compared to today), and I was the comedian in-between their dancing and so forth. That was a good training ground and helped me develop my style of talking to people and being sarcastic, as I am, and never mean-spirited. It was like a base camp for me to learn a lot of what I do, and then I went on to the Elegante and the guy [Joe Scandore] became my manager for forty years and he and I became great friends, and I worked a great deal of time in the Elegante in Brooklyn. After the Wayne Room days it had really developed into a performance.

SB: When you discovered your style, I’m curious if you also had the sense that your act would remain timeless? Your shows are still just as hilarious as ever and the fact that you have such a cross-generational and diverse audience speaks to that, I think.

DR: Well thanks Steve, I’m glad you realized that. Did you ever see my documentary?

SB: I did. I love Mr. Warmth and it definitely deserved those two Emmys.

DR: Ah thanks, I appreciate that. If you get a chance read the book, Rickles’ Book.

SB: I did, it’s fantastic.

DR: My god, we don’t even have to talk.

SB: [Laughs] Once you had found your style, did you also have a sense that it would be a timeless type of style?

DR: I had a lot of rejection in my beginning because it was different and I always say to other young people, “If you want to be successful in this business you have to be different and the people have to like you personally and you can’t be mean-spirited.” I never had a writer; I just used my own personality and started talking to the people and then talking about everything and exaggerating everything around me and little by little (who knew if it’d be timeless) but I knew that when they came to see me that the shows were always different because of what I was talking about. I always have a beginning, middle, and ending but it always changes somewhat every night.

SB: How do you feel about the “insult comic” label that you got tagged with?

DR:  I overcame that. It used to bother me in my younger years because it always sounded like some mean-spirited guy, which I certainly wasn’t. But it was a great thing for me that I overcame that image of the insult guy who’s mean or something, and Johnny Carson named me “Mr. Warmth,” and that’s what I’ve been using for years now. And it really is all about me. In other words, it’s a joke when I say “Mr. Warmth,” but the idea is that I’m never mean and I give everybody a fair shake, that they don’t walk out saying, “This guy’s a real Mafia,” or something. And again Steve, you know when you’re different you can’t please everybody. Bob Hope, rest his soul, was a great comedian but maybe there’s a guy in Iowa who didn’t like Bob Hope not because he wasn’t funny but they don’t like his personality. The same with Don Rickles. You can’t please everybody but the idea is to get 90% in your corner.

SB: The thing that really blew me away from your memoir involved your friendship with astronaut Gene Cernan and the last manned moon landing, Apollo 17.

DR: I went down to where the astronauts were; a friend introduced me to a lot of those guys, and somehow Gene and I connected. And [laughs] the funny part, he came to L.A.  to visit us, and we were going to have dinner one night and a had a Rolls Royce in those days, and I couldn’t get it started and I said, “Gene, can you get this thing going?” And he lifted up the hood, and he futzed around with it for about 10 minutes, and he said, “Gee Don, I can’t fix it.” And I said: “You know, you’re a joke. You can go to the moon but you can’t fix a Rolls Royce.” Of course, I made a big joke out of that. But he became very wonderful to me, and in fact he took the tape that I made with him to the moon. It wasn’t a tape you’d show to your grandma or your mother; it was strictly a stag kind of thing for those guys in the capsule— kind of personal and funny, and they loved it. And I was very happy to be able to do it.

SB:  That’s historic! I don’t know if any other comedian can boast slaying an audience on another celestial body.

DR: I don’t either.

SB: Two things about your friendship with Frank Sinatra really struck me: his unyielding loyal support for you and also how much he enjoyed practical jokes. Could you share one of your favorite memories of Mr. Sinatra?

DR:  Well the most outstanding thing was Ronald Reagan, rest his soul, was going to be inaugurated for the second time in Washington, and I was in Hawaii with my wife, and Frank called up and said, “Don, get packed and get to Washington. You’re going to be on the show with me for the inaugural of Ronald Reagan.” I said: “Oh, come on Frank. They’re not going to listen to me with my kind of style of humor. They’ll be a wreck.” [Sinatra said,] “No no no, I went to the Cabinet and they said, ‘No, we can’t have Rickles, we don’t know what he’s going to do’” And he said, “Well, if you don’t have Rickles, you don’t have me.” And that was the truth because of his loyalty to me. And sure enough, I came to Washington and they said, “What are you going to do Mr. Rickles?” And I said, “I don’t know. I get out there and do it.” And they were a basket case about that, but they accepted it, and I went out and did one of my best shows for the President. You can see in a little bit about it in my Mr. Warmth project, and it turned out to be just great.

SB: Jewish-American’s constitute only about 2.5% of the U.S population yet it seems like almost a majority of the comedy greats are Jewish. Why do you think this is?

DR: I don’t know, maybe God figured, “Gotta give them some sort of job.”

SB: You ran with giants like the Rat Pack and Johnny Carson and have met everyone of note from your half century plus in show business. Are there days when you feel a bit like The Last of the Mohicans?

DR:  Well, I look around and say, “How many guys at my age, 83, are headlining in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, and all over the country you know?” I go by that and doing well; that makes me very proud. But then again it makes me a little sad that so many of my colleagues have gone on to… who knows, better things.

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Chris Trew and the New Capital of Funny

Comedian, rapper, improv prodigy, and New Movement Theater impresario Chris Trew gives a brief history of how Austin, Texas, came to be Hilarity’s HQ. Trew (along with his TNM cohorts) founded the Hell Yes Fest in 2011 and the Moontower Comedy and Oddity Festival was — and still very much is– pleased as Punch and Judy (so many peeps are only 50% pleased, right Tami?) that Trew folded in the Hell Yes Players, his artistic vision, and hijinks and gave Moontower a steady stream of amazing improvisational comedy. Austinites are well advised to catch a show at TNM’s new digs year-round at 616 Lavaca Street (and free citizens of New Orleans and Houston should also (re)familiarize themselves with the glory of a New Movement show). Moontower has packed up until next year but the Funny is all around town and ready to course through you like an Ensure (note to self: fact check whether Ensure “courses” and if this simile plays as “nourishing” or if it reads “grody” either to the maximum or even a minimum).

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View from Moontower: Nick Offerman

Megan Mullally at the historic Paramount Theatre. April 26, 2012 [photo by Marc Brown].

Stephanie Hunt [photo by Marc Brown]

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View from Moontower: Inside Joke

Kerri Lendo [photo by Marc Brown]

John Merriman [photo by Marc Brown]

Austin-based comedian Kerri Lendo and actor/filmmaker/funnyman John Merriman hosted the marvelous Moontower “Inside Joke” video segments that were produced by Picturebox productions. Comedy Moontower witnessed several top name comedians altar their schedules to appear on “Inside Joke,” which would not likely have been the case if the clips weren’t so well produced, if “Inside Joke” didn’t have such an apparent purity of motive, and if Kerri and John weren’t such delightful hosts and splendid ambassadors. UPDATE: Comedy Moontower has learned from a source familiar with negotiations that “Inside Joke” has an offer from sole sponsor Monsanto to produce a weekly program for San Antonio-based Clear Channel Communications “just like ‘Inside Joke’ but shittier.” UPDATE II: Apparently “Inside Joke” has hit a bump on the fast track to watered down corporate infotainment. Merriman is quoted in Teen Zine USA as saying, “I am honored by Monsanto’s faith in the show and excited about their “Ruining The Planet: One Meal at a Time” campaign but Kerri and I feel that their insistence of Carlos Mencia’s participation would disrupt our on camera chemistry.” Stay tuned but it seems that, for now, “Inside Joke” will remain DIY and “good.”

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View from Moontower: Theme Park

L-R: Laraine Newman, Janet Varney, Cole Stratton, Oscar Nuñez [photos by Jack Plunkett]

L-R: Oscar Nuñez, Jessica Makinson, Janet Varney

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View from Moontower: Wanda Sykes

Keith Robinson featuring at the historic Paramount Theatre in Austin, TX. 4/28/12.

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