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.
SB: How do you and your ColdTowne colleagues approach curating Sketch Fest?
MJ: I’m the executive producer of the festival, which means that I’m approving budgets and taking credit for other people’s work. Most of the credit should go to producers Lance Gilstrap and Nick Ramirez and associate producers Mac Blake and Sam Malcolm, who have been spearheading all the on the ground nitty-gritty work.
First on our minds is: are they funny? Not just kind of funny, but “I can’t believe I only paid $10 to see that” funny. We seek out some groups from around the country, but we also have open submissions. It’s nice to get to know people who are also clawing their way to the top— people we might not be familiar with but who do great work.
SB: Can you describe Austin’s current sketch scene compared to ColdTowne’s inception in September of 2005?
MJ: In 2005, there were maybe two local groups doing sketch comedy— the Sicks and the Plurals. Super funny groups but there just wasn’t a huge audience for them in general. I think the problem was partially that there weren’t that many alternative comedy theaters. ColdTowne deserves some of the credit for making a physical place for people interested in doing that kind of sketch to come together, meet and get regular stage time. But certainly not all the credit.
These days, there’s about ten local groups regularly doing shows, not to mention the HUMOROdy folks, whose online videos have been getting, like, half a million hits. Stag Comedy has been selling out the Alamo Drafthouse. The Hustle Show (at ColdTowne) has had lines around the block. It’s definitely more vibrant.
SB: I think one of the joys of attending any festival is the excitement of new discoveries but please provide a brief description of some of the various troupes.
MJ: Delicious Moments: Delicious Moments blew everyone’s mind last year. Definetly the show of the festival. This year they are returning with a new, sitcom-inspired show. I’ve seen it and it will be amazing.
Ghetto Sketch Warlock: GSW is Bryan Roberts. If you’re unfamiliar, Bryan is one of the funniest people/best comedy writers in Austin. The show is a combination of scenes, monologues and original songs.
The Hustle Show: This is ColdTowne’s monthly sketch comedy showcase, hosted by Mac Blake and David Jara from the Mascot Wedding Radio Show. It’s a variety show format with sketches, music and stand-up. All made by a team of some of the best talent around ColdTowne.
The P! Company: These guys have been best friends since they were 3 or something. Their chemistry is amazing. It’s like watching a nerdier version of the rat pack.
Your Terrific Neighbors: Those goofballs.
SB: The great writer/performer and Austin transplant Mary Jo Pehl is performing “One Across.” What can people expect from her show?
MJ: I’m a huge MST3K fan, so any time I get to be in the same room as Mary Jo Pehl is an honor. Her show is part tongue in cheek autobiographical, part sketch. Very funny. I caught it during the Ladies Are Funny Festival.
SB: I think most stand-up aficionados are fans of Paul F. Tompkins but can you articulate why you find Tompkins to be such a nice fit with ATXSF3?
MJ: Paul F. Tompkins, in addition to being one of the best stand ups and funniest dudes on the planet, was a writer on Mr. Show (a huge influence on most people in our age bracket doing comedy) and he appears on a billion podcasts, including sketch podcasts like Super Ego. He also has is own podcast, the Pod F. Tompkast, which highlights his sketch comedy work from his monthly show. While he’s not doing sketch at the festival, it seemed like more than a natural fit to us sketch comedy nerds. It’s really just an excuse to get to be awkward around one of my favorite comedians when I pick him up from the airport.
SB: What can you divulge about the ColdTowne Theater’s lease status and planned renovations?
MJ: We’re in the midst of some negotiations. What I can say is that after an incredibly difficult year trying to move, we have had to shift plans. We are planning on staying in our current space and we are sinking some money into improvements to the space that will expand our seating, improve the atmosphere and generally make it a more pleasant experience for the audience. I’ll be able to say more down the road for sure.
SB: Any parting thoughts?
MJ: Come see shows!