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Austin Chronicle Summer of Laugh

By Adrienne Martini

OCTOBER 6, 1997:  It was the essay that struck fear into the heart of every young student. "How I Spent My Summer Vacation" entailed hours of drudgery, particularly for those poor innocents whose parents never took them to Disneyland, who were forced to spend hours mowing the lawn or watching their kid sister. There is no way to make that kind of mundane stuff sound exciting, particularly when you have nothing but a big, fat pencil and wide-lined paper to work with. For many years, your average Austin comedian's summer was like the go-nowhere kid's: just three months of hanging around waiting for the heat to break. But the past few months have changed all that. Funny folk from all parts of our hamlet have been busy with potentially career-boosting business, much of it in exotic lands, such as Montreal, New York City, and the lovely but underrated Rock Island, Illinois. It's like the travel-deprived child's parents suddenly won the lottery.



illustration by Robert Faires

To anyone who has been following the hype, the lottery would seem to be Austin Stories, the new MTV half-hour sitcom being produced by The Real World's George Verschoor and starring local comics-making-good Laura House, Brad "Chip the Wonder Boy" Pope, and Howard Kremer. Filmed in and around Austin, the show hopes to capture for a national audience a little local slacker slice of life, as well as to expose some of the city's hidden talent. While Austin Stories and the production team's apparent commitment to homegrown wannabe stars is important, it is not the only excitement to bubble out of Austin's comedy stew these past few months. Several local comedians and troupes made important strides this summer that were in the works long before Viacom came to town.


Jesse Pangelinan: Opening Doors

"It was an unbelievable summer, really," gushes stand-up comic Jesse Pangelinan, fresh from his summer trip to the Latino Laugh Festival in San Antonio. Sponsored by American Airlines and the Showtime cable network, the festival is the top tier Latino comedy event in this country. In June, Pangelinan was picked to perform at the fest and he says, "It was a life-changing event for me."

Not only was this festival a chance for the Austinite to see George Lopez, Edward James Olmos, and Cheech Marin in person, it gave him the chance to perform in front of a wide variety of industry suits who were scouting for new faces. And not only did the exposure help Pangelinan score several exciting gigs outside Texas -- a few in Santa Fe and one in a 1,500-seat theatre in San Diego -- he was able to get a tape of his performance in the hot, little hands of talent scouts from Carsey-Werner, the TV production company behind The Cosby Show, Roseanne, and Third Rock From the Sun, among others. His routine was also taped for Funny Is Funny, a syndicated comedy show on Showtime, which will also broadcast a special about the event with all of the big-name stars.

As if that weren't enough for one summer, in June Pangelinan debuted Midnight Blue, an adult-oriented series of shows he is producing at the Capitol City Comedy Club. While he has concentrated on writing Latino-oriented material in the past, Midnight Blue and his warm welcome in San Antonio has given Pangelinan "the chance to write material that is different and fun."

The Latino Laugh Festival may have opened a few doors for Pangelinan this summer, possibilities that may lead to bigger and better gigs. For him, "it was exhilarating, the opportunity to be involved in something that big. Not as big as the MTV kids, but national exposure."


Tom Hester: Transformations

One comic got to tackle the Big Bad Apple this summer. From all accounts, it would appear that the comic won.

"This has been one of the best summers I've had in years," says Tom Hester, who just returned from two weeks headlining at Stand-Up New York, the longest-running comedy club in the city. "The shows went great."

That's saying something. Hester should not be a stranger to good shows considering that he is a veteran of Houston's Comedy Workshop, where he learned with the likes of Brett Butler and Bill Hicks; that he's won the title of "Funniest Person in Austin" (in 1991); and that two years ago he was putting audiences in the aisles at Montreal's prestigious "Just for Laughs" Comedy Festival. But performing in New York was a new experience for the comic.

"It was a little intimidating at first, because the crowds are a little different," Hester continues. "They're very, very fast paced. You have to hold their attention, otherwise you're just another neon sign blinking past." He must have adapted well; David Letterman's "people" saw him and have begun herding Hester through their extensive audition process.

But just as network exposure as a punchline comic is within reach, Hester admits, "I've kind of become bored with stand-up." To stretch himself as a writer and performer, Hester has penned a solo show, This Is Your Wake-Up Call, about 12 characters and the paths they take to find enlightenment. The show's structure resembles that of another local comic-turned-solo show creator, Rob Nash, whose 12 Steps to a Dysfunctional Family trilogy and more recent Freshman Year Sucks! have won raves from audiences and critics, and, like Nash's work, Hester's script is loosely autobiographical. In a few weeks, Hester will travel back to New York to perform Wake-Up Call for an extended run there.

Also, Hester has submitted some spec scripts to MTM production company, for both new and existing shows, an opportunity that emerged through his recent New York stay and another indication of the direction in which Hester wants to move.

Right now, Hester is like a man trapped in a Beckett play, waiting for news on his spec scripts and for a thumbs-up from Letterman while he puts the finishing touches on This Is Your Wake-Up Call. "I'm just sweating it out," Hester says. "I'm really just waiting to see what is going to happen with the New York stuff."


Esther's Follies: A Lively Summer

This summer, the Esther's Follies folk got to take their first vacation in 20 years: one weekend off in August, which they took to make room for the Monk's Night Out Lone Star Comedy Jamboree. But this break came in the midst of a busy, busy summer, full of sold-out shows and booking of the troupe by Dell Computers and the Barton Creek Country Club.

"We were kind of surprised it was as busy as it was," says Follies general manager Nathan Garcia. "It's usually kind of dead." While it is difficult to pinpoint exactly what made this summer different for Esther's, the city's growth and the Follies' continued success certainly haven't hurt. And the buzz around Austin Stories could have spilled onto the live comedy scene, helping to boost the number of people coming through the door as well as the morale of folks who have been toiling in comedy for years. "It's always good to see your friends on TV," Garcia adds.

This month, Esther's Follies celebrates its 20th anniversary, during which it will hold a plethora of benefits for local nonprofits, including the Austin Writer's League and Cornerstone -- once they tear their eyes away from the TV, that is.


ComedySportz: Rockin' Rock Island

Les McGehee of ComedySportz is a big fan of summer, especially 1997's. "It's been wonderful, great, exciting, woo-woo," he excitedly babbles. "Summer is good. I like it."

And like it he should. The first week of August, the Austin ComedySportz team went to Rock Island, Illinois to compete against 22 other ComedySportz teams from across the country for the Meaningless Cup, an improvisational grail of sorts. The Austin team came in third, just behind second place New York and, proving that the hometown team had a decided advantage, first place Rock Island.

According to McGehee, this win "absolutely" boosts the Austin team's standing within the Comedy League of America, the national association to which the many ComedySportz franchises belong. "We just found out we are going to host the 1999 tournament right here in Austin." Even though the team's hosting status will not be made official until April, it is a tremendous shot in the arm for the team's already soaring morale.

McGehee and company also did a booming business right here in Austin. The new ComedySportz Playhouse that the troupe opened in Northcross Mall last February and the group's ancillary projects -- a traveling team, classes in the art of improv, and a defensive driving workshop -- seem to have seen a significant surge in activity this summer. "Our business has doubled or tripled since we opened the theatre, and we've taught one spectajillion people this summer," crows McGehee.

Future bookings would indicate that, while McGehee may exaggerate for the sake of pithy quotes, ComedySportz really is hot. In November, the Austin troupe will compete in the World Series of Comedy in Kansas City. Then, by the end of the year, it will produce a Christmas show called Humbug and Company, release a CD with songs by the Skinnies and Owen Edgerton, and expand the troupe by four or five members.

As for the rest of the ComedySportz summer, some team members joined the rest of the city's comedians in auditioning for Austin Stories, and McGehee hit the Latino Laugh Festival, where he performed with DeportesChistosoz, a hybrid of the San Antonio and Austin ComedySportz teams that usually does their gigs in Spanish.

"Other than that," quips McGehee, "we just swam a lot."


Monks' Night Out: Industry Inroads

The trip to Montreal was a surprise for Marc Pruter, Christie Ingram, and Joseph Anthony, three members of the local improv and sketch comedy troupe Monks' Night Out who found themselves cruising the stages of the "Just for Laughs" Comedy Festival in July. Who knew that a gig at the troupe's own comedy confab, the Big Stinkin' International Improv Festival, would lead to the Monks being the only U.S. improv group selected for this year's Canadian comedy fest?

Not Pruter, apparently. "We weren't expecting them to select us," he says. But representatives of "Just for Laughs" liked what they saw in the local company and tapped it to face off against the two Canadian and one British improv teams chosen to compete in Montreal this July. That's a lot of pressure for any comedy troupe, but, according to Pruter, "It was a very good trip."

The three Monks -- plus four other group members who made the trip but did not perform -- had the opportunity to jam with peers and meet "all of the industry people we had been trying to meet for three years in one week. We put a lot of tapes in people's hands," says Pruter. Said industry people encouraged the group to develop some shorts for Comedy Central, and clubowners expressed enough interest that the Monks are going to look seriously at organizing a national tour.

But they also learned a few lessons about the industry as well. While their specialty is long-form improv, a type of improvisation which develops its "script" in 25-30 minutes, the festival was set up for short-formers. The quick-on-their-feet trio broke up their long-form improv structure into seven-minute chunks. "It went fine," says Pruter. "The audience took really well to it. We'd never done it like that before, but we're used to rolling with change in the improv world."

Perhaps the biggest lesson they learned is that what they do essentially isn't marketable to the television industry at this point in time. Sketch comedy, à la Viva Variety or The Jenny McCarthy Show, is the hot commodity in the comedy community now. "There was a consensus that there wasn't anything they could do with improv," says Pruter, which has affected the Monks' decision to put together a tape of sketches to shop to the folks at Comedy Central, with whom they pressed the flesh in Canada.

Back home, the troupe offered a scaled-down summer version of its Big Stinkin' festival, the Monks' Night Out Lone Star Comedy Jamboree, featuring seven improv companies from around the state. And at least one ex-Monk made his mark with the Sitcom on Everybody's Lips. Monks alumnus Matt Bearden carved out a significant, recurring role in Austin Stories. Pruter thinks that Austin Stories "will do nothing but good for the comedy folk in this town."

This fall, the group is holding auditions for new Monks in order to put together a small touring company, considering the possibility of a small national tour, honing their act for their Aspen Comedy Festival audition, and, of course, starting to work on the third Big Stinkin' International Improv Festival.


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