There’s something so undeniably charming about a festival that boasts the top-tier talent from across the comedy world, but is wholeheartedly welcoming and pleasant on just about every level. Here’s a look at three glorious, laugh-filled days.
Moontower At The J
A kind of soft-kickoff for the festival, held up north at the JCC Community Hall, a Jewish community center miles away from the epicenter of the festival downtown, Moontower attendees and JCC members alike were able to get a head-start on a weekend full of comedy.
Hosted by local comic Matt Sadler, who riffed on a sort of Dana Gould-esque routine on the quips of life in Austin, TX, he set the stage for a warm and welcoming opening night.
Wendy Liebman delivered her trademark, pun-filled quips, the kind of punchline-as-an-afterthought delivery. While her humor was on point, there was a sort of muted sensibility to her set — something even she sort-of admitted was tailored to the crowd.
On the other hand, the Sklar Brothers’ trademark humor, complete with their razor-sharp overlapping delivery, seemed to lend itself perfect to the crowd. Moontower veterans, the two comics wandered the stage, rattling off line after line about the quips of what it’s like to in Austin with a warm familiarity.
Guys We F*cked
Known as an anti-slut-shaming podcast, Corinne Fisher and Krystyna Hutchinson brought their unique and painfully funny take on empowerment to the stage. Their time on stage alternated between audience-involved podcast bits, and their individual standup sets.
While their standup sets were rock-solid, the real laughs came from their podcast routines, with each one outdoing the one that proceeded it. From solving relationship problems as quickly as possible, prank-calling men who’d ghosted women, to their own take on The Dating Game, their set was impeccable, timely, and all-out hilarious.
Jay Pharoah is quickly becoming one of the most recognizable name in stand-up comedy today. With his meteoric rise, it’s impossible not to mention his abrupt firing from SNL last season. Along with fellow castmate Taran Killam, Pharoah seemed like an irreplaceable member of the late-night ensemble. He’d recently given an interview where he explained that he felt he was let go for not wanting his arsenal of spot-on impressions to dominate his screen-time.
It’s a reasonable complaint, though Pharoah’s standup still relies heavily on these impressions — and for good reason. He’s very good at them. Taking the stage just after 10 pm, Pharoah started the set with a brief memorial to his mentor Charlie Murphy, who had died unexpectedly just the week prior. From there, he bounced back and forth from his trademark impressions, situational humor, and cultural obligations. For the first hour of his set, he was razor-sharp, delivering the kind of standup set you’d expect from a comic quickly headed for superstardom.
His momentum wained a little bit during the last 30 minutes. Rumor had it he’d gone over his time, and while he was clearly excited to headline a packed theater at a comedy festival, his material seemed to detour into a lot of workshopping. He ran through another Charlie Murphy tribute, did a word-for-word replay of the Sexual Chocolate scene from Coming To America, talked about meeting Eddie Murphy, and freestyled some of his own hip-hop lyrics.
On one hand, watching a young comic just shy of the stratosphere work through unshaped material in was incredibly insightful. However, the fact that it came after a full hour of fine-tuned material seemed to lose the crowd, who started to trickle out near the end.
Lovett Or Leave It
Another podcast taping, this time headed up by Jon Lovett, a former speechwriter for Barack Obama and co-host of Pod Save America. This politically-minded set started off as a roundtable talk show, with guests Aparna Nancherla, Guy Branum, and Hari Kondobalu (who showed up late thanks to some travel delays).
Together, the four riffed on the political strife of today, focusing heavy on GOP’s disaster of a healthcare bill (which was taped prior to the House passing the AHCA), as well as the power of public protest and pressure, leading to the exit of politicians like House Oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz — who Nancherla described as a “bro,” adding that “when the party’s over, the bros leave.”
The second half was dedicated to a one-on-one interview with Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke, a former punk-rocker from El Paso who’s currently gunning for Ted Cruz’s seat. Like Lovett, O’Rourke wears his political party on his sleeve, but is capable of having a rational discussion with bipartisan appeal.
As Lovett himself said “you totally sound like a human being,” and was a welcome dose of rational approaches to common problems that could not only appeal to independents, but reach across the aisle to those who are dedicated to actually solving the problems of today, instead of just mindless grandstanding and endless, garbling rhetoric.
You can subscribe to Lovett or Leave It here — and again, you totally should.
I’ve been a fan of Brian Posehn for more than 20 years, and having never seen his standup routine, I went in with high expectations. And I can honestly say that he all-but exceeded them. A veteran comic and actor, Posehn’s routine was polished, relatable, and wholly conversational.
It helped that his interests intersected with mine, from recalling his tear-filled viewing of The Force Awakens, the state of pro-wrestlers who peaked in the 80s, and the liberal bubble of life in Austin. Though it wasn’t just these commonalities that made his humor appealing. His musings about the tribulations of becoming a father late in life, and the struggle of keeping marriage interesting after more than 20 years were also filled with numerous laugh-out-loud moments.
In short, Posehn was nothing short of a seasoned pro, causally delivering an expert stand-up set to a small but adoring crowd — one which he seemed to genuinely appreciate as a man who’s been able to make a living being funny for so many years.
Probably the showcase I was most looking forward to, the all-female comic super-bill, aside from MC Guy Branum, also had no trouble living up to expectations. From SNL’s Melissa Villanueva, Baskets’ Martha Kelly, and Silicon Valley’s Alice Wetterlund (just to name a few), the 10-minute sets made for a non-stop laugh riot with some of the best female comics in the industry.
It’s one of the upsides to a festival that focuses on comedy and not, say, bands, which involves a 10-minute turnaround time (at least) between sets. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but having what’s effectively a revolving door of hilarity made for quality, non-stop entertainment, and played heavily to the strength of the Moontower Festival.
A side note: it was interesting to see comics like Wendy Liebman deliver not just truncated versions of their sets I’d seen days earlier, but tailored to a more raucous crowd that was more welcoming of things going a little blue.
Ralphie May’s Midnight Madness
Possibly the best way to end my personal Moontower experience (I had a family obligation that prevented me from attending any of Saturday’s shenanigans — to my personal lament) was a barrage of untethered comedy hosted by none other than Ralphie May.
While May himself ran a little long in his intro, which no one was complaining about, in his southern drawl he set up the crowd for what he called a decidedly “un-P.C.” night of entertainment. What was surprising then was how he proceeded to tell a story at another show where he confronted a member of Trump’s administration, ostracizing them for their xenophobic attitude toward others.
It was a pleasant reminder that concepts like political correctness don’t necessarily intersect with tolerance, and vice versa.
As much as I was thoroughly enjoying the lineup, I learned that nine hours of uninterrupted standup really starts to mess with your brain, as I was having trouble registering faces and even started some mild hallucinations.
In short, The Moontower Festival is a crown jewel in Austin’s event-laden crown. A thoroughly enjoyable, and ultimately welcoming experience, where everyone from local comics to big-time names like Patton Oswalt (whose set was on Saturday) get their turns at the microphone.
For as many great things as I did get to see, there was so much more I didn’t get to — which is a testament to how much Moontower really offers in such a short window of time. While it may be overshadowed by more publicized events like SXSW or ACL, Moontower remains an accessible, enjoyable, and all-around great time that more people should consider attending.
Keep Austin laughing.
All photos courtesy of the Moontower Comedy Festival