Austin — On the final night of the Moontower Comedy & Oddity Festival, we went looking for the oddity part. The offbeat beat has long been my passion and there were plenty of weird and odd stand-up acts at Moontower, including Brent Weinbach, Daniel Webb, and the Sklar Brothers. There was also a giant chicken running around. Not sure what that was about. May be an Austin thing.
Certainly very Austin weird was on view at the PongRock Smack Down that took over the Stateside on Saturday afternoon. The Sklar Brothers dispensed commentary on the ping-pong competition and interviewed each round’s losers. Ari Shaffir made it to the final-four round, playing with his shirt off to intimidate the opposition (not) and eventually taking his pants off, too. Free booze was provided, but I guess you knew that.
The festival’s chief oddity was a seven-foot tall, morose, operatic clown called Puddles. He belted out numbers and interacted with the willing and not so willing. Appearing on stages, in bars and on the street, together with his diminutive and disturbing sidekick MonkeyZuma they are known as Puddle's Pity Party. Some found him hilarious; others deemed him obtuse. We never managed to catch any of their appearances. But Dana Gould did, in a club with Arden Myrin, and described Puddles as terrifying.
Puddles’ cover of Lorde’s “Royals” has gotten over seven million views:
A more approachable version of Moontower oddity was the The Justin Willman Show featuring Bushwalla at the Hideout Theater on Saturday night. Willman brought the magic; Bushwalla provided the music and mischief. This was old-fashioned, close-up, misdirection magic, but done without traditional magician pretense or costume spangles.
Willman presented a good patter to the act, polished to distractable shiny-object brightness as a game-show host for Cupcake Wars on the Food Network. He’s a very likeable guy and you wanted to play along. Random suggestions from the audience were gathered, a sealed box opened, and all those suggestions would be written on paper inside. A banana was mashed up, folded into a napkin, and made to disappear. A bowling ball seemed to manifest instantly in the air and dropped to the floor with a thud. To conclude, numbers such as birthdates were compiled and added up to reveal that exact moment’s date and time. How the holy heck does he do all that!
While those tricks and illusions were flashy enough, Willman took the art of jacking with people’s perceptions a step beyond. He did a trick where a playing card seemed to get inserted inside a balloon. He then showed how it was done, a technique called palming. Then he actually did get that card inside the balloon. Or appeared to. You just never know.
Sure, a few inside magic props like reformulating string and magnets might be needed to pull a few tricks off. Doesn’t lessen a thing. Willman took his comedy and magic act into Moontower nightclubs where he had no control over stage and lighting. It required extreme dexterity and deftness on your feet to make it all look easy. An uncanny ability to manipulate common perception fallacies is essential, just as stand-ups manipulate ingrained thinking patterns. We’re predictable beasts. That’s why we’re easy to entertain.
Willman blows Jay Leno’s mind on The Tonight Show:
Providing a soundtrack to the magic, and serving as comic foil to Willman, was the impishly tuneful Bushwalla. Sort of a troubadour-jester played by Billy Galewood, he’s here to say what’s on your mind for you. Backing himself on keys and guitar, his music mashed folk, pop and hip-hop. It was Fallonesque in its silliness, with asides, one-liners and audience riffing that stretched a simple song into a minor epic.
A regular performer in Austin and Dallas, Bob Khosravi has a storyteller’s softness that drew you in. He led with material on his Middle East appearance, noting that no one wants to steal his backpack. He observed that Jews and Muslims were forbidden to eat bacon and perhaps that’s where the problem lay. What if they gave in to the porcine allure? “It’s way too delicious to be evil. What else could we be wrong about?”
Improv is where weird and odd thrives. Much too quietly inset into Moontower was the all-improv Hell Yes Fest, curated by Chris Trew, co-founder of The New Movement Austin where the events were held. TMN Austin’s fave groups—AC Lerok, Handbomb, Opposites and Waterpark—held down the performances. Austin’s elusive Girls, Girls, Girls musical improv group made an appearance.
But it’s the outside guests that made the Hell Yes Fest an official Big Deal. Trew brought in Apollo from The Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in New York City and HMS Death from California. Groups from The New Movement New Orleans included Dean’s List and Super Computer. Rich Talarico of Los Angeles, who is one-third of Dasariski and a staff writer for Comedy Central's Key and Peele, came in for a special appearance with Trew and Vanessa Gonzalez, and to be subjected to The Megaphone Show.
TNM Talks, a live parody of TED Talks, seemed like a fantastically weird idea, but like most of Hell Yes Fest was well below Moontower radar. We visited The New Movement early Saturday night. The crowd was very small and the vibe extremely low key. Perhaps it was too early and the regulars were tuckered from workshops all day with out-of-town guests.
Improv events and centers often get tripped up by their insular tendencies. Those not in the improv circles can feel like outsiders and stand-up fans can be slow to understand the form. A festival like Moontower presents a tremendous challenge for improv to be noticed amid the stand-up rabble, and an equal opportunity for improv to break out of its clubhouse. Perhaps it should also be blended into the club lineups. Austin’s strong respect-the-performer ethic makes it one of the few cities that could pull it off.
» Our chief comedy critic Amy Martin is at Moontower Comedy Festival this week. Keep watching TheaterJones for interviews, reports, reviews and more.