AUSTIN — One thing I love about South by Southwest this year is the broader variety of comedy events and locations the festival offers. Rather than just featuring podcast tapings and stand-up showcases, we’ve been fortunate to see a more diverse set of performances, from improv shows to panels about the practice of comedy.
Some performances, however, have been even weirder than that.
Take yesterday, for example. One of the first performances of the day was at the South by Southwest trade show, where tech and music companies shill their products – and give free shit – to passersby in hopes of landing some new clients or talent. Now, when I say products, I mean brain-shaped stress balls with company logos emblazoned on them or t-shirts that are more advertisement than clothing.
Needless to say, it provided an odd environment for a stand-up show, where performers like Brendon Walsh took the stage. His risqué material on drug use and sex toys played as well as could be expected for this crowd of business folk, but he certainly met with a stronger response later in the evening at the festival’s showcase of Austin comics.
Another highlight in the innovative comedy realm was the critically-acclaimed Set List: Stand-up without a Net. Hosted by Paul Provenza, the show invited a series of comedians onstage to perform material based on a series of absurd phrases (like “racism permit” or “in defense of pedophilia…”) projected on a screen. Here’s the catch: these comics didn’t see any of those phrases beforehand. Think of it as improvised stand-up.
Of the several comics who performed, we saw some familiar faces: Kurt Braunohler, Todd Barry, and Mike Birbiglia, all of whom have performed more traditional showcases of their material earlier in the fest. What was particularly fascinating about these performances was that each comic still drew on his or her performative style and voice to communicate material that wasn’t their own. Barry’s smooth, reserved delivery meshed with the absurdity of his task in an oddly amusing way, while Birbiglia twisted the phrases into an element of longer personal stories (his initial response to “post-Scientology cigarette” was “One time, Tom Cruise was fucking me…”).
Still others delivered the perfect one-liner to put a topic to rest. One of Nick Turner’s inspiring phrases was “smurf tragedy,” which prompted me to imagine a massacre in Smurf Village, the bodies of smurfs like Papa Smurf and Smurfette strewn haphazardly about the town. Turner’s quip, however, was succinct and unexpected: “Remember that Smurf movie?”
He’s right: that movie was a greater tragedy than anything else we could imagine.