The moon towers of Austin are the last of their kind in the world. Purchased secondhand from the city of Detroit in 1894, the towers were designed for no more threatening a purpose than to illuminate the city– an early example of nighttime municipal electricity. But when they first arrived at the turn of the 19th century, the result was public panic.
“The citizens were so concerned that it was going to be disruptive,” says Jim Ritts, six year Austinite. “The roosters wouldn’t know when to crow, the chickens were going to lay eggs 24 hours a day, and it was going to wreak chaos.”
But what Ritts is hinting at here goes well beyond the scope of ruffled feathers, both for humans and their befuddled livestock. And Ritts himself is no mere citizen observer – indeed, as the CEO of both Austin’s Moontower Comedy & Oddity Festival, as well as sister organization the Austin Theatre Alliance, Ritts knows a little something about disturbing the peace. “Of course, we liked the notion that they created a little chaos with those moon towers 100 years before. We thought, well, our role, too, is to be disruptive and to create a little chaos in the city of Austin.”
The “we” in question are Ritts and his powerhouse team, and the chaos they’ve set out to ignite is the above mentioned Moontower comedy festival running from April 23-26. Now in its third year, Moontower is rapidly becoming a must-stop destination for comedy A-listers all over the industry. And it’s not hard to see why: despite its relative youth, the festival has already garnered a reputation for being well-organized and extremely accommodating, to both the talent and patrons in equal measure. No less a person than Marc Maron even sang praises of the fest in its first year, while performing a live taping of his podcast WTF.
According to Jim (Ritts, not Belushi), the secret to Moontower’s unprecedented success comes largely from the Austin comedy community, and indeed the city itself. As the home base to longer running festivals like South By Southwest and Austin City Limits, Austin provides a vibrant urban backdrop that has long been, in Ritts’ own estimation, very supportive of live performance. “When you’re conducting a festival like this, you have to choose a place that people will want to come back to. We know that Austin is a place that everybody really likes to come to; young people in particular like to come here.” And while the more established festivals do tend to feature some comedy stages, Moontower in particular stands out, much like the 100-foot structures that bear its name.
“SXSW is really an industry festival, as opposed to being a pure fan festival. We have a great relationship with SXSW, but from a comedy perspective, it’s very industry specific. When you come to Moontower, it’s four nights, 10 venues. It’s designed so that, if you want to just buy tickets and come see headliners, you can absolutely do that. But if you buy any of those three tiers of badges, you can come and see not only the headliners, but you can also discover people that you didn’t know you would be discovering. And that’s what we really have to offer. We’ve tried to create this festival to be as flexible as humanly possible, and that’s what it should really be about; it allows you to sample.”
This year, some of the treats offered up for fan sampling include stand-up sets from the likes of Dennis Miller, Hannibal Buress, and Maria Bamford (with literally every spectrum of performer in between). Sure, headliners at the Paramount Theatre are a major draw, but Ritts aims to encompass all aspects of modern comedy performance. “We’re going to create the heat by bringing in the Dennis Millers and the Fred Armisens and the Hannibal Buresses, but then we’re going to expose a lot of people to Matt Bearden, Maggie Maye, Michael Che and those kinds of folks. We also try to make sure that the improv and sketch side of things are represented, and that’s going to be highlighted this year with the reunion of Kids in the Hall. Our goal over time is to be the second largest in North America, behind only Just For Laughs.”
Quite a lofty goal, but if any entity truly understands reaching for the stars, it’s probably those moon towers stretching skyward over East 11th. Still standing after all this time, the towers represent staying power today as much as they did chaos in 1894. And in those two seemingly opposing concepts, we have the Moontower Comedy & Oddity Festival. “While there are a number of quality but smaller comedy festivals, there really wasn’t one dedicated solely to comedy that wasn’t also part of a larger festival– you know, mixed in with music or anything else,” says Ritts. “We envisioned something of a size and scale that would elevate Austin as part of the landscape for comedy. But this planning also allowed us the opportunity to ensure that the comedy itself was on the same scale as music, or film, or digital content would be at those other festivals. We have a great group of comedians that live here, too. We are huge fans of the performing and live comedy scene here in Austin, and I’m probably most proud of the fact that these people are performing and being seen by crowds each night.”