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Big laughs: Out-of-towners like Joe Rogan are shaking up Austin's comedy scene

Joe Rogan is one of many big names in stand-up to make their way to Austin. (Big Laugh Comedy/Twitter)

An influx of talent is both creating an Austin comedy renaissance and dividing the local stand-up community.

The California migration to Texas is influencing politics, culture and the makeup of the state capitol. With big names like Joe Rogan coming to town, it's also shaking up the entertainment industry, 11-year Austin comedy vet Chris Tellez said. Tellez is co-host of Shit's Golden, Austin's longest-running monthly stand-up show.

"There's no denying it, seems like over 100 comics moved here from New York, L.A., and everywhere in between. It's like a funny science experiment," Tellez said.

Chis Telles is a co-host of comedy monthly Shit's Golden in Austin. (Chis Tellez)

The new class is enthusiastic. "It's like we're all freshmen in college coming from different cities; making friends and having fun," Adam Hartle, booking manager for Sunset Strip in downtown's Sunset Room, said. Hartle splits time between Florida and Austin and leaned on Los Angeles connections for initial Sunset Strip bookings, he said.

The Sunset Room is host (The Sunset Room)

New-to-Austin comic and Detroit native Genivive Clinton said Austin affords opportunities harder to get in saturated markets. After failing to get on the Kill Tony podcast in L.A. she succeeded on the first attempt in Austin, which led to her being booked for more work with Hinchcliffe and the Death Squad Secret Show. Secret Show was created by Brian Redban, the man also who helped create Kill Tony and The Joe Rogan Experience. "Local shows kept asking me to do sets too," Clinton said.

Comic Genivieve Clinton was awarded new opportunities when she moved to Austin. (Genevieve Clinton)

Some Austinites applaud the fresh blood. Round Rock native and three-year comedy vet Allison Wojtowecz says watching experienced new performers is a master class on the art of comedy. The richer landscape also means she can aspire to make sustainable career. "I loved the Austin scene," she said, "but there wasn't an opportunity to make living money here. Now there's four new places and Rogan is opening a room. There's ample stage time that actually can pay you now."

Comic Allison Wojtowecz said she can work towards a sustainable career in Austin after the new comedy boom. (Allison Wojtowecz)

Four venues have been opened or dedicated to comedy in the post-pandemic Austin comedy frenzy: The Creek and the Cave, Vulcan Gas Company, Sunset Strip at the Sunset Room, and The Romo Room in the Domain.

Joe Rogan, whose move to Texas and talk of opening a club has injected new attention to the scene, has also come at a cost. In May, Rogan and his associate Tony Hinchcliffe experienced a culture clash with locals with what critics denounced as anti-trans and racist jokes.

Brandon Lewin, Big Laugh CEO and booking manager at Vulcan, said he doesn't condone the jokes and knows Hinchcliffe learned a lesson. "What he learned from it is if you tell a joke it has to be good," Lewin said.

Brandon Lewin is a longtime comedian and CEO of Big Laughs in Austin. (Brandon Lewin)

Some local comedians are not so sure it's all water under the bridge. Pushing political buttons is no substitute for a real act, said Brendan K. O'Grady, co-host of Sure Thing, a weekly comedy showcase running for nine years and counting. Shock jokes are also lazy, said Andrew Murphy, ten-year Austin comedy performer and winner of 2019's Funniest Person in Austin award from Cap City Comedy. "With the comics that I grew up with, no one ever wanted to do normal or generic comedy. If you're not trying new things to be exciting or different, you're not gonna make it here," Murphy said.

Comic Brendon K O'Grady said shock jokes are lazy and repetitive. (Brendan K O'Grady)

Out-of-town comedians who worked in the early pandemic also raised eyebrows with some locals who felt safety was sacrificed for self-promotion. "We need to have standards for what is acceptable behavior for physical safety in the pandemic and how men treat women," O'Grady said. Fallout Theater, where he co-hosts Sure Thing, plans to cap attendance at half capacity and require proof of vaccination from audiences and performers.

But some locals performed in the early pandemic too, and rule books don't exist for conducting safe pandemic events. "Especially when places were closed, people were opportunistic about doing comedy in bars," Tellez said, including himself among those who worked.

Despite their differences, many believe the two worlds can coexist and find success in the newly-energized scene—so long as they take notes.

Arielle Norman has performed stand-up in Austin since 2015 and co-hosts a monthly heckling-welcome show called Off-Script. Norman is proud to be a woman on too-often male dominated lineups and said her presence means misogynist jokes from unseasoned strangers don't go unchallenged.

She's energized too. "I was so bored here before the pandemic and now with Joe and everyone moving here and all the clubs opening, I don't have to move to L.A. or New York. I can't wait to see what Joe does with the new comedy club."


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