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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Actor, director and screenwriter Justin Theroux isn't the only famous member of his family. His canine companion Kuma made waves online this past weekend supporting Austin Pets Alive!—and Jennifer Aniston is a fan.
Theroux launched Kuma's own Instagram account on Saturday with a link to Austin Pets Alive!'s website in her bio. And the grey pitbull mix is already garnering the kind of attention worthy of her movie star dad: As of Monday night, she has over 55,000 followers.
Chief among them is Jennifer Aniston, who posted a photo of Theroux and his newly online dog on her Instagram story yesterday with fond words for the Austin shelter.
"Love what these two are doing to help people who help pups who help people," the 'Friends' star, and Theroux's ex-wife, wrote. "They helped save 60 pups at Austin Pets Alive! yesterday."
Theroux began volunteering at the shelter while filming 'The Leftovers' in Austin when he fell in love with the shelter's pitbulls, according to Dr. Ellen Jefferson, Austin Pets Alive! president and CEO.
"We are thrilled that he and Kuma are spreading the word about the work APA! is doing and the need to keep Austin no-kill," she said, referring to the shelter's commitment to save animals most at risk for euthenasia.
Theroux adopted his mut in 2018 after Kuma was rescued—dirty and injured—from the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey by A Chance to Bloom Dog Rescue, based in Conroe, Texas.
While Kuma is not from APA!, Theroux connected with the Conroe-based non-profit while visiting the Austin shelter, and he has remained "an enthusiastic supporter" ever since, Jefferson said.
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Six days a week, thousands of onlookers tune in to live streams to watch the pros rake it all in at high-stakes poker tournaments. The big-name poker players aren't in Las Vegas or even Oklahoma's finest casinos—instead, they're where Texas Hold 'Em gets its name.
Gambling may be illegal in Texas, but over a hundred poker houses are using a loophole to open up shop across the state, especially in Austin and Dallas.
The classic poker game is finally getting played for real cash around the Lone Star State thanks to an exception in Texas' gambling ban that allows poker games to be played in private residences. Instead of taking a cut from the pot like traditional gambling ventures, private poker houses don't make money from the results of a game; instead, they get their revenue from membership and hourly fees.
It's a business strategy that's gone (mostly) unchallenged by Texas politicians, especially as the industry begins to heat up.
Austin may now have around 20 poker houses around town, but it wasn't long ago that one stood alone like a small town saloon. The city's premiere poker house, Texas Card House, was founded in 2015 and has since grown to include a YouTube channel with over 30,000 subscribers, a wide range of gameplay and regular visits from big-name poker gurus like Brad Owen and Doug Pope.
David Lagana, a content creator who has worked in college sports and Hollywood, was brought into the scene in May as the house's live streams began to blow up. He said the live streaming battleground is only beginning.
"The space is ever-growing," Lagana said. "It's been interesting to try and find a lane that everybody can succeed. It's all about finding something that people want to watch on a nightly basis."
Can Player BLUFF Andrew Neeme and Brad Owen on LIVE Stream?
Watch now - https://t.co/4Wt4s5Z0V7@TheBradOwen @andrewneeme pic.twitter.com/Yg4R0c0sj2
— Texas Card House (@texascardhouse) August 25, 2021
Carolyn Hapgood, who has worked for Texas Card House for three years, has made a name for herself as a live stream producer, dealer and player herself with the company. She's seen Texas Card House grow from a two-room card house to the most well-known poker venue in Austin with another branch in Dallas.
"It was a teeny tiny little house with five tables, and that was the first legal card house in the state," Hapgood said. "And since then it's blown up."
Texas Card House dealer Carolyn Hapgood has been working with Austin's premier poker house since 2018. (Texas Poker House Austin/Facebook)
From $100 pots to buy-ins of $15,000 or more, Texas Card House has it all, especially as in-state players learn more about the game. Hapgood said there isn't really a typical poker player at the house—instead, the poker table forms an "interesting little ecosystem" that includes college students, a 93-year old Vietnam War veteran, online gamblers, old-school players and everyone in between. The diversity at the table has been enhanced even further by COVID as people clamor to return to in-person events.
But Texas Card House no longer holds a "royal flush" in Austin's poker culture. The Lodge, based in Round Rock, is now expanding to over 60 tables, the largest in Texas, while Palms Social Club, owned by Texas Card Houses' original owner Sam Von Kennel, brought service staff and a refined atmosphere to the Austin scene.
Hapgood said the base of poker players is very large and continues to grow, forming a community as players form friendships on and off the table.
"My favorite part of the poker community is how much fun we have," Hapgood said. "You sit at a table with eight of your friends, everyone's kind of just having a good time. There's a lot of players who will, you know, call or text each other after they're done playing, and they end up inviting each other barbecues, and going out to dinner with their families and stuff like that... those are my favorite people to hang out with."
Getting involved in the poker scene is as easy as tuning into a live stream, and Lagana hopes to see more outsiders like himself get inspired by poker in the future.
"It's kind of like life," Lagana said. "Life isn't just one hand to play... you're only in control of sort of what's in your hand (and) you can't play the card that you weren't dealt with. So it's really been a fascinating life lesson for me."
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From four-time Grammy-nominee turned big-screen actor, Black Pumas frontman Eric Burton will debut in the sci-fi short film "Devexity," which is written, directed by and stars Austinites.
The film, brought to life by Austin-based filmmaker Luke Lidell, will premiere on Oct. 7 at the Native Hostel while Burton is in town for Austin City Limits Fest. Then, "Devexity" will head off to film festival screenings, according to a report by The Austin Chronicle.
Following Burton as the film's protagonist, named Jean, "Devexity" takes place across several different settings and surfaces an existential response from the watcher. Burton stars alongside fellow Austinites Ali Pentecost, Dominique Pitts and New Yorker Madison Murrah in the partially black-and-white film.
The film was shot over the course of four days in October 2020, which Lidell said was a challenge of "focus" and "trust" to create. With a variety of scenes and intertwining narratives, the film dives into the topic of virtual reality.
A musician in addition to a filmmaker, Lidell previously directed the film "Telekinetic" in 2018. The script for "Devexity" was written by Lidell with Burton in mind for the lead after meeting him during a music video project in 2017—Lidell said Burton helped him shape the characters along the way.
Now that the door has been opened for work between Burton and Lidell, you're likely to see the pair collaborate again—a Black Pumas documentary is being rumored.
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