South by Southwest Comedy is the one element of the festival that somehow manages to work its way into every other field of discipline. Sometimes you’ll catch your favorite comedian hosting a music showcase, tossing in zingers between the sets, biting the brand that feeds. Maybe you’ll see them at a film premiere, packing the house with their loyal armies of podcast subscribers. Or perhaps you’ll just spot them wandering stoned across the tech convention hall.
No matter the circumstances, it’s the comedians who make sure badge holders, journalists, and festival organizers don’t take themselves too seriously. Their critical voice, acerbic wit, and truthful observations urge everyone to step back and understand what’s really going on. Now that we’ve finally seen the light, it’s time share a recap of the comedians and shows we felt were the most important and funny at this year’s annual gathering of weirdos, freaks, and industry types in Austin.
Anthony Atamanuik’s Trump Dump at The Hideout Theatre
Those lucky enough to squeeze into Austin’s Hideout Theatre were treated to a devastating hour of satire that stood out as the funniest overall at this year’s SXSW. Trump Dump was a staged press conference wherein Donald Trump — portrayed by the uncanny Anthony Atamanuik (30 Rock, UCB) — spoke as the president.
A dead-eyed Jon Gabrus stood in the wings as New Jersey Governor turned robot hype-man Chris Christie. Gabrus, decked out in softball pants and a Kony 2012 T-shirt, reminded the anxious crowd that Christie knew how to pick a winner. Unfortunately, the governor’s time was cut short after he ejected a crazed protester — played with stabbing fury by Shannon O’Neil (UCB) — out of the building, leaving Atamanuik alone to simmer in his wicked words.
Trump didn’t waste a moment of the spotlight, boasting that his strong environmental record scored him an endorsement from a major power company – The Triple K – as part of a joint plan to shut down black power for clean, white power. There will be no more coal, no more smoke, no more Black Lives Matter protesters getting in the way of Trump’s American nightmare. The audience gasps were deafening, unsure whether they were allowed to laugh or not. But Atamaniuk, in a gruff businessman’s Queens accent, reminded everyone that, “Yes, I am a real person. I promise you this. I can promise you. I’m a real person. I have been saying these things for the last nine months.”
This hyperbole climbed higher than a border fence as Trump bragged about marrying his daughter, Ivanka Trump. “I named my daughter Ivanka, because I want to fuck her.” Trump even screened a doctored video sequence — lifted from Riding the Bus with My Sister — showing Rosie O’Donnell killed in action. “We got her!”
The real estate tycoon defended holier than thou beefs with the Pope, claiming that ISIS had already infiltrated Vatican City, “Italian ISIS. That’s right, shaved, cold, Italian ISIS are already there.” The evening unfolded into a surreal pep rally of hatred, morose humor, and spot-on mimicry as Trump offered to waterboard enemies of the state with tap water from Flint, Michigan.
But Atamanuik’s coup de grace came when he closed with an earnest poem about the rise of Trump as a reflection our own shortcomings and flaws as citizens. Atamanuik urged we shouldn’t try to destroy the mirror but rather look inward in order to make America great again. This deeper commentary elevated Atamanuik’s caricature past the realm of no-holds barred parody and into the sublime. It also left voters with plenty to think about, beyond Trump boning his own daughter. I promise you this.
Best Joke to Cut Awkward Tension
HarmonQuest at Esther’s Follies
It’s sad when marriages don’t work out. Dan Harmon and Erin McGathy were together for less than a year, but fans of the HarmonTown podcast have already been playing arm chair counselor to the couple for quite a while as neither the former husband nor wife tend to hold back, especially on days like today, where Harmon drained a plastic cup of room temperature vodka.
Thomas Middleditch (Silicon Valley) joined show regulars Jeff B. Davis and dungeon master Spencer Crittendensat in order to portray a hyper sexual goblin creature turned killer spider for a fecal-themed high fantasy role playing game, whose audio will be animated into an episode of HarmonQuest later this summer.
This was the first time Harmon and McGathy had seen each other in public since their divorce and that fact permeated the first few minutes of their terse salutations:
“Hey Erin, what’s new?”
“I started seeing someone.”
“He sounds like an asshole.”
The Most Nostalgic Experience
Pee-wee’s Big Holiday at The Paramount Theatre
Photo by Heather Kaplan
A red carpet and red bow-ties attracted a full house to the Pee-wee’s Big Holiday world premiere, one day ahead of the film’s wider release across Netflix. Paul Ruebens was on hand, along with co-executive producer Judd Apatow (Trainwreck, Girls), writing partner Paul Rust (Love, Inglorious Basterds), and first-time feature director John Lee (Wonder Showzen). Fans gave Reubens a standing ovation as he popped out before showtime to thank the gracious audience for their encouragement over the years.
Reubens seemed genuinely moved as he praised Lee’s direction, reminding the crowd that Pee-wee has a great track record with first timers, specifically Tim Burton’s 1985 feature-length debut, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.
Fan boys gushed, including Apatow, who previously displayed his loyalty to Reubens with an early 1980’s Polaroid photo of Pee-wee in character. Apatow took the picture when he was just 16 years old. This outpouring of emotions proved too much for the normally loquacious Rust, though. The comedy writer fought back tears before and after the screening. But then again, so did many in attendance, thrilled to see their original comedy hero at it again.
Judd Apatow and Friends at the Paramount Theatre
Photo by Heather Kaplan
Stand-up comedy immediately after a feature-length screening and painful Q&A session — “Can you take off your shirt?” — is not the ideal kind of momentum comedians strive for. But this strange flow was exactly what transpired after the Pee-wee’s Big Holiday premiere. Apatow kicked off the show and served as emcee, appearing between sets to wax about his failed efforts to impress SXSW keynote speaker President Obama and expounding on the misery of being the lone Y chromosome in an all female household.
Some of these tales had previously been shared on late night talk shows, but the crowd was nonetheless stirred by the chance to also see veteran comic Robert Klein belt out Beethoven’s 9th Symphony on a harmonica, the lesser known Nate Bargatze — more on him later — and shooting star Hannibal Buress, who reveled in antagonizing the young, tech-heavy SXSW crowd.
Photo by Heather Kaplan
“Please put your phones away,” entreated a frustrated Buress. “If I say some racist shit on stage, I want it to spread the old fashioned way, by word of mouth.” He further needled the pro-Bernie crowd by claiming the Vermont Senator was too damn old for the job and that he may be the first presidential candidate ever to run simply for the $400,000 salary. “Honey, we can redo the kitchen!”
Best Stand-up Set & Podcast Guest
Photo by Heather Kaplan
Despite the big names featured in the Judd Apatow and Friends’ show, the stand-out performance of that very event belonged to Tennessee-born comic, Nate Bargatze. He stepped on stage cloaked in a meek demeanor and a Southern drawl, only to prove himself an A-lister by stealing the show.
Bargatze discussed his recent misadventure at Austin tourist attraction Barton Springs, where his wife shared that a passing boater on was none other than her ex-boyfriend. “She’s looking at him thinking, What would my life had been like if I married him, instead? Meanwhile, I’m looking at the guy and thinking, What would my life be like if she had married him, instead?” He debated whether to swim out and fight the man, but relented after realizing it takes forever to climb into a boat from the water and that he’d likely have to ask his wife’s former lover for a helping hand up before commencing mortal combat.
The wry observations and knack for self deprecation soared to great heights as Bargatze discussed his lack of education. “The only thing they taught us in school were which states bordered Tennessee, and that was just in case they attacked us.” But it’s Bargatze’s agonizing tale of a visit to Wilmington, North Carolina’s Cape Fear Serpentarium that was the funniest stretch of the evening, and maybe even the festival. Audience members fell out of their seats, howling as Bargatze described the ineffectual security measures and 9/11 conspiracy posters that adorned the Serpentarium, advising that we check the one-star reviews on TripAdvisor if the crowd doubted his claim of a real crocodile escaping while he patronized this den of horrors.
Bargatze also appeared on a memorable taping of the Doug Loves Movies podcast at Esther’s Follies. Director Jeff Nichols (Midnight Special, Mud) and comic Owen Benjamin (Bar Rescue) struggled to keep up with game-master Doug Benson’s trivia challenges, while hometown Austin favorite Chris Cubas displayed his impressive movie knowledge. But again, Bargatze stood out as the funniest guy in the room, despite all appearances that he wasn’t even trying that hard. By this virtue, he also lifted everyone around him.
When Benson asked the panel about recent films, an oblivious Bargatze shared that his favorite so far was The Reverent. The panel and crowd alike could hardly keep it together as they tried in vain to correct him — “It’s called The Revenant, not The Reverent!” Bargatze bemoaned that he didn’t know what either of those words meant.
He then doubled down by admitting he prefers films where the title lets him know exactly what to expect. He discussed a pending film to illustrate his point. “Batman v. Superman. I know what that one is about.” He similarly did not struggle to keep up with Disney’s The Sword in the Stone. It didn’t matter that he lost every trivia match because Nate Bargatze had already won the house, as well as SXSW Comedy 2016.
Most Versatile Comedian
Baron Vaughn has been making the rounds. Not only is he the co-host of Maltin on the Movies, he’s also a seasoned stand-up comic and trained thespian. It’s no wonder the energetic comedian was selected to voice Tom Servo robot in the upcoming Mystery Science Theatre 3000 reboot. SXSW 2016 allowed Vaughn to flex all of these muscles in whirlwind appearances across podcasts, sets, and showcases.
Vaughn’s midnight Ester’s Follies stand-up set at Those Who Can’t, with The Grawlix, found him sharing his severe allergies. Cannabis make him the only guy in California who pops Benadryl before partying. Or at the very least, walking down his any street everyday now that it’s legal. The comedian broke into song and found a twisted humor in the fact that he has never met his own father, as well as strange times in Scandinavia, and no dairy, please. It was a random, berating sort of playful, and the best stand-up set of the night — with Rory Scovel charging in at a close second. Sidestage laughs from Scovel’s annihilation of the save the date industry merged with a full house applause, while the giddy-up holler of 6th street bled in through the walls.
The next afternoon, Vaughn recovered from this antihistamine haze to co-host back-to-back recordings of Maltin on the Movies, the second of which featured Ira Glass (Don’t Think Twice, This American Life) and Mike Birbiglia (Don’t Think Twice, Sleepwalk With Me) as guests. Vaughn’s jokes hit at the perfect moments, punctuating Leonard Maltin’s cinematic musings with witty exclamations, as well as insightful commentary about the role a comedian’s emotions play when approaching any given stand-up set or film performance.
Glass, always keen to discover secondary narratives, decided to keep score of the event’s best jokes, a la Chris Hardwick’s @Midnight. Birbiglia humorously excused himself from such a silly competition in order to “focus on being a very, very serious filmmaker.” Watching Glass exclaim “Points!” while the table discussed the Russian musical Stilyagi (“Hipsters”) was surreal. But a score keeper proved unnecessary..
A conversation about Sam Raimi’s 1995 sleeper westernThe Quick and The Dead had Glass quizzing the panel, “Which did you not like, the Quick or the Dead?” Vaughn pulled the trigger: “I understand not liking the quick, but I can’t speak ill of the dead.” Points!
Photographer: Heather Kaplan