Any serious comedy fan who’s ever white-knuckled South by Southwest will both note and appreciate Moontower Comedy & Oddity Festival‘s comparative laser focus. Instead of an entire downtown clogged with spring breakers throwing elbows between literally hundreds of stages, the second annual Austin event features a dozen venues, with ten located no more than seven blocks apart. Instead of sponsorship capital from Monster Energy, Pepsi and Doritos brand-imaging a war over attendees’ very souls, do-gooder local outfits like Fun Fun Fun Fest and Comedy 102.7 radio hang unobtrusive thought-balloon signs to the side of small stages. (Both SXSW and Moontower happily agree to share IFC for now.) Most essential, instead of all-out debauchery, Moontower is about talent discovery.
It was a promising sign that a relatively rare live performance by Saturday Night Live vet Bill Hader, kicking off four days of programming with a 7 p.m. show at the Paramount Theatre, saw stand-by lines cornering the block. Additional Wednesday boldfaces included Todd Barry and Marc Maron at the Stateside Theatre, Pete Holmes Making It Weird at The Parish with a podcast taping featuring Morgan Murphy, Dom Irrera and David Angelo, Austin favorite Maria Bamford mixing new and classic Bammer surrealism at a Cap City Comedy Club late show, Anthony Jeselnik drawing newly cultivated The Jeselnik Offensive fans at the Paramount, and Greg Fitzsimmons easing into a more or less standard Cap City weekend run.
Yet it was in the smaller rooms where ears of both audiences and industry genuinely perked. Badge-holding fans checking in on Austin journeyman Brendon Walsh’s progress were naturally stoked to find Kyle Kinane on a rough-and-ready “Assblasterz Inc.” bill at The Parish, but it was Comedy Central up-and-comers Sean O’Connor and Ari Shaffir they’d be Googling later at home. Similarly, while Christian Finnegan, Myq Kaplan and Sean Patton’s “Triple Threat” bill at The Velveeta Room might have seemed tossed-off on paper, grouping three of the best blink-and-you’ll miss-something reactionaries around was actually a stroke of masterful scheduling. (Cracking up in the back shadows, Kinane, Emily Heller and James Adomian certainly thought so.) The Austin uninitiated were visibly dazed by what they’d unexpectedly witnessed.
If the festival’s overriding mission is to introduce quality upcoming talent to casual comedy consumers—while keeping things financially sustainable in the process—they’re impressively ahead of the learning curve. If Moontower’s secondary goal is to force-spotlight Austin performers, however, Wednesday came up a mixed bag. While John Tole, Chris Cubas and Mac Blake repped well as openers elsewhere for bigger talent, Swan Dive’s hyperlocal “The Austin Show” only drew about 30 to a room seated for 125. Yet it too had its stand-out moments, with impressive sets from Derek Phelps, a character-leaning writer’s writer with a fragile stage presence recalling a more bookish Mitch Hedberg, and Ryan Cownie, whose deceptive pretty-boy looks belied a magnetic, in-the-moment performer occupying the same anything-goes realm as a Rory Scovel or Jon Dore. Both represented what Moontower is unquestionably poised to deliver: simple comedy transcendence, nary a vomit-puddle sidestep required.