May 17, 2014

Austin Has a Thriving Comedy Scene, But Comedians Aren’t Reaping the Rewards

Comic Joe Hafkey performs at the Cap City Comedy Club for the 14th round of the Funniest Person in Austin Contest on May 6, 2014. Photo by Esmeralda Coronado

Comic Joe Hafkey performs at the Cap City Comedy Club for the 14th round of the Funniest Person in Austin Contest on May 6, 2014. Photo by Esmeralda Coronado Valles.

By Esmeralda Coronado Valles
For Reporting Texas

It’s a Tuesday night at Austin’s Capital City Comedy Club. The theater is full, and Lucas Molandes, a 10-year veteran of the local comedy circuit, is on stage kicking off the semifinals of Funniest Person in Austin contest. Molandes, the host of the evening, is warming up the crowd with jokes before the contestants give it a go.

Molandes said when he first was a Funniest Person contestant, in 2005, maybe 80 comedians entered, and of those, 20 worked regularly. Now, there are 210 contestants, and of those, 60 to 70 are regular comics, he said.

Austin has become a major comedy center. But even as its comedy scene grows, there are no real opportunities to make a living as a comedian in Austin.

The city has attracted comedy wannabes nonetheless. Three years ago, after graduating with a degree in philosophy from Grinnell College in Iowa, Kath Barbadoro came here to seek her comedy fortune. When she moved here, the New Hampshire native had previously performed only three times on stage. She did some open mic sessions in college, and she was hooked.

Barbadoro said she chose Austin because of the warm weather, low cost of living and reputation for a good comedy scene.

“Austin just seemed like a good place to go and cut your teeth, so to speak, and explore,” she said. “I did my first open mic a week to the day after I moved in, and I have just been doing it ever since.”

Unemployed at first, she has made a name for herself as a female comedian.

Barbadoro has performed at festivals like the Fun Fun Fun Fest, opened for comedian and actor Aziz Ansari and has been a finalist as the Funniest Person in Austin. Although she performs several times a week, she keeps her day job in the registrar’s office at the University of Texas at Austin. She said it’s tough making a living as a comedian because there are not many real comedy venues.

“You can go out and do standup on the road, which means traveling most of the year… it’s like being a touring musician. There’s that road, which is hard to get into,” she said. “You can write on TV, that’s another goal people have. But that’s not really doing stand-up, that’s doing comedy writing.”

Molandes said comedians “don’t really get paid” unless they do hosting jobs or headline — perform as the featured act — at comedy venues.

“If you do a short set at a coffee shop or a bar, you’re probably going to get paid in free drinks,” he said. “If you headline at places like that, you might get paid a few bucks.”

Barbara Weems, the office manager at Esther’s Follies, said Austin has one of the liveliest comedy scenes she’s ever seen. Esther’s, on East Sixth Street, puts on five musical and comedy shows every weekend. Weems described the shows as sketch acts similar to the comedy show “Saturday Night Live.” The actors are paid staff members.

“Shows sell out nearly every Saturday” and, during peak periods several times a year, all weekend, as well, Weems said.

Esther’s Follies also owns the Velveeta Room, which is located right next to the comedy theater and features standup acts. Weems, 32, said the venue pays headliners. A couple of weeks ago, Ansari headlined there.

Molandes, at 34 a veteran comedian, said he doesn’t envy people who are trying to break into the comedy scene now.

“If you want to make a career in comedy, you can’t really make it here because there are a lot of good comics, but not a lot of good jobs,” he said. “Those jobs exist in New York or L.A. …You can get really good as a comic here. But that doesn’t mean you’ll be financially viable.”

Ten years ago, there were only two comedy shows per week,  Molandes said. Only a few comedy places, including Esther’s Follies, the Capital City Comedy Club and the Velveeta Room, provided opportunities for comics.

“It really was a … wasteland of comedy at that point,” Molandes said.

Now, comedians and audiences can take advantage of more clubs. Newer ones include the ColdTowne Theater, the New Movement and the Hideout Theatre, and shows are available seven nights a week.

Barbadoro said she got here at a really good time.

“The scene was still very small, but it was very good” she said. “Like, a lot of the people that were in the scene then are still doing it now, a lot of them have TV credits, a lot of them have gotten a lot better and have been recognized for that.”

According to Molandes, eight or 10 years ago, Austin was a stop on the way to bigger markets such as Los Angles or New York, but thanks to the Internet, people can become famous here, he said.

Networks such as Comedy Central are coming to Austin to look at talent.

“They come because they know something is going on here,” he said. “As long as the scene keeps getting bigger and more comics come here, it will eventually create its own industry here.”

Barbadoro said although Austin has grown as a comedy scene, the community remains small.

“Like most comedy scenes, it is mostly male and mostly white, but I think that is also changing a little bit,” she said. “There are definitely more women here than when I started. There are definitely more non-white people here than when I started.”

Barbadoro said Austin is a writer’s town: Writing is prized over performance.

“Good jokes will get you farther than being really charismatic or being really physical,” she said.

She’d love to make a living doing comedy, but Barbadoro knows that is really hard to do.

“It’s my goal to make enough to have it be my only job,” she said. “I am able to balance doing comedy and having a day job, but it’s a lot of work. It’s almost like having two full-time jobs, but I love comedy, so I’m going to do it.”

In five years, Barbadoro wants to drop her second job and move on to the big time.

“I’d love to be making comedy full time, whether that’s doing stand-up or writing. I’d be equally thrilled with either,” she said. “I’d like to ultimately move to New York.”