I’m in my hotel room in San Jose eating a weird little grocery-store cheese stick for lunch before doing shows here tonight, and I need you to understand: Stand-up is always this glamorous. You’ll be reading this between the two weeks of this year’s SXSW, or as I call it: BandsXWristbands. They’ve got a great comedy lineup this year. I’m sure some audience members had their lives changed seeing Kate Berlant perform, and, if you’re still in town, you can catch Byron Bowers. Seeing comics like those two destroy minds onstage is sure to make you the “Oh, I saw them years ago before they won Oscars for their stand-up” SXSW attendee of your dreams. Those guys are my peers. You should really be investing in all of us now, while the return on your investment is an immediate and large portion of cool.
I performed at the festival in 2012, a year when one of the festival’s weekends lined up with St. Patrick’s Day. If you’ve not been, let me begin by describing SXSW: It’s a big street party for people constantly updating their phones and everything worth doing is a secret. If you are a savvy festival attendee, you can see every band that used to be big, every band that is currently big, and every band that will be big, all the while drinking, eating, and wearing free promotional versions of your favorite products. Every inch of Austin is turned into a venue, or the space for a line to form to get into a venue. We were doing stand-up in a small theater, but bands play in anything. Dirt patch with a tent on it? Yes. Dirt patch with no tent? Yes. Inside another band’s drum kit? Yeah, there’s a show in there, and they’re handing out free Bank Of America® donut satchels to the first 50 people through the door!
The odder the venue, and the more clandestine the show, the hipper the experience. People more interesting than me kept leaving whatever show I was at to attend more obscure, just-announced shows. “This Malawian children’s choir is playing in the seat of a Vespa,” these people would shout over their shoulders while running out into the night, a path of free Samuel Adams Boston Lager® promotional sunglasses left in their wake. “How was the choir?” I’d ask later. “Oh, we didn’t go,” they’d reply. “Jack Black’s nephew’s uncle was playing percussive burritos in the PUMA™ Cave so we went to that.” The whole festival is constant, lawless fun, and it takes serious planning and skill to fully experience the lawlessness.
Generally, St. Patrick’s Day is the worst; it’s the calendar equivalent of an outhouse. However, I do believe there is something to be proud of in our national obsession with dear old Pat. We were able to take another country’s religious holiday and turn into a 24-hour-long “U-S-A” chant, a marvel of both marketing and stupidity. Then, when one day wasn’t enough, we expanded our debauchery to the weekend before and the weekend after. For two weeks straight, we pee upon ourselves with glee while punching whomever is next to us for not wearing green. “Get on the Party Bus!” we yell. “It’s taking us to an awful bar where we’ll eat room-temperature cabbage and watch two men break each other’s noses over the difference between a clover and a shamrock!” Then we puke on an orange, green, and white flag as we cry the glitter off our cheeks. In a perfect re-creation of Patrick driving the snakes out of Ireland, dudes ’roided out on Guinness on the Day Of Barf ’N’ Beads drives any glimmer of straight out of me.
The teeming streets of this St. Patrick’s Day/SXSW crossover episode turned Austin into the closest thing I’ve experienced to an eighth-grader’s science project in the wild. “Here we’ve mixed unwashed, molly-coated music enthusiasts with folks drinking beer by the yard and wearing tops of the tube variety. Let’s see the reaction!” So when a comedy pal suggested a group of us go see a death-metal band play before our show that night, I was all in. “That’ll be a relaxing alternative,” I thought, and it was. There wasn’t a waxed mustache or tube top in sight. Instead, black-shirted teens hopped their bangs into faces and pretended to know how to light cigarettes. Of course, we weren’t interesting enough to get there early, so by the time we got to the tent where the band was playing, the teeny dirt patch it stood on was at capacity and the gates locked. We stood outside and watched through a hole in the fence as the band’s singer, a greasy 17-year-old, devil-voiced about our need to dismantle the government whilst helicopter twirling his tank top over his head. He really answered the question: “What about Rosemary’s teenager? What was he like?”
I was so taken with zitty Satan that when he commanded his tent crowd to push down the fence and for the audience outside to rush in, I happily trampled that pushed-down fence and got myself inside. I turned back just in time to see my friends’ faces as the fence was raised in front of them. Functional adult people that they were, they had decided not to run toward a mob of screaming teenagers in order to damn The Man. I happily damned The Man for about one song, momentarily acting as mosh-pit chaperone, before politely walking myself out and across the street to my show.
Our show that night was pretty packed—either sold out or close to it—and I was amped to get onstage. I was still buzzing with pride. No, I wasn’t familiar with any of the bands the interesting music-lovers were crazed about, but I was the kind of person who would run into a pack of angry teenagers just to hang with them. “I get it,” I practiced. “You’re misunderstood, and you need an outlet.” If someone had thrown me a leather jacket at that moment, I’d have quit comedy in favor of being a Dangerous Minds-era Michelle Pfeiffer for metal-head teens.
Our theater was surrounded on all sides by music, and as our show began, I realized that the sound would carry in. We’d do stand-up to the live soundtrack of dozens of bands playing at once. It was actually awesome. With all those bands and strange venues and promotional tie-ins and Guinness-and-a-shot specials, our audience had chosen us. Let the music enthusiasts spend the weekend refreshing their phones; it didn’t matter if I got into those shows. I was the show! Or at least part of the show! Definitely at least part of the show. Let the green beads be thrown. I was looking out at a sea of comedy nerds sporting the green beads of my profession: buttons emblazoned with podcast logos.
The comics that went up before me did really well across the board. Then I was up. I don’t remember when Snoop Dogg (I will never write Snoop Lion except right now to tell you I won’t) started playing. As I remember it, I had just taken the stage and was pretty focused amid the din of the music streaming in through the theater’s walls. There are certain lines of music that can be drowned out by a skilled comic. A perfectly clear, exactly on point “La-da-da-da-dahh. It’s the motherfucking D-O-double-G” is not one of them. Everyone in the audience heard it. It was loud enough that he might as well have been onstage with me, the two of us doing the world’s weirdest duo act.
Whatever hilarious anecdotes I had planned were no match for “The Next Episode.” Where a moment before I had seen myself as a comic of the people, trampling fences and speaking truth to power, now I was giving what would have been considered a terrible commencement speech at your grade school. Now, this was a few years ago, and comics improve at literally every show. We’re like gym rats doing reps, except with gross bellies and no muscle definition. I have improved in strength tenfold since that moment, and today I still believe it would have crushed me. Snoop is just not meant to be joked over.
But where was Snoop, you ask? Was it really him? Who could afford to fly Snoop in for SXSW? The fine people at Frito-Lay™, that’s who! See, our theater was directly across the alley from a five-story, building-sized Doritos® vending machine erected especially for the festival. Huge, inflatable bags of Doritos® the size of me sat in enormous metallic loops ready to be selected as the snack of God. It looked like the vending machine could perhaps be a stage, but no one had played there yet, so there was a bit of confusion. It could just have easily been a really big stand to be used to distribute promotional Doritos® Jacked brand sunglasses.
During our show that night, its true purpose was revealed. The flap at the bottom of the vending machine, where the chips would have been pulled through once they were selected and flopped out of their loops, was a curtain that rolled up to reveal a stage. And on that stage stood Snoop, ready to play a vending machine. He did “Drop It Like It’s Hot.” He sang “Gin And Juice.” Gorgeous, Snoopified women danced next to him. Bags of Doritos® were distributed to all. How do I know this when I was also doing a show at the same time?
I am a stage warrior; I will fight for my time, and I will fight for my audience. I am not cool about music. I’ll probably never refresh my phone fast enough to know about the newest shows, and even if I did know about them, I wouldn’t have heard of the bands. I don’t give a shit about beer, by the yard or any other way. But I’ll be good goddamned if I miss an opportunity to trample a fence and commune with the darkness in the company of teens. And if I’m doing a show and Snoop Dogg begins to play in an oversized promotional Doritos® vending machine across the alley from that show, you’d better believe I’ll finish my set and be one of those people jetting off to the just announced, alternative venue show of a lifetime. Because Snoop Dogg’s okay, but I fucking love Doritos®.