The moment the Come & Take It Comedy Takeover proved it was serious business came near the end of local legend Andy Huggins' set.
"You've been hall of fame quality," he said to the wall-to-wall audience in Warehouse Live's Studio.
That sentiment was echoed by many of the 50-plus comics that shared the bill with him over the weekend at the first-time event. Some younger talents with national gigs and lots of upside were just as impressed as Huggins by the turnout. But hearing it come from one of the original Texas Outlaw Comics, someone who's ridden the waves of Houston comedy for decades and a man revered by many of our city's newest comics, gave the endorsement a little more heft.
People came to hear jokes. It was evident right from the start of the two-day event because the Warehouse Live Studio was packed with people busting a gut while Dem Damn Dames, a burlesque troupe, were peeling clothes off next door in the Ballroom.
The lure of the strip acts was strong and enhanced by the Dames' leader, Tifa Tittlywinks, who is an endearing combination of Lucille Ball and Gypsy Rose Lee. But, even she and her showmates couldn't compete with all the smart new kids.
Take Austin's Chris Cubas, for example. Looking like the love child of Reggie Watts and Ron Funchess, he does his own thing, nothing like the weird and wonderful work those two incredible comics do, but all his own and funny enough for Comedy Central to consider him an up-and-comer. Los Angeles' Henry Phillips introduced himself to the crowd with a joke every comic in the room could appreciate: "I don't know if you all were following this, but last year the unemployment rate was 100 percent in my apartment." Then he played the beginnings of Yes's "Roundabout" and Van Halen's "Eruption" on guitar and slayed with humorous songs about moving on from mistakes and the freedom you'd inherit by knowing the world might end tomorrow.
These comics are as independent as today's music artists. They don't need a Johnny Carson or Jay Leno to gain an audience, they pave their own way by hitting the pavement, taking their acts to anyone with drink minimum money and the need to laugh. They Youtube into America's comedy consciousness and podcast their ways into our awareness. Duncan Trussell left his audience in the sort of pain that comes from blood-rushes to the head during unmitigated fits of laughter. He's got a podcast that recorded at the fest. Todd Barry, who's done extensive movie and TV work, reminded us all that he recently opened for Louis C.K. at Madison Square Garden. He shared his keen and hilarious insights in a stand-up act on Saturday and returned Sunday to tape his own podcast.
The group I was with ranked Trussell, Saturday Night Live alum Brooks Wheelan and Mike Lawrence, an @midnight regular who went off-script and riffed brilliantly on audience suggestions for a good 10 minutes, among the consistently funniest national acts of the weekend. On the local front, they found Gabe Bravo's clever one-liners enchanting. They felt the hilarious pain of the unfortunately monikered Dale Cheesman. They marveled at the workman-like dedication of Whiskey Brother Sam Demaris, who seemed to be onstage more than the mike stands over the weekend.
The act which drew the largest crowd of the weekend had to be Maria Bamford, who played to a filled Warehouse Live Ballroom on Saturday night. Her set bested the manic silliness of The Whitest Kids U' Know attendance-wise. Those guys did get their share of Houston love, which was fostered by an interactive, skit-heavy set that called on volunteers from the audience. Bamford's take on "mentals," those of us who live with some or another diagnosed mental malfunction, is inspired and needed, the sort of humor that resonates because it tells us a truth we might otherwise ignore. She sings, too, doing a ditty on her relationship counselor "Carol Grisham," which now won't ever exit my head and also taking on Eminem's "Lose Yourself" to remind us all that we can do whatever we set our minds to (or that she sometimes takes self-confidence to unrealistic extremes).
It's strange to consider Houston audiences as exciting as any of these acts, which have appeared on IFC, Comedy Central, Conan, Jimmy Kimmel Live, SNL, Last Comic Standing, HBO, Showtime, in blockbuster Adam Sandler movies....the list is damn impressive. But, as Huggins and his peers noted, the crowds were just as impressive, particularly on Saturday. It's encouraging to see the city turn out in good numbers for events that aren't the norm. Last summer, Whatever Fest joined comedians like Bobcat Goldthwait, T.J. Miller, Jonah Ray and Iliza Shlesinger with a variety of music acts. Come & Take It organizer Andrew Youngblood also booked that festival's comedic talent and was encouraged by response to the comedy stages.
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"I'm happy," said Youngblood, who is also a local comic. "I will do it next year, one way or another.
The attendance for and interest in the festival was gratifying for Youngblood, since he helped initiate the open mike comedy nights at Warehouse Live, even bartending if it meant cutting expenses and making those shows happen. Now, he was talking about this successful inaugural festival event and Houston's comedy future with veteran comic and Sunday headliner Norm Macdonald drawing laughs in the backround.
"The crowd was great," he continued. "Obviously, we want it to be a little it bigger. We tried to go big this year, I think we did it right, I think we learned some things. I'm personally dedicated to moving forward and doing something even bigger and better next year."