Over the course of a year, Austin conducts a festival at least once a month. To the uninitiated, this may seem unreal, or at the very least, a bit excessive. But, when one considers SXSW, ACL or the Austin Film Festival, along with the Pecan Street Festival, Chili-fest or even Spamarama, one realizes that for Austin, this is par for the course. However, out of all the festivals that Austin has been host to over the years, this is the first year that there has been a significant festival devoted to comedy.
The Moontower Comedy and Oddity Festival has been in the minds of the Paramount and Stateside Theatres for some time, but it was not until Jim Ritts was hired last year as executive director of the Austin Theatre Alliance that the festival really began to gain some traction.
“I had been looking at the possibilities of a festival from the private sector and thought there was a real opportunity here,” Jim said on the last day of the festival. “When the time came for me to talk to the Austin Theatre Alliance, I found out there had been significant consideration there as well. One of my top agenda items was to accelerate the plan.”
It is hard to believe that Austin has yet to have a festival that focused purely on the comedy community, which is where Ritts sees the biggest different between Moontower and SXSW. While SXSW has a comedy portion (which is growing each year with an array of talented performers and different types of shows) the festival itself still focuses on the major three categories: interactive, film, and music. Jim added, “There needed to be a comedy festival that stood out on its own and serves, if you will, as a generator of significant visibility for the active comedy scene in this city.”
Austin may not come to mind first when one thinks of the comedy cities of North America. Those usually are NY, L.A. or even Toronto, but there is a big community here in ATX. Austin is also a city that performers love to perform in, which makes the decision to host a comedy festival long overdue.
Janet Varney, host of the long running (yet recently canceled) show “Dinner and a Movie” and more recently the voice of Korra in “The Legend of Korra,” agrees wholeheartedly.
“Performing in a city, be it a show or a festival, that supports your craft (comedy) makes such a difference,” Varney said. “The fans make it all so worthwhile.”
“I think one of the things about a festival like this, in a town like this, we can serve as a catalyst for comedians and potential fans,” Ritts said.
When looking at the list of performers, it is apparent that this festival was set up for comedy fans in general. An attendee of the festival had an opportunity to see sketch shows, like Varney’s Theme Park, a more alternative comedian like John Mulaney, a “blue” comedian like JB Smoove, or a comedic actor/stand-up like Aziz Ansari. The talent list was bound to contain comedians audiences were familiar with, but also ones that fans might not otherwise have an opportunity to see. In a festival setting, the options to check out new shows and comedians are endless.
Ritts believes there were several factors that contributed to securing a talent pool like this.
“For several years Austin and the Paramount Theatre have been ahead of the curve on showcasing acts before they break, we also partnered with the folks over at Cap City Comedy Club, and I think that showed the legitimacy of our respect for comedy,” Ritts said.
In putting together Moontower, Ritts had several priorities. First, it was important to do their homework on the other festivals in town and across North America, learning from their mistakes as well as their triumphs. Secondly, they wanted to give the audience something that they would enjoy, but also something that paid attention to them as fans. Lastly, it was important to take care of the performers. As Ritts explained, “We want them to be valued.” With these three points of focus, the festival ran without any major snafus.
Varney also commented on how comfortable the festival was in regards to her experience as a performer. “To be in the first year and it be this smoothly run, with excellent communication leading up to it, it’s nailing everything,” she said.
Varney knows a little something about running a festival. For the last 11 years she has co-produced the ever-growing SF Sketchfest, which takes place in San Francisco each January. Putting together a large-scale festival, Varney knows what happens behind the scenes of a festival, and she could not be more impressed with the way Ritts and all those involved have run Moontower.
Ritts likes to take compliments like these gracefully, but he also realized there is always work to be done. “With a few exceptions, we have been getting rave reviews,” he said. “The complaints we’ve received, we deserved. I would have been stunned if we would have been perfect from the very beginning.” The communication between all the organizers of the festival was so tight and organized, that the major issues that were experienced on opening night were fixed by the next day.
It is apparent, that while this was an overall hit, there is always room for improvement for the future. Ritts views this as a growing festival and is leaving nothing off the table in the coming years. There were some experimental elements to this year’s festival, like book readings by comics in a salon setting and a comedy film portion, and this has already opened the door for further expansions. In fact, Ritts hopes Moontower will become one of the largest comedy festivals in North America, next to Montreal. This might be a lofty goal, but Moontower will always hold on to its roots.“We knew this would be an in-town festival. We expect our out-of-town audience to grow, but this will always be an Austin first festival.”