Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Happy 21 Years in Austin to Me/A Love Letter to Esther's Follies

 Last week I was mentioning how the road trip to move Henry to New York was a sort of accidental pilgrimage through past stages of our lives as we revisited places we’d lived before and people we’ve known along the way. Returning home offered another opportunity on that path when I got an invitation to come and see the Esther’s Follies Show.

A little back story— I moved to Austin 21 years ago this week (September 6th, I think, though I forgot to record it for posterity). When I first got here I was miserable. I didn’t know the city, had only visited it once, only had one friend here, and I traveled here with Henry (then ten months old) while Big Red stayed behind to pack up our apartment in St. Louis, Even when he arrived a month later to join us, our world was pretty narrow and, as I recall, involved a lot of Budweiser and Prince videos.

Finding work was difficult. Making friends was also a challenge. You might not believe that to look at me now, with an abundance of friends and work. But I promise you, I got off to a very rocky start in Austin.

I did wander into the offices of the Chronicle with a handful of my writing clips and, at least in my memory, these I shoved into the unsuspecting hands of Louis Black as unsuspectingly walked past me. He called the next day and offered me a chance to write for the paper. I started covering theater and my very first piece was about Turk Pipkin. I do believe it was Turk who encouraged me, when I asked him about finding a job, to apply at Esther’s Follies.

Shannon and me after the show.
Chronology fails me here—I can’t remember which job came first—but beginning in 1992 and probably running through 1994, I worked for the Esther’s folks in various capacities: as a barker in front of the Velveeta Room, which they also owned; as a hostess at Esther’s; as a bartender at Esther’s; as a manager of a little club they opened called Diva’s; and as a manager at the Velveeta Room. I also sat in on some writing meetings at Esther’s, though I don’t recall that going anywhere.

This was all so exciting for me, to be part of the comedy community in Austin. It helped me to make a lot of friends fast, it helped me to pay my rent and, eventually, once I got to see the inner-workings and what happens when so many talented people are in such close proximity on a regular basis— well let’s just say I had more than enough material for a series of novels I never wrote.

Hilarious skit about Sixth Street demographics.
I eventually drifted away from Esther’s, got more writing work, started publishing books. I never forgot about the gang, often ran into them here and there around town, and went to see the show once or twice. Mostly though, I avoided Sixth Street in general because—to quote Warren, “I’m getting too old for this shit,” by which I mean dealing with the parking and the drunk kids, not watching comedy.

Then this past spring came a reconnection when Shannon Sedwick, Esther’s co-founder and longtime cast member, invited me togive the “sermon” at her Easter gathering. That was really something—it was a thrill to stand up there and share my thoughts. It was also really nice to take a trip down memory lane and remember where I first landed when I landed in Austin, and how pivotal my job at Esther’s had been in shaping what my Austin experience would become which, let me spell it out here: I Heart Austin Texas The Most In The Universe!!

Cindy Wood and Shaun Wainwright-Branigan
Last weekend, Warren and I went to check out the show. It was my first time back in perhaps five years and a really excellent way to celebrate the start of my third decade in Austin. If I expected anything it was that I’d laugh nostalgically at some bits, uproariously at others, and perhaps mildly at the rest. So much for expectations. Instead, I busted a gut the entire time, literally laughing from the opening sketch right on through to the thunderous applause 90 minutes later.

I kept elbowing Warren and whispering—SO FUNNY! SO FUNNY!— and I also kept sneaking glances over, getting almost as big a kick out of watching him laugh as I was getting a kick out of the show. There are a ton of hilarious song parodies, lots of current events references, and enough puns to satisfy even the most radical punster (READ: Warren). I kept wondering, “How the hell do they do this?” as in how do they take recent headlines and, on such a tight deadline, fashion them into song and dance numbers and get an entire cast on board?

I also loved how there are still some parts of the show that have continued on in the twenty years since I first started working there. There’s Shannon’s hysterical Patsy Cline skit. I won’t give it away for the three of you who’ve never seen the show, but I do think there are audience members who specifically come to watch what happens, even if they already know and have seen the bit a thousand times.

And then there is Ray Anderson, my all time favorite magician—not just in Austin but anywhere. I was at a magicians’ convention a couple of years ago at a downtown hotel and when Ray showed up to take a look around, it was like Springsteen had wandered into the Hole in the Wall. An awed hush took over the lobby, as it damn well should have. Ray is really, truly, mind-blowing, appearing sometimes as himself and sometimes as his campy alter ego. I practically spit my teeth out at his one-liners and studied closely the way he involves the audience, nudges and cajoles them out to the edge with him, but manages to walk perfectly that fine line between being extremely funny and getting punched in the nose for freaking out a pulled-from-the-audience “assistant.”

Crazy Carl and me, outside in front of the big window.
A huge part of the show is that massive glass window behind the stage. During the show, sometimes by planned design other times by random good fortune, characters will float past. Might be a cast member in drag. Could be a drunk frat boy. Possibly a member of the homeless community. Always an element of surprise, and the wild card effect is priceless.

I was also thrilled to see so many new young cast members. Add to the list of Abundant Austin Talent this crew of comic actors. But wait, there’s more! For as wildly as impressed as I was with the new (to me) cast members, here’s something that tickled me and stunned Warren: when I told him that Cindy Wood was in the show twenty years ago when I worked there, as was Ray Anderson, he did a double take. NO! he said. No Way!! Because, holy crap, have these folks and other “lifers” sure have held up well and they pour more energy into a 90-minute show (which they do five times each weekend) than I ever did in a month in my twenties.

Billy Brooks as Obama.

So go to the show. Go, go, go! I’m planning to go back very, very soon and bring a big crowd. Because right now, there’s an added bonus: as funny as the Esther’s Folks are during typical years, as with The Daily Show, during election years things really, really heat up to an explosively fevered pitch of funny. 

1 comment:

EsthersFollies said...

Spike, thank you for your amazing review! You are truly the best writer and blogger in Austin, and the Southwest!