Let's go back to Austin for a bit.
In May, Carina Magyar described the infiltration of the Austin comedy scene by outsiders who shared certain stylistic and ideological concerns. While locals diligently stayed home for safety reasons, she said, "all these people from LA and New York started moving in and throwing shows, taking up venues that nobody had ever done comedy at before and putting on live comedy shows before it was safe to do so."
It was in this context that Joe Rogan and Dave Chappelle performed a series of Covid-spreading shows; that Tony Hinchcliffe, a recent arrival from Los Angeles, let loose an ostensibly humorous racist rant against his opener, Dallas comic Peng Dang; and that The Creek and The Cave created a safe space for Joe Rogan's transphobia and the Legion of Skanks', well, everything else.
Today I want to look at how things played out from the other side of that equation. A few weeks ago I spoke with Brandon Lewin, CEO of Big Laugh Events, an Austin-based comedy production and media company. Lewin moved to town from Chicago six years ago, dipping his toes in standup as a performer before deciding he was better at producing it. He describes himself as an entrepreneur—he used to run a marketing agency—who brought his experience in live event production to comedy. After several years selling out the occasional indie show, he set a personal goal to pivot to comedy full-time by 2020. His first "big show," as he calls it, for which he flew in Dean Delray from Los Angeles, was on March 7th of that year.
When Covid hit, Lewin first pivoted to video. Then Austin started reopening, and he couldn't pass up the opportunity to get back into the live comedy game. He convinced the owner of Vulcan Gas Company, an EDM venue struggling to make much revenue from 25% capacity, seated EDM shows, to pivot to comedy. Big Laugh's first shows at Vulcan were in September 2020, and for about three or four months, Lewin said, it was the only place to see big-name comics in Austin. "We were the ones that were paying the bill to fly comedians out here, pay them a pretty nice lump sum, invest in the marketing and all that."
As Lewin sees it, incorrectly, Austin "was always a one-comedy-club city" before Covid. He believes this was an unhealthy situation for comedians. "Younger comedians, the only way they're going to get better is two things. Working, hitting the stage and getting stage time, that's number one. The second part is being around comedians who are at the level where they want to be at, whether they're just a couple steps ahead of them or if they're on the level of Joe [Rogan] or Tony [Hinchcliffe]."
As Lewin sees it, two forces have conspired to turn Austin from a one-club-town into a thriving comedy hub. One was Covid-19, which saw the arrival of The Creek and The Cave, Vulcan Gas Company's transformation into a comedy venue, and the ascendance of newer clubs like Sunset Strip and the ROMO Room. The other was Joe Rogan, whose relocation attracted those heavy-hitters Lewin sees as essential to young comics' growth—Hinchcliffe, Brian Redban, Tom Segura, Tim Dillon (who recently announced he's leaving Austin because the people there aren't successful)—who in turn attracted those younger comics.
"People saw the opportunity," Lewin said. "A lot of people from other states started moving here. I've met comedians from eastern Pennsylvania and they moved down here and people from Ohio. It's not just New York and LA. You have these younger, up and—I shouldn't say up-and-coming because they're still relatively green and new but they're moving here as well. And it's because they want to be around."
Lewin believes that thanks to these developments, Austin is well on its way to being a city with four or five comedy clubs—and not only that, it's now a destination for comics rather than a stepping stone on their way to New York City or Los Angeles. "Now we're become that third coast city for comedy," he said. "It never would have happened if it wasn't for the pandemic and it wasn't for Joe Rogan moving down here. I wholeheartedly believe that we never would have saw this shift if it wasn't for that."
Lewin had no qualms about producing live comedy during the pandemic, which he said he did safely: everyone socially distanced and masked, surfaces sanitized, regulations followed. (As we've discussed, none of this made live comedy safe.) He's proud to have given comedians a platform during the pandemic, which earned him their goodwill in return.
"Even during the lock up, there were a lot of them that didn't want to go out," Lewin told me. "That was fine. Totally respectable. But there was a lot of comedians that did want to go out and they did want to do comedy. They did want to do their craft because they were stuck not doing it for six months or longer. That, for them, is hard. Because, imagine, that's your outlet, right? That's what you love to do. That's a passion. It's your art. It's where you can express yourself. You can work things out. You know? It's your therapy in a lot of ways too, for a comedian. To not be able to do that and then be cooped up in one place, that's horrible for your mental health. You know?"
"Being able to provide that as an outlet for them to come and get that off their chest and work out stuff and do an actual show, they were very appreciative," he said. "We were always about offering them an opportunity to come out and see shows. "
If the name Vulcan Gas Company sounds familiar to you, that's probably because it was the site of Tony Hinchcliffe's racist rant. Big Laugh produced that show, just as it continues to produce Kill Tony's weekly shows at Vulcan. (In a recent appearance on the Legion of Skanks podcast at The Creek and The Cave, Hinchcliffe joked that the shows aren't being promoted "for unknown reasons.") In our conversation, Lewin noted that Kill Tony is hugely popular among comics and audiences alike, its tours consistently selling out their stops in Austin. When I asked him what he made of the incident, he told me not to take his response out of context. Here's what he said.
I said this from the get-go, is that it was comedy. It was a poor choice of words, bad timing, and the video was out of context. You know what? I could take anything out of context and put it into my own context and then can make anyone look racist. I know Tony, I know Peng, I know the situation, I was there, I've been there for a long time, I've seen these shows. This happened during a Death Squad Show and Peng was a writer and he used to come to those shows. He's done them like three or four times. He was part of the crew. He opened up for Tony a few times in Dallas. They were friends.
I was actually really shocked to see what he did. I honestly thought that they were close enough that if Peng had a problem with what Tony was saying, although, it was never malicious, again, poor choice of words, he can hurt some people's feelings sometimes but that is not off-brand for what Tony does. He's not a racist but he does roast people.
You know, he only roasts people, though, that he is comfortable with. He will never say something to somebody that he doesn't feel like they can take it. When they all went down, I was really surprised that Peng never reached out to him and never asked him as a man to tell him how he felt about the situation and talk to him just one on one.
He went straight to the internet and, to me, that shows where his motives were. It wasn't about him shining light on this huge racist who walks around with a tiki torch and has a swastika tattooed on his fucking arm and has a notorious reputation for calling people racial slurs. No. He decided he had an opportunity and he went for the clout chase. And he went for the 15 minutes of fame. Unfortunately, he tried to affect someone's livelihood for his own gain.
What is even sadder about this is that he put the whole Stop Asian Hate in the middle of all of this, this cause that should have positive light looked on it, and now he's shining this negative light on it because he went ahead and did this for selfish reasons. He didn't do this for the Stop Asian Hate. You know? That wasn't his goal. All the signs point to that, the way he edited the video, putting subtitles on the video, that's not... Those are things that you do to be able to get a video to go viral. Knowing that, he knew he had an opportunity to take this, twist it around, and get opportunity.
He sat on it for a while too. He sat on it for like a week or close to a week and so, again, all these things added up. I've said this before, don't take any of this out of context but this is exactly how I feel about it is that it's bullshit. It was complete bullshit. You see, because we have the full set. We had the context. He took the context and the context was then released onto the internet and everyone who had an interest in seeing it or had somewhat of an open mind to be able to say, "All right. Let me see what the full context is" and some people watched it and they still didn't see what was so bad about what Peng put out there and then there was some other people who saw it and they were like, "You know what? I agree. This is taken out of context" because it was a bad joke. He tried to riff off the top of his head, kind of playing off of what Peng was saying, and Peng...
You can't judge something. In all situations, you always get both sides of the story. For alleged assault, they're going to get testimonies from both sides of the story, they're going to get witnesses, they're going to get the full context before they make a judgment. And because of that—that's not how our society is working right now with this whole cancel culture. It's like we see ten seconds, we get one little piece, and to put it in the context that people want us to see and then we make judgements right away. It's unfortunate and it just really is.
I've kept my little remarks to a minimum here because I think Lewin's words speak for themselves. Let's put too fine a point on it anyway: Austin's longtime comics have well grounded fears. Their scene has very literally been infiltrated by (as Carina Magyar would call them) angry straight white men enabled by pandemic profiteers like Brandon Lewin, the Creek's Rebecca Trent, and Joe Rogan.
Make no mistake about which moths are flocking to this light. Two weeks ago, Seattle comedian Chase Roper described certain comics ostracized from that scene who've since found a new home in Austin:
Cut to present day, both have been living in Austin, TX and one hosts his very own weeknight show at The Creek and the Cave! The premise: finally, a show where a straight guy can say WHATEVER THEY WANT! 🙄— Chase Roper (@chase_roper) June 16, 2021
One of those shows even booked a fellow former (and Proud Boy adjacent) PNW comic who moved away on account the latter mentioned proud boyness.— Chase Roper (@chase_roper) June 16, 2021
Anyway, that concludes my rant on reason number 7167382 why being part of the stand up culture is so toxic and mentally draining.— Chase Roper (@chase_roper) June 16, 2021
Austin's comics have their work cut out for them.
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