Matt Bearden: "I don’t think you’ll find anyone in this scene that roots more for Austin comics than me."
Over the past decade and a half, Matt Bearden has made immeasurable contributions to the Austin comedy scene. From his stint on iconic series Austin Stories to winning Funniest Person in Austin and, now, appearing daily on KLBJ’s Dudley and Bob morning show and running best-in-town standup showcase PUNCH!, Bearden’s had an influential hand in developing and maintaining the quality of Austin's comedy scene.
It hasn’t always been easy; Bearden’s FPIA win was bittersweet, earning praise but little material payback. And while PUNCH! is a highlight on the local comedy calendar, Bearden struggled for years to get booked at Cap City, which now hosts the perennially sold-out showcase. Hell, club owner Margie Coyle once even heckled him.
These setbacks have made Bearden an unapologetic realist, but also someone who has big dreams for Austin's comedy scene—and he’s doing everything he can to lift it up like ships in a storm. With his outspoken reputation, he's tried to help comics understand and work their jobs better. The realist in Bearden knows Austin has a long way to go, and a lot to lose.
We recently spoke with Bearden about his role within and views on our local scene. Here's what Bearden has to say:
On his early comedy
I spent five years going to every Velveeta Room open mic before I ever got on stage. My first set was in 1990. It was absolutely horrendous and I did everything hacky thing in the book. Props and a guitar. Peanut butter—I took my pants off and smeared my balls with peanut butter.
The second time I did standup, in 1996, it was to audition for Austin Stories. They wanted to look at standups. I was terrible, I made up an act just to get on and be seen. I got on, but not from that. In fact, no one got on from that, really. I got on because some of the original guys were fans of mine from my improv. You know how every improv troupe has the one funny guy? I think they thought I was the one funny guy, and they kind of wrote me in.
On PUNCH! and Montreal
I feel like PUNCH! will last three or four more years. I think it will run its course. You have to kill a show after awhile. Invite Them Up, Eating It—they’re all gone.
I am very insecure about my success but I don’t think you’ll find anyone in this scene that roots more for Austin comics than me.
And my feelings were hurt again this year—Montreal has become very important for me. When I went to look who made it, I saw Ramin’s name there and I saw Gutmann’s name there. And I was at the exact same time, if you can believe this, morose and thrilled, so thrilled for those guys. And they are two separate things; the cheering I feel for other comics has nothing to do with the way I feel about myself. That took a lot of work, to get to where I do not base my success comparatively to other comics. That is the most miserable place you can be. Ever. And I see people do it and they say ‘Well, why that guy? I’m better than that guy?’ And that will never get you anywhere.
I’m still here a little out of fear. Fear of being judged by the people I want to be judged by. If I go to LA there’s a chance I could fail, and here I keep doing well, so why would I leave to go there? I see some people who have to do it. They just have to. But I don’t. I feel like I’ve come a long way from that WTF interview a year ago, too, because I have more confidence in where I am now. I just feel secure now; I have a wife that loves me, a kid that looks up to me. And money might not make you happy, but it can pay off the debts that allow you to be happy.
I’m just now starting to feel successful, and that feels good. Part of not wanting to go to LA is fear, but also I want to be comfortable and happy, especially after being so sad for such a long time.
On building the Austin comedy scene
I get that some people are doing standup not because they love standup (well, they may love standup), but they want to be famous. Some people just want to be famous, right? It’s their goal that’s why they’re doing standup, it’s their avenue to fame. And if you want that, probably the best place to be in the world is LA.
What I don’t get is, when you’ve got a good thing going here—you get stage time whenever, wherever you go, you’re the kind of comic that, even when the list is full, he’s going to give it to you because you’re at that level—and then you say, ‘Fuck it, I’m going to move to LA.’
And you end up having to work two jobs because everything is twice as expensive. You’re writing a little bit less, you cant really afford to go out drinking or whatever and you’re getting up mainly at coffee shops and at little shows in the Valley or outside of town. And once every six weeks or so, you get to do Comedy Death Ray or one of those things at the UCB.
I would propose to you: stay here. It’s cheaper, there are plenty of stages and all that kind of stuff, and you keep working on a little more of a national reputation. You go out—that’s part of the work—you go out and see every comic when they’re in town. Shake their hand, talk to them, make sure they know you or whatever. And your bills are all paid and you’re just working one part time job. Then, once a year, you take one month off of your job and you call all those connections you have in LA.
I’d like to figure out a way that we can keep some of our talent here, because we export so much great talent.
I’m good at projecting longevity; predicting that someone will make it through freshman year, I can tell you that. I’m pretty close to telling you if someone will graduate, too. But I cant tell you if they’re going to get a job or not.
Cap City’s number one objective—and people are always like, ‘I don’t get what they’re doing’—Cap City’s number one objective is to keep an audience happy so they come back again. Not to make comics better or to build new comics.
You can go to any other town in this country and see they don’t hire local openers, they don’t hire local features. You go to Phoenix, there’s two clubs there. They will not hire local talent at all, and they don’t run an open mic.
Comics are used to thinking it’s the club’s job to get people in. Comics don’t do any promotion, they just show up.
If people want those shows to be better, they need to start doing it. When Brian Gaar’s show is going on I watch Twitter and half the people on the bill, the night of the show, will say something, instead of on Monday, Wednesday, Thursday really selling it. People don’t do that.
Watch a band in this city. Watch a band put up fucking posters, Twitter all their fans, hound them with, ‘Hey, if you come to our show I’ll give you a free CD download,’ all this shit that they do. Comics don’t do any of that. It’s just, “Hey, people should come worship me.” But there are places for everyone to do well if they start thinking about it.
If someone wants to start working on a half hour, go to ColdTowne. ColdTowne will rent you their theater for a hundred dollars. A lot of comics don’t want to gamble, a hundred dollars means I’ve got to make a hundred dollars at the door. But it seats 40 people, and at five dollars a head, that’s two hundred dollars—you can walk out of there with a hundred dollars in your pocket, if you can produce your own show.
But most comics don’t have the balls, or the business acumen, or whatever. And that’s what I mean is the next level teaching everybody. The thing is, there are no comedy coaches. The only people who teach comedy classes tend to be failed comics. Failed, bitter comics. I don’t want to teach how to do comedy but comics need to know this shit.
Could you imagine if the University of Texas fielded a football team of all people that tried football—an open field open mic—and they just formed a team? And every time you formed a team nobody told you what you had to do and you had to learn it all for yourself, you know what I mean? Nobody tells you what a headshot is, what a bio looks like, what’s a press pack look like, how do I get booked, how do I behave when I get booked. And everybody has to learn it on their own, right? And so we keep allowing comics to make the same mistakes over and over and over again. And part of that is good because it means that, these shitty guys, there’s a better chance they’ll shoot themselves in the foot.
I get that you don’t have cashflow, but one of the most important things you can have in this business is a place for people to find you. If someone goes to a club and sees you and think that you’re funny, you need a place where they can go home and find you again. That’s how you build fans. And I guarantee clubs look at that shit. Clubs now go straight to your Twitter. And if you’re up on Twitter and you have 200 followers, they’re not that interested.
Really, the only way to compete is to stop giving it away to New York and LA. That’s what we do right now. The scene, as a whole, needs to become more professional and think about standup as a career.
On how to get better
There are other things to be doing in the meantime, while you’re growing your career. Remember this: being a standup doesn’t mean I build one act and I just do it. There are things you need to do. You need to have a four and a half minute TV act, you need to have a five minute audition act, you need to have a seven minute audition act, you need to have a 12 minute guest spot act, a 15 minute opening act, you need a 25 minute feature act, a 30 minute feature act, and a 35 minute feature act. You need a 45 minute set. You need all those things. And guess what? Auditioning for a festival is very different from auditioning for a club. When you’re auditioning for Montreal they want six distinct bits in a four-and-a-half minute set.
If you work at a coffee shop, part of your job is, at the end of the night, to clean those toilets. You can’t just say, ‘I only want to make coffee,’ because then you’re a shitty employee. And we’re all self-employed.
And that’s part of your job. To have a set that you could close your eyes and write it down in 25 seconds. You should know it inside and out. Because what happens when we bring big scouts to see you—and I’ve seen so many comics do this, tell a joke, fucking kill with it and then go, ‘Let’s see what else?’ When a comic is finding the next joke, if I’m a television scout [motions crossing name off a list] I’m done and I’ve moved on. That guy is not ready.
On Funniest Person in Austin
Do you know why some comics have lost it after winning FPIA? It’s because there’s none of that coaching. A lot of us have been trained to think, ‘Well, my goal is to win the Funniest Person in Austin contest and I guess my career will begin.’ So when they win it they wake the next day, and guess what? Nothing changes.
On Austin comedy fans
We have lots of people that are successful in the business that live here. But one of the things that we really need, we need more comedy fans here. The comedy fans we have think they’re comedy fans because when Patton Oswalt comes to town, or Jim Gaffigan comes to town, they’ll go see celebrities. Here’s the problem we have: people need to be told who their celebrities are. Even if you’re into indie music, Pitchfork has to tell you that your band is cool before you really believe it.
Currently, not enough of the papers are telling people in Austin who the celebrities are. The Chronicle will tell you each week that Bob Schneider is a celebrity. There are certain musicians that they fucking love and talk about, and they do very well. They’ll tell you about some of our local smaller filmmakers that aren’t known on a national scale that always sell stuff out or whatever. I mean, you can’t tell me that the Master Pancake guys are celebrities beyond this city, but they’ve been talked about in every rag, every week.
Those are the things that help people know what’s happening, and they drive the agenda for these cities. I got so excited when The Onion started doing comedy, but everyone who ended up working for The Onion is an improviser. At the exact same time—oh, this is the other brilliant move—the improv schools in town went and offered free classes to the guys who write The Chronicle stuff like that. That’s genius because everyone wants to perform, and now if I’m closer to improv, of course I’m going to write more about improv. I don’t know of one improv troupe where they make their living off of improv, but I can show you about a dozen comics that do. I can’t even show you the same number of musicians who make their living off of music.
There were no audiences, but the scene was better when I started. The comedy is better now, but the scene. When you went to the Velveeta Room, we all watched every act. And then we all went to drink. This shit about stopping in, doing your time, talking in the back, walking out… You talked in the back when shitty comics were up but then you shut up when the next guy was up. We were all there at all the shows. And we were there on Thursday, we were there on Friday, we were there on Saturday, and I would see comics up at Cap City for the early show and then we’d all be at Velveeta for the late shows. We went to all the shows. I go to shows all the time now where I don’t see a single fucking comic. What are comics doing? You get into all the clubs for free.
Austin comics all like to think that they’re very original, but Austin comedy has a clear voice. We all sound like each other. We all think the thing that’s so awesome about Austin comedy is that we’re all so original and none of us are hacks and we’re not doing that same shit, but when an outsider comes to us they hear the accent in our comedy, if you will. It’s loud and clear. Boston has a comedy accent, Chicago has a comedy accent, New York has a couple of different accents, Minneapolis has a clear comedy accent, and LA has three or four. And I think that’s part of the trouble we’re having right now, I think that Austin is actually getting big enough that we might be splitting into two accents, and that’s what’s tough.
On the rest of Texas
The only club San Antonio has is in the mall and that club is fucking dumb, it’s fucking disgusting—and it creates dumb comics. Anytime comics would come up here from there it would be like, ‘Jesus, look how terrible.’ The things they found funny, all the shit that they would do, would be racist out of ignorance not out of hate.‘ I make fun of all women. I don’t hate them.’ It doesn’t make sense.
Dallas I never cared about, because it was never on the map. You know who Austin cared about? It was Houston. Houston was a bigger scene. Now? They closed the Laff Stop recently. Do you realize that’s there’s fucking nothing left there anymore? It’s a barren wasteland.
Do you know who Houston produced? We used to go every week to Houston, just to try to get in front of Mark Babbitt, get on that Laff Stop stage, the coolest stage in the world. Every comic, comic after comic, recorded their CDs there because it was the coolest fucking club in the nation. Here are a couple of comics who got their start in Houston: Bill Hicks, Sam Kinison, Brett Butler, Janeane Garafalo, Mike MacRae, Bob Biggerstaff, Ralphie May, and then a ton more names you might know.
When I hear comics bitching, I cringe a little bit because I think that Houston, with four and a half million people, couldn’t support a comedy scene. It was gone in less than five years, it crumbled. It disa-fucking-ppeared off the face of the earth in five years time. And you know everyone here is thinking we’ve got the third best scene in the entire country, but, it can be fucking gone tomorrow.