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Photo by Brianna Caleri

Picture it: you’re in your garden, and your knees are in the dirt. You feel a gentle breeze across your back. You feel a gentle breeze everywhere, actually, because this is Austin, the 2021 runner-up for best best naked gardening spots, according to LawnStarter and, of course, personal experience.

You are, of course, wearing a whole lot of sunscreen, and you’re taking breaks under one of your 50 percent shade cloths. As you’re reclining in the grass, enjoying yourself but trying not to think about bugs, you receive a call from a fellow naked gardener announcing that Austin just rose to No. 1. Every plant around you seems to smile.

May 7 marks World Naked Gardening Day, and this year, Austin takes the top spot on LawnStarter’s list, based on five related rankings across 100 cities: legality of public nudity (1), legality of toplessness (1), Google searches for “World Naked Gardening Day” and “nudist” (40), prevalence of sex offenders in the local population (45), and forecasted daytime temperature on the big day (10).

The top five other Texas cities ranked as follows:

  • Dallas, No. 16
  • Houston, No. 15
  • Fort Worth, No. 37
  • El Paso, No. 43
  • Corpus Christi, No. 50

Garland, the worst-ranked city in Texas, comes in at No. 85, with Arlington, Virginia, coming in dead last.

Austin unseated Miami, Florida, a city with more nudists according to the study, with its particularly strong protections for public nudity. Austin is one of 15 cities listed on GoTopless.org as a topless “tested” city, meaning that residents can actually take advantage of topless protections without worrying about being caught in loopholes like disturbing the peace or public indecency. The city also has the only nude beach in the entire state, Hippie Hollow.

Miami fell all the way to No. 6 this year, beat out by Tampa, Florida (No. 5), Baton Rouge, Louisiana (No. 4), Atlanta, Georgia (No. 3), and Orlando, Florida, as the runner-up. Orlando has the top local interest ranking, while Austin is quite far down the list. Dallas and Houston, both in the top 20 overall, showed significantly more interest than Austin, and were both in the top 10 rankings of the category.

Austin, however, is ranked the most friendly to nude gardeners, signaling that it doesn’t really matter how much a nude gardener cares about the activity; they’re just the most free to do it. Like many fringe activities, perhaps naked gardening starts with a firm push against the mainstream and slowly settles into just another option to live authentically. Or naturally, if you will.

Photo courtesy of George W. Bush Presidential Center

Texas museum's new exhibit reveals laughing matters at the White House

Liberty & Laughter

Most of the time, the White House is no joke. But an off-beat new exhibit at the George W. Bush Presidential Center reveals the pranks, quips, and humorous happenings that have lightened the mood in the Oval Office throughout history. Liberty & Laughter: The Lighter Side of the White House opened Thursday, March 3 and runs through December 31 at the museum on the SMU campus in Dallas.

The special exhibit promises entertaining first-family anecdotes, interactive multimedia, and amusing artifacts that will unveil presidential pranks and inside jokes, “while awards to the wittiest, quippiest, most mischievous president and first lady will grace the pursuit of happiness walk,” says a press release.

“‘Liberty & Laughter’ shows the importance of humor in a democracy,” says museum director Brig. Gen. Patrick X. Mordente in the release. “We are free to express our thoughts about our leaders in many ways — sometimes as cartoon caricatures. This exhibit reminds us that our presidents are real people with a sense of humor that helped them in their important job of leading our country.”

(To be clear, the exhibit covers more than “Dubya’s” White House, although God bless ’em if the word “strategery” appears somewhere.)

Among the jocular historical documents, photographs, and artifacts on display will be:

  • First lady correspondence with actors and personalities like Mary Tyler Moore and Marge Simpson.
  • President Ronald Reagan’s joke notecards.
  • President Bill Clinton’s sunglasses from The Arsenio Hall Show, and one of his many saxophones.
  • A hand-written humorous verse President Franklin D. Roosevelt composed to the three press associations.

“Visitors will experience humor through cartoons and caricatures, learn the savvy ways presidents have added levity to debates and interactions with the press, and laugh their way through a presidential talent show,” the release says. “A lively mirth-matching quiz will adorn one gallery while another will offer the chance to copycat famous presidential impersonators.”

Throughout the exhibit, organizers say, there will be reminders from the likes of President George Washington, who once said, “It is assuredly better to go laughing than crying thro’ the rough journey of life.”

More information and tickets, which include access to the museum’s permanent exhibit, are available here.

A new exhibit explores the lighter side of the White House.

Photo courtesy of George W. Bush Presidential Center
A new exhibit explores the lighter side of the White House.

Popular podcaster Joe Rogan tied to new downtown Austin comedy club

ritzy makeover

A new comedy club associated with local comedian and podcaster Joe Rogan is on tap for downtown Austin’s vacant Ritz Theater, formerly home to Alamo Drafthouse.

Asylum Real Estate Holdings, which bought the landmark last year from Craddock Properties, plans to convert the theater into a venue called Comedy Mothership, according to public records. Asylum is managed by Matthew Lichtenberg, who is Rogan’s talent agent.

The Ritz Theater, at 320 E. Sixth St., dates back to 1927 and started as a movie theater. In subsequent years, it hosted musical acts like Stevie Ray Vaughn and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. It also did time as an adult movie theater and as a temporary home of the Esther’s Follies comedy troupe.

Tim League, co-founder of Austin-based Alamo Drafthouse, renovated the building’s façade and interior in 2007, and returned the venue to its original use as a movie theater. The COVID-19 pandemic forced Alamo Drafthouse to shut down the theater in 2021.

Under its most recent configuration, the venue contained a downstairs theater with 175 seats and an upstairs theater with 96 seats.

The Austin Towers blog, which first reported on the Rogan-linked comedy club, notes that Rogan had eyed the One World Theatre in West Austin as a comedy venue but that deal fell through.

Now, Rogan — who recently has whipped up controversy over his views on COVID-19 and his use of racial slurs — appears to be setting his sights on the Ritz property.

As part of the building’s transformation into a comedy club, the Alamo signage is supposed to be removed and replaced with Comedy Mothership signage, but the Ritz signage is set to remain.

So far, there’s no indication about when work on Comedy Mothership will begin and when the comedy club will open.

Last July, an entity related to Asylum Real Estate Holdings filed a federal trademark application for “Comedy Mothership” that would cover, among other things, comedy shows, apparel, audio and video recordings, documentaries, and other products and services bearing the brand name.

Rogan moved to Austin in 2020 from Southern California after landing a $100 million podcasting deal with Spotify. He and his wife, Jessica, live in a tricked-out $14.4 million mansion along Lake Austin.

Colossal Austin comedy festival unveils star lineup for bigger-than-ever event

Just for laughs

If it’s been awhile since you LOL’d, the rib-tickling return of Austin’s favorite laugh fest may be just the dose of comedic medicine you need.

The first round of comedy talent has just been released for the inaugural Moontower Just for Laughs Austin, which will turn downtown into a veritable funny farm April 13-24.

Previously known as the Moontower Comedy Festival, the now 11-year-old local laugh fest partnered with Montreal-based powerhouse Just for Laughs Group in September to launch the all-new and hilariously improved Moontower Just for Laughs Austin, growing the original four-day event into a “colossal comedy experience” over nearly two weeks that will feature a curated assemblage of giggle-inducing stand-up performances, parties, live podcasts, and broadcasts across at least 10 venues.

“Partnering with comedy titan Just for Laughs has opened doors to new and exciting opportunities,” says Lietza Brass, Moontower Just for Laughs Austin festival director. “Knowing where we are and what we have planned for future announcements leads me to believe that the 2022 Moontower JFL festival will be a cavalcade of comedy for fans and industry.”

Festival badges ($125-$1,250) are on sale now at moontowercomedyfest.com, as well as through the Paramount Theatre box office or by calling 512-474-1221.

While more performers will be announced as the festival nears and the lineup is subject to change (we are still living in a pandemic, y’all), the initial talent pool of entertainers is, as one commenter on the Moontower website puts it, “an embarrassment of comedy riches.”

Headliners set to perform at the Paramount and Stateside theaters include:

  • Marc Maron, a fest favorite who boasts four hit specials, is known for his wealth of acting performances (including his role as the cantankerously lovable Sam on GLOW), and is the host of his landmark podcast, WTF with Marc Maron.
  • Dan Soder of Showtime series Billions and co-host of SiriusXM’s The Bonfire, who will make his Paramount debut.
  • Emmy-nominated Nicole Byer, host of Netflix show Nailed It! and Why Won’t You Date Me?, her comedy and relationship podcast, which will be staged live during the festival.
  • Deon Cole of ABC show black-ish and its spinoff, Grown-ish, as well as the new feature film The Harder They Fall.
  • Michelle Buteau, host of the newest season of the popular Netflix series The Circle and star of BET’s The First Wives Club, who will hit the Paramount stage for the first time.
  • Nikki Glaser, who’s been seen on Netflix, Comedy Central Roasts, and hosts The Nikki Glaser Podcast.
  • Mark Normand, a New York comedian featured in Netflix’s The Standups and co-host of the Tuesdays with Stories podcast.
  • Not Another Dungeons and Dragons Podcast, hosted by dungeon master Brian Murphy, Emily Axford, Jake Hurwitz, and Caldwell Tanner.
  • Christina P, who has had her stand-up featured on Netflix and co-hosts the hit podcast Your Mom’s House.
  • Saturday Night Live favorites Chris Redd, James Austin Johnson, and sketch group Please Don’t Destroy, featuring members Ben Marshall, Martin Herlihy, and John Higgins.
  • Donnell Rawlings, best known from Comedy Central’s Chappelle’s Show and Netflix’s The Degenerates.
  • Natasha Leggero and Moshe Kasher, who will co-headline two shows at the Stateside, in addition to hosting their live podcast, Endless Honeymoon.
  • Sasheer Zamata from ABC’s Home Economics and Hulu’s Woke.
  • Rachel Feinstein and Jessica Kirson, two formidable national headliners who will team up in a rare comedy tour de force.

In addition to these Paramount and Stateside headliners, Moontower Just for Laughs Austin features a sidesplitting array of national acts performing at more intimate local venues, where festivalgoers can get up close and personal with the funny.

And this year’s fest will also feature a first-ever audition showcase of Just for Laughs’ signature New Faces series, which will give Austin comedy lovers the first chance to check out the rising stars vying for a spot to perform in the iconic New Faces showcase, which takes place every July at the Just for Laughs Montreal festival.

“We’re excited to share that Moontower Just for Laughs Austin will be growing this year,” says Bruce Hills, president of Just for Laughs. “Our programming team has been working tirelessly to curate an outstanding lineup of performers, and the names we’ve revealed today is just the beginning. We are so excited for what’s to come, and are looking forward to reuniting with all of our industry friends and comedy fans this April.”

Check out the Moontower website for the long and impressive list of fest performers, live podcasts and broadcast series, and up-to-date info.

Courtesy of Whataburger

Whataburger ‘sleighs’ the season with new ugly sweater and more holiday gear

Winter Whataburger Land

The holiday season is upon us. And you know what that means in the Lone Star State: decking the halls, visits with Santa, dashing through no snow, and — oh, yeah — the annual release of some of the cheesiest Christmas garb in all of Texas.

That’s right, it’s time to “sleigh” the season by beefing up your wardrobe with some Whataburger finery. The Texas-based burger chain has plenty of new and classic holiday offerings Whataburger fans will relish this year and for Yuletides to come.

If it’s an ugly holiday sweater you’re craving, the fast-food company’s new design — featuring a snowy Christmas Eve scene at Whataburger, complete with Santa and his reindeer — is sure to jingle your bells. Make it a combo by adding the matching beanie and new holiday socks to stay cozy during the most wonderful time of the year.

Also new this season: pajama sets in sizes for the whole family and bedecked with a diamond flying W design. After all, as Whataburger notes, “the jolly man on Christmas night loves families in orange and white.”

And the 2021 collectible ornament, a signature orange vintage pickup truck hauling — what else? — Whataburger fries will help make the season bright and perhaps a little salty.

The company will also gift fans with additional product drops throughout the season, including more pajama sets and beanies, though the online Whatastore, where all seasonal items can be purchased, already boasts an abundance of holiday wares, from the clever “All I want for Christmas is Whataburger” T-shirt and the classic Whataburger A-frame snow globe to 7-foot inflatable Santa and snowman yard decorations, and even Christmas-themed Whataburger table tents.

Of course, Whataburger-branded apparel and gifts are nothing new for the brand, which has long offered a meaty line for the fashion-forward fan, including a flurry of strangely appealing holiday wear.

Visit the Whatastore to get more info and to check out the full line of holiday offerings.

The new holiday sweater will have you dreaming of a Whataburger Christmas.

Courtesy of Whataburger
The new holiday sweater will have you dreaming of a Whataburger Christmas.

The Masked Singer reveals Austin date as part of epic national tour

Costume drama

The Live Music Capital of the World will soon play host to a touring version of America’s favorite song-and-dance reality show.

The Masked Singer, the Fox series guessing-game competition that features costumed celebrities belting out their best (and sometimes worst) renditions of popular songs, will take to the Bass Concert Hall stage in Austin on July 13, 2022 as part of a national tour.

Tickets for the Austin show go on sale to the public Wednesday, November 3 at 7 pm at texasperformingarts.org. VIP packages are available now through VIPNation.com and include meet-and-greet opportunities with the cast, exclusive merch, and photo opportunities.

Fans of the TV show can expect much of the same zaniness during the live performance, which will include some recognizable characters from the TV series brought to life onstage alongside “surprise celebrity guests,” according to a release.

Celebrity guest hosts from the TV show, who will be announced closer to performance dates, will join one “local celebrity” at every show, with that VIP performing in a top-secret disguise. (And considering Austin has no shortage of talented professional singers, we’re expecting a spectacular showing!)

The Austin audience will then try to decipher clues to guess the local celebrity’s identity until the he or she is unmasked at the end of the night’s festivities, with producers promising “an incredible production of song, dance, and craziness that only The Masked Singer could deliver.”

The tour is presented by Right Angle Entertainment — which has made a killing touring with live versions of popular TV series, including Price is Right Live — and producers Guy Phillips and Mark Swanhart, the minds behind Dancing with the Stars: Live!, The Bachelor Live on Stage, and the Simone Biles-led Gold Over America Tour, which canceled its Austin engagement this fall.

With the following The Masked Singer show has amassed (it’s currently the No. 1 primetime series, averaging 7.9 million viewers across multiple platforms), it was likely only a matter of time before these producers took the show on the road.

The Masked Singer national tour kicks off in St. Louis on May 28, 2022. In addition to the Austin engagement on July 13, the tour will also make Texas stops in San Antonio on July 12, Sugar Land on July 14, and Grand Prairie on July 15.

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Austin Pets Alive and Austin Animal Center launch $31 pet adoptions for the holidays

New home for the holidays

Two Austin organizations are looking to get local pets into their "furever" homes this holiday season. In a special December promotion, Austin Pets Alive! (APA) and Austin Animal Center are working to get as many animals out of the shelter as possible, by making all adoption fees a flat $31.

The promotion runs December 1-31. According to a release, APA's director of lifesaving operations, Stephanie Bilbro, sees this as a great opportunity to clear out the shelters and make a great impact heading into 2023.

“The holidays are a great time for the Austin community to come together and add to their families. We have so many precious kittens, puppies, cats, and dogs just waiting for their turn to find a family,” said Bilbro. “We hope this is a chance for any family who’s been looking to add a pet to theirs to do so right in the middle of the holiday season. We know Austin is in the upper echelon when it comes to animal welfare. We hope this promo sets us and AAC up for a successful end to 2022 and a fast start going into 2023.”

Both shelters are also seeking fosters and volunteers throughout the holiday season, for Austinites looking to help the shelters without making a long-term commitment.

APA has two locations, one at 1156 W. Cesar Chavez St., and one in Tarrytown (3118 Windsor Rd.). Both locations operate 12-6 pm daily, except Christmas Eve (12-4 pm), Christmas Day (closed), and New Year’s Eve (12-4 pm). The Austin Animal Center is located at 7201 Levander Loop and is open every day from 11 am-7 pm for adoptions. For holiday hours, AAC will be closing at 5 pm on December 23 and will be closed December 24-26.

'Famous' rooftop igloos return to Austin hot spot for the coolest experience this winter

Stay Cool

There aren’t so many winter wonderlands in Austin during the holiday season, but things get colder at higher elevations. The Hotel Van Zandt fourth-floor rooftop may not be high enough to change the weather, but visitors throughout December are invited to hang out in its self-proclaimed "famous" all-weather igloos, snacking on bites from inside and themed cocktails after the sun goes down.

Each private, six-seat igloo at the “South Pole” contains a Christmas tree, board and card games, festive records, and other cozy holiday decorations. It’s as private as Austin dining gets without completely breaking the bank, but the poolside mini-village of transparent igloos creates a warm feeling of togetherness. And in case it actually does get cold (a Christmas miracle!), the vinyl globes are heated.

It's not just a fun gimmick — as cute as the igloos are, Geraldine's is a great foodie destination. Visitors can expect (strong) drinks like the “Dandy Andes,” a minty chocolate mix of Grey Goose vodka, crème de cacao, crème de menthe, and matcha tea. “Santa on a Beach” combines tropical flavors with cinnamon, and other drinks include unusual ingredients like Chartreuse whipped cream, pistachio, and chocolate mole bitters.

Geraldine’s menu focuses on classic Southern cuisine without getting weighed down by tradition; that means a roster of semi-adventurous gourmet comfort foods, like mole birria short ribs, smoked carrots, and salty Brussels sprouts with serranos and mint. Shareables are a good idea, since the igloos are intimate (read: not especially convenient unless you like balancing a dinner plate on the couch).

Two rounds of two-hour seating will be available every night, and reservations will go very fast. As of December 5, there are only a few dates left. Reservations ($100 upfront) entail a $200 minimum on food and beverage, plus a 20 percent service charge. Book on Eventbrite.

Acclaimed Texas chef toasts the Italian liqueur that's perfect for the holidays

The Wine Guy

Editor's note: Long before Chris Shepherd became a James Beard Award-winning chef, he developed enough of a passion for wine to work at Brennan's of Houston as a sommelier. He maintains that interest to this day and covers it regularly in a column for CultureMap's Houston site. Here, he talks not about wine, but the perfect after-dinner sip.

All right, team! Listen up! I’m going to give you some very important holiday information to help you get through all of the parties, family gatherings, and large festive dinners. We are not going to talk about wine today. We’re going to talk about another love of mine — the life-saving amaro.

What is amaro, you ask? It’s an Italian herbal liqueur that’s traditionally consumed post-meal as a digestif. Think of it this way: you start your meal with an aperitif — could be a martini, Campari, or Aperol spritz — to get your palate going and your body ready to eat. After dinner, amaro will help you get through the rest of your night. This elixir will magically and quickly break down everything you just consumed.

Most amari are from Italy, but fortunately new producers with similar styles are popping up all over the world. Some are sweeter, some are more bitter. You just have to find the style you like. Producers don’t traditionally tell you what’s in their amaro, because most of them are made up of dozens of herbs and spices. It’s all about trial and error to find the one you love.

I drink it neat, but some people drink it on the rocks. More and more, you’re seeing amari in cocktails, too.

The amari selection at our house is awesome. My wife and I are firm believers in this beverage as a night cap, and it’s even become part of my regiment pre-dinner as a spritz. Kill two birds, you know?

Unfortunately, not a lot of restaurants carry multiple amari, so it’s up to you guys to get this trend moving. The more you ask for it, the more they’ll stock it.

Our No. 1 go to at home? Montenegro. It’s easy to find, and it’s easy drinking. It has flavors of vanilla and orange, but it’s not too sweet and not too bitter. It’s had the same recipe since 1885, and I hope they never change it.

My wife’s favorite is Braulio. This spirit is from the Italian Alps and aged in Slavonian casks. Using more medicinal herbs and fruits means it skews more bitter than Montenegro, but it has a nice sweetness at the end.

A newish player in the amari game is Amaro Nonino. The Nonino family is historically one of the best grappa producers in the world — they’ve been distilling grappa since 1897 — but they didn’t start to produce their namesake amaro until 1992. (By newish, you get what I mean.) It has lots of honey, vanilla, licorice, and orange flavors. It’s a tad less sweet than most, but I think it’s fantastic.

Pasubio is really different from other amari. If you’re a fan of blueberries, this is for you. It literally tastes like crushed blueberries.

The next two are really cool and unusual, because they're made here in the U.S. An all-time favorite is Southern Amaro from High Wire Distilling Co. in Charleston. Yaupon is one of the main characteristics, which is found all over Texas.

High Wire built its reputation on using regionally grown and foraged ingredients. If you’re ever in Charleston, you should stop into the distillery and say hi to Scott and Ann! Also, try some of their Jimmy Red Corn whiskey. Actually, everything they make is delightful.

Heirloom Pineapple Amaro is made in Minneapolis. To me, this is fantastically bitter but also tastes like roasted pineapple in a glass. One of my new favorites, for sure.

Now, here’s a helpful tidbit of info. You may have heard of fernet. That’s a general term for an amaro with very little to no sweetness. Branca is a producer that makes fernet, and it’s the most well-known. Search out others as well, because they’re all pretty cool.

Almost everything I listed can be found at most liquor stores. Don’t be afraid to try something. Yes, sometimes it tastes like taking your medicine. But I’ll bet the smell of Jägermeister penetrates your early 20s, and surprise — that’s a style of amaro as well.