It’s one thing to say you’re going to “keep Austin weird.”
It’s another to call your festival the Moontower Comedy & Oddity Festival, and five years in, be able to not only look back on all of the big names you’ve attracted and celebrate it via sizzle reel, but also launch your 2016 edition in downtown Austin by truly embracing the oddity as much as the comedy.
Which is what happened at the Paramount Theatre and its adjacent venue, the Stateside, on Wednesday night. Anthony Atamanuik held court at the Stateside solo as Donald Trump, delivering his rambling narcissism, taking questions from the crowd and dressing down audience members. Meanwhile, at the Paramount, Anjelah Johnson and her 14-person crew that supports Bon Qui Qui put on a stand-up comedy show, music concert and hype session that brought everyone out of their seats.
Of course, it also helps when your sponsors make customized videos to roll before the shows, such as this one from IFC with the “Mayor of Austin” (Kyle MacLachlan) explaining to Fred Armisen, and by extension us, what makes Austin “cool” and “not cool.” Sorry, strollers.
The opening-night shows really stretch an audience’s notion of what live comedy is supposed to be, and what it can be.
Atamanuik has nailed his Trump impersonation so to the wall that, at one point last month, watching Trump’s press conferences and victory speeches made you feel as though the would-be billionaire president had been watching the comedian and taking notes — not the other way around. Perhaps not since Dana Carvey’s impersonation of President George H.W. Bush on Saturday Night Live a quarter-century ago has an impersonation made as much of an impact on its subject, and our own impressions of him.
There’s something truly magical when Atamanuik’s “Trump” pairs up with and faces off against James Adomian’s “Bernie” Sanders. Adomian will perform this weekend at Moontower, but you’ll have to tune into Fusion on April 27 to watch Trump vs. Bernie again.
Without Bernie, Trump’s madness can receive the necessary spotlight it needs for you to know it’s not enough just to laugh at Atamanuik’s take on him.
Next door, a full house at the Paramount revealed a cultural segregation in the theater, with most of the more enthusiastic and younger Latino audience and true Bon Qui Qui fans up in the balcony, while the orchestra seats were flooded with older white faces with festival FAN and VIP badges.
Anjelah Johnson has recorded multiple stand-up specials, but her character Bon Qui Qui is even more popular than her stand-up is — her initial appearance on MADtv in 2007, ripped to YouTube, now has more than 70 million views. And Bon Qui Qui put out a record with a few music videos, which has now led to a full concert tour.
So Johnson’s headlining show begins with a video interview with Bon Qui Qui that even shows part of that MADtv sketch.
Johnson and her husband, Manwell Reyes, emerge onstage to explain the logistics for the rest of the show, as well as how Reyes (who fronts the band Group 1 Crew) helped Johnson turn Bon Qui Qui into a fully fleshed-out character, singer and performer with her own record deal with Warner Bros. Perhaps to mollify the anxiety of audience members who only expected comedy (and definitely to give her time afterward to get into character), Johnson opens her own live stage production by telling 20 minutes of jokes. She jokes about how she’d make a bad cop, a worse 911 dispatcher, and how her mother imagines herself as younger because she’s on social media — even though her mother doesn’t quite get it. Johnson herself jokes that she and her husband have no plans to have children of their own, either. “I’m not going to change my life so they can be cute. I’m a going to be cute!”
Johnson stays cute explaining how she’s Mexican but still doesn’t know any Spanish, although she sure can beatbox her way out of it.
And smashing the thin line between comedians and rock stars even further, Johnson proves you can keep going back to the same well by closing her stand-up set with the same nail salon bit that rocketed her into people’s consciousness in the first place almost a decade ago.
If the headliner opens, that makes her opener Mal Hall the middle act. His routine about how he’s black and Asian pokes fun at the idea that he even has to explain to strangers which part of his family is which, and his closing bit takes the men-and-women-are-different premise into an act-out over text messaging.
More video segments with Bon Qui Qui and clip packages follow, with a 20-minute concert performance by Group 1 Crew, a 10-minute intermission, more videos, and then an hour of Bon Qui Qui in concert complete with two backup dancers, backing vocals and instrumentals from the Group 1 Crew, and costume changes. And the final 20 minutes are so aren’t even Bon Qui Qui songs, or even a concert, per se. The whole thing turns into a singalong, led by Bon Qui Qui with DJ Snoopy playing about a minute or so of huge R&B and hip-hop hits from the 1990s. “Those are my inspirations, y’all!”
Only to make the entire theater roar when, after a West Coast homage and an East Coast homage with Tupac and Biggie raps, she drops the mic figuratively with a tip of the hat to Texas and a track from Selena.
Johnson, who started her performing career as a cheerleader for the Oakland Raiders, knows once more how to keep the crowd smiling and cheering on their way out the door.
As Johnson and Reyes tell the audience, that’s what it’s all about.
The fifth Moontower Comedy & Oddity Fest continues through Saturday in Austin, Texas, with headlining shows at the Paramount and Stateside by Martin Short, Maria Bamford, Janeane Garofalo and Piff the Magic Dragon tonight; David Cross, Jimmy Carr and Kevin Smith on Friday; and Saturday with “Leslie Loves Colin” with SNL’s Leslie Jones and Colin Jost, “Princess” songs of Prince by Maya Rudolph and Gretchen Lieberum; plus shows with dozens of comedians at a half-dozen other venues in downtown Austin.