Feelin' Kinda Athens
Patton Oswalt is feeling pretty good. He's hunched over the podium that holds his drink, clutching the microphone and smiling slyly to himself. He knows this next one's gonna go over well. He starts the bit by asking how many people in the audience are currently living in Athens. The 40 Watt Club crowd responds enthusiastically.
"In a couple of years, you have a decision to make," he begins. "You either have to fucking leave and go into the actual, real world, or decide to stay here. Because you can't stay here until you're 40 and then go, 'I'll go out somewhere else! I know how the world works. If you give someone a smile, they make you a coat out of cotton candy!'
"No, they fucking don't," he continues. "This city is like Willy Wonka's factory. This is not the real world. You're living in a weird bubble dream city of goodness. The streets here are made of pot, and leprechauns bring you coffee in the morning."
That was in 2007. Years later, Oswalt is still smiling about his time in the Classic City. "I just like going places that are fun and put me in a good mood," he tells Flagpole. "[Athens] is on my list of places that I feel comfortable visiting. I'm not that much into traveling as I get older, so when there are places that still make me want to get on an airplane and go through all that hassle, that's kind of a magical thing."
Oswalt has performed regularly in Athens, both solo and with his Comedians of Comedy tour (featuring Zach Galifianakis, Maria Bamford and Brian Posehn), since recording his first album, Feelin' Kinda Patton, at the 40 Watt in 2003. He has always made a point to try out new material when he’s in town.
"It was one of the first places I got deep fans," he says. "I feel like that's where I should take my stuff to see if it's up to snuff. To those fans, the kind of fans I've always wanted, to see if it's gonna be the kind of stuff they like."
Kyle Kinane, an up-and-coming comedian who made his name in part by opening for Oswalt, will record his new Comedy Central special at the 40 Watt this weekend. He thinks those fans, and the type of people who live and create in Athens generally, lend themselves to the way stand-up’s priorities have changed in recent years.
"For a long time, comedy was, 'Quick, get a sitcom and become famous!' And there are certain sects of music that are like, 'Get a hit, become famous!'" Kinane says. "But there are some people who do it just because they love the form, and they love being around other creative people. It sounds pretentious to call comedy an art form, but I still think it is. These people who like doing it aren't seeking fame; they're seeking satisfaction out of creating things.
"Those communities exist within the big cities, as well, but in places like Athens, you're surrounded by creative types, and that helps you. They're trying to do something instead of going over spreadsheets about accounting—or, like, when I'm sitting in an airport and everybody's got their PowerPoint presentations about insurance seminars on their laptops… that kills the soul."
Coming Home Again
Brooklyn-based comedian Adam Newman has appeared on "The Late Show With David Letterman" and "John Oliver's New York Stand-Up Show." He released his 2011 debut album, Not For Horses, on the venerable Rooftop Comedy imprint. His debut Comedy Central special aired in June. Newman even became a brief Internet sensation when a clip of him finding cocaine in a heckler's pocket went viral.
But before all this, he was just another University of Georgia student in the crowd at a Comedians of Comedy show. When he returned to Athens to perform at the Caledonia Lounge in April, he told Flagpole about the show that inspired him to give comedy a try.
"I saw Mitch Hedberg at the 40 Watt," said Newman, who, like so many Athenians, was in a band at the time. "That was the first live comedy I saw. That changed a lot for me, because I saw a comedian perform at the place that I performed at. So, that opened my eyes a little bit: 'Oh, this is something that maybe I could do.’”
Newman decided to try his hand at telling jokes in a rock club. Unfortunately, he didn't tell the rock club in advance. Instead, he booked his band at the now-defunct Lenny's Bar in Atlanta, showed up alone, performed 45 minutes of untested material and received boos and full Pabst Blue Ribbons hurled at him in return.
Newman stuck it out, doing early gigs at Little Kings Shuffle Club and the since-closed DT's Down Under before moving to New York. He still seems to have nothing but love for his humble starter city.
"Athens is a cheap and beautiful place to live, and it's full of nice, creative people who support other nice, creative people," Newman says. "That's something Athenians might take for granted, but it's a combination of things that actually doesn't exist in many other places. I think that makes Athens a pleasant surprise for touring comedians. Something about being in Athens resets me. It's laid back, but people still work hard. The truth is, I can't really put my finger on what's so great about Athens, but it's my favorite place in the world."
That indescribable quality of life has leant Athens a certain artistic allure over the years. It's no secret that the city's music scene has benefited from it. But other creative realms have, too—food, graphic design, beer and, of course, comedy. Oftentimes, two or three of these passions thrive within the same person.
TJ Young, a member of the Beards of Comedy troupe while he lived in Athens, also played in a band and hosted the twice-a-month OpenTOAD show at Flicker Theatre & Bar—at the time, Athens’ only comedy open mic. He was struck by the blank-canvas nature of the town.
"The thing about Athens is that anything seems possible there," Young says. "I had already had a good experience starting out in music in Athens. I saw my band go from just an idea to practicing, touring, recording and having fans beyond just our friends. There is that similar spirit of sharing and support between comedians in Athens, too."
When Young moved to pursue comedy in New York City, he handed OpenTOAD over to comedian Caleb Synan. Even after Synan moved from Athens to Atlanta, he continued hosting the show, which is still growing under his guidance.
"OpenTOAD actually became a better show after I moved," says Synan. "I would bring great Atlanta comics to Athens, and the audience grew, because it was always a killer show. Athens treats being an audience member like it's their passion. And they're usually drunk."
Lawson Chambers, an animation major at UGA, started performing at OpenTOAD a couple years ago. "Even though I received no more than two laughs, I felt comfortable enough to try again," he says. "Since then, I've found performing in bars in Athens a lot more comforting than comedy clubs in Atlanta, because the Athens audience is typically made up of people who surround themselves with creativity. You feel that the audience wants you to succeed."
That support led Chambers to start a variety show on WUOG 90.5 FM, "Comedic Conversations with Colorful Characters," which features Athens and Atlanta comedians every Tuesday at 7 p.m. He aims to expose comics to bigger audiences, motivating them to try their luck at open mics around town. "New comedians start up all the time," Chambers says. "I would like Athens' comedy [scene] to be a positive feedback loop of collaboration."
Another former Beard of Comedy, Dave Stone, fondly remembers living in Athens from 1996–1999 while working at WPUP 100.1 FM and "experiencing all [the city] had to offer during my college-age years, without the annoyance of attending classes." He started writing jokes in the early 2000s, started performing not long after and, in November 2008, opened for Oswalt at the 40 Watt.
"It was a sold-out show, around 700 people in attendance," Stone remembers. "Patton was, and still is, one of my favorite comics, so it was quite an honor. After my set, I walked backstage, and he was standing in the hallway, laughing and quoting my closing punchline. If that wasn't enough, five minutes later I stepped out into the crowd to watch his set and a giant dude pats me on the back and says, 'You were great!' I turned around and was shocked to see my favorite musician, Patterson Hood [of Drive-By Truckers], standing there. My favorite comedian and my favorite musician had complimented my performance. I felt like a Make-A-Wish kid."
A Small Pond
Athens resident Luke Douglas Fields has played in bands like We Versus the Shark and Bit Brigade, has hosted the HACKS comedy night at Caledonia Lounge, is an avid homebrewer and manages the bar at Trappeze Pub. He'll open Kinane's 40 Watt shows. Fields remembers listening in his band’s van to Feelin' Kinda Patton, the recording of which he attended. But while he loves Athens, he also thinks it limits the potential of its comedians.
"It's supportive. It's cheap. It's fun," Fields says. "But it's also very, very small. An important part of becoming a real stand-up comedian—I consider myself more of a hobbyist—is going up and telling jokes almost every night. You can't practice in front of a mirror. You only learn about your material and yourself in front of a crowd. There are, at best, two or three opportunities to go up and tell some jokes each week. Often less. And you find yourself doing it in front of the same people a lot, which pressures you into changing up your material too quickly, or before you've really had a chance to explore a particular premise and make it second nature. You can't stay here if you're super serious about it. But it is a great place to get started."
For comedians like Kinane, Athens has been a great place to hang out with likeminded artists and hone his craft. The Los-Angeles-by-way-of-Chicago comedian had been doing comedy for just north of a decade when he released his 2010 debut, Death of the Party, which landed on year-end lists from The A.V. Club, Laughspin and Amazon.com, and got him named one of Variety's "10 Comics to Watch."
Like many modern comedians, Kinane built a following by not just playing cheeseball comedy clubs with chicken fingers and two-drink minimums, but also rooftops, backyards, garages, German singing halls, record stores, bars, house parties, art studios and nightclubs. He went up literally anywhere that would have him, polling his Twitter followers for suggestions. When he couldn't afford a hotel, he slept in his pickup truck, or at the house of a kind local.
Kinane's relentless work ethic earned the respect of Oswalt, who took him on the road a few times and wrote a long, glowing blog post about him. To this day, Oswalt is still in awe of Kinane's talent, likening it to that difficult-to-pinpoint Classic City charisma. "That's the thing," Oswalt says. "If it's indescribable, just describe it as such. That's what ultimately gives it worth and makes it so crucial. There's just no way to describe how great it is."
In the years since, Kinane's accolades have continued to pile up. He's been the voice of Comedy Central's promos since 2011; dropped another fantastic album, Whiskey Icarus, in 2012; and appeared on "Drunk History" (while puking his guts out on TV) in 2013. Earlier this year, he contributed his vocal talents (alongside Galifianakis, Larry David, Bob Odenkirk and Wayne Brady) to the animated series "Trip Tank."
"It's been two years since Whiskey Icarus," Kinane says. "I get bored with my material. Once it works and it's locked down, I don't want to do it anymore."
That material is frequently a storytelling tour de force. His hilarious, extended meditations can go on from five to 10 minutes at a time, and touch on such everyman thoughts as Bob Seger, fornicating rabbits, crashing a Ford Focus and ordering pizza. But it's through these observations that he somehow manages to translate life's everyday nonsense into deliriously amusing, relatable tales. And while a lot of his previous material has leaned toward a more depressing fare (albeit through the warm-hearted and often optimistic lens of Kinane's uproarious worldview), his new stuff shows his evolution, as both a comic and a human.
"It's disingenuous for me to be, like, a sad piece of shit, because that's not my attitude towards life anymore," he says. "I enjoy being alive and the experiences I have with other people in existence. So, it's some of that. I can't wait to tape this special, purge it all and start working on new material."
That new material could very well be the stuff that makes him a household name. And chances are there will be someone in the 40 Watt crowd on Saturday who is inspired to start telling jokes, that Kinane will serve the same role as Hedberg and Oswalt and all the rest before him.
Maybe, gaining more notoriety, that funny person will move somewhere else. Or maybe he or she will decide it's time for Athens to stand up and have a bonafide comedy scene of its own. Either way, the Classic City will be here, encouraging comedians to be their best selves, to seek out places that can help them grow, to pursue their passions regardless of anything else.
WHO: Kyle Kinane, Luke Douglas Fields
WHERE: 40 Watt Club
WHEN: Saturday, Aug. 16, 7 p.m. & 9:30 p.m.
HOW MUCH: $15
For info on other comedy events happening in Athens, including this weekend's Laughing With the Stars show at the Morton Theatre, see the Calendar.