In 1985 the Comedy Workshop at 15th St. and Lavaca was home to The Hilarions: Gladiators of Comedy, possibly the first serious improv troupe in Austin. The owner of the Comedy Workshop in Houston (which gave Bill Hicks, Sam Kinison and the other so-called Outlaw stand-up comics their start) would drive up to Austin on Fridays and teach improv to anyone who would show up. The Hilarions formed in early 1985 and did late-night short-form shows Tuesday through Thursday for about a year and a half.
When the Austin Comedy Workshop closed, a few of the Hilarions made the leap over to the Laff Stop (which would later become Cap City Comedy Club), and out of a series of workshops run by an actor named Rodney Rincon, a troupe called the Laff Staff was born. Making their debut in early 1987, they performed a 45-minute pre-show lounge slot four days a week for about five years.
Meanwhile, in 1986 the Austin ComedySportz franchise, owned by Les McGehee, began producing shows in a series of spaces, starting in its own space above Headliners East, then moving to the original Vortex Theater, The Ritz, the Laff Stop, and eventually as part of a comedy venue next to Esther’s Follies called the Deep End (now known as the Velveeta Room). The Velveeta Room was also home to the Cheese Pistols and Austin’s first local comedy festivals, the Austin Comedy Festival and the Southwest Improv Festival of Texas (SWIFT). When ComedySportz opened the ImprovClub on the same block as Esther’s and the Velveeta Room in 1994, the City briefly recognized the area as the “Austin Comedy District”.
In 1996 ComedySportz relocated to the ComedySportz Playhouse in Northcross Mall, producing five shows a week with a kitchen and full bar. The Velveeta Room was still going strong, featuring troupes like Marc Pruter’s Monk’s Night Out, Code Blue, and Los Paranoias. And at the University of Texas there was a troupe called Only 90% Effective directed by Brently Heilbron.
Austin Improv Goes National
In 1997, Austin landed on the national improv and sketch map with the first annual Big Stinkin’ Improv and Sketch Comedy Festival. This festival brought troupes, teachers, and talent scouts from around the nation to Austin for a memorable weekend of comedy. Improv played some of the biggest venues in town from the Paramount to Palmer Auditorium.
In 1998, Sean Hill and David Lampe hosted auditions for Austin Theatresports. Their first show was a Maestro (aka Micetro) at the Public Domain Theater on Congress Ave. in February of 1999, with Dan O’Connor and Brian Lohman directing. Soon after, Theatersports began a run at the Hyde Park Theater, and then in late 1998 Sean started work on a new improv theater and coffeehouse called the Hideout.
In 1999 Austin ComedySportz hosted (and won) the National Championship of ComedySportz, drawing 22 teams from across the country. Around the same time ComedySportz players Owen Egerton and Jerm Pollett started the hit movie-commentary show Mr. Sinus Theater 3000(now known as Master Pancake Theater) at the Alamo Drafthouse.
The Boom and the Bust
In 1999 the improv scene was booming. There were many venues, including the Hideout, the Velveeta Room, the Bad Dog Comedy Theater, and the ComedySportz Playhouse, and even Capitol City Comedy Club and Esther’s Follies would host improv from time to time. There were lots of troupes: Austin Theatresports, ComedySportz, Monk’s Night Out, the Well Hung Jury, Code Blue, The Cheese Pistols, Ray Prewitt’s 4th Grade Class, Fatbuckle, the Skinnies, the Inflatable Egos, Only 90% Effective and many more lost to the mists of time. Big Stinkin’ Improv and Sketch Comedy Festival was getting bigger and stinkier by the year, bringing in top talent from stage, television and film.
After the 2000 festival, producers Ed Carter and Marc Pruter lost their shirts, along with a lot of other Austinites. Big Stinkin’ shut down, along with most of the other improv venues and troupes in town.
Meanwhile in 2000, the Hideout Theatre and Coffeehouse officially opened as a dedicated improv venue in a historic building on Congress Ave. downtown, and Austin Theatresports became We Could Be Heroes. Sean Hill and Shana Merlin ran the house troupe and the We Could Be Heroes School of Improvisational Theater, Austin’s first full-time improv training center.
The Ongoing Austin Improv Renaissance
In 2004 and 2005 a variety of factors led to a second renaissance in Austin improv. Andy Crouch was hired to run the day-to-day operations at the Hideout, and he made a concerted effort to grow the community of active Austin improvisers through weekly shows and social events, and the nonprofit Austin Improv Collective. A handful of improvisers moved to Austin from Chicago and Cleveland, eventually coming together as the troupe Tight (which evolved into The Frank Mills) and bringing with them the performance styles of famous Chicago theaters like Improv Olympic and the Second City. The New Orleans troupe ColdTowne landed in Austin in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. And the Out of Bounds Improv and Minigolf Festival, started in 2002 by Jeremy Lamb as a local, experimental improv festival, had been slowly but surely gaining momentum and national attention.
Things began to bubble up at the Hideout and by October of 2006, ColdTowne struck out and opened their own self-titled theater and conservatory on Airport Blvd, offering improv, sketch and standup comedy. In March of 2008, the Merlin-Works Institute for Improvisation and Gnap! Theater Projects began teaching classes and performing shows at the Salvage Vanguard Theater on Manor Rd. ComedySportz resumed weekly shows at Cafe Caffeine in south Austin in the fall of 2008. In 2009 former ColdTowne members Chris Trew and Tami Nelson opened the New Movement in east Austin as a home for all forms of comedy. In 2010 LA transplant Tom Booker and New York transplant Asaf Ronen founded the Institution Theater.
In recent years there has been remarkable stability in the various Austin theaters, with only minor adjustments: the local ComedySportz franchise is currently inactive, the New Movement relocated to a new downtown location on Lavaca, Gnap! shifted focus from the production of improv to scripted work, and the Merlin-Works training center found a new home at the longtime Austin venue ZACH Theatre.
Currently the number of improvisers in Austin is estimated at between 400 and 600. Austin has gained national attention for a vibrant community of improvisers and quality work in a variety of styles. A Johnstone-inspired, short form and storytelling focus can be found at the Hideout Theatre and Merlin-Works. Various Chicago and New York influences are prevalent at ColdTowne, the New Movement, and the Institution. But Austin is ultimately a melting pot. The intentional building of a scene and community has resulted in an environment of collaborative competition, and many improvisers study and perform at multiple theaters, coming together throughout the year for events like Out of Bounds, the Improvised Play Festival, Sketchfest, the Improv Wins Conference, Wafflefest, the Austin Improv Potluck, Same Year’s Eve, and more.