What's Going On In Austin?

A racist rant by Tony Hinchcliffe reflects bigger shifts in the Austin comedy scene.

What's Going On In Austin?

This week comedian Peng Dang posted a video of podcaster Tony Hinchcliffe unleashing a racist tirade about him during a show earlier this month in Austin, Texas. Dang, who had opened for Hinchcliffe, later said he was shocked and upset by the rant, and that he had to step outside during Hinchcliffe’s set. Hinchcliffe—a writer for Comedy Central’s roasts, host of the popular podcast Kill Tony, and frequent opener for Joe Rogan—has since been dropped by his agency. He was also removed from two shows he was scheduled on this week with Rogan at The Creek and the Cave, a club that recently reopened to Austin after shutting down in New York City.

Like everything in comedy, this incident did not occur in a vacuum. Until recently Hinchcliffe was based in Los Angeles, where he could be seen regularly at The Comedy Store. His presence in Austin reflects an ongoing migration of comics from Los Angeles, led by Joe Rogan, the millionaire super-spreader who famously relocated to the city earlier this year. News broke last month that Rogan plans to open a comedy club in Austin’s One World Theatre, which he will run with former Comedy Store booker Adam Eget. Rogan has said on his podcast that he hopes to turn Austin into a comedy utopia.

The thing is, many Austin-based comics would argue that the city already is a comedy utopia, with a vital, diverse scene full of talented artists who routinely go on to great things. Some in the scene—especially those who laid low during the pandemic while others moved in and performed unsafe live shows—view the arrival of certain comics from Los Angeles and New York City as a potential source of division in the inclusive community they built, if not yet a real one.

To help unpack all this context, I called up Austin comedian Carina Magyar. Below is a transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for clarity.

Last week in Austin, I got to bring up Tony Hinchcliffe. This is what he said. Happy Asian (AAPI) Heritage Month! pic.twitter.com/9XG6upit2aMay 11, 2021

Just to start with this week's news, could you say a bit about what went through your head when you watched that Tony Hinchcliffe video?

Shock. In the sense anybody would be shocked seeing somebody go on stage and say those words. I was not surprised, knowing everything I know about Tony. It sort of confirmed my worst fears about what kind of energy was coming to the scene. I think Peng is fantastic and I was just really hurting for him. And then also noticing the audience wasn't going for it gave me this sliver of—they weren't not going for it, there wasn't any booing, but it was sort of like the room temperature died down. And I was really analyzing the audience, basically. “How did that go over?" 'Cause the Austin I know, that wouldn't fly. And it felt like it didn't fly, but in a way that an audience could handle—you're not gonna boo somebody who you think is famous. So just the quieting down to me was the equivalent of booing. So I was like, “Okay, that's good.”

For people like me who might be unfamiliar, can you say a bit about what the Austin comedy scene was like before the pandemic?

This was a crazy, bursting-with-talent scene. Lots and lots of activity, lots of huge names coming out of it. Or just about to be huge. We had pumped out, in the three years leading up to the pandemic, a lot of names that were on the cusp of or are just now starting to hit national attention. They're probably names you know one way or another, but I'm talking about Lashonda Lester, first of all, who unfortunately passed away right when her Comedy Central special was taped. Then names like Kath Barbadoro, who's gotten a huge following in podcasts out in New York. Vanessa Gonzalez, who's been on HBO and Comedy Central with specials lately. Daniel Webb, who just filmed out at the Rose Bowl and is doing all sorts of big things with Margaret Cho and all these names. Maggie Maye, just name after name. Martin Urbano, Jake Flores.

All of these people came out of Austin's comedy scene, and it was no accident that they were, without exception, people of color, women, and queers. That was the kind of scene that we were fostering and building. Not in any weird engineer-y way, it just happened to be a very vibrant comedy scene where you could come and cut your teeth. And it wasn't dominated by angry, straight white men who tried to run you off the stage. That just wasn't who was booking, it wasn't who was killing. Not to say we [don't] turn out plenty of super talented straight white guys doing comedy here. For sure we do. But they're not interested in cultivating some sort of, "Hey, we're gonna be super aggressive and racist and misogynistic and that's comedy, deal with it." Which is something that we know circulated in certain parts of the LA and New York scenes, particularly around, you know, Creek and the Cave, Legion of Skanks, or Joe Rogan's orbit. So when we saw all of those coming to town, there was some apprehension for sure.

How else have you seen it change during the pandemic?

What happened was all the local comics went into hibernation out of safety concerns. The pandemic in Austin was seen as, collectively, a necessary sacrifice. And I would say that, financially, no city I can think of in America took a deeper breath and a bigger financial risk going into quarantine than Austin. Because our entire economy is based on tourism and live performance, right? Not our entire economy—obviously we have a lot of tech here and stuff. But the whole reason anybody even thinks of Austin is because of live performance and tourism. And all of that shut down. And all of these venues that we loved, all of these comedy venues, music venues, and bars that were beloved in the scene closed. People lost jobs. None of these comedians could make money. We were trying to help each other out. It was just this total devastation financially to the entire scene, both music and comedy.

And then, about a year in, all these people from LA and New York started moving in and throwing shows, taking up venues that nobody had ever done comedy at before and putting on live comedy shows before it was safe to do so. While all of the Austin comedians were still diligently staying home. You can imagine that bred a certain level of contempt, shock, and anger. Not because we knew any of these people—we had no idea who they were. But just because, like, “What the fuck are you doing? We're all riding this out like we're supposed to.” So that was kind of one prevailing attitude, or at least that's the one that I was most familiar with during the quarantine.

What do you make of this narrative that emerged of Rogan and his ilk bringing a boost to the scene?

I don't have anything in particular personal against Joe Rogan. I'm aware that he's transphobic, so I just avoid him. I don't really care. Maybe he's a nice guy, I don't really give a shit. I will say the same thing I said onstage about that, which is Austin always had a reputation as a place where Hollywood people can go and not be bothered. 'Cause we can all take things in stride. Everyone's just kinda like, “Oh cool, Sandra Bullock's here.” “Oh cool, Matthew McConaughey's here.” But you see him on the street and you don't mob him, everybody's cool. Everybody's chill.

So it's a little disconcerting that there was such a hullabaloo. “Oh, Joe Rogan!" Why? Who cares? It's just another dude who moved to town. We're used to it. Be cool, you know?

Looking forward, what are your hopes for the Austin scene post-pandemic?

I think there's plenty of room for everybody. This has always been an in-and-out town, where people move here to get a certain thing out of the Austin comedy scene, get it, and then move to more industry-based towns like LA or New York or whatever. I don't feel any like animosity towards the people who moved here during the pandemic. Come here, yeah! Take advantage of stage time, make more, contribute your thing to the scene, and do what you're going to do with it. I just hope that everybody realizes, as more and more of the longtime Austin comics start coming out now that we're all vaccinated and doing shows, that there's a respect and a continuity and not like a sudden division between the new and the old.

When I moved here in 2010, the Austin comedy scene was strong. A lot of people moved here from 2010 to 2012—I came up with all those names that I just listed. We all came in, we all started, we met the old timers, we created our own crew, we built ourselves up and now we're starting to move away. Just do that, man. That's what we're for. That's what this entire city is for. And if it keeps that culture, and if people respect the audiences and what the audiences want to hear, and don't try to turn this into whatever they're used to from LA or New York, then Austin will retain what was so special about it that made people want to move here in the first place.

Follow Carina Magyar on Twitter @CarinaTheMagyar.

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Also: I'd love to hear about how the pandemic has affected your comedy scene, especially if you're outside the usual NYC/LA orbit. Shoot me an email if you want to talk.

Header image via Alex Liivet.