By KELLY MERKS
San Marcos just got funnier.
Jim Tierney, a stand-up veteran of more than 20 years, came to San Marcos as a transplant from Los Angeles with next to no network of people, and built the still nascent project from scratch. He says he sensed the electricity of this town, specifically because it is part of the booming Austin-San Antonio corridor — the second-fastest growing corridor in the nation — and decided it needed a stand-up scene. For now, he has a monopoly.
Before the first night, he tells me, Gold Crown Billiards’ weekly Saturday night comedy show was booked all the way through February. “I stopped because of bottlenecking, but will start booking for March next week,” he said.
This would seem like a positive indication, but the truth is best illustrated by the show’s headlining act, John O’Connell: “There is more crew than crowd here.” In attendance were those who had no choice to be there, such as the lovely bartenders and the cameramen, supporters of the six comedians on the ticket, and twenty to thirty curious San Martians, most of whom were older than 30.
Tierney was hoping for and anticipating 200 people. A standing-room-only, people-lined-up-outside event. He got less than half that number of people. The small showing was, sadly, good for the opening night for an event of this nature in this city.
If Gold Crown’s weekly stand-up Saturday is going to be successful, Tierney needs to understand one quirk about the San Marcos college student population, which there was next to none of at the show: we are an unnecessarily hard crowd to please. More than advertising is required; it is almost as if you must prove to us how cool, fun, chic your place is before it even appears on our mental map.
Tierney is not discouraged, though. One of his plans with the new comedic fixture is a monthly Ladies’ Night. “I believe that women need an opportunity because this is such a man’s world. Women deserve a break, and it is time for the divine woman to come back,” he said.
Amber Bixby was the only lady on the ticket Saturday night, the second act of six. Bixby, who is from the Dallas suburb of Caddo Mills, had to leave home to find a comedy scene. She began with open-mic sessions at The Velveeta Room and Cap City Comedy Club, both in Austin.
Bixby went to Texas State “for a few years,” and she admits being “so stoked when they started this here in San Marcos. It’s definitely something different that people need here.”
Her set is capitalized on her awkward energy, making slightly inappropriate jokes about strippers and Death Cab For Cutie songs. Bixby’s sense of humor is so self-defeating and unabashed that one may argue her stage persona is one of naïveté and artlessness. She delivers her own dumb-blonde one-liners (“I lost my baby, can I have yours?”) with a sweet and unaware smile.
Bixby and the other two comics who made up the first half of the ticket, Justin West and Jake Flores, are on the opposite side of a comedic divide from host Kelvin Girdy and the comics that went on stage later in the evening, Norm Wilkerson, Molotov and O’Connell.
Bixby, West and Flores are younger, college-age (by San Marcos standards) people who are influenced by likewise younger, fresher comics that have not yet stood the test of time. Bixby emulates Sarah Silverman by playing the dense, innocent girl, and West and Flores were channeling the late Mitch Hedberg in small things, such as West’s shoulder-length, shaggy haircut and the way Flores chuckles. Similarly, Wilkerson, Molotov, O’Connell, Girdy and also Tierney draw from comics that were big when each of them was forming their own comedic style, such as Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Jack Paar and Lenny Bruce.
Girdy is familiar with San Marcos — his first paying gig, a satisfactory 35 dollars, was 12 years ago, one block away from Gold Crown at The Green Parrot. “It was a great crowd. It was fun to get down in the town of San Marcos.”
Girdy is a journalist’s goldmine, offering information without having to be asked questions. He is that seasoned.
“Why do we do this?” proffered tonight’s host, sitting with Wilkerson. “The same reason why people write bad poetry. Those people feel it just as much as Seinfeld and Dave Attell do.” Girdy tours Midwestern places, such as Chicago, Kansas City, Iowa and Wisconsin, but the Victoria, Tx., native prefers to “stay South.” Traveling, he said, is the greatest part of stand-up comedy.
Girdy observed cultural changes that affect the world of stand-up. For example, he credits the NBC television show “Last Comic Standing” for making people realize that “this isn’t easy to do… it’s not easy to get work. With stand-up, you either you have it, or you don’t. If you don’t, you become a writer.”
He also noted that after the September 11 attacks, “things got weak because people weren’t really going anywhere.” A healthy year, Girdy said, is working 30-35 weeks. Attendance at shows soon after the attacks took quite a hit.
One thing Girdy made a point to tell me is that he “wants big things for this bar. It would be great to have a venue for up-and-comings.”
Molotov, a stage name for Matthew Bouvier, is a stand-up comic from San Antonio who was not on the ticket, but got some stand-up minutes squeezed in before O’Connell took the stage. He tours with his wife, Felicity, from May through January as a Wild West impalement act, or, in other words, knife-throwing act. Between those months, Bouvier is Molotov, the greaser stand-up comic. He and his wife tour all over the country, but mostly plod along the east coast because there “they believe the act more because we’re from Texas,” he said with a smile and a wink.
After Molotov left the stage, Girdy introduces O’Connell: “The guy you could go to Improv to see for 20 dollars.”
O’Connell famously picked up stand-up comedy as revenge on a floozy girlfriend, mostly “because I couldn’t play guitar.” After that, he says, the rest is history. “I walked on stage, my first joke worked, and that was that,” O’Connell said. “Five minutes off the stage, and she didn’t matter anymore.”
So is he still the vengeful person he was twenty years ago? Absolutely not. “I am blessed because of her. I hold no ill will. I learned to find the goodness in these things… I love her to the grave because she led me to this.”
If O’Connell’s stand-up resonates slightly, there is a wonderful reason for that: O’Connell and Ron White, a star of Jeff Foxworthy’s Blue Collar Comedy Tour, have been good friends for the better part of two decades. A few years ago, White moved to Atlanta, flew out his funny friends at home in Texas, and hired them as his writers — the writers he did not need before he “got big.”
This is the inception of the Texas Hill Country Writers’ Association, of which White and O’Connell are original members. Almost as if it was a hint, O’Connell was furtive but deliberate in pointing out the first three initials in the association’s acronymed name: THC. However, geography is not a restriction for O’Connell, White and their THC friends. “We get together every six, eight weeks or so, and we hang out and bounce jokes off each other. That’s what it’s all about,” O’Connell said.
When asked about his own style, Tierney likened himself to the outrageousness of Jonathan Winters and Andy Kaufman: “It’s really wild stuff. It’s a niche act, but it’s funnier than shit.” Tierney was candid as he explained his own comedic formula, one that takes a more character-driven approach to stand-up, rather than having to rely on punchlines. “My stuff isn’t joke-driven like John [O’Connell]’s. It’s not sketch, and it’s not stand-up,” he said.
In 2001, Tierney began collecting his own comedic material that dated back as many as 15 years. A lot of that humor as been revamped and fine-tuned, but has not all reached the stage yet. “I’ll have a joke, and without a proper context, it’s a homeless joke,” Tierney said. “But maybe one day it finds a place, and I can work it in. It is the coolest feeling to have a joke that is five years old and it has nowhere to go … but all of a sudden, you’re on stage and have an inspirational joke.”
Tierney is a self-proclaimed comedic historian. Just one question about this particular interest, and he divulges what feels like the entire history of modern comedy. Tierney’s knowledge of vintage comedy seems flawless, from his dissection of vaudeville and Charlie Chaplin up to his analysis of Lenny Bruce’s style of observational comedy, or what Tierney called “Seinfeld-style humor.” “If it weren’t for Lenny Bruce, we wouldn’t be here now,” he said.
Jim Tierney and his weekly stand-up comics are adding to the cultural evolution of San Marcos. This city is in the midst of a booming, ever morphing atmosphere where change is imperative, not optional, so find a Saturday to support some local (and some not-so-local) stand-up comics. Dare to add just one more cool, fun, chic place on your own mental map.