Liza Treyger

Comedians Recall SXSW’s Decade of Laughs

Recapping ten years of laughs with comics who have made the journey

During its 10 year history, the SXSW Comedy Festival has grow into a week-long whirlwind of emerging and established talent. As we look back over the past decade, some SXSW Comedy participants shared their thoughts.

In the beginning …

SCOTT AUKERMAN: The first time I came to SXSW was 11 years ago because David Cross had organized a show with a bunch of comedians through a promoter. We came up to do the show and found out that it wasn’t part of the actual festival, so none of us had wristbands and couldn’t see any bands, so it was kind of a bummer, and I was like “There should be comedy at this festival,” but I didn’t know how to start it. Charlie Sotelo (SXSW Comedy Producer) knew I was producing a show in Los Angeles at the UCB Theater called Comedy Death Ray, and he was interested in making comedy an official part of SXSW.

So that next year, we set up two shows: at Esther’s Follies and the Velveeta Room. And it was whatever comedians could get out to Austin. We gave them a bunch of time at these two comedy shows. Those early years, we were just trying stuff out, and I remember some really great comedians came out: Upright Citizens Brigade came out. Janeane Garofalo was there. Marc Maron ... A lot of people who did it either because they happened to be in town or for the love of it. People who were interested asked: ‘Is it like other festivals where we’re gonna get seen, and it’ll be helpful to our career?’ and I’d say “Honestly, the shows are secondary to the experience. If you want to come to SXSW, it will be fun for you, and you can do whatever you want.”

The first four or five years, we had it during the Music festival, then about halfway through, I realized that a lot of comedians were getting popular enough that they were starring in movies, so they were coming out to SXSW, but during Film. So Charlie and I thought we could get more talent if we moved it to the same time as Film. That’s when it really exploded, and we’ve gotten some really big names. Live podcasts have become a big part of the festival, too.

Standout performance memories?

NATE BARGATZE: I did Judd Apatow’s show at the Paramount after Pee-wee Herman’s movie premiere, and I got to meet Paul Reubens. Those Pee-wee Herman movies were some of the first movies I remember watching as a kid. That was just a cool, cool experience.

LIZA TREYGER: My first year at SXSW, I got to do Big Jay Oakerson’s show What’s Your Fucking Deal? It’s an all “crowd work” show, and I had to follow Sinbad. It was a big challenge and a super cool experience that I’ll never forget.

BARGATZE: Bill Burr was headlining a show at Esther’s Follies that Laugh Button produced that I was on. That sticks out as one of the best sets I’ve ever had. It’s just that room; it’s not that big, you can feel the crowd, and the laughs are so big. It was just unbelievable.

TREYGER: Also, I did a roast battle that went to double overtime, and judges were fighting. It was Judd Apatow against me and Jeff Ross for me, and it got heated and wild, and then I won!

BARGATZE: The Tonight Show called me while I was at SXSW and gave me a date like two weeks out. The Tonight Show gives you five minutes, and I was able to jump on a bunch of different shows at SXSW and practice my set and get it ready, which was very cool.

Nate Bargatze

Nate Bargatze


"All the comics are pumped as hell to be there, so you get to see very happy comics getting to be part of a huge thing that’s bigger than regular comedy festivals."

What would you tell new attendees?

SEAN PATTON: It’s an interesting festival to perform on, as it’s mainly out-of-towners ... but they’re all tech aficionados and film fanatics. A higher-brow level of tourist and pretty much always a good audience to perform for. AND if you’re still chill after a few days, a bunch of bands show up and play for you.

TREYGER: All the comics are pumped as hell to be there, so you get to see very happy comics getting to be part of a huge thing that’s bigger than regular comedy festivals. We’re happy to party and be in Austin and do all the fun specialty shows, like the podcasts and themed shows. It’s a little vacation.

BARGATZE: “Comedians love festivals. Just to be around a lot of other comics, and the chance to meet and talk to people I wouldn’t otherwise. But SXSW can be exhausting. It’s like going to Vegas, and you’re like “I can’t do this again…” Then the next year comes around, and you’re like ‘Yeah, I’m gonna go do it again.”

AUKERMAN: When I think of SXSW Comedy, I think about sitting on the dusty stairs backstage at Esther’s Follies waiting for my set. You’re always totally surprised by something that’s happening. But mostly I think about the crowds, and how much fun it always is to be there.

The 2018 SXSW Comedy Festival happens over the course of the entire SXSWeek (March 9–17). Stay tuned to for more information in the coming weeks, including lineup announcements.

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