SXSW 2014's Comedy Highlights: From Bill Cosby to 'Portlandia'

Thanks to solid showcases and some big names, comedy proves it's ready to step into the SXSW spotlight

Bill Cosby SXSW 2014
Jonathan Leibson/Getty Images for AGRADE
Bill Cosby performs at Funny Or Die Clubhouse + Facebook Pop-Up HQ at SXSW in Austin, Texas.
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Large-scale music festivals like Coachella and Bonnaroo have always had a soft spot for comedy, with stand-ups and alt-comedy pioneers having become a more integrated presence on the outdoor-fest circuit over the past decade. South by Southwest, on the other hand, has usually relegated the funny business to its film section and the occasional showcase. But at last week's SXSW, where a robust comedy selection ran alongside the music, film and interactive programming in Austin, Texas March 8-15, it may finally be on the verge of outgrowing its save-it-for-the-sidestage status at the annual event.

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To be sure, the festival's comedy curation drew from a smaller cupboard than its counterparts, which led to consecutive days in which stand-up fans might see deadpan Louie regular Todd Barry, L.A.'s Emily Maya Mills, or Comedy Bang! Bang! favorite James Adomian at a daytime podcast recording, only to catch them several hours later at a live show. But the swirling backdrop also made for satisfying one-offs. A mid-afternoon "Inside Late Night with Seth Meyers" panel drew a capacity crowd to a massive room in the Austin Convention Center, where you could hear Meyers clock his progress (the takeaway: it's still too early to tell). And while the former Saturday Night Live star didn't stick around beyond a promotional party at main-drag venue Buffalo Billiard's that night, he set a casual, if self-conscious, tone for what followed.

Smaller, hipper shows had the see-and-be-seen air of indie music sets, minus the omnipresent glow of smartphone screens. The improv4humans live podcast featured The Mindy Project co-star Adam Pally, SNL vet Tim Meadows, Upright Citizens Brigade co-founder Matt Besser and others riffing on audience suggestions at downtown club Esther's Follies. Later at the venue, self-made Denver trio The Grawlix presented a high-energy showcase that reminded the audience why flamboyantly dressed party-dudes shouldn't sit in the first couple rows at a stand-up show.

As with any festival, the environment provided endless fodder for observational humor. Comics marveled at the maelstrom of humanity at the event — most notably in an Adam Cayton-Holland bit that bested the other comics' frequent Matthew McConaughey-style characters and impressions (which could rightly be called a theme of this year's comedy sets). His joke about a chatty bathroom-mate chucking a beer at his head killed at multiple venues.

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SXSW's live-wire atmosphere also encouraged comics to call out chatty audiences and corny, poorly-laid-out venues, as when T.J. Miller mocked a shiny, distracting plastic backdrop at Brazos Hall that seemed better suited for a T-Mobile commercial than a stand-up show. "I have no idea what this is," Last Comic Standing winner Iliza Schlesinger said upon taking the Brazos stage. It was unclear whether she was referring to the crowd, the venue, or the event. And it was probably beside the point.

The most buzzed-about marquee-name show was Bill Cosby's intimate set at Lustre Pearl, a bar that was rebranded as the Funny or Die House for the week. Despite queuing up in an alley for an hour (or more) before his 8 p.m. start, dozens of listed, wristband-sporting VIPs failed to join the 200 or so listening to Cosby under a backyard tent. That didn't stop them and a crowd of drunken pedestrians from gathering along the fence for a glimpse of the 76-year-old comedy legend. Sporting a white beard and black sweatshirt that read "Hello Friends" in rainbow lettering, Cosby's hour-long set leaned on observations from last year's Far From Finished — including the notion that "women don't get dementia... if they're quiet, they're thinking about what you DID."

It was today's TV presences, however, that demonstrated the most potent draw overall, with packed live tapings of Late Night with Jimmy Kimmel, Girls creator Lena Dunham's keynote Film conference speech, and a "Portlandia: Behind the Scenes with the Creators" panel. Fast-on-his-feet comic Matt Braunger interviewed Portlandia duo Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein about their creative process on the IFC series, followed by an audience Q&A in which adoring fans begged their nerdy heroes to sign posters and merch (which, it should be said, the comedians graciously obliged). Armisen's own comedy career began with a sarcastic send-up video of SXSW in 1998, and Brownstein's bands (Sleater-Kinney, Wild Flag) have cred to spare. The standing ovation at the end of their panel suggests that, like SXSW's film and tech components, the days of comedy as an appetizer to the music festival may be nearing its end. It deserves to be treated as its own separate, delicious entrée.