How L.A. helped detonate the explosion of the Austin comedy scene


The glowing red and green neon lights on the marquee of the Comedy Mothership have become a symbol of L.A.’s invasion into Austin’s stand-up comedy scene. Flanked by twin alien heads, the megawattage sign shines on the city’s clubgoers like a UFO that’s just landed in the heart of Sixth Street.

Within the stretch of debauchery between Congress Avenue and I-35, dubbed the “Dirty Sixth,” lines of ticket holders brave the balmy drizzle on a recent Thursday night amid bass-rattling Top 40, tequila shots and vape clouds. The crowd is being steadily sucked into the belly of Joe Rogan’s new comedy club, finally open after more than two years in the making.

AUSTIN, TX. MAY 26, 2023. Comedy Mothership in downtown Austin, Texas. (James Gregg / For The Times)
(James Gregg / For The Times)


Since its opening in March, Rogan has built his club by transporting elements of the Comedy Store — the legendary spot that helped to launch his career as “Fear Factor” host, MMA commentator and controversial podcaster. The Mothership employs the Store’s former booker, Adam Eget, and some crew and door guys from Store locations in Hollywood and La Jolla.

Reviving the old husk of the historic Ritz Theater, the Mothership planted a flag on what comics around the country have dubbed the new frontier in stand-up.

“Not only have a lot of people moved down there, comics from L.A. are calling in avails there, and just going to Austin to do two or three spots during the week,” said comedian Bert Kreischer, who performed during Mothership’s run of opening shows — along with Dave Chappelle, Ron White and Roseanne Barr — and quickly returned to Rogan’s place to do more shows in May. “He’s created the Store down there. It’s really impressive.”

The club’s spaceship-meets-Art Deco aesthetic was meticulously designed, from the bathroom wallpaper to the bar called Mitzi’s, named after the late Mitzi Shore, the famed owner of the Store.

The alley behind the Mothership is a haven for comics who aren’t permitted to hang out inside the habitually sold-out space. Instead, they gather by the dumpsters to smoke, crack beers and jokes and record low-budget podcasts. Guests inside the club order beers and cocktails as waitresses squeeze between tables to take drink orders before the show.


The main stage is framed by an arch of mini glowing UFOs and alien hieroglyphics awash in purple and green lights. The owner himself, usually in jeans and a sweatshirt, turns out for his weekly showcase, “Joe Rogan and Friends.”

The comic — often blasted for his thoughts on COVID-19, former President Trump and the political right — had been performing nonstop around Austin before opening his club. Now anchored at Mothership, he’s the master of his own galaxy.

The venue’s two stages — Fat Man (main room) and Little Boy (small room) are named after the atomic bombs that the U.S. dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

Onstage, Rogan paces back and forth, veering into jokes about trans athletes or being anti-vax and generally gearing his comedy for hunters, MMA fans and ballcap-wearing bros with no worries of offending, being canceled or being filmed. (Phones are locked up, placed in Yondr bags.)

Since the latter days of the pandemic, the musical hub of Austin — home of SXSW, Austin City Limits, Austin Psych Fest and more — has become ground zero for a stand-up comedy boom that’s overtaken the scene that once existed for comics used to just a couple of clubs and a modest collection of open-mic nights. Today, in downtown Austin alone, at least eight comedy clubs are within walking distance, and dozens of open mics are popping up from theaters to back alleys. Clubs such as Creek and the Cave, Vulcan Gas Company and the recently opened Sunset Strip comedy club fill out the growing network.


David Lucas, a major name in the L.A. stand-up scene, started headlining less than a year ago and is steadily selling out venues around the country after building his fan base in Austin. As a regular roastmaster on popular podcast “Kill Tony” with Tony Hinchcliffe, Lucas is getting his savage humor viewed by millions on YouTube every week. Lucas, a former door guy at the Comedy Store door, says the Austin fans who weren’t used to L.A.’s caliber of comedy immediately showed him love.

“My first impression of Austin was that these motherf— ain’t really seen s—,” Lucas recalled about first entering the scene. “It was like getting a virgin woman, so whatever they see is amazing.” He said he sold out three shows in January 2021 despite the pandemic. “I was like, ‘Why?’ I expected to have 50 people there. Sure, Austin had a comedy scene, but they never had a comedy scene, like what we got.”

While most comics found themselves in a purgatory of Zoom shows during the pandemic, L.A. stand-ups, including Rogan, began dipping their toes into Austin. Although Texas had looser restrictions on live events, many native Austin comedians stayed home to prevent the spread of COVID.

The caution of locals opened up a lane for those in L.A. and New York. Stand-ups began flying to perform at old-school Austin venues such as Cap City Comedy Club (which opened as the Laff Stop in 1986 before changing its name a decade later), the Velveeta Room (opened in 1988) and historically music-only venues like Antone’s (opened in 1975) and Vulcan Gas Company (opened in 1967).

A major shift began on April 1, 2021, when owners of the shuttered New York-based comedy club Creek and the Cave reopened in Austin.

A man is silhouetted in front of a comedy club at night.
Creek and Cave Comedy Club in downtown Austin, Texas. The club takes pride in its New York roots and displays decor and photographs from it’s original location.
(James Gregg / For The Times)


It has become the hangout for Austin comics who gather in a back outdoor section that has a stage as well as picnic tables and food trucks. The club, opened by Rebecca Trent and Colton Dowling, has been known to take risks in programming unconventional shows like “Banana Phone”—created by Kandace Medina and hosted by Nick Cox, Nat Rogachevsky and Jack Timmons—where comics get one minute to perform before getting heckled by the crowd and the hosts.

Austin’s location in the middle of the country made it relatively accessible from the coasts. When the city finally emerged from COVID-19 closures, locals found a scene that was not the same as they had left it. Austin had more clubs but also an influx of L.A. comics, many of whom were trying to escape what they deemed as politically correct coastal audiences. With this influx came a political shift from liberal to libertarian.

“Ten years ago, Austin was not quite leftist, but liberal — like a hippie place,” said Austin comedian Kiko Villamizar. “That has not been the same since everybody moved here during the pandemic. There’s a lot of right-wing hippies here.”

Other newcomers had simply grown weary of the financial barriers in L.A. Maxwell and Caitlin Benson are among those who migrated to Austin from Hollywood. Through their company, Can’t Even Comedy, they host shows and program tours between L.A. and Austin, setting up in hotel courtyards, sport complexes and suburban pizza joints.

“I think a lot of the people that left L.A. to come to Austin weren’t looking to live in another L.A. culture,” Caitlin said. “I feel like we were living in an ecosystem where we were constantly trying to give and give. I personally hit a wall as a comic.”


Ben Dela Torre, a comedian from south Minneapolis, put a twin mattress in the back of his Volkswagen Golf for a 16-hour drive to the new comedy promised land. He headed straight for Austin and took up residence in a Walmart parking lot downtown.

“This is kind of a free-for-all right now, it’s the Wild West,” he said while standing in line for the Monday open mic at the Mothership. “Everyone’s got a distinct style. The best styles will win. I just wanna see enough people suck that I can to go up there and do my thing.”

Prior to the Mothership opening, Cap City, home of the long-running Funniest Person in Austin contest, migrated north to a two-stage venue in the suburban area known as the Domain after it was bought by Marc and Brad Grossman, who run the national Helium Comedy Club chain. They’ve continued their partnership with the annual Moontower Just for Laughs Austin fest, which draws thousands of fans from all over the country.

Vulcan Gas Company scooped up the “Kill Tony” show in 2021 after Hinchcliffe had spouted slur-filled Asian jokes about comic Peng Dang, spurring Antone’s to drop the show. Even since the podcast shifted its operations to the Mothership, Vulcan still puts on a “Kill Tony Regulars” show every week.

For some in Austin, more comedy that appeals to fans of “Kill Tony” and to crowd-roasters who throw barbs at “the woke left” is a toxic byproduct of the new comedy scene.


“Personally, I’m tired of the trans jokes. Can we get on another topic, please? You can be edgy about other things too,” Austin comedian Chris Hills said. But that is the vibe new comics are bringing, he said. “A lot of it is hate speech masked as comedy.”

“Kill Tony” has transferred to the Mothership along with the Southern faction of the Roast Battle League— a popular head-to-head format that grew out of the Comedy Store. Add venues including Fallout Theater, the Hideout and Esther’s Follies cabaret theater, and it’s nearly impossible to walk more than a block without bumping into some sort of comedy show.

The eastside of Austin has local bar chain, Lustre Pearl, and Rozco’s Comedy Club, which skew toward locals. East Austin Comedy Club, which opened in 2022 (followed by its crosstown counterpart South Austin Comedy Club) by Raza Jafri and Andre Ricks, caters to diverse lineups including LGBTQ+ shows. The club’s plush, blood-red interior with a vintage lounge feel sits inside a a rugged building surrounded by an aluminum fence with a sign that says “Tiger Den.”

“I know people are complaining about a lot of California people coming here, but our city is becoming hotter — so you win some, you lose some. What are you gonna do?” said comedian Arielle Isaac Norman, while hosting the club’s weekly LGBTQ+ showcase, “Gay Enough.”

Despite the influx of attention and new blood coming from L.A., many locals performers who were reluctant to embrace the new scene have come around.


A woman stands on stage during her standup set.
Comedian Leah Mulroney performs her set at The Velveeta Room in downtown Austin, Texas.
(James Gregg / For The Times)

“I pushed back against it a little bit,” said comedian Taylor Dowdy, who is also general manager at the Velveeta Room. “I’d been doing comedy in this town for eight years, and for a while, I felt like a stranger in my own town. At the same time, what else could you ask for really?”

Many of the new clubs are owned or managed, at least in part, by those steeped in the culture. Comics who work the clubs are able to give input on their work environment and can perform at other clubs between shifts. Just down the street from Mothership, a neon pink and purple sign with a palm tree logo points the way upstairs to the Sunset Strip Comedy Club. As the name implies, the club’s aim is to evoke the spirit of ’80s Hollywood, when rock stars and comedians rose up alongside one another.

The DayGlo logo on the stage of the upstairs bar is flanked by potted palm trees decorated with neon. The rest of the space, formerly known as staple music venue the Parish, has been left mostly untouched. The Parish owners, evicted over a rent dispute with the landlord during the pandemic, left behind a top-tier sound system that the new comedy club has put to good use. The club reopened in East Austin in February.

“It’s kind of weird. Everything came full circle, the tragedy of COVID freed up this room, but it also freed up all these comics to come to Austin,” said Sunset Strip’s co-owner Anthony Hashem. “Yeah, COVID sucked and we’re all in a worse place for it — but no COVID, no Austin comedy boom, no Sunset Strip.”


In 2021, Hashem co-founded the comedy club with a business partner, local comedian Adam Hartle, at a different space in Austin. Hartle was excited to bolster the Austin scene, but in 2022 tragedy struck when he died in his sleep from a heart attack. Hashem was devastated to the point of backing out of the deal.

While shopping around for a new investor, Hashem caught the attention of Brian Redban, a podcast producer for “The Joe Rogan Experience.” Redban’s interest in Sunset Strip was immediate.

Three people sit for the camera.
Sunset Strip Comedy Club owners Christina Alvarado, left, Brian Redban, and Anthony Hashem on the night of their Deathsquad Secret Show. The club is one of several that have opened in Austin amidst a boom of new venues and and influx of talent to make the comedy scene an attractive opportunity for comedians and patrons.
(James Gregg / For The Times)

“After I invested I realized, ‘Oh I gotta tell Rogan about this, I’m opening a club right next to him, I still work for Joe full time this is probably a bad idea,’” he recalled. “Maybe I could get fired for this, but I kinda fell into it because I loved the other owners and the comedy club they made.”

On Mothership’s opening night, Redban finally got the guts to tell Rogan he’d invested in another club. “I was so glad I was drunk,” Redban said. “But when I told [Rogan], his reaction was like, ‘Are you f— kidding? That’s awesome!’ And now we joke about it all the time.”


After months of getting it ready, Sunset Strip had a soft-opening night in the beginning of April, kicking things off with Redban’s long-running “Secret Show” where he curates a list of big-name comedians. As the name implies, the idea is to keep the lineup underwraps. It was something he could never quite get away with in Hollywood because of the pickiness of customers. “Now, in Austin, it sells out almost every show,” he said. “It almost doesn’t even matter who’s up onstage.”

Christina Alvarado, one of the club’s owners who transitioned into comedy from the beer industry, said she was amazed to see the comedians’ response over opening weekend.

“I was talking to comics last night in the greenroom, and they were so excited that they were going to do a set tonight, and then they’ve had three other sets down the street,” she said. “We have this circuit in this community that’s so exciting, and I’m so excited for them.”

Some of the old Austin comics have decamped to other areas of the city to avoid the newbies coming into downtown. However, for Austin local Kate Loice Branam, the new crop of comics represent a welcome change that she said has helped her to move on from traumatic memories.

While performing on the circuit years ago, Branam said she was raped by another local comic and got pregnant. During that time, she said, some comics who bullied her online about her rape accusations and her pregnancy, leaving comments on her social media posts telling her to kill herself.


“And around that time, I kind of just had it. I think pregnancy hormones were also a part of this, but I made this blog called Austin Comedy, and I started calling out everybody,” she said. “ I had screenshots of the people who told me to kill myself. ... Of course, that did not make me very popular.”

The bullying made it nearly impossible for Branam to continue as a performer, she said. Instead she took to becoming a curator on the Austin Texas Comedy Instagram account. Along with other local comedy-focused platforms such as Comedy Wham! it became a resource for comics and clubs to post info about shows and open mics around town. Even though she’s no longer performing while she raises her child, Branam said she is still committed to turning Austin into a major hub for comedy.

“I do believe, at this point, new Austin comics outnumber the old Austin comics,” she said. “So while there is some bitterness, and while there is some division, I don’t believe it’s as big as it was a year ago.”

Even after the novelty of the Comedy Mothership dies down, comics who came up here are hopeful that the impact will be long lasting. ”Maybe they came to Rogan’s and saw their first comedy show and now they don’t wanna spend $65 a ticket, so they’ll come to the Creek or Sunset Strip,” said comedian Dean Stanfield. “Hopefully it breeds more comedy fans because Austin hasn’t had that.”

Whether it’s the club with the big names, up-and-comers or the comics who drove into town with a mattress stuffed in the back of their car, most Austin comedians seem focused on a funny, fresh start.


“I think a lot of people who moved to Austin are those people from L.A. who were giving and giving without any reciprocation,” Caitlin Benson said. “We didn’t come to this town to be takers. We came to this town to give people a taste of what we do well, and the reception has been overwhelming.”