The last day at the Dallas Comedy House's old Commerce Street location in March was also the final day of the 6th Annual Dallas Comedy Festival, a five-day showcase of local and national stand-up, sketch and improvisational talent. The gathering didn't end when the festival's headliners TJ & Dave took their final bows to a standing ovation or when everyone settled their bar tabs.
It continued long into the night with the second day of a raucous Flip Cup competition, a frat game tradition that has become a regular occurrence at the festival. There was also an impromptu dance party, loud Spotify music on a loop, and conversation among the club's core comedy nerds that produced endless steam until sometime much after midnight. Eventually, everyone had to go home because the next day everything would be packed up for the big move to the comedy club's new location just a street over: 3025 Main Street.
Dallas Comedy House founder Amanda Austin put out the call for moving volunteers days before that final night and even though the final night of the festival produced plenty of lingering hangovers, the club's faithfuls still showed up to pack up their clubhouse.
What could have been a miserable day of sore backs and dehydrated bodies caused by too much wine and too much song turned into what Austin describes as one of the most fun days in her six-plus year history as a comedy club owner.
"I was really dreading it because it was the day after the festival and for me to even put out a call and say, 'Hey, after you guys have been up here as late after we stayed open to party and everything,'" Austin says. "The last people to leave that night were the first people here for the day of the move. We had about 25 people show up. I was overwhelmed. I couldn't believe that many people showed up."
The crowd of eager faces who greeted her the next morning somehow moved an entire comedy club in a single day. Austin says the sight moved her to tears.
"I had to stop for a second and be like, I can't believe these people showed up," she says. "It was overwhelming."
Audiences of the Dallas Comedy House who just go for a show may only see the performance side, but for the faithful, who know it as DCH, are usually in the one of the house troupes, attend classes or even just show up for the weekly "Jam" sessions, it's become an artistic community of support and creativity. Given their steady stream of success, having to find a bigger place for comedy nerds to play was inevitable.
DCH will celebrate the grand opening of their new Main Street location Friday and Saturday with a special performance by the long-form improv group Ladytown as well as shows from some of the club's more popular troupes.
Austin says moving to a bigger place is actually scarier than the first location she opened, or even just leaving behind a cushy job at a Lexus dealership to pursue a career in a form of comedy that most people in Dallas/Fort Worth didn't know existed.
"It's more than twice the size," she says. "It requires way more staff. Think about it. It's more than double the utilities, more than double the everything... and there's no turning back now."
Kyle Austin, Amanda's younger brother who also works as an instructor at the club and performs in several house troupes such as Roadside Couch and Please Like Us, recalls hearing his sister's plans to start her own comedy club.
"She had the itch for about a year and started putting things on paper and putting things into action," Kyle says. "I was very skeptical, even as her brother who was someone who was with her from the very beginning but she is a bulldog. She was able to do it. She essentially took the leap of faith and we've been riding her coattails ever since."
Just like most of the people who sign up for classes at DCH, she got the itch for sketch and long-form improv while watching a show. The Tyler native who grew up wanting to do comedy saw a show at the famed Second City theater during a trip to Chicago and a friend urged her to take a class back home. She signed up for classes at the now-defunct Ad-Libs just behind the old DCH location and urged her brother to sign up after the comedy bug sunk its teeth into her, an opportunity he only took when she offered to pay for his first session, Kyle says.
"As soon as we got done with Ad-Libs," Kyle says, "we were taking trips to Chicago and LA to see shows and take classes."
During one of their trips to a class at the Second City theater in LA, they met David Razowsky, a world-renowned improvisational comedian and actor.
"I remember her coming to me with questions when I ran Second City in LA for 10 years," Razowsky says. "It was about classes and ideas and she'd always come to me for advice. When you last long enough in improvisation, you become an elder statesman."
Razowsky couldn't remember the exact moment when he connected with the Austin siblings but he says they exchanged emails from then on and would always meet up when Razowsky found himself in town to talk about the club or whatever else was going on their lives. He certainly fits the mold of a mentor.
"Improvisation is about ensemble work and how you can't do any of this on your own," Razowsky says. "If you don't know how to create a family, you're not going to be a family and it's interesting how Kyle and Amanda are family and they created a family with DCH. Their success is 100 percent how open they are to the community and how giving they are."
Their success started before they moved into their first headquarters on Commerce Avenue after holding classes and shows for corporate events or in places like Ozona on Greenville Avenue. Kyle says the first year wasn't without its struggles.
"The first year was probably the hardest year," he says. "We had done several shows and we felt like we were experienced enough in the comedy side of it but she had never started a theater or opened a bar or started a training center. So the first year had some severe growing pains. Comedy in Dallas was non-existent. So we had to started developing something interesting and we had to start, for lack of a better word, a cult to generate some interest in Dallas."
Amanda says she was "optimistic" the club would take off, even if the future was uncertain.
"I didn't know that all of this other stuff would happen or that we would grow this fast," she says. "I didn't project any of that because I didn't have anything to base it on. So I think I was just excited and if it didn't work out, I could go back to my job and go, oh well, at least I tried."
Soon, classes started growing from word of mouth and encouragement from people who had been through the program or seen the live, improvised shows and Amanda started looking for a space they could call their own. She says she looked all over town but settled in Deep Ellum right at the peak of its cultural bust because of its centralized location, encouraging arts community and "because the rent was cheap because nothing was happening in Deep Ellum.
"It's close to everything and there's lot of cool stuff going on down here and it's only getting better now so I didn't want to leave," Amanda says referring to her new location. "If we could make it work six years ago when nothing was going on down here, then we'll be fine."
The club continued to grow leading to special events and even its own festival that attracted some very famous names in comedy like Keegan-Michael Key who is one-half of the Comedy Central sketch duo Key & Peele, stand-ups including Rory Scovel and Chelsea Peretti and even a large portion of Conan O'Brien's writing staff during Conan's visit to Dallas' Majestic Theater during last year's Final Four.
Those names and faces would never consider making an appearance if the club didn't have such a strong presence in Dallas. Such a presence can only be built by building a strong community, Razowsky says.
"I've been in the improvisational business since 1982 and I've seen more standup clubs close than improv clubs," Razowsky says. "They tend to stay open because standup is just about standup and booze. Improv is about creating a community and a school that relies on teachers who are charismatic who like who you are, like the school and want it to succeed. It's about changing people's lives. You're teaching people how to listen, how to connect, how to communicate, how to be vulnerable and honest. It's like a church, a church that everybody wants to go to."
DCH has built just such a community through its classes and the friendship and troupes that are forged along the way as they go through an experience that allows them to be weird, wacky, angry or embarrassing without fear of judgment when they just learn to let themselves go. ??
"We've become stronger for it," says Shiloh Armstrong, DCH's general manager who also performs in troupes such as Wilma!!! and Summer Girls. "When you think about it, you're dealing with challenges together and spending a lot of time together."
Mary-Margaret Hundley, a freelance fashion stylist from Dallas is a Level 1 student, who has only taken a few classes after only doing comedy once during one of the club's weekly "Jam" sessions where anyone can get on stage and perform regardless of their experience.
"I feel like it's a really tight knit group there," she says. "It's a very vulnerable situation to be in and especially in my troupe and I can't speak for the others but in a short period of time, we're already really comfortable with each other and around a lot of really talented and inspiring people who you can tell have worked really hard to teach people. So quickly, I felt like I'm part of a professional group."
That sense of community builds in those who continue to trust themselves in the improvisational process and learn how to work within a group, says Jason Hensel, a performer in groups such as F.A.C.E. and 1995 Chicago Bulls.
"What makes me stay is the sense of community," Hensel says. "Improv is about being supportive of one another and treating people with respect on and off stage."
Some have been so inspired and emboldened by the people they performed and learned with at DCH that they moved to cities like Chicago and LA to make a go at achieving their comedy dreams. Brian Moody, a former member of Samurai Drunk, made the trek to Chicago where he's studying at Second City and getting stage time with a sketch team called Barbed Wire for Breakfast.
"I think it's the feeling of acceptance of care for the performers and students," Moody says. "That attitude of love and support carries over into the performances. Everyone is having fun on stage so that carries over to the audience. It's contagious, in a way."
Weikei Yu, another DCH member who moved to LA after performing with troupes such as Human Level, RAM and Primary Colors, says that sense of community encouraged him to take his own risk and move to the smoggy entertainment mecca.
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"The community itself is great and what people who don't do this thing full-time realize is that this is her [Amanda's] passion," he says. "This is her life's work. You have to have that to be successful."
Razowsky says such communities in improv comedy clubs are not uncommon since the performers aren't out to cut each other down for stage time. He believes DCH's community has made it the success it has become but it still had to start somewhere.
"It's who runs it," Razowsky says. "Whenever I think of those two people [Amanda and Kyle], I see them smiling. My picture of them in my mind is them smiling and making things work out and improvising. Their success is all about who it is and who they are."
For tickets to this weekend's shows head to dallascomedyhouse.com.