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An Oral History of Dallas Comedy House and Dallas Comedy Festival

Dallas Comedy House is celebrating 10 years.
Dallas Comedy House is celebrating 10 years.
Brad LaCour

More than 10 years ago, the lightbulbs framing the window of 2645 Commerce St. burned for the first time, welcoming everyone to pass the red door into Dallas Comedy House. It was an unknown venture for a trio that had previously hosted comedy classes and shows in the back room of Greenville Avenue’s Ozona’s. Amanda Austin, with the assistance of Clay Barton and her brother Kyle Austin, started a venture that would prove to be a comedy hostel for a group of young comedic minds, no matter what address they were at.

This week Dallas Comedy House is celebrating a decade of comedy with its 10th annual Dallas Comedy Festival before they shut its doors to move to a new Deep Ellum location. In those 10 years many friendships were made, late-night drinks fueled long-forgotten arguments, and through it all, people laughed.

Through the eyes of a few who saw it happen, here is an (abridged) history of Dallas Comedy House.

Clifton Hall,  Performer/Bar Manager/Instructor 2009 – 2015: Off of Craigslist I auditioned for this sketch comedy troupe that was getting put together in Dallas. I’d been acting for a while, and I just didn’t have anything going on, so I was real bored. I thought that would be fun. Auditioned. And that’s where I met Amanda.

Amanda Austin
Amanda Austin
Rosey Blair Photography

Amanda Austin Owner/Performer/Instructor/Everything 2009 – Present: The people that owned Ozona’s, I was friends with their kids. We went to college together. I knew that they had a back room back there so I just talked to them about working out some kind of deal.

Hall: She mentioned, “Hey me and a partner and my brother are gonna start teaching these improv classes. We think you’d really like, be good at it, you should come try it out.”

Landon Kirksey Performer/Stand-Up Open Mic Host 2009 – 2013: I was working at Four Day Weekend and doing their shows and also teaching, and there was some rumblings, or… I can’t remember if I replied to a post somewhere or, I don’t really remember what it was, but in any case it came up that there’s this group that wants to open up a place in downtown Dallas.

Hall: They’d mentioned it to some of us, maybe the entire class. They were like, “We’re getting our own space.” Which was super exciting, because a lot of times, or not a lot of times, but every once in awhile, it’d be like, “Hey, class is canceled. Ozona is renting out the back space to some company that wanted to do their big get together,” or whatever.

Austin: Kind of at a drop of a hat we would have to leave if a bigger event booked something. Which makes sense. We had to book things out as far as we had one class going on, and we did about one show a month.

Kirksey: I thought, well I’m over here. I’m sort of running the training center and whatnot, so I want to know what’s up, if there are going to be other venues. And I should have an idea about what that looks like. And then also I should know the people who are running those venues, those clubs. Because wouldn’t it be great if everybody could know each other and get along and all that other stuff?

Hall: I didn’t know much about Deep Ellum outside of what most people from the area were like, “Oh no, it’s kind of sketchy out there.” But it ended up being a great spot.

Austin: It was very ghost townish. However, Commerce wasn’t that ghost townish, because you had the restaurant staples of Twisted Root, Adair’s, St Pete’s and Angry Dog. So those four food establishments were there before we got there.

Kirksey: They had backgrounds in improv, because they had done various improv trainings here and there with people, and they had been doing those shows at Ozona’s, but they didn’t have anybody who did any stand-up. Me, having a background in stand-up, I was like, “Well, if you need somebody to host an open mic or a stand-up night or something like that I’d be more than happy to.” So I started doing that.

Grant Redmond
Grant Redmond
Jason Hensel

Grant Redmond Performer/Facilities Director 2011 – present: I was living down in Austin and I wasn’t getting much stage time. I drove up on a Tuesday night. I did the open mic and I loved it. That’s when I met Landon. Then I just started driving up every single Tuesday. That’s three hours there and three hours back. I feel like I grew more as a comedian at that open mic.

Kirksey: It was just more wanting to be involved in something as it began. And also I liked Amanda and Clay both pretty much right off the bat. I could tell these people seem to be good people and I just felt like … It didn’t feel weird to want to be involved in something. I wasn’t ever really formally involved in anything. It was just more, “Hey, we’re doing this. Hey guess what, we’ve got the stage sort of spaced out, you want to come down and check it out?” It was more of that stuff.

Austin: We did a jam in the dark by candlelight once.

Hall: It was like, “Well we’ve got some work lights set up in this place where the stage is gonna be. If you guys want to go in this room next door that’s just got no walls and warm up, go ahead and do that.” Just Sheetrock laying everywhere. Just bare studs up. It was cool, because we were definitely in there practicing and working on stuff before it was set up and ready to go.

Kirksey: I like being useful. When you do comedy for what passes for a living, you spend a lot of time thinking that you’ve wasted most of your life, so anytime, anytime, that I can appear useful to people is very, very pleasing to me.

Not long after DCH got comfortable in their new home, they announced plans for a Dallas Comedy Festival.

Austin: We really didn’t have any business throwing a festival. Because we had only been open for a few months. It was just very chaotic, and we kind of threw together this festival and we were able to get Jill Bernard and Joe Bill to come in and headline. That’s why there wasn’t a lot of ramp-up to it. It was mainly Dallas troupes, some troupes from Oklahoma City, because Clay and I had been going to Oklahoma City to watch them and meet them and say hey, we’re doing these things. A troupe from Los Angeles called Rigor Tortoise submitted. One of them is from Dallas and so they heard about it and lived in LA. They actually came for a few years.

Hall: I don’t think any of us really knew exactly what to expect, or how it was going to go, just because a majority of us were pretty new to improv and the whole community aspect of it.

Kirksey: Those were very — especially early on — they were very ramshackle affairs. I mean, they were always good. I would always categorize them as successful, but especially early on it was like, “Hey you think opening up a club is difficult; how about organizing a festival?”

Austin: It was very — I don’t want to say thrown together — way different than the planning that goes into it now. But also that’s with everything when you’re starting. It was like a start-up festival.

Hall: I was like, I have no idea what this is, but it just seems like the theory behind it was great. Bringing a bunch of people from all over to do this kind of art form we all really love, and it seemed like the perfect way to kind of build a community and get people excited.

Austin: I was so new into owning a business and also the world of comedy, and really had not experience. I think I’d been to one festival in Oklahoma. I didn’t understand what was out there, so it was hard for me to have a real clear ambition. I mean I knew I wanted it to get bigger. I think I just wanted it to happen. That’s kind of the same thing with when we opened. Really the goal was just to get the stupid power on.

Redmond: My first introduction of the Dallas Comedy Festival was actually a showcase kind of competition that was judged by I think Linda Stogner, Paul Varghese and maybe Amanda, and it was for a guest spot on the festival.

Kirksey: I definitely picked a lot of the stand-ups. We would have these audition meetings where we would come in and review tapes from people.

Redmond: I didn’t make it on.

Hall: I was in on a committee, we screened and watched some of the submissions. Picked and judged on some of those. Who would get in, who wouldn’t. That was really fun and interesting.

Kirksey: One year in particular nobody could come to the theater because the roads were all icy and the weather was bad, but I lived a mile away, so I was there. It was me, Amanda and Clay, maybe Kyle was there. And it was just fun, because we were sitting in a cold unheated theater watching stand-up on a projector from random people from around the country. That was fun. Doing those kinds of things was really fun.

A crew of volunteers moved, piece by piece, the inner workings of the club’s first location to their new building a few blocks over at 3025 Main St. The first building was torn down and later replaced by Dot’s Hop House.

Austin: We were already running out of classroom space. We knew that we needed to grow.

Redmond: I worked in building management. I was building engineer, which is just, maintenance guy, so I learned all these trade skills I was never certified for. But during the move I was able to help out a lot with just dismantling chandeliers from the ceiling and sinks. Minor plumbing and electrical. I volunteered so much after my job, like I’d finish working in Watauga and I’d just drive up to Dallas and help out as much as I can. And I did that until Amanda offered me a job.

Kirksey: That first building was — that’s where all the memories were locked for me, and you know, it’s good that it was pulverized into a dust heap and then paved over like some Indian graveyard. Now those spirits are locked there forever.

Sallie BowenEXPAND
Sallie Bowen
Jason Hensel

Sallie Bowen Performer/Bartender 2015 – present: I started January 2015 and I took level one (classes) at the old place, and then after that they moved, so I took level two at the new place.

Kirksey: The fact that DCH was doing the festival 10 years ago is pretty remarkable. It’s cool that they’ll continue on even with another building change.

Bowen: Everybody from DCH and people that maybe used to be at DCH but haven’t come around in awhile, they come back, and everybody parties and it’s so exciting.

Kirksey: From the first moment that I walked into that new building — which was a few years ago now — but the first moment I walked in, I was like, “Oh shit, I don’t know anybody here.”

Redmond: In a good way I mean this, but you know how like you see yourself every single day while you’re gaining weight and you don’t really notice the changes? And then eventually one day you take a step back and you’re like, “Holy shit, I’m fat now!” That’s DCH in that’s it’s grown quite a bit.

Bowen: The Improvised Shakespeare Company came and performed. They put on this amazing show and they spoke Shakespearean the whole time, but it’s all improvised; it’s insane. I performed, but I also worked behind the bar, so … I don’t know, I get weird around celebrities (Laughs). Not that they’re even celebrities, but … so working behind the bar and serving them was like this weird experience for me.

Hall: There’s just so much that goes on for these festivals. So many different moving pieces and little things. It was always very impressive and awesome to see Amanda oversee a lot of that stuff.

Kirksey: Amanda has always been pretty good about getting stuff together and making stuff happen regardless of the viability of it or anything. There was never doubt that anything would go on. Now it’s a completely professionally run organization. Not that it wasn’t professionally run before, it’s just that it was people who had never done that sort of thing trying to put it all together and getting help where they could. But for the most part, figuring it out on their own.

Bowen: She’s such an inspiration to me. She is a powerhouse of a woman. From the time she wakes up to the time she goes to bed, she’s just constantly business. And she is looking to grow and expand and improve the Dallas Comedy House.

Austin: I understand that I’m responsible for everything with my name being on the line, but it definitely takes a village. So, it’s looking at all the different people who have helped create it and how much it’s evolved.

Bowen: Saturday, the last night of the festival, they usually order a bunch of pizza for everybody, because everybody’s wasted. This is a special time of year, because people that don’t usually get wasted, get wasted, and it’s very fun to watch. And so Cesar (Villa) was so drunk, and he took an entire pizza out of the box, and then dropped it on the ground, very gross, and then he just picked it up and started eating it. And he ate a lot of it. It was a beautiful moment.

Cesar Villa Performer/Technical Director 2013 – current: Yup. Can confirm.

Kirksey: I remember one year, I think it was the second year, I don’t think it was the first year, but the second year everyone got sick. Like everyone who worked in any close capacity got like some flu, and so everybody was out basically the entire week of the festival. The festival started on a Tuesday with the stand-up stuff, and went through the very next weekend, and I remember I was the only one who was healthy. And so, (Laughs) I was like, “Now ol’ Landon’s gotta run everything.” I mean it was fine, it was just funny how everybody was dropping like flies.

Austin: Typically, not just with the festival, with DCH in general, it’s not always really big moments where I’ll step back and say, “Oh gosh, look at this, this is so cool.” It’s little moments that’ll pop up along the way. And that’s kind of how it’s always been. I mean there are big ones around the big anniversaries, but it’s usually the little things that I’ll see happening around the theater, and they just kind of — I tuck them away in my mind. I’m like, “That’s really cool. This is why we’re doing this.” Not the big grandioso things. Like a nice thank you note, or just seeing two people performing that wouldn’t even talk in level one. Those are the things that stand out to me more.

Dallas Comedy Festival is March 26 – 30

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