If you’ve ever braved the trek out to Fort Worth’s Amphibian Stage Productions, you know the drive is worth it. A sleek, modern lobby with tallboys peppered throughout set the tone as you enter the space. Signature drinks, like The South Main Mule, local craft beer (buy a Martin House beer and you get to keep your pint glass) and Stir Crazy Bakery cookies complete the package. Patrons mill about at least an hour before curtain while artistic director Kathleen Culebro mingles with the audience. It's a different kind of theater experience.
Since it opened in 2000, Amphibian has been out to shake things up. This means lots of quirky, challenging plays, a commitment to new and emerging playwrights and, most recently, curation. Besides curating arguably the best darn theater bar in Dallas-Fort Worth, Amphibian has been shipping in out-of-town playwrights, giving them room to breathe and workshop developing material, and showing them why Fort Worth is a great home for artists.
That’s not super uncommon in the theater world, but it has also meant giving internships to non-professionals, like Dallas-based single-mom turned fashion designer Bree Moore. The Amphibian Comedy Series is a successful venture that goes against the grain of the comedy model that has been in place for decades.
If you’ve ever listened to comedian Marc Maron wax nostalgic on his hit podcast WTF about coming up in the comedy scene in New York and LA, maybe you have an idea of how it has worked. Grueling cross-country gigs for little pay while patrons are begged in off the street with the promise of drinks while the comedian's name is a mumbled aside. Comedy clubs are about butts in the seats.
Comedian Baron Vaughn (Netflix’s Grace and Frankie, HBO’s Girls) says the comedy club model is like the amusement park model. It hasn't innovated. When you have to buy a “flash-pass” in addition to your ticket and still wait 45 minutes in line at Six Flags you know something’s not working. Meanwhile comedy itself is changing. Vaughn says that with podcasts and social media, the access to comedians is a lot more immediate and personal.
Vaughn met Culebro during a trip to Amphibian to see a friend during the 2014 run of The Nosemaker’s Apprentice. Vaughn immediately liked the vibe at Amphibian, a curious mix of casual and dedicated theatergoers. He pitched the idea of doing a show there. Vaughn and Culebro worked to develop a comedy series and other comedians quickly caught wind of the collaboration. Amphibian launched the comedy series early in 2016 with heavyweight comic Kyle Kinane. Sold-out crowds proved they might be onto something.
Vaughn says to be a comic means you work to headline theaters — big ones. “You want to be a ‘draw,’” he says. Mainstream comedians like Louis C.K. can do this, but for lesser-known comics looking to do more experimental work, a small theater like Amphibian is a perfect venue.
Vaughn, a classically trained actor, says his theater background taught him to use the entirety of the stage — one of his idols, Eddie Izzard, is also known for his expansive stage-spanning style. He says the size of Amphibian is perfect for stand-up, even giving the feel of a one-man show. “Servers aren’t climbing over the audience to pass out drinks, the audience made a choice to come see you. There is a feel of more discernment, people looking to do something new. This is the audience I want.”
Once Vaughn put the word out to comic friends, Amphibian hosted four stand-up comedians: Kyle Kinane, Ryan Singer, Emily Maya Mills and Jackie Kashian. For his return to Amphibian, Vaughn will spend a week in the theater developing new material. It will essentially be like a residency for the comedian; Vaughn says the opportunity to workshop new material in this way is invaluable.
“When you’re working on a TV show your schedule can be very unpredictable, which means it’s harder to book shows,” he says. “I still write and work on jokes, but it’s not as polished as I’d like it to be.”
For a comedian, the audience is the strongest way to gauge the success of a work. Jokes that don’t land in the beginning of his weeklong residency will get reworked and tightened by the end of the week. “The feedback is the audience’s laughter. It shows me how I can make this better,” he says. Vaughn says the process should be interesting and fun, especially for comedy nerds who want to see the process of a joke growing.
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As a kid, Vaughn’s idols were Richard Pryor, Margaret Cho, Ellen, Dave Chappelle, and most difficult for him to process now, Bill Cosby. Vaughn is thoughtful about Cosby’s fall, and says understanding that disappointment is a complex conversation.
“We are constantly consuming entertainment, we treat celebrities like role models and royalty. Sometimes destructive behavior gets ignored or sometimes the pressure breaks them. Cosby might be the single most influential comedian of all time — and we can’t erase that.” Nevertheless, he admits Cosby’s behavior was problematic even before his scandal erupted. “He became crotchety and detached, he went to a very judgmental place and was often condescending to the black community.”
Vaughn’s approach to the sadness he feels over losing Cosby is smart and shows his methodical and thoughtful approach to stand-up. He is a thinker, ever tuned in to the compass of comedy’s journey. His theatrical training has given him the tools to process characters, and perhaps this is part of his prowess as a comedian.
As Vaughn wraps up season three of Grace and Frankie, he sets out on a comedy tour. Afterward he will start filming new episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000, a revival of the beloved TV series that featured robots and humans commenting on terrible old movies. Jumping from filming scenes with Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin to robots in a darkened space ship movie theater shows this sharp comedian’s ability to adapt and change within a given venue. It’s a fitting move for a comedian heading to the Amphibian Stage.