Can Cap City Comedy Club Reclaim Its Throne? - Valerie Lopez for The Austin Chronicle

July 29, 2022

Can Cap City Comedy Club Reclaim Its Throne?

The Austin comedy institution is back, but it returns to a radically changed stand-up scene


The stage is empty, but not for long: With a new mural by artist/comic Ramin Nazer, legendary Austin venue Cap City Comedy Club is back (Photo by John Anderson)

On September 10, 2020, I published a farewell love letter to Cap City Comedy Club when, after 35 years as a cultural icon, the doors of its home off North Lamar were locked, seemingly for good. I wrote at Comedy Wham, "One day instead of cry­ing about the end of Cap City Com­e­dy Club, I will smile for all of the mem­o­ries that you gave me." Almost two years later, comedy entrepreneurs Brad and Marc Grossman have brought the legend back in a new two-stage location at the Domain.

With the backing of their Helium Comedy Club network and its eight locations spanning from Portland, Ore., to Philadelphia, Pa., Cap City joins a well-oiled, respected national comedy machine that includes digital platform Helium Presents, a podcast network, and a comedy record label. However, in recognition of the strength of the Cap City Comedy Club name, Helium chose to keep the name of the legendary Austin club unchanged.

It could be argued that the purchase by Helium was an event 20 years in the making. According to Brad Grossman, it was an easy choice to add Cap City to Helium's portfolio as a legacy brand. "We've actually been friends with the ownership of Cap City for 20 years, and [Cap City owner Rich Miller] helped us open Helium in 2005. He was a mentor to us alongside Louis Lee [of Acme Comedy Club in Minneapolis]."

The sale was announced on Feb. 10, 2021, with a scheduled opening date of September. However, it wasn't the pandemic or planning permission that meant that date slipped: Grossman even said, "The city of Austin actually was pretty darn great through the permitting process." The big bad wolf in a city where everybody is building is the notorious supply chain. Grossman explained that at one point, suppliers had to delay a delivery of concrete to the new Domain location for several weeks because it was sent to build Tesla's Gigafactory.

Once the certificate of occupancy was granted early this month, the club had a soft open just a few days later on July 12 with a headliner set from Mary Lynn Rajskub. Grossman was quick to praise the staff headed by General Manager Chandy Popp Kurzweil, a familiar face for nearly 20 years at the old location, for a relatively smooth return during the soft opening.

My personal collection of colorful ticket stubs confirms how much I've enjoyed shows at the original "Cap" (as I refer to it). But I wonder: With it reopening in 2022 to a very different comedy landscape compared to 2020, can the club return to its status as "the only big club in town"?

The factual answer is it can't. Cap City reopens with two new full-scale clubs bringing their fair share of big-name comics to Austin. Former headliners including Tony Hinchcliffe [editor's note: infamous for a racist May 2021 set that went viral] and Joe Rogan used to grace the Cap City stages; now they perform regularly at both the Creek & the Cave and Big Laugh Comedy. Grossman's answer is that with Helium's backing, Cap City will find its niche. "Everyone's going to do alright, and we all offer a little something different."

It's a reflection on the city's outlandish growth that Austin has three full-scale comedy clubs alongside all the other venues to watch comedy, with Rogan's named behind a fourth being added (details are sparse, but rumors continue that Comedy Mothership will be located at the old Ritz Theatre on Sixth Street). Rogan has said he wants Austin to be the comedy capital of America, and with his influence, Grossman said, "I'm in for it."

[Cap City] is the gold standard for how to book and run a comedy club in a way that appeases the crowds and cares for the comics.
Funniest Person in Austin 2019 winner Andrew Murphy

Something else happened during the years since Cap City closed in 2020: Comedy fans increasingly went online to discover comics. TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube became laboratories for emerging talent. Grossman said he is eager for Cap City to bring not only more racial diversity, but a hybrid of online sensations and traditional club comics to Austin comedy fans.

But not everything has changed, and there's one tradition that sets Cap City apart. It's an annual event dating back to 1986 that legacy comics (i.e., those working comics who were here before COVID) loved and hated in equal measure: the Funniest Person in Austin contest. The annual springtime tradition electrified the comedy scene with chatter of preparing (gotta hit those mics!), gossiping about those advancing or not advancing, and lusting after the financial grand prize (or even the modest but impactful prize for winning Joke of the Night). It was the talk of the town, and this week Cap City brings back the long-running tradition with only minor operational tweaks. Grossman even teased the idea of a joint competition to offer winners a chance to face off with winners of similar contests at other Helium clubs "to give people a bigger opportunity to be seen by more industry folks on a greater scale."

With Helium's nearly 20-year track record of success and Kurzwell serving as general manager, there's a distinct optimism about the future of Cap City – not just for audiences, but Austin performers. 2019 Funniest Person winner Andrew Murphy called Cap City "the gold standard for how to book and run a comedy club in a way that appeases the crowds and cares for the comics. Everyone is taken care of there. As obvious as that sounds, that's surprisingly rare in the current comedy landscape."

Between the FPIA, new location, and plentiful free parking, what does the club look and feel like? Audiences can choose from two performance spaces: the main room and the more intimate Red Room. The rooms can host shows simultaneously (a luxury not possible at the original location). Dustin Svehlak, longtime Cap City and Funniest Person videographer and owner of Voltaic Video, got a sneak peek and shared, "What struck me [about the Red Room] is how similar it feels to the Lounge from the old club. Low ceilings, intimate seating, and a smaller stage lends itself to an incredible comedy experience and, for me on a professional videographer level, some of the absolute best recordings in the world." Of the main room, Svehlak added, "What's really cool is there's a balcony now, so the perspective will be pretty unique in this new space!"

Entrance to Cap City Comedy Club's new location at the Domain (Photo by John Anderson)

2012 Funniest Person winner and prolific artist Ramin Nazer is behind the artwork throughout the club, including stage backgrounds. He said, "I wanted the main stage mural to be interesting without being a distraction. When you are first seated there is no one on stage, so this draws your attention gradually as the show begins. Comedy is the best when you're fully emerged into the world of the performer."

But there'll also be connection to the old venue, and Grossman added that over the next year, audiences should expect to see more elements from the old location find their place at the new venue. He said, "We have a ton of stuff in the old Cap that we just want to get up on the walls."

Valerie Lopez is the executive producer of the Comedy Wham podcast.

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Column by

Valerie Lopez