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Meet Austin’s Curators of Comedy

The story behind the ever-growing Moontower Just For Laughs Austin Comedy Festival and the women who make it happen

Moontower Comedy
Photo by Brittany Dawn Short

It’s been 12 years since the original Moontower Comedy Festival debuted in Austin, and the fest has now flourished into one of North America’s largest and most anticipated comedy events. The annual two-week spectacular will be held from April 10 to 21, and this year’s edition is the biggest to date, featuring 40 headliners and more than 90 shows sprawling across more than 10 venues around the city.

Moontower Just for Laughs Austin Comedy Fest (photo by Bells and Whistles Productions)

Gathering comedy fans to witness a vast array of up-and-comers and some of the biggest names in the industry, Moontower’s lineup presents a survey of today’s local and national comedy scene. The program covers a magnitude of styles, going beyond stand-up into other mediums like podcasts and theater. This year’s line-up includes Shane Gillis, Andrew Schulz, Mike Birbiglia, Margaret Cho, Kathy Griffin, and Marc Maron, among others.

The genesis of the festival goes back to the Paramount Theatre, the grand venue that has prominently stood on Congress Avenue since it opened in 1915. In 2011, the Paramount’s team realized that the historic site, which already hosted a plethora of festivals in Austin, should host a festival of its own. 

(Photo by Parker April)

Lietza Brass, the founder and director of Moontower Comedy, as well as the Paramount’s chief programming officer, worked as the director of programming for the Paramount and Stateside Theatres at the time. When the suggestion to launch a festival came up, she felt it was a no-brainer that comedy should be the festival’s purview. Seating 1,270 people, the ornate theater has the qualities of a quintessential headliner comedy stage, as it’s aesthetically impressive, but not so huge that it removes that feeling of comradery. Once she threw the idea out to her team, everyone quickly jumped on board.

A meeting with the partners and owners of Austin’s Cap City Comedy Club soon followed. While Brass’s expertise was in booking headliners, she sought the expertise of a connoisseur of the club and comic scene in Colleen McGarr.

“I met with Colleen for the first time, and no one ever looked back,” remembered Brass. 

McGarr, an owner of Cap City, has been Moontower’s talent producer since the very beginning and a total savant in the humor business. The pair’s deft eyes resulted in Moontower’s first program in 2012 including names like John Mulaney, Aziz Ansari, Seth Myers, and Maria Bamford. At the time, many of these comics were lesser known, a testament to the duo’s ability to predict which acts can speak to audiences.

(Photo by Brittany Dawn Short)

“(Kickstarting comedy careers) is one of the hallmarks of our festival,” shared Brass. “One of the reasons that our fans are so loyal is because they know that the talent that they’re going to see are stars at a certain level today, but they could be the superstars of tomorrow. It’s a sneak peek of what’s happening in comedy.”

“One of our strengths is our ability to be nimble and continue evolving every year,” said Maggie Hoffman, director of operations for the festival and the senior director of live events at the Paramount. “We have these anchor acts who come every year that people love to come see, but there’s also something new.”

According to McGarr, the booking process never ends as it demands constant tracking and researching. The primary task is watching stand-up, whether that be at clubs, other festivals, or on streaming services. They also keep up with comedians’ socials, follow entertainment news, and converse with comedians to find out who’s coming up in the industry. 

Moontower Just for Laughs Austin Comedy Fest (photo by Roger Ho)

“It’s like a tapestry of strings that you’re pulling together to make the picture every year,” explained McGarr.

The perennial discernment of Brass and McGarr is reflected in a festival lineup that distinctly shares the tastes and characteristics of Austinites. The Moontower ladies assert that Austin crowds are known for their open-mindedness to different identities and styles, as well as the impressive number of comedy nerds and aficionados in town. There’s a voracious appetite that extends beyond stand-up to include sketch, improv, multi-lingual shows, and other experimental forms.

Even during the months when Moontower Just For Laughs Austin isn’t happening, the duo of Brass and McGarr remains devoted to bringing great comedy to the Paramount Theatre year-round. 

“It’s just amazing how much comedy is in Austin right now, and we haven’t hit our limit yet,” said Brass. “That’s what I love. We seem to have this amazing capacity in our town for talent.”

Learn more and get your badges on the Moontower Just for Laughs Austin Comedy Festival website.