Looking for the TL; DR version? Skip to the CONCLUSION at the end
The Long Version
We arrive in Austin at 11:20 PM on Wednesday, March 6th. It’s been thirteen years since I’ve been to Austin. At that time, Austin’s airport seemed huge to me because I’d never really traveled much. Now it seems tiny to me because it’s nowhere near the size of Atlanta’s. The cab ride to the Hyatt Place in Arboretum is $50 including tip. The guy sped like crazy, there was no traffic, and it was highway all the way, and still the cab ride was expensive. It was the first of many times I’d contribute to the Austin economy.
The check-in desk at our hotel was next to the bar. As we’re checking in, a flannel clad hipster is threatening two older British gentlemen in suits over a perceived insult to the female bartender. As the hipster threatens them, the bartender is loudly insistent everything is fine and that the matter should be dropped. The British gentlemen remark no one has ever spoken to them in that manner. It was surreal. Welcome to Austin … where an extra out of an episode of Portlandia threatens to curb stomp the British version of Statler and Waldorf from The Muppet Show.
The distance of the Arboretum from downtown is huge. If you had a car and could actually find parking downtown, it’d be fine but this will come to be a hindrance. We rise midday on Thursday since the conference hasn’t started yet and since we have no car we walk to Buca di Beppo that’s next to our hotel. Yes it’s a chain and yes we didn’t come all this way to eat at a subpar Italian joint but it is what it is. We had no car and we figured we had eight more days so who cares?
I apparently waited too late to buy my shuttle pass and they quit selling them online. After angry tweeting them I learned later that they’d give me a free ride down to the convention center where I could purchase passes … for $20 more than the online price. Cash only. Gee, thanks. They have a monopoly and I have to relent.
We enter the convention center to get our badges and swag bags and then head to the closest restaurant since it’s raining. I have my jacket and an emergency poncho I got two years earlier at another tech conference. We break out both and head for a quick lunch at the Mexican at the restaurant across the street. Immediately after, we begin a trek to see TV host Andy Cohen talk about social media and What What Happens Live on Bravo at his interactive session. His driver got lost and he was a good 15 minutes late to the session but was entertaining when he finally did arrive.
I drag my wife all this way to nerd spring break so I figure I have to have one session she’ll like. The rain lets up long enough for us to walk the mile from downtown to the Long Center. We saw the first of many Game of Thrones pedicabs.
I really should’ve paid closer attention to the transit system in place as I’d have gotten a free ride from the Austin Convention Center to Long Hall. A mile plus walk did me good so I didn’t mind but I decide to give SideCar a try on the way back. SideCar is similar to Uber in that it’s an unlicensed taxi service that is currently butting heads with Austin’s city council, so for SXSW 2013 they were offering free rides since they can’t legally charge for them. I use the app and within ten minutes a guy who looked like Gary Oldman in True Romance is pulling up in a Mercedes C230 to take us to our next stop for free: The Stateside Theater.
We line up for the next hour and some change waiting to see Upstream Color. While in line, we’re entertained by an Austin magician. You see, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone was premiering at the Paramount theater next door so SXSW hired a magician to work the lines. While in line, we saw superhero pedicabs everywhere.
The reviews have been glowing for Upstream Color … like this one. I liked Shane Carruth’s previous film Primer. Sure I had to watch it twice and then even hit Wikipedia as it was a movie you had to decipher but this movie was too much. There was no real narrative and the characters didn’t really directly address each other when speaking. I don’t need to be spoon-fed when watching a movie but I also don’t want the cinematic equivalent of looking at a painting for two hours. I consider myself a sophisticated cinephile and maybe it was standing in a line for two hours in 100% humidity but it just wasn’t my kind of movie. I get what he was going for but it was just a little too abstract for my tastes.
I had wanted to see The Evil Dead premiere after Upstream Color but the line was around the block. I hadn’t realized Bruce Campbell would’ve been in attendance or else I would’ve braved the line.
We walk back to the convention center and catch a shuttle back to hotel. One of our fellow passengers forgot his phone at a restaurant. I decide to ask him if it’s an iPhone. He says it is so I loan him my iPhone to use “Find my iPhone” to put his iPhone in lost mode. He is grateful and we talk. I would later email him to make sure everything worked out for him (spoiler alert: it does). We opt to get dropped off at a nearby hotel so we can dine across the street at North by Northwest. The food is tasty … particularly the fried cornbread (cornbread in chicken stock with goat cheese and mushrooms). We then walk a half mile back to our hotel, shower, and call it a day.
When you travel, it’s easy to get into late nights and long amounts of sleep. I’m usually a fairly early riser, but for the sake of my wife I sleep in. As is usual for SXSW, the lines to everything are ridiculously long. As a result, we were unable to attend Elon Musk’s keynote. We decided to go to an interactive session called “Comedy Tech: How Funny Stuff Shapes Our Future”. I felt the session was not representative of what we ended up getting. We expected more on technology behind moving comedy forward but it ended up being more about theory. The thing that we came to learn about the sessions (and the festival in general) is that there are lot of douchebags there. For example, at this session when the floor was opened for questions a woman started by immediately criticizing that the panel was all white. Alf LaMont, the moderator, piped up and said he was actually Hispanic and and then said something basic in Spanish ending in por favor and the humorless twat at the mic goes, “Well actually I’m of middle eastern descent so I don’t know what that means.” I don’t like the self-important ass who likes to make a scene for no good reason. She obviously had no sense of humor so of course she should be at a session with the word “comedy” in it. If I were to make a comparison to an SNL character, as is my want, the lady kind of reminded me of Cinder Calhoun.
When going to this session, we queued up for what we thought was the proper line. The running joke at SXSW is that every conversation you have there begins with “What are you in line for?” We asked someone in line that question and he answered in a brusque German accent “Ze session.” Thanks, asshole. “Which session?” “Ze future one.” We were in line for “How Funny Shapes our Future” so we thought we were in the right line. Five minutes later, while chatting with a woman in front of us we discovered we were in the line for the Future of Porn session. Had I known how boring the Comedy Tech session was, we would’ve stuck around for the porn one. Speaking of German people … the most popular language we heard in Austin, outside of English, was German. You’d think it’d be Spanish. We were in Texas. Nope. Lots of Germans at SXSW.
After that session we went to Esther’s Follies where we caught a live recording of Comedy Bang! Bang! with Scott Aukerman, Reggie Watts, Rob Huebel, Ken Marino, Martin Starr, and Natasha Leggerro. They were there to promote the web series Burning Love. Rob Huebel was on fire and halfway through, James Adomian shows up in character as Jesse Ventura in full conspiracy mode. The whole thing was surreal and entertaining.
You can listen to it here or if that link goes away there’s a cached copy is here.
We would end up at Esther’s Follies many times over the course of the festival.
We then went back to the convention center to wait around to see the John Milius documentary called Milius. We’re hungry so we decide to buy a slice of pizza before the movie and while in line, I spot Harry Knowles and his wife about 30 feet away. As I buy the pizza, the weird white girl selling me the slice broke into an impromptu version of TLC’s Waterfalls which sparked a discussion about Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes and how she’d still be here if she’d worn a seatbelt and hey, wasn’t it weird that she has like ten people in the car and she’s the only one who died?!? Something that happened repeatedly at the festival was meeting weird characters and having odd conversations or overhearing weird conversations.
I walk away and went up and introduced myself to Harry Knowles and his wife Patricia and talked with him for a bit. He’s a very personable, friendly, and approachable fellow. We talked a bit about the new Evil Dead, CG effects versus practical effects, and how you should never fear the lines at SXSW. He had said on his website that John Milius was going to be at the screening but he canceled at the last minute.
The Milius documentary was great. I knew he wrote and directed the original Red Dawn and Conan the Barbarian but was not really aware that he did Jeremiah Johnson and the Wind and the Lion. He was also the reason Sean Connery agreed to do The Hunt for Red October. My wife had no idea who John Milius was so when folks like Harrison Ford, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and others show up singing his praise it was fascinating for her.
Saw the documentary, which was brilliant, and watched the Q&A with the filmmakers. Scott Mosier (Kevin Smith’s producing partner) was there but didn’t look as if he wanted to be bothered so I passed by and only nodded at him. Scott Mosier appears on Kevin Smith’s SMODCAST and in episode 169 he reviewed the book Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand and it’s one of the most fascinating things I’ve ever heard. Stop and go listen to that right now and you’ll understand why I wanted to say hello to the guy.
It took a long time to get back thanks to the shuttle. We ordered room service, suffered daylight savings time, and called it a night.
Next day, our driver had no idea how to get to the Austin Convention Center. Had to use my GPS to get us there. This sort of “I don’t know where I’m going” shit happened more than once. I get that they’re not from this part of town or whatever but no one on the bus was a local (obviously). I deputized myself as the navigator in such situations and always got us back but it was frustrating.
Saw a comedy panel with Eddie Pepitone, W. Kamau Bell, Joe Garden, and Janine Brito on why offensive comedy is good for you. The Huffington Post covered the session here.
Baratunde Thurston, former editor for The Onion and author of How to Be Black, and Jesse Thorn of Bullseye, made appearances in the audience. My main reason for going was to see W. Kamau Bell.
We wandered around 6th Street for a while before ending up at the Jackalope for some dinner and then hung out at the IFC Crossroads House.
As we stood around, I saw W. Kamau Bell walking around. He came up to me and said, “I’ll shake your hand since you nodded at me.” I told him I loved his show and then immediately regretted not asking for a picture with him.
We saw a show called Two Man Movie with Neil Casey and Anthony Atamanuik. Both guys are funny but I’m just not a big fan of improv.
The next show featured Marc Maron introducing his new IFC show called Maron and he told some great anecdotes about Mel Brooks & Carl Reiner. He also had recorded a podcast with James Franco earlier in the day where he apparently angered Franco. You can hear the podcast at Maron’s website (local copy here).
We stuck around for W. Kamau Bell and his writers do standup at the next event. Aparna Nancherla, Dwayne Kennedy, Guy Branum, Hari Kondabolu, Janine Brito, and Kevin Avery performed and my favorites were W. Kamau Bell, Guy Branum, and Janine Brito.
As we left, I got high-fived by a drunk guy and boarded my shuttle. I helped our driver get us home (again). I made the other passengers laugh and that made me happy.
I attended a session on podcasting with Roman Mars, Colin Anderson, Helen Zaltzman, and Jesse Thorn. It was quite enjoyable, informative, and it may provoke me into doing a podcast of my own.
Lines at SXSW were long everywhere … even the restroom. Standing in line, waiting for stall and the guy in the largest stall tries to come out of the stall and can’t. Being helpful, I walk up and try to open it. It’s jammed somehow. Guy in neighboring stall tells me to quit as I’m about to yank the wall infrastructure down. I go out and find SXSW employees. One laughs his ass off and one comes to help. I left when the guy in the stall started yelling at that guy for doing what I did. I didn’t stick around as obviously I was in there for a need that had to be tended to but I wish I had as the whole situation there was pretty amusing.
I went to get coffee before the Google Glass session and ran into Matthew Lesko (I think). The barista got me to take his picture with him so I assume that’s who it was.
The next session was on developing for Google Glass. It was a packed room …
The session was led by Timothy Jordan and talked how JSON is used to integrate with Google Glass. I think Glass is a bit of a creepy technology but am eager to see how it shakes out. I think I speak for everyone in attendance when I say I was disappointed we weren’t all given free Google Glasses.
We started out the day by attending a screening of Alex Winter’s (aka Bill from the Bill & Ted movies) documentary about Napster called Downloaded. We left before it ended because I desperately wanted to attend the session on Transitioning Alternative Comedy to TV featuring Fred Armisen, Marc Maron, Chris Gethard, and Scott Aukerman. I’ve been a huge Fred Armisen fan for nearly ten years and he didn’t disappoint.
Some of the notable moments from the panel (also covered by IFC here):
- Fred Armisen said, “I remember coming here 15 years ago to sessions like this and calling out the panelists as frauds … please don’t do that to me.”
- Marc Maron, who talks with his hands frequently, kept putting his hand in front of Scott Aukerman’s face … accidentally at first but more intentionally as time went on.
- Fred Armisen, also on the topic of being here years ago, “I remember that chair, and that chair, and that light up there is new …”
- Maron was his normal curmudgeonly self but that’s why we like him.
- Fred Armisen launched into his take on American regional dialects when prompted by a question from the audience which caused Maron to sarcastically remark that you could take Fred’s improv class soon at a learning annex near you or something to that effect.
- Maron talked about auditioning for SNL back in 1995 and never heard back from the show. He asked Fred about Lorne Michaels and Fred spoke of how his audition with Michaels was different than Maron’s. He then made a comment to Fred Armisen about how SNL cast members past or present never say an unkind word about Michaels. Armisen responded with, “Well, they didn’t say no to you. They could still call back. Who knows? Maybe you got the gig?” which caused the audience and Maron to laugh.
- Aukerman and Gethard both took shots at Comedy Central. Gethard starred in a short-lived show on that channel called Big Lake which, while not bad, really wasn’t suited for him and was supposed to originally star Napoleon Dynamite star Jon Heder who backed out at the last minute.
- One lady who professed to be the president of a Fred Armisen fan club asked her question and then approached the stage on her way back to her seat causing Fred to remark, “How weird would it be if she shot me just now? Like, ‘I’m the president of your fan club!’ and then BANG! right in the head, Moe Green style!”
We head back to Esther’s Follies and catch actor Kevin Pollak (The Usual Suspects, Willow) do his Talkin Walkin podcast which you’d think would spelled Walken since it’s done using his Christopher Walken impression for its entirety but it isn’t. Basically Pollak and a guest just sit around and chat on a stage for an hour or so with Pollak imitating Christopher Walken but no one acknowledging it. Kevin’s guest was Kyle Kinane. I’ve been familiar with his comedy for a while and it was nice to have my wife become a fan after seeing him interact with Kevin. The episode we watched can be heard here (local copy here).
Robert Kelly’s nasty show
I’ve been a Robert Kelly fan for years having listened to him on Opie and Anthony and his podcast, You Know What, Dude? (named after the line Jim Norton would often imitate as Robert on O&A) and he hosted a comedy show featuring Mark Normand, Big Jay Oakerson, Archer’s Aisha Tyler, and Matt Braunger. Robert Kelly absolutely killed. Big Jay Oakerson and Mark Normand were two comedians I wasn’t familiar with going into the show but afterwards I can’t wait to hear more of their stuff. There was an overweight, balding, bespectacled red-headed guy in the front row that they all picked on for being a serial killer. I felt bad for the guy but he did sit in the front row. There were also three teenage girls in the front row who sat with one of the girl’s dads who were the objects of many unflattering comments from the comedians. Again, don’t sit in the front row.
This was the slowest day. My wife was exhausted and just didn’t feel like doing much so I got up and headed over to the Long Center to see Joss Whedon’s take on Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. As with most things at SXSW, I queued up for the showing and was in front of the most insufferable woman who kept yammering on about her acting career. It was tortuous and lasted for the hour and a half I stood in line. She told her entire life story to the two poor college aged women in line behind her. At first I couldn’t tell if they were genuinely interested or just being polite but after she wandered off before the show, I heard the two women talking amongst themselves how they wished she’d left an hour or so before. Glad it wasn’t just me. I was primely positioned next to the outdoor bar and had time for plenty of Irish coffees while I waited. Once inside, I sat next to a couple of film buffs and we chatted about film, Joss Whedon, friendly celebrities (the one in question? Clifton Collins, Jr.) The movie itself was really well done. As a fan of Whedon’s TV work, it was nice to see Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker perform together again and Tom Lenk and Nathan Fillion got great laughs as incompetent cops Verges and Dogberry. Once done, I had a delicious gyro from the Kebabalicious food truck outside the Long Center and headed back to the hotel.
THURSDAY AND FRIDAY
Absolutely nothing to report. We spent most of those days resting and booking the next trip we’re taking before flying out that Friday.
I’m a pop culture junkie who loves independent film, alternative comedy, technology, and music. There was no way that I wouldn’t love SXSW. There were lots of hipsters that made me smile with their “I’m into <something> you’ve not even heard of yet” and lots of pretentious douchebags whose marketing-biz-speak and humblebrags strained my ability to not punch them. I met plenty of nice, friendly people though. I saw small, independent films that would never play where I live. I attended panels on topics that I’d never experience at home hosted by people whose work I admire. Overall, it was a great experience. I worried because of the relatively high cost of the conference but I shouldn’t have because it was a lot of fun.
Austin is a great city. The people are laid back, the food is good, and it just has a really pleasant vibe in general. I could absolutely see myself living there and it’s on the short list of cities my wife and I would live in outside of Atlanta. Still, nine days at a conference and living in a hotel room, no matter how great of a conference, was way too much and we were exhausted and ready to go by day six.
The hotel was too far from the fun which hampered some of the fun, the wifi at the conference was amazingly robust, you will stand in many lines, and you will not get to see everything you want to see just because there’s no way to do it. If you are wondering if you should go to this conference, I say yes. I would absolutely do it again.