I don’t remember the last joke I told at the Capitol City Comedy Club.
I’d like to tell you that it crushed, that the audience exploded with laughter, that they turned to one another and whispered, “Wow, that middle-aged dad is great! What’s his name again?” Then again, it might have been just an okay joke. Something that got a polite reaction, something that I promised myself I’d work on later.
Like so many things that happened before COVID-19, I didn’t appreciate or notice it at the time.
Of course, comedy is fleeting by nature. The audience laughs, and you move on. It’s a way to take your life stories and spin them into gold. Something terrible happened to you? Hilarious. Something permanently scarring? Even better. Tell five jokes, and you’ve got a showcase set. Tell an hour’s worth of good jokes, and you’re a headliner.
And if you’re good enough, you might get to headline a club like Cap City. Although, as of last week, the actual Cap City is no longer an option. After 35 years, the venue announced that its doors were closed for good because of the coronavirus. Condolences poured in from comedians all over the country. Austin mourned another dead local icon.
Cap City wasn’t just a good comedy club (always a dying breed); it was a center of gravity. It drew people (and comics) from all over the country to Austin. It wasn’t New York; it wasn’t L.A.; it was something special, right in the middle of the country. For comics, it was proof that you could get your start in Texas.
And like all comedy clubs, it was a collection of stories and legends that happened when you weren’t there.
That time a headliner got Alex Jones to open for him (and chaos ensued). Or when people at a church next door were so loud that the comic started heckling them. Or when an audience member’s pepper spray exploded in her purse in the middle of a show. Try coming back from that.
Cap City wasn’t just an Austin thing. It was a Texas thing; it represented our state to the rest of the country. Houston’s Bill Hicks, the patron saint of Texas comedy, shot a rare live performance there about five years before he died. You can watch Sane Man on Netflix and see the eighties hair-sprayed crowd file into the club. (Back then it was called the Laff Stop. Nobody ever accused a comedy club of having a good name.)
National comics loved Cap, too. It was a chance to hang out in a cool city and tell jokes to an appreciative crowd. Patton Oswalt recorded an album there in 2006, with the now famous greeting, “I’m drunk. Here we go.”
It’s all gone now. It won’t be the last club to go. It won’t be the last ANYTHING to go in COVID’s destructive wake. It’s a cataclysm in an age in which we seem to get a new cataclysm every week. It’s an end when everything seems to be ending. Cap City lasted for 35 years, an eternity in an art form that ages more quickly than any other. It survived name changes and new owners. It survived comedy booms and busts, but it could not survive this.
As a venue, Cap wasn’t ideal. It was situated under an overpass, part of a strip mall in North Austin, about eight miles from downtown, with an ever-rotating cast of neighbors. There was the karate studio. There was the computer repair shop. There was the Romanian restaurant. There was the loud church.
Cap’s big room seated about four hundred people, mostly in long cafeteria-style tables that faced one another instead of the stage. This was a weird choice, because you had to turn your head to see who was performing. Not the most natural thing. And for years, its stage had a painfully ancient backdrop. Crisscrossing steel beams and colorful lights; if you ever watched a comedy special in the eighties you know the type. But who cares. You don’t go to a comedy club for the aesthetics.
It still worked because of Austin and its eternal population who are always looking for something to do. Austin has a reputation for being a smart, trendy city, but the audiences at Cap were more blue-collar, more diverse. If you killed, they loved you. They’d come up to you after the show and ask for a picture and flirt and maybe buy you a drink.
They came to see comedy. They came to laugh and drink and have a good time. In short, they came for a break from their everyday lives, back when that was possible. Cap was a world of big laughs, of two-drink minimums, of open mics, of comedy contests, of good times, and free tickets on your birthday (just sign up for the mailing list!).
Many, many Austinites who got speeding tickets also knew Cap City as the place where they could take drivers’ ed on Saturdays. Class was usually taught in the main room, which took on a much different vibe in the harsh light of day. And it was almost always led by a comic who needed a few extra bucks.
Cap wasn’t the biggest venue in town, but any big headliners you can think of probably made their way through, the same way your favorite band spent years in small clubs before finally making it. The Kevin Harts. The Amy Schumers. The Dave Chappelles. The whoevers. Pick your favorite comic, they did a set at Cap.
And then there were the local comics. Cap City was why they moved to Austin. In Texas, they flocked from San Antonio, Houston, and Dallas—much bigger cities, but with dead or dying comedy scenes. Around the country, they came from Washington, D.C., Minneapolis, Detroit, Boston, and Pittsburgh. Even a few from New York. Word got around that Austin was cool and worth moving to. It was all because of Cap City. Cap could get you something that other clubs couldn’t. Exposure.
The owners—Rich Miller, Margie Coyle, Colleen McGarr, and Duncan Strauss—were connected in the industry and, as a result, talent scouts regularly came to check out local comics. If you were a new comic, Cap was where you could get into the Just for Laughs festival in Montreal. Or maybe a spot on Conan. Or a showcase on Comedy Central.
Cap was home to an ever-changing roster of Austin comics who hung out together, wrote together, drank together, gossiped about one another, encouraged one another, and sometimes did stand-up. Cap had its own saints—Lashonda Lester and Andy Ritchie, to name two—who were hilarious and beloved and died too young.
It was, in other words, a scene.
Comics cut their teeth there, had all the hackiness beaten out of them, and then moved on to bigger and better things. Most recently, the wonderful Vanessa Gonzalez has made a splash nationally, hopefully taking a piece of Texas with her. And this week Saturday Night Live announced that University of Texas grad and Cap City alum Andrew Dismukes would be a featured cast member.
Comics came and went, and the Austin scene kept getting stronger, an overachieving little brother to the city’s notorious music scene. Cap was at the head of it, always assisted by smaller clubs such as the Velveeta Room and ColdTowne Theater and dozens of other rooms.
Cap’s owners even started the Moontower Comedy Festival in 2012, and—improbably—it worked. Every April, Austin becomes the national hub of comedy. This year’s festival, like everything else, was canceled, but they’re planning to bring it back in 2021. Hope springs eternal.
Will Moontower really return next year? Will anything? It all sounds so antiquated now, because stand-up in 2020 is impossible. It’s old-fashioned; it requires lots of people to pack into a room, with everyone paying attention to the person on stage. And when’s the next time you can imagine that happening?
As for Cap City, it’s now another deceased Texas institution—the “you should have been there” subject of stories told and retold by people who caught a show there. It will live on in legend, but while it actually existed, it was never trendy, never cool. It simply did its job—year in and year out. If you went on a Friday or Saturday (or the $7 Punch! nights on Tuesdays), you were almost guaranteed to have a good time. To laugh your ass off, to buy your two drinks, and forget about your regular boring life.
How do I know all this? Because I loved Cap, I headlined Cap, and I don’t know what I’ll do now that it’s gone. For a kid who grew up in Wichita Falls, making a few hundred people laugh in the big city was a pretty good feeling.
The hardest part of stand-up is after the show is over. If you had a good set, it’s hard to come down. If you were the headliner and you killed, you felt like a god. If you bombed, it made you question every choice you ever made. Either way, it was hard to get back to regular life.
It’s over now. Tip your servers. Drive safe going home. Give it up one more time for all the comics you saw tonight.
Brian Gaar is a writer and comedian in Austin.