Institutional sketch comedy has an illustrious home in Texas, according to this history of Austin’s Esther’s Follies.
Sublett (1960s Austin Gangsters, 2015, etc.) traces Esther’s Follies back to its post–Vietnam War roots as incidental entertainment at a gumbo cafe. It caught the wave of avant-garde yuks pioneered at Chicago’s Second City by haphazardly synthesizing variety vaudeville and sketch as if, in the words of one cast veteran, “Carol Burnett met Sid Caesar and they had a baby and it grew up to be Saturday Night Live on Bourbon Street.” Over the years, Esther’s anything-goes aesthetic has included mime, dramatic readings, mock water ballets—the troupe named itself after Esther Williams, swimming star of Hollywood aquatic extravaganzas—and audience-participation stunts wherein innocents called up from the crowd get propositioned by the cast. In recent decades, features have included headliner Ray Anderson’s comedic magic and illusions act, co-founder Shannon Sedwick’s absurdist turn as country torch-singer Patsy Cline, satirical musical medleys on news and politics, and Esther’s trademark window onto the sidewalk, through which rubbernecking passers-by get incorporated into the stage proceedings. Along the way, Esther’s went from disreputable bohemian hangout to civic monument as it transformed its shabby Sixth Street locale into a fashionable night-life district and became a pillar of Austin’s liberal cultural politics. (Populist Texas Gov. Ann Richards even did guest bits.) Sublett is a genial emcee for this blithe retrospective, providing deft narrative infill for the countless reminiscences by cast members. Aided by giant color photos, the recollections vividly re-create the atmospherics of theater pratfalls, nudity both theatrical and casual, and drag, drag, and more drag. But sometimes Sublett is too genial: There are darker corners—factional infighting, personality clashes, a rancorous walkout by half the cast, early deaths by unnatural causes—that he barely peeks into before ushering readers back to the entertainment. Worse, Sublett’s re-creations of Esther’s alleged comic genius fall flat on the printed page. (Sample satirical number: “You know we have a Bible Belt, and suspenders, too / And every day we ask ourselves, ‘What would Bill O’Reilly do?’ / Hillary’s husband was unfaithful, but she looked the other way / If my man pulled a stunt like that, he’d be talkin’ funny today.”) Still, this is an evocative account of how comedy can become a cultural force.
Intriguing theatrical history, if a bit too nice for its raucous subject.