Inability to Cater
What is so 'punk' about JT Habersaat and the Altercation Punk Comedy Tour?
1) It Looks Like a Black Flag Record
Or Sonic Youth's Goo LP, or Off!'s new release: stark white cover, Raymond Pettibon illustration of probably late FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover in profile, listening to headphones, hand-scribbled caption atop reading, "I don't know why I'm listening to this, but I can't stop." Is it a punk rock record? Wait: It's filed under comedy?!
Slip the record from the sleeve, put it on, you hear stand-up from Joe Staats and Mack Lindsay that's certainly edgier than that of your average nightclub comic. M.O.D. vocalist Billy Milano also boasts of masturbating with tour shirts that young bands be-gifted him, alongside Riverboat Gamblers singer Mike Wiebe's hilariously embarrassing story about his band meeting Bruce Springsteen on the road, then cringing as he asks the Boss to smile and say "pickle" while snapping their photo. (Wiebe's impersonation of Springsteen saying "pickle" is worth the cover price alone.)
Then the man whose name graces the LP's cover in 96-point Impact Condensed font is introduced as "the founder of the Altercation (Punk) Comedy Tour. In addition, he's also appeared in Toxic Avenger 4 and has also worked with the likes of Doug Stanhope and Henry Rollins. Please – round of applause for MR. JT HABERSAAT!"
What ensues on Hostile Corporate Takeover, Elgin resident Habersaat's debut release for Grammy-winning comedy label Stand Up! Records, is six short routines delivered at a pogo pace:
"So, is anybody else kinda rooting for the end of the world this year? [audience howls] NOT the nice kind, where the churchgoers all get spontaneously naked for the first time in their lives and ascend. But the REAL HARDCORE, end-of-the-world shit! Where the earthquakes all go to 11 and the sky starts raining fire and there's tornadoes just made of Black Flag records everywhere!"
2) So, What Is So Punk About Your Tour, JT?
"I have a pretty good eye for marketing," Habersaat said over lunch at Chuy's last June. Indeed, he works in marketing, thus recognizing "there's value in branding something, especially when it's a brand I know. I knew calling it 'The Punk Comedy Tour,' there'd be a certain degree of expectations/questions/'what the fuck?' from the audience and the press – and also from myself, in terms of what I wanna do: Do I wanna get up there and tell Dee Dee Ramone jokes? What does that mean?
"That's the number one question, and I totally brought it on myself. I get it. To me, punk has always been attitude and do-it-yourself ambition, and a general inability to cater. Stand-up, for better or worse going forward, is my main career. But I've kinda reached this point by not doing anything I didn't really want to do."
Aside from edginess, rapid tempos, and punk cultural references, Habersaat's attitude and ethics are punk. Since its beginnings, punk was meant to not strictly be "punk rock," but an independent creative philosophy and lifestyle meant to encompass everything from music to fashion, graphic design, economics, publishing, and filmmaking. There were late Seventies punk comedians, the UK's Jonny Rubbish being most notable. Celebrated English punk poet John Cooper Clarke is now continually cited as influential on his homeland's modern comedy. Arguably, Bill Hicks and even Lenny Bruce were punk comedians, Bruce being punk comedy's Iggy Pop-ish godfather. And isn't Henry Rollins' spoken-word side simply stand-up?
Local comic John Rabon says Habersaat's "immersed in the culture. He knows the music. And it's not like he's a tourist. He's authentic. It's not a hook. It's not a one-trick pony, like, 'Oh, I'm a punk rock comic! Look at my hair! I bought the punk rock uniform, and I'm gonna walk in like a narc!'"
"He's a super-hard worker," says Lisa Friedrich, a newer participant on the Altercation Punk Comedy Tour. "He brings that punk rock/indie music vibe to comedy, as far as promotion, for sure. He'll go out and flier. He'll mail you fliers to hand out, if he's not in town. And he has a really cool following through that, I think.
"He can really engage an audience like he's just shooting the shit at a bar. I like watching him a lot because he's got high energy, but it's very like, 'We're buds, and we're talking.'"
3) History Lesson (And No, JT Habersaat Is No 'Corn Dog From Pedro')
Habersaat's a native of New York state's Hudson Valley. The "indie rock snob" at WDST, a pre-Morning Becomes Eclectic Nic Harcourt took notice of him as he was shifting to Santa Monica's KCRW, handing Habersaat his Indie Flux show. Dedicated to punk, he would take Metro-North's NYC commute every weekend for CBGB, Coney Island High, Bowery Ballroom, and Continental Divide gigs in the East Village. Habersaat also absorbed attitude from certain comics: "George Carlin talking about atheism and saying, 'If God exists, strike me dead now' is fucking punk rock!" After doing one Xeroxed-and-stapled zine, Legitimate Beef, he founded Altercation magazine with now-wife Donna, working it into a nationally distributed 25-issue run. He also wrote regional newspaper copy and booked punk bands at a local bar, Snapper Magee's. After moving to Austin in 2006 for Donna's graphic design job, Habersaat teamed with the Snapper Magee's owner and formed Altercation Records, releasing a disc from horror punks Blase Debris. Now 21 releases strong, the label's annual Altercation Punk Rock BBQ is a popular non-SXSW event.
Friends discovered a pair of homemade stand-up CDs in Habersaat's car, mementos of a previous comedy flirtation in college, and encouraged him enough that the comedy bug resurfaced. A successful first local show inspired applying knowledge learned booking punk van tours to his own tour, avoiding the typical comedy circuit, believing "Altercation was a brand people knew."
Habersaat admits "comedy in a punk club was a hard sell. But it worked out pretty good. The tour started in 2008. I've never had the same lineup more than once, up until this year. But that was the beginning. Then I really started to push it seriously."
Doug Stanhope took notice, becoming a friend and cheerleader. Stanhope contractors Stand Up! Records caught Habersaat during SXSW 2012 and inked him. 2013's Hostile Corporate Takeover followed. The Altercation Punk Comedy Tour deposed Louie Anderson's normal residency at the Plaza in Las Vegas during this year's Punk Rock Bowling event, playing to 500 people. Habersaat's now seen enough growth to leave his marketing job and take Altercation on 32 fall dates, climaxing at Fun Fun Fun Fest and New Orleans' Hell Yes! comedy fest. (The tour also hits Austin Monday, Oct. 6, at the Spider House Ballroom, 2906 Fruth.)
"It's surprising how much I'm working, but it's nothing to complain about. It's at a point where I'm like, 'All right, I've gotta just go for it, just try to live off comedy.' We'll see how that goes. I feel like the brand is strong enough to do it, if I'm willing to do the work.
"I'm not a young man," the 38-year-old adds. "Touring for five straight weeks with a show every night and ending on festivals? I know what that entails. This will be a little test, a microcosm. We can say, 'All right. The lineup is solid. There's no bullshit in the van. The deals we're getting are reasonable.' After that tour, I can say, 'I can do another week. I miss my wife, I miss my dog, but I can do another week.' I figure I can regret not trying while the romance is there, than being comfortable."
JT Habersaat performs as part of Plugged: Stoned vs. Drunk vs. Sober, at 10:30pm Friday, Aug. 22, at the New Movement, 616 Lavaca. For more information, visit www.newmovementtheater.com.