AUSTIN, Texas — Patton Oswalt, Phoebe Robinson, Eric Andre, Chelsea Handler and others were in fine form on Friday night as Variety helped kick off the 2023 SXSW festival and conference with its Power of Comedy event.
The kudos pay tribute to innovators in the business of being funny. Presenters and honorees who gathered at the Creek and the Cave nightclub in downtown Austin made mention of comedians facing a fraught moment as social norms and cultural attitudes are changing.
Mike Lawrence, who tag-teamed with Nick Thune as host for the night, noted that he had to show more identification when registering to get his SXSW conference badge than he would have to buy a gun.
“In Texas it’s harder to get a festival badge than to get a gun,” Lawrence said. “Go to a gun store and tell them ‘I hate Jews,’ you get a gun. Go to registration and say ‘I’m an artist.’ They will question you.”
Eric Andre, creator and star of Adult Swim’s “The Eric Andre Show,” was recognized with the Cult Favorite award. Andre was quick to read the subtext of that category. “I’ve been trapped on Adult Swim for over a decade. You guys gotta get me out of there. I need to start making more than 300 bucks a week,” he said.
Andre was one of several comedians to point out that none other than TV news veteran Katie Couric was in the audience. “You’re in the presence of a fucking queen,” Andre told the SRO crowd. “We’re dating.”
Handler also referenced Couric as she accepted the Comedy Icon Award. She told a quick yarn about Couric bringing her to an upscale dinner party in New York with Woody Allen and Soon-Yi Previn, Charlie Rose and Prince Andrew. “It was a hot mess of an evening,” Handler said.
She was conflicted in the moment about spending time with Allen because of the allegations of sexual abuse leveled against the filmmaker by his daughter, Dylan Farrow. She bided her time, and then just as Allen put a bite of dessert in his mouth, Handler recalled leaning over to him and Previn with the question, “So, how did you two meet?”
Jen Psaki, former White House press secretary who is segueing to an MSNBC show “Inside with Jen Psaki” that debuts March 19, was a surprise guest, coming up to the stage lectern to present the glass trophy to Handler. “Here I am a person from Washington, D.C. bringing a bunch of pieces of paper up here and that feels like a real downer,” Psaki joked. She hailed Handler as a late-night pioneer and savvy comedian “who uses her voice for good.”
“Better Call Saul” and “Mr. Show” luminary Bob Odenkirk also stopped by to present the sketch comedy nod to Tim Robinson and Zach Kanin of Netflix’s “I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson.” Odenkirk poked fun at the connection of “comedy” and “power” in the event’s title. “Comedy will suddenly have power,” Odenkirk predicted. “It has never had power, until, starting today. The first day when there’s some power in comedy. It’ll probably wreck comedy, but oh well, tough shit, we had some laughs,” he said.
Phoebe Robinson, a multiplatform comedy maven known for juggling TV, sketch comedy, podcasting and standup, was feted with the innovator award. She made reference to the steeper climb that Black female comedians face in entertainment. She also thanked Variety the recognition and “for seating me in the far back corner. Have we learned nothing from Rosa Parks,” she quipped. “No, it’s good to keep me humble.”
In true comedy club fashion, no sacred cows were spared by those who took the mic. That included the evening’s presenting sponsor, Inspire Brands, which is home to fast food chains including Arby’s, Sonic, Dunkin’, Buffalo Wild Wings, Jimmy Johns and Baskin Robbins.
“I’ll keep this brief because I have to go accept the People magazine Chips Ahoy Flamin’ Hot Cheetos Comedy Vanguard Award over at the Velveeta Room,” Oswalt said in his opening.
Lawrence put a fine point on the sponsor situation, saying that he was tapped for the hosting gig because Inspire Brands “wanted to make sure there was at least one host who looked like they eat their food,” he said.
(Pictured: Patton Oswalt)