Austin-based comic JT Habersaat’s resumé is a black denim umbrella underneath which resides a career in stand-up comedy, co-running an independent punk rock record label, podcasting with people like Danzig and Doug Stanhope, and … wait for it … an appearance in Citizen Toxie: The Toxic Avenger 4. I caught up with Habersaat while he was on the road with the Altercation Punk Comedy Tour to talk about the relationship between music and comedy, his connection to Doug Stanhope and how to have fun on the road without being a dick.
Isaac Kozell: You spend a lot of your time on the road. Percentage-wise, how much of the year are you touring?
JT Habersaat: Yeah, that’s true. 2014 was my heaviest road year ever. I was pretty much on tour from late September to January 1st. I took January off until the last week and have been on tour nationally since then. I think I’ve had 5 days off. It’s a lot of shows. I’ve got some possible TV etc. projects looming for this year, but on average 70% of my year is touring.
IK: You started the Altercation Punk Comedy Tour in 2008. How did that come about?
JTH: I had moved to Austin from New York a little prior and had been on a long break from comedy. I decided I wanted to pursue it for real with some other comics I admired, kind of applying the DIY punk band approach to comedy touring. Alternative venues, all ages shows, sometimes performing with bands. The brand seemed to strike a chord with people and here I am 7 years later.
IK: What caused the break from comedy?
JTH: I was working in radio and running a punk magazine (Altercation) with my wife, while also promoting punk shows and playing in two bands. Time was just spread too thin to really give comedy the attention I felt it should deserve. These days, comedy is my main focus, while also co-running Altercation Records with my business partner Travis Myers. They definitely keep me busy.
IK: What brought you to Austin?
JTH: I had visited Austin for SXSW a few times and really loved the city. My wife got a great job offer to be an Art Director there, so we just put our house up for sale and were in Austin three weeks later. I still love New York, but hate the snow, insane taxes, and tolls. It was the best move I’ve made. It’s a known city with a great scene, but still feels like a “big small town” to me.
IK: Toxic Avenger! How did that come about?
JTH: Haha, that was a blast. A buddy of mine was working crew on Citizen Toxie and got me hired. I got to sit in a makeup chair next to Ron Jeremy for two hours as he told stories and hit on Troma gals … hilarious and the dude can really act! It remains a great thing to have on my resumé.
IK: How did you get on Doug Stanhope’s radar?
JTH: I had a comedy column in Amp Magazine and we did a drunken e-mail interview. He mentioned he was looking for a new venue in Austin, so I ended up booking and doing support on his next show. We hit it off right away and he has been super supportive of my career. His Celebrity Deathpool website sponsors my tours these days and Doug has more or less been my Yoda for navigating a lot of the comedy world. He is zero-bullshit and a super generous guy, in addition to being a comedic genius.
IK: Yeah. He’s great. I was lucky enough to interview him for this magazine. It’s one of my favorite interviews. What’s one of the best things you’ve learned from him?
JTH: So many things. Some writing tips, in terms of how to push an audience while still being funny. To know your worth and not get screwed in a show biz industry. Most importantly, how to deflect and weed out people that are trying to either grab on to you or talk shit and bring you down … how to thwart psychic vampires that waste your energy.
IK: You must really trust the comics you tour with. How many team members does the Altercation Tour have?
JTH: I’ve never had the same Altercation lineup more than once, which is very intentional. I always want it to be fluid and fresh. I’m super particular about who I work with in the tour, because it is an established brand by this point. That being said, I also always let promoters add a few locals to each show, regardless of how seasoned they are. I like seeing the different comics in different scenes. These days I really try to keep “the tour” to myself and two others. Jay Whitecotton and Joe Staats are my go-to guys much of the time. Stanhope also paired me up for co-headlining runs with brilliant performers like Mishka Shubaly and Junior Stopka, and those were great tours. I’ve been in bands before and never want to be chained to a specific member for anything I do.
IK: Let’s talk about the connection between music and comedy. You mentioned touring with Mishka Shubaly, you’ve also performed on the Vans Warped Tour and shared the stage with Henry Rollins. What is it about your stand-up that meshes so well with musical acts?
JTH: I think the fact that I come from that world. I was a New York hardcore kid, going to shows at CBGB and Coney Island High every weekend. I speak the language and relate to the culture of punk and indie rock, often more so than with my relation to comedians. I try not to be too referential with my material since I never want to turn into the Cool Kids Only Club with my comedy. But my fan base certainly seems to be rooted in a shared affinity for underground culture, be it music or comedy. Plus, I like to blur those worlds. I’ve dragged band people like Mike Wiebe from Riverboat Gamblers, Dave Rodriguez from Krum Bums and Billy Milano from SOD on stage to try comedy, because I knew they were natural fits. Ryan from Off With Their Heads is the next one in my sights to push in front of a mic.
IK: What bands excite you these days?
JTH: It’s interesting, because while I run a label that is very punk-centric, I listen to a huge spectrum of music. But in terms of punk rock … The Sharp Lads out of NYC and The Svetlanas from the USSR are two of our most exciting new Altercation signings. Off With Their Heads, The Dwarves, Lucero … there are a ton of bands that I love. When I’m home though I usually listen to The National and Nick Cave more than anything.
IK: As an artist and label owner, what career advice would you give other artists?
JTH: Say yes to opportunities when they are offered and figure out the logistics later. Take risks. In order to make things happen as a comic or band, you MUST tour. Some people get quick TV breaks and things like that, but those are rare and almost every career jump I’ve made has been through doing the work on the road. Don’t be a dick. Talk to local performers and don’t hide backstage all night. Have merch that looks good. Party hard but do your fucking job on stage and don’t expect others to babysit your drunk ass. And most importantly, give the same level of performance whether there are 9 or 900 people in the crowd.