By: Daniel Valdez
Within Austin’s booming comedy scene, Adam Serwa has established himself as a delightful jack-of-all-trades. From hosting the “Finite Jest” comedy open-mic at Cenote, to performing with the indie wrestling league Party World Rasslin’, the self-described “Pansexual Prince of Austin” brings a goofy, iconoclastic energy to whatever project he’s working on.
SMEAR spoke with Adam about avoiding soap-boxery, creating inclusive spaces, the Prince of Filth John Waters and more.
SMEAR: When and how did you get started in comedy?
Adam Serwa: I was always pulled toward stand-up from early on in childhood, when I would learn Dave Chappelle and George Carlin bits late at night while my parents were asleep and I was too adderalled out to do the same, and then do impressions of them to avoid getting my shit kicked in while I was in grade school after saying something snarky to a jock.
I grew up in a very traditional Italian Catholic neighborhood in Chicago, so I had to find tricks to keep my face out of the dirt. Aside from that, comedy was primarily a fandom-type engagement for me up until I was in art school back home in Chicago. I started taking some sketch writing classes, got enough confidence to start writing jokes and going to open mics, and then eventually got an internship with Second City in the Comedy Studies program doing sketch, improv, and stand-up.
I started doing open mics and trying to get a foothold in the stand-up scene, but being already burned out on Chicago in general and severely depressed, I never really progressed much. It was very much the “go to a venue, sign up, bomb hard, stay in bed depressed about it for weeks, finally try again, to similar results” sort of cycle. However, I would visit friends in Austin pretty frequently to escape those brutal winters, and discovered how magical the scene here in Austin was. Everyone seemed friendly, absurdly funny, and their own unique brands of weird, and I was just so in love with it all that before long, I’d decided to stop paying for road trips and plane tickets, packed all my shit that I could fit into a rental car, and started paying rent here instead. After a few months in seclusion dealing with lingering depression, I finally started going out and doing mics again, and never looked back.
S: What challenges have you faced, if any, as a queer comic in a straight-dominated field?
AS: Honestly, I think right now is a great time to be a queer comic. The general attitude of society towards LGBTQIA culture is vastly different than it was just 10 years ago. Sure, you’re gonna deal with some ignorant people and hecklers every once in awhile, especially when you get outside of bigger cities to towns that are a little less liberal about queer issues, but it’s much less of a ‘someone might go out of their way to queer-bash me for being open on stage’ fear than it had to be in the past. Honestly, I run into more issues with straight, white male comics being just as homophobic as they are racist/sexist than I do with audiences, but those people are really a minority, especially in Austin, which is a scene dominated by inspiring women and queers doing killer work, as well as mostly good dudes who are solid allies to the community.
The main challenge that I’ve faced is figuring out how to take queer material and find ways to make it relatable to straight audiences. It takes a lil bit to sort out what takes people outside their comfort zone in a way that opens them up to be surprised or shocked in a way where they learn something at the same time as being entertained, as opposed to so outside their sphere of understanding that they can’t relate or emphasize. I’m not out here trying to coddle straight audiences, but there’s a lot of straights out there with a lot of money, and if you’re trying to make a career, you gotta learn how to make them laugh, too, but without sacrificing your truth in the process.
S: There's a long, impressive lineage of LGBT+ stand-ups, improvisers, humorists, writers, etc. Who are some, past or present, that you admire?
AS: First and foremost, the person who’s had the biggest influence on my comedy is John Waters, my sweet Prince of Filth. Along with Divine, he had such a wonderful command of taking things that are taboo and at times absolutely terrifying, and combining them with camp sensibilities, gleeful hedonism, and the punk/DIY ethos before it really even had a name in pop culture, which informs a lot of what I do on stage. I haven’t exactly taken it to a level where I’m eating shit literally onstage, but it did inspire me to do a set at an orgy where I used my partner’s cock as a microphone while I was killing time to get my erection back. There’s very few things as arousing as hearing someone try to give someone a blowjob while they’re laughing. I think John would be proud of me for that moment. People do bring hella dogs to Finite Jest tho, so never say never. The two of them are the main influence behind the main persona I use on stage and in life, The Pansexual Prince of Austin. Shoutout to Brently Heilbron for coining that name, by the way.
Aside from John Waters, I take a lot of influence from David Sedaris and Stephin Merritt (of the indie-pop band, The Magnetic Fields) when it comes to storytelling approaches. Glammy showmen and larger than life queens like Liberace, Paul Lynde, and Eddie Izzard hold a special place in my heart. I also get a lot of inspiration from queer female stand-ups, like Cameron Esposito & her partner Rhea Butcher, Wanda Sykes, Tig Notaro, and Margaret Cho. There’s also a bit thrown in there from queer musicians like The Smittens, Hunx & His Punx/Seth Bogart, Morrissey, Ariel Pink, Janelle Monae, PWR BTTM, Annie Clark, Carrie Brownstein & Kathleen Hanna, and even the straight goddesses like Jenny Lewis, Kate Bush, Stevie Nicks, & Fiona Apple. There even a big influence of great pro wrestlers, like Rick Rude, Ric Flair, CM Punk, HBK, Chyna, that list could go on forever. Goodness, let’s not even get into drag queens like Alaska Thunderfuck or Bob the Drag Queen. I think it’s important to not just get your inspiration from comedy. You gotta go all over the map of entertainment to really develop something that people of all interests can connect with, as well as to represent the most authentic version of yourself.
S: Your stand-up occasionally ventures into political territory, yet avoids turning into a dry soapbox speech. How do you address politics while still being funny?
AS: I take a lot of my approach to doing political commentary from comics like Hari Kondabolu, Kamau Bell, Samantha Bee, Janeane Garofalo, Jessica Williams, and especially George Carlin. I believe that part of the duty of comedians is to point out what’s fucked up and wrong with society, and use absurdism combined with reality to show how we could be better to each other, both interpersonally and on a larger social scale. There’s always going to be times where you wander into soapboxery, and no one really enjoys it, because it doesn’t play like you’re trying to use humor to shed a light on how messed up things like the Trump campaign or institutionalized racism and sexism are. Instead it comes off like you’re trying to tell people “listen to how smart I am, I know better than you, I am better than you, now let me yell down at you condescendingly from atop my high horse.” Folks like Bill Maher are huge culprits of this, to the point where dude made an entire film about how dumb all religions are that was really nothing more than than him patting himself on the back for being better than everyone else for not placing faith in a religious system. You gotta find something funny and punchy, while at the same time trying to appeal to the part of everyone that has some basic goodness in them. For the most part, human beings are intrinsically good, but the system we have set up teaches them awful stuff, and you can’t help re-educate people by berating them. Appealing to the empathetic part of people while still finding the absurdity in our reality makes it digestible. It’s like trying to explain the reason why the Black Live Matter movement is important, and the All Lives Matter movement is shitty AF to your mother without her slapping you in the mouth after you call her a racist, or running off in tears. That’s what makes good political comedy work. Not a desire to lecture and pat yourself on the back, but a desire to facilitate the conversation.
S: What do you think sets your open-mic, Finite Jest, apart from other shows?
AS: Aside from the whole wine-soaked degenerate host character that I like to slip into every Friday night, I think having a new co-host every time keeps the spirit of the mic fresh. One of the biggest takeaways that I had from my time as an activist in my early 20s was the knowledge that if you wanna do right by your community, it’s up to you to use any position of power you have to create inclusive spaces for voices that aren’t always represented, which is why the guest co-host system of Finite Jest gives priority to queer, female, and comics of color folks. Running it that way makes it a space where people feel empowered to be themselves and try material that might not have as much of an audience elsewhere. Unfortunately with comedy, especially when it comes to open mics, the idea of ‘safe space’ politics isn’t particularly enforceable. However, having that representation at the show allows for anyone with material that’s based in misogyny, homophobia, and racism to be actively discouraged, whether it be by audience disapproval or my wine-drunk self going up after their sets and calling them out for being jerks. After all, Cenote used to be run by one of the sweetest men in all of Austin comedy history, the late Montgomery Wayne, who had a reputation for being incredibly supportive and kind. It just feels like the best possible way to honor his legacy and do right by the community by creating the kind of space that makes decent folks trying to entertain people feel comfortable, and keeps a general sweetness in the air for both comics and audience.
S: Is Austin's comedy scene inclusive?
AS: Absolutely yes. I’m not gonna say every venue is a space we’ll go over well in, but it’s very rare for me personally to feel actively shunned or discriminated against. Then again, I also get to take advantage of white male privilege, so I might not be the greatest barometer of such myself, but I can’t recount any horror stories that I’ve heard from other comics.
S: What shows or venues do a particularly good job at inclusivity?
AS: First and foremost, I gotta place Greetings from Queer Mountain here. Micheal Foulk and Ralphie Hardesty have “queerated” this magnificent showcase for all types of queer performers, be it comics, storytellers, activists, poets, musicians, burlesque, or anyone with a voice that wants to be heard, all at the best queer bar in the city/state/entire country, Cheer Up Charlie’s. This may come off as saccharine, but their show was one of the main reasons I made the decision to pursue comedy down here, and I have yet to go to one or perform at one without being overcome with tears at some point by the sheer beauty of it all. Luke Wallens runs a great show for queer stand-up, Laugh Out Proud, at the Institution Theatre. I hope to goodness Daniel Webb does more installments of his show Camp Mary that he put on for a few weeks at Cap City earlier this summer. Stand Up Empire, run by Brently Heilbron, and soon to air its second season on PBS, always books great local queer comics as part of its TV showcase. Pretty much every night of the week, you can catch tons of great queer performers at New Movement, Coldtowne, and The Institution, which also have a fair amount of queer folks on staff, which is just fantastic.”