“UNVAXXED SPERM” reads the poster held aloft by a woman standing outside the theater, and you know you’re in the right place: Joe Rogan’s new comedy club mecca. On Austin’s historic Sixth Street, Comedy Mothership enjoyed its opening night after two and a half years of development.
Comedy Mothership is the comedian and podcaster’s effort to launch what he describes as an ideal venue for comics and an effort to terraform the Texas capital into a major live comedy hub. When tickets for the opening week of shows went on sale (for a surprisingly reasonable $40 per person), they sold out within minutes. Tickets are being resold online for $500.
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“I’m drunk and on mushrooms in my new club!” exclaimed Rogan while wearing a rather odd, Obi-Wan-like sweater. “This is as high as I’ve ever been onstage. I need to connect with this moment… You can’t fire me from my own club, bitch!”
The venue’s theme is aliens meets art deco (the latter, a respectful nod to the remodeled theater’s century-long history). There’s a UFO above the door in the lobby, warnings that “Hecklers Will Be Alienated” and a Stargate-like arch over the main stage. The theater is awash in black and purple. By Austin comedy standards, it’s easily the coolest-looking venue in town.
The opening stretch of performances is billed as “Joe Rogan and Friends,” and the first night included Rogan-verse regulars Ron White, Tim Dillion, Roseanne Barr and Tony Hinchcliffe (who’s bringing his popular Kill Tony show to the theater and led the audience in a game called “Kayne or the Jews?”). The audience in attendance was pretty standard for Rogan shows, which means they over-index on the three Bs — bros, beards and ball caps. Within seconds of the first comic taking the stage, a gay slur was thrown out, followed by jokes about trans people. The audience hooted. For the anti-cancel-culture crowd, this is their new safe space.
Later, during a Q&A with the audience, Rogan was asked how it felt to have his club finally open. “It doesn’t feel real. I know it’s real, but it doesn’t feel real… I was super nervous today.” Asked what his next milestone is, Rogan replied, “I’m done with milestones. I think I just like risks. I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, let’s buy a building on a street filled with crack addicts.’ Like, I want someone to say no to me. They’re all like, ‘OK, go ahead.’” He also noted that his dream podcast guest would be Hunter Biden. “I can turn this around for you,” Rogan said. “If my dad had Alzheimer’s, and I was doing coke, I would have done the exact same shit you did. I really want to get him on.”
The logistics: The venue is divided into two stages, a headliner room called Fat Man and a smaller stage called Little Boy. There’s a bar named after Comedy Store co-founder Mitzi Shore. Rogan has said that he hired “the best people” from his former stomping grounds at the Store in Los Angeles to run the club. Rogan has helped lead the practice of banning phones at comedy shows, so it’s no surprise those are sealed in a pouch after entering. Security is a bit intense, as you have to get your face scanned like you’re going through airport security at Heathrow. The staff is numerous and friendly. The floor seating feels rather cramped, however, and — in a move that feels outdated — the venue has the old-school Evening at the Improv two-drink minimum.
“I want to thank Joe for building this wonderful Mothership for comedians,” Barr said. “It’s so great in the green room with everybody up there being drunk and smoking pot, just like at the Comedy Store when Mitzi Shore was still alive, and comedy was fucking king.” Barr then segued into a set riffing on “Satanic Disney.” “After 30 years of fighting ABC to have Black writers and Black characters on my show and then having the same fucking libtards turn around and call me a racist, it really pissed me off,” she fumed.
The club has been a passion project of Rogan’s since he moved from Los Angeles to Austin in 2020. Last year, Rogan told Theo Von’s podcast: “I felt compelled to do it … I never wanted to own a comedy club, and I always felt like you just had to be nice to comedy club owners because you never want to be one of those people. But then when I knew I was moving here, and [Austin’s Capital City Comedy Club] was already closed. I was like, ‘Maybe I should buy a fucking club, and start a club.’ And that became my focus.” (Cap City, by and by, has since reopened in a new location in North Austin).
Overall, Comedy Mothership seems likely to be a popular venue, especially if Rogan can attract touring headliners outside his usual edgelord posse. Plus, his ability to promote acts on his podcast – which records in Austin – makes for a powerful cross-promotional tool.
The venue also injects some much-needed investment and unique energy into the troubled Sixth Street entertainment district, which in the past few years has slid from being considered “slightly sketchy” to an outright “no go” for many locals amid a seemingly endless squabble over police funding and staffing between Austin’s city council and the police department union. Yet for some, the Mothership’s arrival has been met with weary sighs. The new club so perfectly represents the city’s recent evolution into a post-pandemic boomtown fueled by out-of-town money. The building itself was a beloved Sixth Street icon that was purchased by a California celebrity who encourages people on his massive Spotify podcast to similarly relocate to Austin — where housing prices skyrocketed last year into becoming the second-most overpriced in the country. “[Rogan] changed the game of comedy by moving us all out here,” Hinchcliffe noted.
The Austin American-Statesman even had an ad campaign last year decrying Rogan’s local influence: “‘Pull that up, Jamie’ doesn’t count as journalism,” the city’s daily paper sniffed, referencing Rogan’s go-to phrase when he asks his producer to fact-check an uncertain claim. “Journalism by journalists,” the paper added, “Not comedians.” As one wag on Reddit countered: “When a newspaper compares itself to a podcast, they have already lost.”
In a way, the venue itself — formerly called The Ritz — traces the changes in Austin over the entire past century. The theater was built in 1929 and was the first movie house in the city specifically built for “talkie” pictures. In the early 1970s, various entrepreneurs tried to revive The Ritz as an adult theater and as a stage play venue. The venue evolved into a live music club, bar and pool hall, which became The Ritz’s identity through the 1980s and ’90s as Austin established its reputation as “the live music capital of the world.” The venue changed dramatically in 2007 when it was bought by Alamo Drafthouse Cinema during Austin’s tech boom. It was a time when quirky, uniquely Austin local businesses like Drafthouse — with its then-revolutionary food and beverage in-seat service — began to expand into citywide, even nationwide, chains. “Austin weird” became an investable commodity, with the city regularly topping lists of the best US cities to live in. But when the pandemic struck, Drafthouse filed for bankruptcy and had to abandon its flagship Ritz location, which is how Rogan acquired it. The theater chain was bailed out by new investors and its most popular programming — its reliably sold-out Master Pancake live movie-mocking shows — has since shifted to the company’s other Austin locations.