By David Gavri
Both feared and revered, Rob Mungle, A.K.A. The Reverend, has been a staple of the stand-up comedy world here in Houston since the early 1990s. His brazen style and his foul language have caught the attention of comedy fans everywhere. And his near-bloody conflicts with the IRS, anime fans, along with strip-club managers have turned his punchlines into legendary stories.
Mungle is also a voice actor, as well as the founder of the highly successful comedy group known as The Whiskey Brothers. Needless to say, Robert Mungle is highly entertaining. We had the opportunity to hang with Mungle after his set to talk about the Houston comedy scene—what it used to be, and what it still can be.
First of all, how’d you get the nickname, “The Reverend”?
People say I sound like I preach. I was raised in the assembly of God—fire and brimstone, snake handling, all that shit. I handled rattle snakes in church when I was ten years old. But that’s where I learned public speaking—from those fire and brimstone guys. Shit, it’s the best way to learn public speaking. Go to an assembly of God church on a Sunday night ‘n watch those fuckers. [laughs] They get people’s attention! They’re the best at getting people to pay attention. Afterall, its entertaining—those preachers put on a fuckin rock show! So I’ve incorporated that style into my comedy. And that’s the way I like to do stand up. I’m gonna make you pay attention.
Church of God, public speaking, man—why don’t you go into politics?
I lack the background checks. [laughs] And also the money that’s required. Nobody will pay me to run for shit. [laughs]
What does it take to be a skillful stand up comedian?
Stand up is two things: writing and performing. Some people are better writers than they are performers, and some people are better performers than they are writers. But it’s the people who can do both that are successful. In the end it’s all about selling yourself—this is a selling business.
How long have you been doing comedy?
I started back in the summer of ’92—just as I was finishing college.
Gavri: I was five.
Let’s reminisce about the Houston comedy scene. Tell us what it was like back when you started doing comedy.
Back when I started, The Laff Stop was the only open mic in town—and it was harder than fuck to get on that stage. To get on the list, they still drew names like they do today, except back then, the pro comics would just walk in whenever they wanted—and they’d go up and do twenty-five minutes.
And keep in mind, back then there were a good twenty to thirty touring headliners in this town. So if the show started at seven o’clock that evening and you’re tenth on the list, you might not go up till two in the morning. But the pros did that on purpose. They did it to see who had the gumption to stay—to see who really wanted it.
Who were some of the ol’ pros back then?
(Andy) Huggins was there—Huggins has been old forever. [laughs] Huggins has been fourty-two years old for the last sixty years. [laughs] There was Jimmy Pineapple, Riley Barber, Steve Epstein, and all kinds of others.
What was it like to hang out with these guys in person?
Oh you couldn’t even talk to the ol’ pros. They would all hang out in the back of the club, and if you walked back there ‘n tried to talk to them, they’d simply tell you, “Get the fuck outta here—and don’t come back here. Until you’ve got thirty minutes of material, you can’t hang out with us, we have enough friends.”
Seriously, I had Riley Barber tell me, “Look, I have enough friends—go away.” I tried to talk to Jimmy Pineapple, all like, “Hey how’s it goin? I really liked your stuff,” and he was just like, “Uhh yeah, go back in there and watch six more comics—tell me what they’re doin wrong, and then you can come back ‘n talk to me.”
But it was a good thing. These guys would challenge you. They would demand you to be better. And once they noticed you getting good, they would take you on the road with them—and introduce you to different club owners.
How are the comics of today’s generation different from the comics of your generation?
Not everybody does this, but I’d say the younger generation of comics walks around with a sense of entitlement. And it may be a generational thing—we’re in the age of YouTube where everybody gets to be famous ‘n that kinda thing. We’re in the age of instant gratification.
But back in the day you really had to grind—you went out there and you hammered out your craft, doin’ six or seven shows in a night—and that’s how you built your twenty minutes. But now you’ve got guys walkin’ around like they’re hot shit actin’ like, “Hey I’ve got ten minutes [of material]…so why am I not fuckin headlining?” [laughs]
What can we learn from the comedy scene of your generation to help us improve the comedy scene of this generation?
Back in the day, the scene had such a high amount of energy. Guys put up so many shows and they packed the house EVERY TIME. And they’d do four shows on a Saturday—FOUR SHOWS! Who does four fuckin shows?! And there were so many good comics—they were able to do that. These guys had a BIG following. They were on the radio every morning. Shit, they were even on a local Saturday night TV show on channel 39.
They had this attitude of, “Fuck it, this is OUR town and we’re gonna be superstars here. We may not be in New York or L.A. but we’ll be the biggest thing in THIS town.” That’s what they set out to do—and that’s what they did. That mentality was part of the nature of the scene back then.
And the pros back then DEMANDED all the other comics to be better. It was like, “You wanna be part of this scene? YOU’VE GOTTA BE BETTER!” It was nothing personal, it was just that this was THEIR scene. They looked at you like, “If you suck, you are shitting on us, and we don’t have time for ya.” People say that’s mean or whatever, but it’s just what it was. Just be better—and this scene will get better, that’s it. You are fucking up the scene if you suck. End of story.
In order to get better, what does this scene need more than anything?
We don’t have a central club that we can all go to—to learn ‘n hone our craft. We don’t have a dojo where we can get proper training. And we need that. You gotta have places where you’re able to go up and do twenty minutes or more. There are no places where comics can stretch out. Four, five minutes at an open mic is fine, but until you can stretch your legs, ‘n be able to do twenty, thirty minutes at a time—that’s what’ll help build your set and allow you to evolve. That’s how you get good. And that’s how you rebuild the scene.
In order for us comics to get better, what advice can you give us?
Maximize your stage time to the best of your ability. Most open mics give you, what—four to six minutes? So to get the most outta your time, go up there with two bits that always get laughs. It might just be a minute, minute ‘n a half. But out of that time that works, add more to it. Add tags to it, add more punchlines—add punchlines to those punchlines—stretch it out. If you take that ONE minute that you know gets a laugh, and then add to it like that, then that one minute bit now becomes a six minute bit.
Once that six minutes gets fixed up and it’s done—put it to the side, and work on another bit. That’s how you build an hour of good shit. You don’t have that much time on stage, so just take a coupla killer bits, and turn ‘em into bits that destroy. Funny bits become killer bits, killer bits become fuckin’ atom bombs. That’s how you utilize the stage time to its advantage.
What does it take to get a good room for comedy?
The key to getting a good comedy room is finding somebody who is willing to partner with you while also being committed to creating and improving the comedy scene. I think it’s great how we wanna put up a statue of Bill Hicks. But just don’t make it a memorial—lets keep this scene going! Houston was comedy’s heart ‘n soul of the south. And I’d love to see that come back.
We just need that central club that’s committed to take part in the training. Those places used to be like this: “Hey you wanna be an opener? This is what you hafta do to be an opener. And if you wanna move up, this is what you hafta do to be a middle act, and so on.” We need that again.
What does it take to be a headliner?
The best advice I was given about becoming a headliner was through a story that was told to me by Jimmy Pineapple. The story’s about Jerry Lee Lewis, who was on a nation-wide tour with Chuck Berry. Now, Chuck Berry had the number one song out at the time. So Chuck Berry told him, “Hey, I have the number one song, so I get to close the show.” And Jerry Lee Lewis said, “Fine, you wanna close the show? You still hafta follow ME.”
So Jerry Lee Lewis rocks the show, brings the house down playing “Great Balls of Fire”. During the song, he lights a match and sets the piano on fire! He then stands on top of the piano and keeps rockin away! He left the stage in flames—people had to come ‘n put the fire out! And as Jerry Lee Lewis walks backstage, he passes Chuck Berry and says, “You wanna close the show? Follow THAT motherfucker!” [laughs]
You wanna be a headliner? You burn the fuckin stage down! Those who come up after you should hafta bring hammer ‘n nails to rebuild the stage. If you act like a headliner, you will be a headliner. So that’s it, fix your bits, and then BURN THE FUCKIN STAGE DOWN!
[moment of laughter]
Written By: David Gavri