The Monthly Junk’s Sarah Adams and Maggie Rieth Austin Talk Creating Content in Dallas and How to Find the Perfect Writing Partner (Hint: It Involves Food).
Sarah Adams and Maggie Rieth Austin, who operate as a writing and performing duo under the name The Monthly Junk, have enjoyed successes together and apart.
On their own, they’ve each managed to build strong reputations as comedy writers, performers and improvisers. And it was individual talents as improvisers that actually led to their meeting, as each was asked to join Richard Rope, the all-female improv troupe that would unite them.
Once the pair discovered their uncanny comedy chemistry in the early days of Richard Rope, they started finding ways to collaborate outside the group. An initial series of videos then led to bigger, higher-production affairs, stage shows and, starting last year, a two-person improv show. Their ability not just to operate but to excel comedically in these disparate formats testifies to their individual talents, and their knack for bringing out the best in each other.
You can watch The Monthly Junk perform their two-person improv show during this year’s Dallas Comedy Festival on Saturday, March 25. In advance of that performance, I spoke with Adams and Austin about the festival, the origins of The Monthly Junk and how performers can make the most of the creative talent pool in Dallas.
Is this the first time you’ve performed as The Monthly Junk for Dallas Comedy Festival?
Sarah: With our two-person show. We’ve performed with other troupes before. First time for The Monthly Junk.
Maggie: Which we’re very excited about.
Do you have anything special planned?
Sarah: I think we might do some improv. [Both laugh.]
Maggie: Every show’s special with The Monthly Junk. Every time we get on feels special and different, and we’ve had some really great shows recently. And the energy of a festival show is just, you can’t compete with that.
Sarah: It’ll be a good time, and a great show.
Any other acts you guys are especially excited about?
Sarah: Improvised Shakespeare, obviously.
Maggie: And James Adomian, obviously.
Sarah: That’ll be great
Maggie: I’m also excited for Movie Riot, and also Denver, which is an iO team from Chicago. So that’s gonna be a good one.
Sarah: There’s a lot of sketch groups coming in too, right?
Maggie: We Are Thomasse, that’ll be fun.
Sarah: All of them?
Maggie: I know!
Sarah: Whoever’s programming this festival’s done a great job.
Maggie: [Laughs.] There’s a lot of stand-ups who submitted who have a lot of really good credits, who’ve been on @Midnight, and who’ve opened for a lot of great people. All the stand-up shows should be pretty solid with out-of-town acts. The Late ’90s are coming back. Damn Gina from Austin, too.
Sarah: Oh yeah, I saw that today, I was looking at their bio!
Maggie: There’s a lot. Oh! Bit Sing, from Oklahoma City, they do all this musical stuff. They do short form, and they drink onstage, and sing. And then they’re hosting an improv jam with music.
Sarah: Oh, and then The Wrong Party are doing the hip-hop…
Maggie: The hip-hop dance after-party. Basically, I’m planning to drink a lot of Red Bull and stay awake for four days straight.
Maggie, you’re involved in the behind-the-scenes stuff. Sarah, are you also involved?
Maggie: She used to. We used to tag team it.
Sarah: I used to help run the festival in…2014?
Maggie: And 2015.
Sarah: And ’15. And I helped in 2013. And Maggie runs the festival starting last year.
Maggie: We just relay raced it.
So what goes into the behind the scenes work?
Sarah: You lose a lot of your energy. [Both laugh.]
Maggie: It’s a lot of… you get so many submissions, so trying to figure out who should be in the festival, and who works well together with time slots. There’s also coordinating volunteers, and getting sponsors, and putting together the programs…
Sarah: And then headliners.
Maggie: And then headliners, and negotiating contracts with them.
Sarah: And then you actually have to do the festival.
Maggie: And you have to book travel, and do the festival…
So all the paperwork you look forward to doing when you get into entertainment.
Maggie: [Laughs] Exactly!
Sarah: All that fun stuff. All we have to do, though, is become famous enough that we can headline the festival.
Maggie: That’s the goal. Just get a message on Facebook.
Sarah: “Hey, hey, can you headline the festival?” Sure, sure, sure, sure, sure, we’ll be there!
So how long have you worked together as The Monthly Junk?
Sarah: We started doing The Monthly Junk stuff starting…2013?
Maggie: 2013, yeah. We started performing together with…
Sarah: With Photobomb.
Maggie: Richard Rope was first, and then Photobomb, in 2012 as well.
Sarah: And Photobomb is still a thing.
Maggie: And then we started working just the two of us and doing online sketches in 2013.
Sarah: We started doing improv last year, after doing our first sketch show, Magic By Death. And that was in Austin Sketch Fest. And yeah, we started the improv and stuff from there.
So what got you guys interested in working together?
Maggie: We were put together in this group, Richard Rope. Like, this guy just put together these female performers.
Sarah: Hindsight, really weird.
Maggie: Hindsight, really weird. Unless he’s reading this article. Then, thank you! [Both laugh.] We were in classes at Dallas Comedy House, and the first practice, Sarah and I did a couple of scenes together, we were warming up, and it was like, oh, this is someone I’m having a lot of fun playing with. Which, I just hadn’t experienced yet in classes. We had the same sense of humor, we’re laughing at the same things. Or we’re crying about something that no one else is laughing about. That was a good indication that we’d be doing more things together.
Sarah: And that just kind of spiraled. When you find your other person that gets you and your humor, it’s like, “Oh my God, can we just hang out and make each other laugh?” Maggie and I have this really bad/good tendency just to say yes to one another. “Hey Maggie, let’s film this.” “Yeah!” “Hey Maggie, let’s do a magic show.” “OK, let’s do that!” [Laughs.] So what happens is, you produce a lot of stuff. And then you’re like, oh, we did a lot of things.
Maggie: Yeah, but it always feels like fun. And it’s nice to have someone who’s encouraging you to do more. Where it’s like, OK, Sarah’s doing a lot of things, I want to do a lot of things with her.
Sarah: And vice versa.
So one kind of feeds into the other?
Sarah: Absolutely, in the most positive way possible. Maggie’s got my back, and she’s got this incredible ability to say, “OK, Sarah. What did we like about this thing we did, and how can we make it better with the next thing we do?” Encouraging us along the way, in the sense of “I want us to keep doing this for a long period of time, so how can we make sure that five, 10 years from now it’s better than we ever thought it could be.” And I’m like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, let’s do that, Maggie!” [Both laugh.]
Maggie: That’s very sweet.
Sarah: It’s true. She’s a very cool cat.
Had you guys worked as a duo with anyone else before?
Sarah: You and Kyle [Austin], Small Town.
Maggie: My husband and I do a two-person show. And then, before Sarah and I started doing a two-person show, I would work with my friend Mariam [Ashmawy]; she was the first person I would do two-person improv with. But I haven’t had a writing partner in the past, and that’s what’s been really nice about working with Sarah. We’ve grown so much together, and [it’s] really cool to see how we can do improv bits on film, how we can write a sketch show. We can work on pilots, or we’re writing more developed sketches, or longer things.
Sarah: I never would have thought when we sat in front of the DCH couch in 2013 doing the original The Monthly Junk, which is we just improvised tips, and it was fun and great. And then last year we filmed “The Service Elevator.” We did three shorts, and “The Service Elevator” was the last one, and it was this amazing short that we wrote and had professionally directed and edited and shot. It’s neat to see that growth, from that. Because I haven’t really experienced that with anyone else.
Maggie: And I think the patience of it. We’re both, I think, really results oriented-
Sarah: Yeah, yeah, one hundred percent! [Laughs.]
Maggie: We just want to do things and see things. And that’s why improv is good for us, because we can immediately see people laugh. [Laughs.] But to have done this for almost four years, and look back on this body of work, it’s cool to be able to take a step back and say we’ve really improved.
Sarah: And Maggie’s been super busy with the festival, so we haven’t been able to create as much as we had last year. I mean, last year was dumb, with how much stuff we did.
Maggie: It’s also been three months.
Sarah: It’s been a good break. Maggie hasn’t been on a break, I’ve been on a break, she’s been doing the festival – Maggie, thank you so much for having a festival so I could kind of just relax. [Both laugh.] But it’s nice to have a pause, so that come April, May, once one of us gets an idea, it’s “Yeah yeah yeah, let’s go do that!”
How much time do you guys spend writing together versus separately?
Sarah: Mostly together…
Maggie: Most of the stuff we do is together. And we have a standing meeting on Mondays where we’ll look through stuff. Sarah’s in the sketch show, The ’90s Sh… That ’90s Show!
Sarah: Thanks for remembering the name of my show, Maggie. [Laughs.]
Sarah: What’s the name of my show?
Maggie: That ’90s Show. [Laughs.]
Sarah: Thank you. [Laughs.]
Maggie: But she’s been writing for that, obviously, independently. And I’ve been in sketch shows, too, independently, and written for those. And submission packets, things like that. But the bulk of my packet is co-written with Sarah.
Sarah: We’ve written for The Monthly Junk, and we’ve done some stuff for WFAA in the past as well. We improvise-write a lot. We wrote a short that we filmed, “The Bathroom Break,” in an hour on the phone. We had an idea, and we were like, “Hey, let’s just knock this out real quick.” And so we used Writer Duet and just typed it out. “Oh, it’s done!” [Laughs.]
I do want to talk more about the sketch work some more, because it’s not just you, but Grant & Cody and other people through DCH. It seems to be happening more in Dallas…
Sarah: It’s kind of tiered for us. We’ll have sketches that we’ll produce and film ourselves, do lighting and sound. The sketches that are inspired by our improv shows are typically those that we produce ourselves. “The Most American Dads,” “Alien Abduction,” “The Event Coordinators”… there’s another one in there.
Maggie: Most of our stuff, we just film and edit ourselves.
Sarah: But with the things, I guess, we want higher production values, for whatever reason, for example, “The Service Elevator,” we call in favors. Dallas is rife with talent, I don’t know if you know this or not, but there’s a lot of talented and creative folk in the city. It’s amazing what can happen with a great idea, and a please and a thank you… and a free drink. It hasn’t been that much of a struggle just because we’ve been very fortunate to know people who want to help and also create.
Maggie: Right. Because a lot of people in Dallas are working on commercials, or they’re working on things where they’re not as inspired by what they’re working on, and they want to work on comedies, and they want to work on shorts, and have a say, make some creative decisions.
Sarah: Travis Aitken, he helped us a great deal with “The Service Elevator,” with editing. He directed “Supporting Roles,” which is my first foray into producing my own work. That’s a webseries, got into Austin Film Festival. He helped us edit, color correct – he works at Lucky Post. And then our director, Lee Trull, he works at Dallas Theater Center, and was D Magazine “Best Director 2016.”
Maggie: And he wanted to get into doing film, and he’s been a mentor to us in a lot of ways.
Sarah: It’s the right people, at the right time, with the right project.
It does feel like Dallas really doesn’t have a reputation for that many creative film workers around.
Sarah: But there are so many! I just came from a group meeting with a bunch of women producers and actresses, we meet once a week. It’s amazing to me how talented Dallas it. Because Dallas is full of so much business happening, and so many great things exploding, but man, there are a lot of creative filmmakers here.
Sarah, you work as an actress, right?
Sarah: Yeah. Full time.
That’s maybe something people don’t think you can do in Dallas.
Sarah: You can be a full-time actress! You watch a lot of Netflix. [Laughs.] I’m represented by Mary Collins, and the agency is fantastic. I also work as a teacher at Dallas Comedy House, and I perform improv. But then, for me, the additional peg in that wheel was creating my own content and writing with Maggie, it’s given me something you can’t necessarily get from a commercial audition, or a film audition, it just makes it feel more robust.
The last interview I did for this column, with Dean Lewis, featured his advice for comics that, if you have 10 minutes of material, or if you’ve been at it for at least two years, then it’s time to get out of Dallas. You guys are more on the performance/writing side, what are your thoughts on staying versus going?
Sarah: I have a lot of hot sports opinions about this. I personally feel I don’t need to go to LA, I don’t need to go to Chicago, I don’t need to go to New York. Those are my own personal decisions. I love being in Texas, I love being in Dallas, and performing and working here. I do think it’s harder. There’s not as many, necessarily, opportunities for TV and film. But I don’t think that means there can’t be, or you can’t have them. I work all the time. It’s because I have a drive, where that’s my goal, that’s where I want to be. The only difference between Dallas, and New York or LA or Chicago — we were just talking about this earlier — the city doesn’t give you talent. You are your talent, no matter where that city is. Opportunities might be different, I would love it if more people stayed in Dallas. It’s a great place to live, cost of living is low… I don’t know, I’m very passionate about people staying here.
Maggie: When I was in college, I did an internship in LA, and my mentor – my intern mentor – asked what I wanted to do, and I said I wanted to write, and I asked if I had to live in LA, and he responded with, “The internet is everywhere. If you have good stuff, you don’t have to be here, especially for writing.” You can write something anywhere, you can film something anywhere. That was really encouraging. I do think it’s important to leave or move just for your sense of self, but I think that’s regardless of if you’re in the entertainment industry. Making a choice about where you live is important, as opposed to saying, “I’ve always been here, and I’m going to stay here.” Even if you grew up here, being able to plant your feet and say, “I grew up here, and I want to stay here.” But that moment where you choose where you are and plant your feet? It allows you to run faster, and go higher.
Sarah: And you’re going to have most people disagree with me. You’ll have people tell you that you have to go to LA, and you have to be in LA if you want to be successful. And I don’t believe it, because I have been successful – now, granted, success is something that’s defined by the person who gets to say what it is. I get to define what success is for me, just like you do. Am I hitting all the big goals? Not yet, but I don’t think that’s impossible because of where I’m located geographically.
Maggie: It’s a personal choice.
Sarah: Go to LA, that’s great. Stay in Dallas, come do a project with Maggie and I. We’d love to hire you. [Both laugh.]
So let’s go back to your roots in giving advice: I want your tips for helping someone find the perfect writing/collaborative partner.
Sarah: Three tips?
Maggie: Three tips.
Both: Three tips on finding the perfect writing/collaborative partner!
Sarah: Tip 1: Try to find someone who likes to eat the same food as you. Because when you write, you’re going to eat a lot of food. And it’s gonna be real unfortunate if you’re like, “I want a meatball sub,” and they’re like, “I don’t eat meat.” Whoa, let’s have a conversation about that.
Sarah: It sidetracks you. An hour later, you’re still hungry, and they’re still not eating. It’s very important, food choices.
Maggie: Tip 2: Find someone as motivated as you.
Sarah: Good tip.
Maggie: If you’re really wanting to run with something, and your potential collaborative partner is like, “I’m more like, ‘take a back seat,’” then you’re going to be dragging them the whole time. As opposed to both of you playing a role.
Sarah: You’re back at the meatball sub situation.
Maggie: It all comes back to the meatball sub. [Laughs.]
Both: Tip 3!
Maggie: Is, um…
Sarah: It’s an important one.
Maggie: I think Tip 3 would be, if you write something, and you don’t like it, maybe you don’t have to write with them. Your styles should mesh. They shouldn’t be… well… maybe not.
Sarah: I don’t know.
Maggie: Maybe it should be different.
Sarah: Okay, so Tip 3A.
Maggie: This is the real tip!
Sarah: This is the real one. The meatball sub was good, but this is the real one. Someone that you’re open to receiving constructive criticism from.
Maggie: That’s good!
Sarah: You can’t be in a writing partner team with someone you can’t hear feedback from. Maggie gives me really good feedback, because I trust her.
Maggie: And Sarah gives really good feedback because she’s very good at pillowing it.
Sarah: [Laughs.] But I think Maggie and I have a really cool relationship, where she has my best interest at heart, and vice versa. So when she gives me feedback, like, “Sarah, is that really what you want to say?” Or, “Why don’t we try this joke?”
Maggie: And sometimes we get into it, which is really fun. Because when we’re improvising it’s like, yes, yes, yes. But when you’re writing, it’s like, maybe not.
Sarah: Challenge flags get thrown out a lot.
Maggie: Which is fun, because you’re like, “Is that the best idea?”
Sarah: “Is this what you want to do?”
Maggie: And then you have to talk it out, and be like, “I thought this was a really good idea because of this, this, and this.”
Sarah: “But did you think about this angle, because maybe it’s not?” And this is all over Cafe Brazil, usually. Which brings it back to –
Both: Eating meatball subs!