Estaban Touma, who’s been a staple of the Madison comedy scene for several years, is going out on the road.
Not the way comedians usually do, though.
Rather than hitting comedy clubs across the country, he and his wife will tour national parks, small towns and tourist destinations with their Teardrop camper until their money runs out.
“I remember when I was a kid, I saw a book about sequoias in the Sequoia National Park, and I just couldn’t believe they were real,” Touma said in a phone interview from the road in Michigan a day after the trek got underway. “And so I’ve never been, and it’d be cool to kind of get there and tell my eight-year-old me that I did it, you know? That’s going to be a fun thing.”
That’s not to say he won’t be performing at all — in fact, he’s hoping to help his savings last longer by taking on a few gigs and creative projects along the way. Plus, he’ll put on arguably the most important seven minutes of his career later this month at Up Next, a showcase put on by Comedy Central at the Clusterfest in San Francisco.
He was invited to audition in Chicago and ended up being one of just 18 comics chosen for the showcase.
“Somehow, I don’t understand how, but they liked my stuff. I was surprised,” he says.
The road trip isn’t headed to the west coast until much later, though.
“I have to take a pause in my whole trip because I don’t want to drive all the way there and then drive back. I don’t want to miss time,” he says. “So I’m going to fly from the smallest airport ever in the UP. Yeah. Go there. Do the show. Spend the weekend in San Francisco and then head back and continue the trip.”
He says the road trip, which he and his wife have been planning for four years, actually takes a lot of pressure off the showcase — and when he’s looser and less nervous, he performs better.
“I don’t have the pressure of bombing,” he says. “If I don’t do well in this show, I’m going to be okay because I have these other plans lined up. It’s not a make it or break it type of deal for me. And I think that helped me in the audition too, because I wasn’t nervous about it. And I think that was helpful.”
There will certainly be industry people in the audience, though, so the showcase might lead to bigger opportunities.
“I haven’t thought much about what type of opportunities will come out of it,” he says. “But if they do come out, I’ll have to see what happens and talk to my wife to see if that’s something that works.”
A native of Quito, Ecuador, Touma moved to Normal, Illinois to earn a master’s degree in Spanish language and literature at Illinois State University. (Normal was “just as it sounds,” he says, wryly.) After finishing his master’s, he accompanied his wife to Indonesia for a year, and then landed in Madison in 2013 to teach Spanish language and literature at Madison College.
“When I arrived to Madison, I started to look for some creative outlets, and I was always interested in humor and doing some type of humor. So I joined an improv class at Atlas Improv,” he says. “In the class there were several comics from the comedy scene, and that kind of pushed me a little bit to try. And, I didn’t know it at the time, but Comedy on State is the most wonderful place to start doing the open mic. On Wednesdays is like a full show. Hundreds of people go every Wednesday, and the crowds in Madison are just very nice and responsive. So I did my first set there and it was really bad, but people didn’t show me that. People laughed a lot, and so I thought it was good.”
Touma credits Comedy on State for a lot of his success.
“It’s one of the best comedy clubs in the country, and a lot of comics know that, he says. “The people that run it have increasingly tried to help local comics beyond their need of business, but they are invested into seeing comics grow, and so I’m very thankful to them for everything that has happened. It has been a great experience to perform there and to be part of the Comedy on State family.”
He says as he got started, he noticed that performing and teaching overlapped quite a bit.
“I think part of my attraction to comedy was my teaching because once you start teaching the same classes, after a while, you realize that there are certain things that you repeat or that you say. And I’ve always been a teacher that tries to kind of have all of my students be at ease,” he says. “I use a lot of humor and I’m very informal in my classes. I noticed that I could be funny in front of my students. And that kind of made me a little bit more comfortable with dealing with crowds, and people, and timing, and stuff like that.”
Touma became a regular at Comedy on State, eventually opening for nationally touring comedians like Judd Apatow, Rory Scovel, Michelle Wolf and Wyatt Cenac. He also became a regular host of The Moth in Madison, the local installment of the popular storytelling series, and has been featured on both Wisconsin Public Radio and National Public Radio.
Much of his material arises from being an immigrant of both Latino and Palestinian descent. (“I get premiere platinum access to all major US airport basements,” he often says in his act, and nearly always opens by explaining that the correct way to refer to people from Ecuador is “Ecuadorable.”)
His material is often about “me trying to adjust to the U.S. and my experience as an immigrant and the contrast in cultures and stuff like that,” he says. The material has changed since the election of Donald Trump and an increase in anti-immigrant sentiment.
“There’s certainly a lot of material that I have changed and that I have to adapt. You can feel how the audience responds differently to the jokes that I used to do,” he says. “Sometimes when I do kind of like a self-deprecating joke, sometimes I’m also punching at other immigrants. Or at least I used to. I mean, not in a super negative way, but I did certain jokes that, in retrospect, seemed a little bit negative or reinforced certain stereotypes. The way people have reacted to those things have also allowed me to kind of take a look at the way I perform my material and the importance of an immigrant voice in comedy. I do know that a big part of why I’m getting these opportunities is because of my background and the fact that there’s more need to listen to varied voices and different voices. So, I want to take that responsibility seriously.”
The Up Next showcase at Clusterfest will not be broadcast on Comedy Central, but will be available for online viewing afterward.
As for what’s next after the savings run out, that remains to be seen.
“Right now, my life is an open ended question,” he says. “It’s funny, my wife is very much a planner, and we’ve been planning this for the last three, four years. We’ve been saving money for the last four years to do this. So for us the plan was to plan very hard to not have a plan. That’s kind of like the goal of what we’re doing.”