From food to comedy to music, there’s no shortage of festivals these days. There are so many that it can be hard to keep track, and lineups can be so similar that it can be a struggle to tell one apart from another. Except for the Fyre Festival. Nobody will ever forget about the Fyre Festival.
Comedy Central entered the festival game earlier this month with the inaugural Colossal Clusterfest in downtown San Francisco. They wisely teamed up with Superfly, the company that runs Bonnaroo and Outside Lands, to bring Clusterfest to life. The three-day festival offered five comedy and music stages packed with (you guessed it) comedians and musicians, along with local food and recreations of sitcom sets. I was there for all three days covering the festival for Paste, and I am here to tell you that the festival went, ya know, well. Real good.
Let me be honest: I don’t go to a lot of multi-day festivals. I don’t go to music festivals like Coachella and the only comedy festival I’ve attended is Riot LA, which is less festival-like and more a-bunch-of-shows-all-over-the-place-like. I do not often commune with the masses in this way, so rushing from show to show, shoving over-priced food in my mouth, and avoiding drunk people was somewhat new to me. But I did it! I lived to tell the tale, and here it is: my Clusterfest story and my thoughts on the whole shebang.
The festival kicked off on Friday June 2 at Civic Center in the middle of San Francisco. I picked up my wristband, which looked like a new age friendship bracelet and included a chip that scans you into the festival and, if you let it, tracks you all around town on social media. I did not let it. They’re lucky I let them put the thing on me. I was also informed that you can’t take it off for the entirety of the festival—it tightens but does not loosen, and even though it’s “waterproof,” it stays nice and soggy on your wrist for a half hour after a shower. Note that you could also purchase 1-day passes for Clusterfest for any of the three days of performances.
Friday’s line-up included Kevin Hart, Moshe Kasher, Sarah Silverman, Natasha Leggero, and Ice Cube, among many others. I attended a taping of the podcast Beautiful Anonymous, in which Chris Gethard wrestled a vuvuzela away from a drunk lady and talked to a delightful couple in Boston on the phone. The show was held in the Larkin Comedy Club, which is a big room in the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium with chairs set up and a bar in the back. Along the tops of the walls were large photos of comedians including Steve Martin, Betty White holding an urn, and Miss Piggy (?). Pretty much everyone I saw on that stage commented on these weird photos. It was also the only stage that required tickets. This wasn’t an issue on Friday, easily the least busy day at Clusterfest, but the lines got long quick on Saturday and Sunday.
I rushed over to the huge, indoor Bill Graham Stage to see a string of stand-up including James Davis, Aparna Nancherla, Rory Scovel, Natasha Leggero and Chris Hardwick. I don’t know if I was still fresh and ready to laugh or what, but this show ended up having a couple of my favorite performances of the weekend. For this big stage and the two stages outside, people were allowed to walk in and out whenever they pleased. This is great if you want to watch part of a show, but also weird as an audience member and probably as a performer. Luckily, there weren’t a huge amount of people going in and out of the doors during the shows early on in the festival, especially on the ground level. I’ll explain why this changed a bit later.
I stayed glued to my seat for the following show with Moshe Kasher, Beth Stelling, Aparna Nancherla again (but with totally different material!), and Sarah Silverman, who tried out some new jokes after her new Netflix special debuted. If there was one thread through this first day of comedy, it was masturbation. It felt like half of the comedy I saw was about masturbation. I might be exaggerating a bit, but maybe not. There was a lot.
After a few hours of sleep, we cut to Saturday. The festival opened at 2 PM that day with the first shows at 2:30. This means that when they finally let the long lines of people through the gates, some fans were literally running to get Larkin tickets. Not to brag or anything, but since I had a media pass, I went onto the grounds early to check out the TV set recreations. Inside the Bill Graham building they recreated Paddy’s Pub from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, with gross bathroom and all. The bar was operational, and offered drinks and some show-themed food. They also hosted karaoke and a few other events in the pub throughout the weekend.
In the middle of the grounds was South Park, with cartoon mountains and shops with lots of life-size cutouts for photo ops. Next to that was a Monk’s-esque Seinfeld restaurant and a soup booth which sometimes had the real-life Soup Nazi in it serving soup. A giant tent with a perpetually long line housed a recreation of Jerry’s apartment, where Seinfeld fan after Seinfeld fan waited to do their own Kramer entrance. A number of hopefully well-paid individuals wandered the grounds wearing giant heads of the characters from It’s Always Sunny and Seinfeld.
The first show I saw on Saturday was another podcast taping—How Did This Get Made with Paul Scheer, Jason Mantzoukas, June Diane Raphael, and special guests Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson. The audience was filled with dedicated fans of the show as they talked about (made fun of) the D movie Ninja Terminator. Afterwards, I caught Tig Notaro and Hannibal Buress doing stand-up. Buress did a great bit about his future funeral with video clips and ended his set with a spoof rap performance and ballet dancers. I would later see him repeat this great rap in another set and some of his other jokes in yet another set, which highlights a problem of this festival. Clusterfest expected all stand-up performers, especially if they weren’t tippy top level talent, to perform multiple times at the festival. This seems reasonable, except many audience members ended up seeing a performer two or three times. When jokes were repeated, you could hear some people murmur and see some people walk out.
I then saw my favorite show of the festival, and you’re lucky I didn’t write 3,000 words about this one show. Abbi and Ilana of Broad City fame hosted a live, 25th anniversary reading of Wayne’s World. Full disclosure, I love Wayne’s World. My husband and I dressed as Wayne and Garth for Halloween last year. Anyway, Ilana played Wayne and Abbi played a flawless Garth—she even did the “Foxy Lady” dance. Other cast members included Ron Funches as Stacy, John Michael Higgins as Vanderhoff, Tig Notaro as Benjamin, and, wait for it… Tia Carrere herself as Cassandra. There was a live band, and she even sang. She sounded exactly the same and I kept throwing up my arms and screaming.
Afterwards, I saw Solomon Georgio, Naomi Ekperigin, and Chris Gethard do stand-up sets and they were all excellent (and they all three made it on my top 10 performances list). The night ended with Tainted Love, a show that was labeled as an “’80s dance party” featuring James Adomian, Chris Gethard and Rachel Bloom. This was on the Larkin stage, and unfortunately they did not clear the chairs. Do you want to know what drunk comedy fans expect when they go to something called an ‘80s dance party? They expect to dance. Well, security didn’t want them to dance, but the drunk revelers won. It was like drunk Footloose. This was the only time I saw anyone almost get into a fight at Clusterfest. Don’t mess with people and their ‘80s dance time.
Other acts on Saturday that I didn’t see include Bill Burr, Kyle Kinane and Fred Armisen. The line-up was stacked, what can I say?
Are you still with me? It’s Sunday now, and in preparation for a later show in the Room 415 Comedy Club I went to the end of The Bonfire with Big Jay Oakerson and Dan Soder. This was by far my least favorite thing I saw at Clusterfest, but I’m no Big Jay Oakerson fan. I can’t get past the sharp offensiveness enough to laugh. Jo Firestone’s Friends of Single People was next, where real single people from the audience very briefly meet comedians who then portray them in a dating show-esque format. After each round the real singles meet, and anyone can come up for the classified portion at the end. This show was so funny that the comedians were crying laughing on stage. I highly recommend you see it in NYC if given the chance.
I caught a few minutes of Maya Rudolph’s Prince cover band, Princess, before watching The New Negroes, a comedy and music show (and soon to be TV show) hosted by Baron Vaughn and Open Mike Eagle. Solomon Georgio gave another solid performance, along with Jak Knight and Karinda Dobbins. On the Bill Graham stage, Nate Bargatze charmed the audience with his squeaky clean comedy, and Ron Funches told great jokes about dieting and raising his son. I snuck out before Anthony Jeselnik to, ya know, eat, and prepare for Hannibal Buress and Jerry Seinfeld on the main stage outside.
It was chilly in true San Francisco fashion, but the crowd packed in to see Seinfeld do over an hour of stand-up. It was exactly what you wanted from him: classic observational humor, nitpicking, thoughts on getting older. He was well-tuned and spry, and the masses seemed to leave the fest pleased. Including me.
So maybe I don’t go to a lot of festivals, but I have a good feel for what worked at Clusterfest and what didn’t. Repeating stand-up performers over and over who don’t have and/or want to use a ton of material was problematic, but didn’t come up as much as it could have. The beer selection was sad, and everything was predictably overpriced. But there were enough restrooms, enough food options, and enough water. There was plenty to do and there was a good chance you could even sit in a seat for much of the day. The timing was almost like clockwork, to the point where they cut Bill Burr off before the end of a joke. And the vibe was all-around good, which might have something to do with people laughing at jokes all day. We’ll see if Clusterfest happens again, but I give this first installment an A-, and would go again.
Laurel Randolph is a food and lifestyle writer hailing from Tennessee and living in Los Angeles. She enjoys cooking, baking and candlestick making. Tweet at her face: @laurelrandy