There was a strange bit at the end of Nick Kroll’s otherwise enjoyable set at Comedy Central’s Clusterfest—well, enjoyable but for the bit where he asked a couple in the front row if they were together, then told the guy he was gonna sleep with the girl after the show; why do so many comedians do this?—that began with a provocative question: “Do you guys ever see homeless people and wonder, how have you not killed yourself yet?” The reason he asked, Kroll said, is that he lives one of the most privileged lives imaginable and still verges on suicidal several times a week: when he scrapes the roof of his mouth with a blue corn chip, for instance, or when Trader Joe’s is out of Kalamata olives. The joke, essentially a list of ways homeless people have it bad while we have it good, complete with an “I’m just saying—”, was met with rolling laughter and isolated claps, insulated as we all were from the reality that, well, yeah, this society we’re in is designed to kill a whole lot of people, many of whom were right outside the wire fences separating Clusterfest from the city of San Francisco, unaware that Kroll had just turned them all into props. It seemed like it might work its way into some sort of commentary on the implicit cruelty of its premise, but of course it didn’t: It was just another bit of Kroll’s classic dark absurdism, ending with a riff on gherkin pickles (“You guys know what a gherkin pickle is? The little sour pickles that look like a hung toad’s dick?”) and a self-consciously terrible pun (“What is a toad if not a frog with an atti-toad? Uh-oh! All right, that’s my time!”). It was far from the worst joke I’ve ever heard, to be sure, but still: quite a strange joke to make in a city with a housing crisis and a stunning class divide, at a festival tailored to those who never have to think about either.
Clusterfest was a good time, though. There was something for everyone and it cost too much. Single-day passes ran $135 and three-day passes $325, with a limited run of $99/$199 passes available to early birds. These prices are certainly not unusual for comedy festivals, which are almost all too expensive. Just For Laughs, the Davos of comedy festivals, offers two-show passes for $100, three-show passes for $140, and five-show passes for $215; you can also buy tickets to individual shows, which start around 20 bucks for the smaller Off-JFL venues. The Adult Swim Festival, in Los Angeles in October, runs $99 for one day and $230 for two, with prices rising as individual tiers sell out. This year SF Sketchfest offered individually ticketed shows, which ran anywhere from $15 to $50, more for certain performance/workshop hybrids and marquee performances. That one’s pretty reasonable—you could see a full day of shows for under a hundred bucks and there were three weekends of shows to choose from. Not so with Clusterfest, which had plenty of attractions and top-notch programming yet still made it prohibitively difficult to pack a day with comedy.
The festival’s biggest challenge was in its basic design. In partnership with Superfly, which co-founded Bonaroo and produces Outside Lands, and the music promoter Another Planet, Comedy Central fenced off San Francisco’s Civic Center for three days. There were five venues: the 8,500-seat Bill Graham Stage in the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, which also housed two smaller spaces fashioned as comedy clubs; the outdoor Colossal Stage, which featured alternating music and comedy acts; and an enormous tent decked out as It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s Paddy’s Pub, which operated more as a bar than a comedy venue—its lineup mostly comprised karaoke, trivia and other games hosted by comedians. While the Bill Graham and Colossal stages allowed patrons to come and go as they please, the two smaller clubs required lining up for (already paid for) tickets an hour in advance, or more if you wanted to play it safe. This made it more or less impossible to go from a show in one to a show in the other without dipping out early to get in line; ditto if you wanted to see consecutive shows in the same space, as audiences were cleared out after each performance. So while there were plenty of great shows to see, the format took a good deal of decision-making out of the patron’s hands.
And I don’t just mean scheduling decisions. The plaza was lined with food and drink vendors and other interactive attractions, like The Daily Show’s dreadful Trump Twitter Library and Arrested Development’s stair car and banana stand. (Oof, bad timing.) As the festival strongly discouraged leaving and reentering, any patrons spending the day—most patrons, I imagine—were captive to comical markups on food and drinks: $8 slices, $16 burgers, $12 Miller Lites. This is a logical business decision when you have thousands of people milling about between shows scheduled to maximize milling about; it is also totally unconscionable. A festival in a city should embrace that city, not establish a private territory within it. Patrons, especially patrons paying hundreds of dollars—but even patrons who aren’t!—should be able to leave and return as they wish. This is a pretty basic show of respect to the customer-audience, but also to whatever art form and artists the festival is celebrating. When that celebration is preconditioned on the purchase of expensive concessions, one invites the perception that perhaps something else is being celebrated instead.
This is part of why I chafe at the steep admission fees, both Clusterfest’s and any other festival’s with comparable prices. Live comedy should be more accessible because all art should be more accessible and because comedy ages faster than other art. A joke is dated from practically the moment it’s told. Specials released during the 2016 campaign season feel out of another era, and rare is the (good) contemporary political joke that outlives its own news cycle. (See: the Trump Twitter Library and Arrested Development.) These are not flaws in the form; they are why it is vital. Comedy’s power and its magic are in its immediacy. It reflects and interrogates and challenges what we value today, what frustrates us today, what we long for today, and if we’re lucky it channels these into some fleeting catharsis, fleeting because tomorrow reality will come crashing back down and we’ll need comedy all over again. Festivals are vital for all these same reasons, and maybe even more so because they centralize the form in all its marvelous, ever blossoming diversity. I mean diversity in the kinds of comedy now included in (or nearing) the mainstream—stand-up, sketch, characters, podcasts, Reggie Watts just sort of making shit up for an hour, Bridgett Everett’s bawdy cabarets, Kyle Mooney and Nathan Fielder playing weird YouTube videos they found—as well as the increasing multiplicity of voices, especially voices that were long kept on the margins. It is a wonderful experience to hear all these voices in one place, all their points of view challenging and expanding each other and ours. But that experience is diluted when the only people who can have it are those who can pony up hundreds of bucks. The immediacy becomes less immediate, the values reflected less valuable. The Kroll joke demonstrates this quite clearly, I think. An audience more representative of other economic classes—for whom poverty is more than just an abstraction—probably would not give it the enthusiasm it received, which in turn would impel Kroll to do what any comic does in the face of tepid laughter: go write a better, truer, more meaningful joke.
I am emphatically not suggesting that audiences who can pony up have nothing to gain from comedy, nor that comedians should not write for whatever audience they please. Everyone needs and deserves art, especially art that pokes against the limits of their worldview. I think it is unequivocally important for, say, Silicon Valley tech bros to see, say, RuPaul’s Drag Race winner Jinkx Monsoon deliver an impassioned rant about the marginalization of drag performers during a live recording of the podcast Las Culturistas. And it is more important still for low-income and at-risk queer people, who may not have seen their identities and stories reflected onstage—or at least on the scale that cisgender and straight people see theirs—to have that same opportunity. If diversity in the comedy industry itself is essential to creating better art, then diversity in audiences is essential to ensuring that art reaches the people who need it most. Obviously this is not a new or radical idea, and clearly comedy audiences on TV and in clubs and in digital spheres are already incredibly diverse. I am simply suggesting that festival organizers make audience diversity a priority, too, by making accessibility a priority. And what I am suggesting more broadly is that we aspire for a future in which comedy festivals—like art and history museums, ideally if not always practically—are less a luxury than a public good.
What I suspect this requires in practice is significantly lowering the price of admission passes, like the Ruby LA’s inaugural Queer Comedy Festival, a day-long event priced at $15 for a pass or $5 cash every hour at the door. Alternately, festivals could forego passes altogether in favor of individually ticketed shows, á la SF Sketchfest and the New York Comedy Festival. I’ll also include Just For Laughs in this category: while patrons can spring for multiple-show passes, Off-JFL shows are priced reasonably enough that it’s probably cheaper not to. At the very least, festivals with pass-based admissions should offer some ticketed shows as well, like the Upright Citizens Brigade’s annual Del Close Marathon. And again, festivals in a city should be of that city: They should not cordon off its public spaces or prevent audiences from coming and going on their own terms. If they must offer wildly marked up concessions, and I don’t think they must, then they should also allow patrons the freedom to dine off-campus. This, again, is a matter of basic decency toward one’s audience, though it has the added benefit of supporting local businesses. Like many other festival producers, Viacom is a media conglomerate with billions of dollars in annual revenue; it can afford to make a few bucks less per Miller Lite, or no bucks at all. Hell, it can afford to put on a whole festival for free, but I won’t push my luck here. In any case: Let comedy festivals center comedy and community, not money.
I will close with one of my favorite bits of history. In medieval England, way back in the 1300s, whole villages of people used to get up before sunrise to parade through town watching their friends and neighbors perform the mystery plays, as many as 48 pageants celebrating the Bible’s greatest hits. Each play was staged by a different craft guild, usually whichever was most appropriate to the play’s content: the shipbuilders took on Noah’s Ark, the bakers handled the loaves and fishes miracle, and so on. The performers, all amateurs, hauled wagons from local landmark to local landmark. There they converted the wagons into stages and put on a show—usually an elaborate affair, many involving pyrotechnics and other surprising stagecraft—for what were often drunk and riotous crowds. Records suggest a number of festivals like these were put on annually throughout the country, at least until they were condemned as idolatrous during the Reformation and suppressed. But for a while, a good while, there was one day a year when the working people of medieval England got up at dawn to stroll the streets of their town making and seeing art. If that’s not a model for comedy festivals to strive for, I don’t know what is.
Seth Simons is Paste’s assistant comedy editor. Follow him on Twitter.