There was a point on the Sunday of Boston Calling’s 10th edition that, likely unintentionally, gave me a way to articulate my full experience with the comedy portion of the noted festival. SNL’s Melissa Villaseñor went into a bit into her Mexican heritage, before noting that the screen behind her didn’t include the tilde above the N in her name. As she talked, the screen behind her went blank, only to light up a moment later with the name correctly spelled. The audience drew her attention to the change by shouting and pointing, in a moment that I can only describe as a live-action Dora the Explorer moment. And in an odd way, the full experience – its third since the festival placed a brighter spotlight on comedy – felt a little like that: not bad necessarily, but poorly attended to, as though it was an afterthought to the rest of the event.
In most instances, the talent wasn’t to blame. Arena emcee Lamont Price did well with what he had to work with: some comedy fans, mixed among others merely looking to burn time before the act they wanted to see started outside. And Friday went fairly well, between SNL’s Sam Jay’s hometown connection and Fred Armisen’s musically driven set (closer to the festival’s main event, so to speak).
Saturday featured Marina Franklin and Jenny Slate, each who held their own and managed some good laughs, but largely seemed to perform to indifferent crowds. And Sunday, after Villaseñor’s set – again, likely buoyed thanks to musical interludes in her set via impressions of Sia and Lady Gaga – Michael Che closed out the festival with the help of Cipha Sounds and Rosebud Baker. I can’t tell you how badly I wish this had gone better. There were more issues with that screen that was supposed to display the names of the comedians performing. The crowd didn’t seem to know what to do when Che didn’t take to the stage right away, and as other acts started outside the crowd dwindled quickly. And when Che did finally arrive, the set was rambling and struggled to find its footing – a review he agreed with on his own Instagram after the show, lest I get blowback for calling him out via blog. The reception any of these comics got, and the performances that resulted were no doubt impacted by the space and circumstances they had to perform it in.
I want the Boston Calling comedy experience to work. I really, really do. This year’s staging in the arena differed from prior years, and the result was a severe lack of “good seats” from which to view the performers. Should this matter? Maybe not. But when a good bit of Fred Armisen’s bit depends on being able to see him and a large percentage is watching from (a) behind a speaker, or (b) from the furthest possible seats from the stage, this presents an issue. Moreover, while scheduling at a festival is always going to be hectic and make it hard for people to fully commit to a whole set, so long as these sets are competing with music just outside, it’ll be hard to hold attention. Again, it can be argued that strong performers can work despite this, and they do. But it makes the atmosphere and associated momentum difficult to maintain. So I don’t want to give up on the idea of this grand experiment finally connecting with Boston crowds. I just know that to bring it back to the excitement of that inaugural outing, it’s going to take more care and attention than this year’s edition was given.