Boston Calling Comedy Experience Shines Amid Larger Festival Growing Pains

“This is about what you’d expect from a festival in Boston…58 degrees and grim,” was the opener to ’s Sunday night set as emcee of Boston Calling’s newly expanded comedy experience. And not only was this an accurate descriptor for the overcast and drizzly weekend, but it emphasized a larger theme: the comedy arena serving as refuge for the festival’s larger challenges.

This was Boston Calling’s first bow in its new venue, the Harvard University Athletic Complex, and its first as a singular festival (it had previously been held twice a year). Its adjustments to its new size and surroundings were painful for some, as long and disorganized lines plagued festivalgoers. Further, frustration with overlapping performer sets rang loudly upon the release of the festival schedule. And a last-minute lineup change replacing Solange with Migos on the Friday night elicited even more stress. Despite initial hiccups in their new home (I reminded friends several times during the weekend, “this is essentially a brand-new event”), all credit should go to organizers for acting on these issues quickly. Much of Friday’s frustration over lines was streamlined the following day. The same was true of the line protocol for the comedy portion; unruly and disorganized lines were supervised and revamped by the following day.

But inside the hockey arena made up to simulate a “comedy club,” many of these challenges were laughed away- particularly as comics aimed to lessen those tensions with targeted jokes.

We were lucky to have gotten “surge-pricing Migos,” Buress told the audience on Friday during a late set, and ’ lament about reaching the stage of his life where he has to yell over booming bass at music festivals got big laughs from the considerable crowd. As the weekend went on, attendance at the shows increased even as the weather outside improved. The most common buzz I heard in lines was anticipation about seeing Buress (thus cementing the good instincts of festival organizer Trevor Solomon in securing him as emcee), but the crowds – at times numbering nearly five thousand – also gave big laughs to Massachusetts natives and Eugene Mirman, Phoebe Robinson (who mused about why Dunkin Donuts is the perfect breakfast stop after a one-night-stand that was memorable for all the wrong reasons), and Josh Johnson. The misses were rare – much of this crowd didn’t seem to know what to do with Kate Berlant and John Early – but even in those moments, the laughter was considerable.

Given the festival’s new digs, it became fashionable to make fun of Harvard- local comic and Friday’s host Kelly MacFarland encouraged the crowd to use the indoor bathrooms of the arena, just to say they “took a shit at Harvard,” while other comics used it to gauge the intelligence of the room they were playing to. MacFarland was one of several local comics on the slate, curated by fellow local Lamont Price, who had the chance to take center stage during the weekend. Even amidst folks who haven’t seen them in clubs and bars around the city, their jokes were some of the best received each night. Bethany Van Delft shone Saturday with jokes about how her parenting style is rubbing off on her daughter, while Nick Chambers’ acceptance of his “resting bouncer face” earned huge laughs from the at-capacity crowd on Sunday. It was wonderful to see this quartet hold their own alongside national acts- to the point where Hannibal introduced Price on Sunday as someone who “should probably just leave Boston already.”

Prior to the weekend, festival organizer Trevor Solomon was unsure if the Comedy Experience would be making an appearance in future years, saying “[we] have to get through the first year – knock on wood, I hope we get to keep it!” And I’m sure those who had the opportunity to enjoy it will be playing a guessing game about its return not unlike the one the audience played with Tig Notaro during her Sunday night headlining set – were Ellen and Portia really backstage? After ten minutes of false introductions that only got funnier with time, we still don’t really know…do we? The bottom line: we likely won’t know until the very moment lineups are released. But in its opening bow, the festival’s new addition came out strong- not just in comparison to larger struggles, but in its own right.

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Amma Marfo

Amma Marfo is a writer, speaker, and podcaster based in Boston, MA. Her writing has appeared in Femsplain, The Good Men Project, Pacific Standard, and Talking Points Memo. Chances are good that as you're reading this, she's somewhere laughing.