Ordinarily, I am loath to compare an entity or experience to its iteration the year prior. I wanted badly for this to be the case with Boston Calling’s Comedy Experience, a festival feature in its second year.
I can’t really avoid it in this case. Last year’s Comedy Experience, an eleventh hour addition to the lineup after the loss of a planned film festival (which did take place this year), was an oasis amidst an otherwise chaotic festival. While crowds alternated between churning aimlessly and holding in vast lines, the comedy arena felt like a place of calm and laughter.
This year? Somehow, that same magic never really hit. Yes, the comedians were competent and entertaining enough – though several, including Tony Hinchcliffe and Martin Urbano, never really hit their stride with a crowd often waiting in the arena for the next musicians to take stages outside. Yes, there were successes – looking at you, Bridget Everett and Cameron Esposito – but in large part it felt hard to know if the audience was with other performers. I’m wondering if the absence of highly visible headliners on the level of Pete Holmes or Tig Notaro, who headlined last year’s festival (or host Hannibal Buress, who was in three films that summer) contributed to the drop in enthusiasm.
As expected, this problem didn’t affect the podcast recordings of Lovett or Leave It and Pod Save America. The pair of Crooked Media properties performed admirably in their debut appearances at the festival, with some of the most rapt audiences appearing during their hourlong shows. Should this part of the festival continue, I’d recommend adding others and filling in the afternoon with a number of these types of shows. A few Earwolf properties (Off Book: The Improvised Musical, Who Charted?, or R U Talkin’ R.E.M. RE: ME?) create a great natural bridge between music and comedy; other options to develop a draw could include The Read, 2 Dope Queens, or How Did This Get Made?
And of course, I’d be remiss to not address the absence of local comedy- a staple of the festival even before its move from City Hall Plaza to Harvard’s Athletic Complex. If any Boston-based comedians happen to read this, please know that your presence was missed. There is something incredibly special about seeing local talent take the stage in a huge forum, one that many of them may not otherwise get. It was a special opportunity Boston Calling provided, and I offer a heartfelt plea for this portion of the experience to make a swift return.
On the topic of returns, it seems likely that the Comedy Experience will make a return at next year’s festival. After a blockbuster year and a lackluster year, it’s my hope that bookers learn from the respective successes (and rare misses) to build a third product that is, as they say, just right.