All Photos by Film Magic
How often do you rush to fill out a survey following an event?
More often than not, a rush to fill out a survey is the result of a bad experience, an inconvenience or issue noted with a passing thought of “oh, wait until I get a comment card.” But this morning I rushed to complete the survey sent to review Comedy Central’s inaugural Colossal Clusterfest, held earlier this month in San Francisco, California.
Ahead of the event, organizers promised that the attendee experience would in no way resemble its disorganized-sounding name, and they delivered on that promise. In my experience anyway, lines were orderly, staff and volunteers were polite and informed, the grounds somehow stayed immaculate despite tens of thousands of comedy and music fans flooding the Civic Center Plaza and Bill Graham Civic Auditorium for three straight days. Clusterfest was an impressive achievement, let alone as an inaugural attempt, and the mention of “future Colossal Clusterfests” in their messaging made my heart swell with excitement and anticipation.
Comedy Central shared their highlights of the festival in a 90-minute televised special; here were my best moments as a patron on the ground:
Absent a Trump, Bernie Sanders Crashes Clusterfest
The initial version of the Clusterfest schedule had a Saturday afternoon live version of The President Show, featuring Comedy Central’s titular Trump (Anthony Atamanuik) spending time with guests Eliza Skinner and Dan Soder. However, the event disappeared from the schedule shortly before my arrival in San Francisco. Then, a day before festivities kicked off, we got our eleventh hour substitution: James Adomian, Atamanuik’s Trump vs. Bernie counterpart, stepped in to lead the “Trump Dumped” show, consisting of a brief stump speech by his Sanders (featuring references to what he’s been doing with his time off, his take on California’s politics, and a shout out to Killer Mike. Adomian returned shortly thereafter as “special guest” Chris Matthews, and conducting rambling and at times incoherent interviews with Skinner and Soder.
I’ll admit, as a vocal critic of Trump takes, I wrestled mightily with whether the originally scheduled show would end up on my final roster. Adomian’s eventual substitution calmed that anxiety, and his performances as both Sanders and Matthews allowed current politics to be addressed, while endearing himself to the political climate of San Francisco.
“Excellent!” Broad City Cast, Writers, and Friends bring Wayne’s World To Life
Wayne’s World is one of my go-to movies for sustained laughs, so the news that Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson would commemorate its 25th anniversary with a live reading got me incredibly excited. Their version did not disappoint, even for someone who could recite it unprompted! We were treated to Jacobson’s version of Carvey’s memorable “Foxy Lady” dance, an effective translation of Wayne (Glazer) and Cassandra (Tia Carrere, reprising her original role)’s subtitled rooftop Cantonese conversation, and full band live performances of Crucial Taunt’s featured songs.
Race and gender bent roles meant we were treated to casting choices like Tig Notaro as Rob Lowe’s Benjamin Kane, and Michelle Buteau and Naomi Ekperigin as assorted smaller characters played mostly by white men. Two notes of honorable mention here: Ron Funches made a delightful choice (but when does he not, if we’re being honest?) as Wayne’s obsessive ex-girlfriend Stacey, and John Michael Higgins (Arrested Development, Great News) somehow managed to elevate arcade owner Noah Vanderoff’s small role into something tear-inducingly hilarious.
Festival Organizers’ Bet on Cross-Brand Integration Paid Off
For most at the festival, the draw was comedy. I talked to folks from as close as San Jose, and as far as Houston and Tampa, and most were there for laughs; San Francisco has historically been a supportive city for comics so this came as no surprise. But the festival had other draws; Friday saw a great deal of additional traffic for Ice Cube’s set, which preceded the headlining set by Kevin Hart and the Plastic Cup Boyz. Musical performances by Chromeo, Jidenna, and Lizzo served as memorable and fitting accents to a weekend mostly dominated by comedians.
But I did meet an individual who was drawn in by someone unexpected (to me, at least): Alaska Thunderfuck. “I found out about the festival from her Facebook,” he mentioned. “Condragulations,” a show featuring Thunderfuck, Bob the Drag Queen, Ginger Minj, and Jujubee of Logo/VH1’s RuPaul’s Drag Race, were enough of a draw to pull him in from 45 minutes away. Clusterfest brought, in a lot of ways, a cluster of people from innumerable walks of life, and yet still managed to provide a quality experience for all attending.
A Focus on Experience as well as Enjoyment
I’ve never been able to buy a Babka or black-and-white cookie at a festival before, but a Monk’s immersive experience, located just outside the replica of Jerry’s Seinfeld apartment, gave me the opportunity. Similarly, patrons of It’s Always Sunny’s Paddy’s Pub – billed for the weekend as “San Francisco’s worst bar” – were able to grab beers, play drinking games with Rob McElhenney’s Mac, and watch Game 2 of the NBA Finals. Not into either of those options? Food was available in abundance from some of San Francisco’s best restaurants.
Most festivals focus on ensuring the acts go off without a hitch, but worry less about the atmosphere. The difference was notable- not just for attendees, but for vendors as participants as well. During a fireside chat with festival participants, restaurateur Brandon Jew expressed his appreciation for the opportunity: “it’s nice to see a festival that cares as much about the quality of the food as the quality of the talent.” Other festivals may come to the table with chicken fingers, fries, and funnel cakes- Clusterfest committed themselves to better and succeeded.
As a frequent small club-goer, I was worried that the massiveness of the festival would have me missing that more intimate feel. Likely anticipating this desire, the fest featured two smaller “clubs”: The Larkin Room (host to podcast tapings like Chris Gethard’s Beautiful/Anonymous and Anna Faris is Unqualified) and the 415 Comedy Club (which hosted SiriusXM’s The Bonfire and The New Negroes, among other shows). To the best of their ability, festival organizers tried to anticipate what the best venue was for each acts, and responded accordingly. The result? An unmatched opportunity to see shows of a variety of sizes, in spaces that honored their respective “feels.”
A Sign of Things to Come
The weekend in San Francisco underscored, above all else, what an exciting time comedy is presently in. Headliners sharing new or exclusive material prompted the most expansive measures against filming and photography I’ve seen at a festival, including physical locks on phones for those in seats at the trio of Colossal Stage sets. And, amazingly, there were few violations. People heeded the warnings, and honored the instructions of security when caught.
Acts like Beth Stelling, Rory Scovel and T.J. Miller with forthcoming specials on Netflix, Comedy Central, and HBO had the opportunity to tease their material on enthusiastic fans, while fireside chats with comics and smaller shows could preview upcoming programming for Comedy Central. James Davis got to talk about his forthcoming series Hood Adjacent, premiering June 28th and built on the success of his content for Comedy Central’s Snapchat Discover channel. Roy Wood Jr. spoke about his excitement and appreciation for This Is Not Happening, for which he has just taken over as host. Baron Vaughn and Open Mike Eagle’s New Negroes fielded two shows ahead of their fall premiere on the network. And the Broad City girls augmented their Wayne’s World reading with a preview of their upcoming fourth season, premiering August 23rd.
With an eye on the future, I can’t overstate how much I hope that we really do get more of this particular experience. Again, I return to the wording of “future Colossal Clusterfests” that got me so excited in the festival’s most recent correspondence. I’d buy tickets in a second. Comedy Central’s entry into the festival world was a…well, colossal…success. I look forward to adding it into my regular summer plans, and seeing how they grow as a new addition to the summer show circuit.
Enjoy the video highlights!