Next weekend, San Francisco Civic Center Plaza is going to be the site of a massive comedy takeover. Teams at Comedy Central and Superfly Productions (known for running the show for mega-festivals like Bonnaroo and Outside Lands) are getting ready to give comedy fans the biggest comedy and music experience on the planet- at least the biggest one that puts the comedy stars as the main stage topliners. I talked with Comedy Central’s Steve Raizes and Superfly’s Jonathan Mayers about what they’re planning and what Clusterfest attendees can expect.
The bottom line: Jonathan Mayers promises fans will be a part of a well-oiled machine cluster fuck.
What he means is, Comedy Central’s first foray into the festival zone really is going to be a clusterfuck, but only in the best way. In the way that there are going to be shows and celebrities and comedy giants and up and coming brilliant talents everywhere you turn, and unlike most comedy festivals which disperse their events around multiple clubs and sometimes entire cities, all of this is taking place in one location, so it will literally be all around you. This festival is much different than the comedy fests that cater to hardcore comedy fans, purists and industry looking to see and hear from the best of the best. Colossal Clusterfest is designed to appeal to a wider audience- one that embraces all things millennial with immersive experiences that take you inside your favorite television series. The same ideas that attract adventurers to theme parks will welcome a broader spectrum of comedy fans at Clusterfest. It sounds like a giant confetti cannon of comedy, and will in no way replace existing festivals which cater to a different aesthetic.
Comedy Central SVP Steve Raizes said from the get-go, the idea was to create a 3-D party that shows off how big and broad and fun the world of comedy is. “We’re going to have the ability for people to kind of live and breathe in these sets. It’s going to be just a really big, wild, fuzzy thing of all of these different types of comedy and music and surprise and delight.”
Raizes explained that for their first official festival, Comedy Central knew they had to be different. “We’d been in the festival space previously with the New York Comedy Festival and the South Beach Comedy Festival, but in those situations, we would essentially be paying for a sponsorship fee. They’d allow us to attach as sponsors. We couldn’t really creatively iterate as much as we wanted to,” he told me. Comedy Central knew that “experiences” are important to millennials, and to their core audience. “This desire for the experiential economy and people just getting really excited to kind of touch and feel the brand, more and more, we felt that this is an opportunity for us to do something bigger and something exciting.” As soon as they started talking with Superfly, they knew they had found the right partner.
Superfly had some experience producing comedy programming. Several of the music festivals they’ve worked on included comedy as a secondary offering, so they’ve worked with big name comedians like Chris Rock and Jimmy Fallon. Jonathan Mayers from Superfly explained that they were looking for an opportunity to put on a festival that led with comedy, but included other elements like music, food, design and attractions and took it to the next level. His team asked, “what does a different twist on a comedy festival, music festival look like,” and Comedy Central was the perfect partner. “Combining [Comedy Central’s] authority in comedy and our authority with putting on these mega-events, let’s combine efforts and do something hopefully that’s unique and really kind of leading the way in the space.”
Three things contribute to what make this festival different. Location. Immersion. And unique one-of-a-kind moments.
Mayers said putting on the mega-event in one location is the first thing that sets it apart from other comedy events. Everything is taking place at the Civic Center Plaza, right in front of City Hall in San Francisco as well as the adjacent Bill Graham Civic Auditorium. So all of these gigantic events will be going on all around attendees- like a giant comedy carnival.
The music component of Clusterfest is not just a secondary stage element- or a music tent. It’s integrated throughout the entire weekend. “We looked for musicians and artists that kind of had context with comedy,” Mayers explained. “Les Claypool is an example. He wrote the theme song to South Park. That’s kind of how we identified … we weren’t going for … the emphasis was, start with comedy, but then music that compliments it.” Claypool is going to host one of the signature concepts for the weekend. It’s a Super Jam with one-time-only performances that bring together musicians and comedians with lots of surprises. Music and comedy will be mingling more than ever before.
“On top of that,” Raizes added, “there’s always kind of been this great, natural, organic overlap between comedy and music. We’ve kind of found in our experience that I think a lot of comedians secretly want to be rock stars, and a lot of rock stars want to be comics. There’s this very kind of organic overlap that’s really fun that we’re very excited to tap into, and I think it’s something that Superfly does great. Something that we’ve done with the Goddamn Comedy Jam, where we will create these really wonderful surprise moments of bringing together comics and rock stars where one and one really kind of equals three. I think it’ll make it that much more interesting and fun and provide kind of a level of surprise that people haven’t seen at this kind of event before.”
That seems like enough, but CC set out to be a real explosion of “more” and part of that includes some of our favorite drag performers who are terrific comedic talents on board. Nothing makes a party like drag. Raizes agreed. “I don’t know if you’ve seen the past season of (RuPaul’s) All Star Drag Race, but my God, it’s good. It really is phenomenal. It’s very interesting. One, it’s a very kind of local play for San Francisco which we definitely like. There’s also – in the new Viacom world – we talk about being a little bit more…. looking across the house to kind of share things. The idea of working with a series that’s done really well in VH1 and Logo, and that has this great comedic take to it, felt really right, and also kind of a wonderful and open community. I think that’s the other thing that we’re really proud of, is when you look at the lineup.”
Local plays into the festival in a lot of ways including the food court which is part of the “experiential” element of the festival. You’ll be able to walk into the eating establishments from some beloved television shows, but the CC team isn’t just slapping some logos and window dressing on typical concert venue-type food. These are real San Francisco local restaurateurs bringing their specialties in environments that you know and love from your favorite shows. “When we come into a city and we do a lot of work in San Francisco, including Outside Land, it’s also about a celebration of that place. Where we can work with these great food makers or wineries and within the concept of this offering, how can we theme out that food and drink? So, it’s been really fun,” Meyers explained. “You’ll get a great sampling of amazing restaurants and wine makers from the Bay Area. Again, a way to infuse the local identity into the event.”
So millennials will get to have their South Park experience and at the same time sample local cuisine without leaving the event grounds. Meyers explained: “We’re working with some of the most popular comedy television shows with Seinfeld and Always Sunny in Philadelphia and doing the whole thing with South Park. That’s going to be something I think is very, very unique to this event where re-creating sets like Jerry’s apartment or where doing the Chili Con Carnival, which was an episode in South Park and bringing that to life, the Festivus Celebration. We’re really going to have fun and try some different things.”
Raizes explained the Festivus Celebration. “We are looking to do the officially-sanctioned world’s largest Festivus Celebration that will include the official airing of the grievances, the feats of strength, all for the very biggest Festivus that has ever been coordinated.”
With all this chaos taking place, what can visitors expect? Meyers explained how it will work from the ground. “When you buy a ticket to the festival, you’ll have access to all of these different venues. The outdoor quote-unquote main stage, that’s where the headlining talent will be: Jerry and Bill Burr and Kevin Hart. There’ll be some music programming there as well. There’ll be some seating, some standing room. There will be a second outdoor stage where we’re doing these kinds of parties and interesting collaborations– the Chili Con Carnival, things like that, on our second stage. All of that will be available. Our Seinfeld activation, as well as our South Park activation, will be outside, available and kind of just like a flow, where you can walk up, take photo-op moments. There will be concessions. The Seinfeld apartment, there will be a queue. Think kind of like an amusement park sort of thing, but available to everyone.”
“Then you come inside into the Bill Graham and there are multiple different venues inside, starting with the biggest indoor venue, which is the Bill Graham Auditorium, which will be a seated venue and shows running throughout the day and accessible to everyone. Adjacent to that is a smaller comedy club that there will be a queuing system. There won’t be reservations, but the queue and kind of a first-come, first-served kind of basis, but we’re going to do a really good job of messaging how long, come back. There will be repeat performances throughout the weekend as well.”
“The other side of the hall, that’s where we’re re-creating Paddy’s Pub from Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and that will be all sorts of programming in there, but also a themed concession space, again available to everyone. Then the fourth floor will be where there’s all sorts of readings and live podcasts. There will be a queuing system for that because that’s a more intimate venue. All of these counter-programs throughout the day.”
With less than a week to go, passes are still available for this massive event, and it’s one you’re going to have to experience to understand. Whether you’re a stand up comedy purist, a fan of comedy television, an avid Comedy Central viewer or just a curious onlooker, there is definitely something here you will relate to.
“I think people will come for the Kevin Harts and the Jerry Seinfelds and the Sarah Silvermans and the Bill Burrs,” Raizes said, “but it’s our hope that they’re going to walk out and say, “Oh my god, we did this lunch Ron Funches thing and an 80 time warp dance party, and it was just bat-shit insane and the best time we’ve ever had.”
Colossal Clusterfest runs June 2-4. Go to clusterfest.com for more information and for passes.