Where would today's stand-up comedy be without San Francisco? Sure, New York and L.A. are where comics go to make it big, but San Francisco is where comedy evolves. In the early '50s, Mort Sahl walked on the hungry i’s stage with a newspaper in hand and proceeded to riff rather than rattle off one-liners, altering completely what it meant to be a stand-up comedian. A few years later, Ann’s 440 on Broadway hired a local strip-club MC named Lenny Bruce to tell jokes, setting the course of political criticism and freedom of obscenity for legends like Richard Pryor, George Carlin and Bill Hicks.
The Holy City Zoo spawned Robin Williams. The Other Cafe nurtured Paula Poundstone. The long-running San Francisco Comedy Competition broke comedians like Dana Carvey, Ellen Degeneres and Sinbad. Even today, rising stars like Hasan Minhaj, Ali Wong, Moshe Kasher and W. Kamau Bell claim San Francisco as their comedy home.
So it makes sense that Comedy Central chose the city to host a first-of-its-kind, three-day comedy festival, aptly named Colossal Clusterfest. Instead of the Sketchfest model, with shows at different venues around the city, the performances take place at five venues clustered around the Civic Center mall. It’s a comic showcase for the Outside Lands crowd, a chance for the festival-minded to see a bunch of hot acts for a bargain.
It was also apparent, walking into the festival for Friday's opening night, that Clusterfest is big ol' advertisement for Comedy Central. Comedy is their brand, and they have branded the hell out of San Francisco. Inside the festival grounds, there were logos as far as the eye could see -- for Clusterfest itself, for Miller Lite, for Papa John’s and others. For the duration of the festival -- it continues through Sunday -- Comedy Central gets to paint the town corporate.
And sure, Apple routinely takes over the Civic Center with excessive branding, and most music festivals utilize every possible surface for advertising. That's just part of modern life. But it doesn’t feel right in the same place where the city came together in a candlelight vigil after the assassination of Harvey Milk, or where Mayor Gavin Newsom married gay couples in defiance of federal law.
Once you get past that aspect, there's a ton to see at Clusterfest -- starting with the South Park village. Comedy Central is the channel South Park built, and they went all out in celebrating their long-running animated show. As someone who's watched the show since the “beefcake” days, I can say that this massive installation had almost everything a real fan could want: you can sit on a throne next to Satan, you can have your picture taken on top of a giant ballsack, and you can even buy food at locations from the show, like the bar Les Bos. (I didn’t see anyone lining up at the booth called “Raisins”; despite what seemed to be tasty schezwan chicken on the menu, people probably didn't want to be seen at a booth referencing a Hooters-style restaurant that employs prepubescent girls.)
Not far away from the South Park village is the re-creation of the Seinfeld apartment, and a line snaked around its tent for hours. A sign read “Seinfeld Expected Wait Time: 60 minutes,” which is a serious commitment at a festival where comedians’ sets clipped along at 15 minutes each. I didn’t commit, but I did stare at the re-creation of the Soup Nazi’s restaurant, which had the actual actor who played the Soup Nazi standing nearby. (It also looked like one of the servers had a “fashy,” which is a great update for a joke about a Nazi-run kitchen.)
It took some effort to locate the 415 Comedy Club on the fourth floor of the Bill Graham Civic Center, but once I did, I found a standing-room-only audience watching Beth Stelling. A writer for the HBO series Crashing, Stelling had the crowd cracking up over her stories about dead guinea pigs and her estranged dad. The most memorable moment of her set came when she described the feeling of having an IUD pulled out of her by a doctor -- it elicited the loudest women-only groan of pain I've ever heard.
The 415 Comedy Club was set up just feet away from the Bill Graham Auditorium, so after Stelling’s set I popped over to the big room to catch a showcase featuring T.J. Miller (from Silicon Valley) and Aparna Nancherla. On the way to the auditorium, I noticed a guy sitting on the ground with blood pouring out of his mouth -- a reminder of the potential for disaster at festivals. At Clusterfest, everyone seemed to be drinking; beer could be bought practically everywhere. Drunk people typically don’t make for great comedy audiences, but thankfully the shows I saw weren't plagued with annoying hecklers or fighting in the crowd. (I did almost step in a pile of vomit on Fulton Street near the Colossal stage, though.)
Little about Clusterfest's setup or crowds was ideal for comedy. Because show times overlapped, audiences were constantly shifting in and out of their seats, which must've been distracting for the comedians. But newer standup comics like Liza Treyger and Nick Vatterott (who admitted he'd never performed to so many people) still managed to get big laughs.
While eating a $10 gyro and trying to find a drink that wasn't beer or Mountain Dew Spiked, I listened to Lil Dicky's set of hardcore comedy rap from a distance. His delicate, spoiled-brat persona seemed a little too true-to-life, but his beats got festival staff dancing all over the mall. And though the sound was decent for an outdoor stage, I avoided music for the rest of the day -- while there were definitely acts worth seeing like Ty Segall and Ice Cube, seeing one of their sets meant missing out on some great comedy.
After finishing my food, it was time to stand in line at the Larkin Comedy Club for a taping of Problematic, Comedy Central's new show hosted by Moshe Kasher, an Oakland native. The requirements at the Larkin Comedy Club are stringent and inconvenient. You have to queue up at least 20 minutes before the show, and that's after getting a required ticket from a nearby box office. As the doors opened and people took their seats, those who'd been standing in line without the required tickets were then sent running to get tickets once they realized their error.
But Problematic was worth it. Kasher is quick-witted and fearless, and his show takes on controversial topics of the day, such as the Alt-Right, the episode on which Kasher spoke with notorious political trolls like Ann Coulter. Friday's show was on robotics, which had some definite potential for laughs -- we're talking about sex robots, of course -- but ended up feeling a little schizophrenic during discussions about the need for Universal Basic Income and the ethics surrounding the development of weapons. Yet the jokes about sex robots were really funny, and a riff from Paul Scheer about the "famous" Larkin Club's decor -- huge portraits of famous comedians like Robin Williams, Betty White and Miss Piggy -- gave the festival the ribbing it deserved.
By the time T.J. Miller's Gorburger show was up and running at the smaller outdoor stage, it had grown dark and cold. So, so cold. The concept behind The Gorburger Show centers around Miller dressing up as a scary alien and hosting a talk show that's also a parody of a Japanese game show, full of weird games like throwing corn cobs at poeple's butts. Though there were plenty of reasons to laugh, the icy wind had sucked away a lot of the energy from the crowd, and even Gorburger's guests.
Almost an hour before he was expected to take the stage, a giant crowd built up for headliner Kevin Hart. As much as I wanted to see the man who's become the next Eddie Murphy, the windchill factor made the outside air feel like 20 degrees. So I scrambled back to the Bill Graham stage to catch Sarah Silverman as she MC'ed her own show. Silverman told the crowd she'd be doing all-new material and then called back to the stage Aparna Nancherla, who then performed her third set on that same stage that night. She didn't have to repeat material, and she consistently killed. One of her first jokes was that she'd been popping up so often on that stage, she might as well be the phantom of the Bill Graham auditorium, which got a good laugh from the large and, by now, exhausted crowd.
Comedy is hard to sit through when you're tired, and the festival had managed to tucker out the thousands congregated in the Bill Graham. While Kasher, an Oakland native, had hilarious riffs on local institutions like the sex-toy store Good Vibrations, the monitors on the sides of the stage kept making the mistake of showing shots of a crowd just trying to stay awake.
At the end of the night, Clusterfest was best summed up by the hoodie-and-backwards-cap-wearing broseph sitting next to me. With empty beer bottles and compostable paper bowls scattered at his feet, he watched Kasher with his arms folded the entire time, a half-smile on his face as he battled to keep his eyes open. Would he be back for two more days of this, I thought? Time will tell.