Bill Graham Civic Auditorium
June 1 – 3, 2018
Photos by Dana Jacobs.
Clusterfest, the Bay Area’s own music and comedy festival, had its sophomore season at Civic Center Plaza in early June. Comedy Central, which presented the first-of-its-kind festival, certainly had big shoes to fill after a positively star-studded inaugural lineup last year. How exactly does one follow up Jerry Seinfeld, Kevin Hart, and Ice Cube? With Trevor Noah, Jon Stewart, and The Lonely Island’s first-ever concert, obviously. Despite being snagged by some organizational missteps, the innovative three-day affair succeeded thanks to a lineup of stellar talent and the undeniable charm of the city by the bay.
Clusterfest began early Friday evening in the middle of Civic Center Plaza. The sheer logistics of corralling thousands of people into the gated-off square in the middle of San Francisco rush-hour proved to be a bit too big of a bite for event organizers. With gates opening at 5:00, and the first performers scheduled at 5:15, the first day seemed destined for a rocky start. Miscommunication, general confusion, and the overall masses of fans eager to enter the festival made for highly congested entrances that took over an hour to unclog.
John Mulaney and Nick Kroll were the first big-name acts to kick off the festival. Performing as their popular characters from their Broadway Oh, Hello show, George St. Geegland and Gil Faizon, the pair were joined by a roundtable of comedians, filling the hour-long performance with their signature, bizarre humor. Towards the start of the performance, Kroll, in his character’s distinctly strong New York accent, commented on the rather sparse audience: “Ah, what a full crowd!” Despite the duo’s popularity, most attendees remained stuck in security lines, leaving the Bill Graham Auditorium largely empty for the first thirty minutes of the set. Hold-ups in the security line ultimately disrupted the festival’s mainstage lineup, causing T-Pain to move his set entirely.
By the time Third Eye Blind took the stage, crowds had filled out significantly. The San Francisco rock band was a natural choice to help kick-off the excitement of the night. They performed with a practiced ease, and the crowd was appreciative of the veteran performers. Lead singer Stephan Jenkins continually commented on his enjoyment of playing for the Bay Area crowd, a sentiment that would be repeated from musicians and comedians throughout the festival.
Beyond the main auditorium and the large mainstage in Civic Center Plaza, Clusterfest ran a variety of performances in smaller, club-like settings within the side rooms of Bill Graham. These performances required individual tickets, a demand attendees were perfectly happy to meet. Long lines waited outside of the Bill Graham box office an hour before each set, filled with fans eager to claim a spot in the smaller venues. Comedians Kate Berlant and John Early were two favorites, bringing their delightfully neurotic, bitingly astute set to the Larkin Hall. The pair have been gaining significant attention in the comedy circuit over the past two years, and their Clusterfest set showed exactly why. Early and Berlant, both incredible comedians individually, come together for a set that is equal parts idiosyncratic and authentic. The two discussed typical friendship topics, from career struggles to relationships. Far from topical, however, their set is fueled by an almost outlandish sense of passive aggression and competition. After Early apologized for making a crack at Berlant’s new boyfriend, Berlant quickly responded: “thank you for saying sorry and not just leaving a string bean casserole on my doorstep and running away.” The ridiculous nature of their comedy is rooted in an ability to hold a mirror up to the thoughts of millennial neuroticism and prove them to be a comedic duo who match absurdity with shrewdness. Further acts at Larkin Hall included Thomas Middleditch & Ben Schwartz, a 90s dance party, and a live show by Last Podcast on the Left.
The Daily Show correspondents made a strong showing on the mainstage. Ronny Chieng poked fun at the long lines, joking about “security so tight, you can’t actually come to the festival.” He went on to detail the difficulties of planning an Asian wedding, calling them “the original Instagram.” Michael Kosta employed his signature ranting style to yell about hating New York and including a strangely accurate observation that Leonardo DiCaprio is always wet at some point in his movies. Roy Wood Jr. brought a moment of sincerity to his set, saying “we gotta learn what people are going through and accept that as their truth.”
Introduced by separate sets from John Early and Kate Berlant, John Mulaney and Nick Kroll returned to the Bill Graham stage, this times sans the wigs and costumes. Kroll referenced the festival’s wait times, opening with “thanks for waiting in line 46 hours to get in here.” His high-energy set covered an impressive range of topics, from speculating that the Constitution was written on cocaine, to his friendship with Seth Rogan, to Gavin Newsom.
Friday’s last heavy-hitter before The Lonely Island’s headlining performance was Trevor Noah. The influence of The Daily Show was evident within his heavily political set. His observations were biting and cathartic for the liberal San Francisco audience. He reasoned that Republicans naming the Affordable Care Act Obamacare was the biggest boobytrap in American politics, because “they didn’t count on black medicine being able to cure white cancer.” Of course, Trump was an inevitable topic. Noah talked about the struggles of being simultaneously amused and horrified by the president, comparing the dissonant situation to a penis-shaped asteroid headed towards earth. But the seasoned host of The Daily Show took a break from politics to discuss what the workplace would be like if men had periods, concluding that seven days of paid leave a month was the only conclusion.
The undeniable highlight of Friday’s performance (arguably the entire festival) was The Lonely Island’s first-ever concert. As soon as the lights darkened and the mainstage screen glowed with the trio’s logo, the excited buzzing of the crowd erupted into cheers. Complete with full costumes from the group’s time on SNL, guest appearances from Chris Parnell, Michael Bolton, and T-Pain, The Lonely Island put on a veritable extravaganza of a performance. Andy Samberg’s enthusiasm and obvious glee stole the show, as he performed with the seemingly boundless energy that made him an SNL favorite. We can only hope this won’t be the last of The Lonely Island’s live performances; but if it is, this Clusterfest audience was incredibly lucky to have experienced it.
After Friday’s shaky start, the following two days of Clusterfest settled into an easier rhythm. Besides the jam-packed lineup of comedians and musicians, festival-goers were treated to a variety of installations from iconic television shows. Paddy’s Pub, the staple of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, provided a welcome place for fans to walk in the steps of their favorite characters, posing for photo ops, playing trivia, and drinking, of course. A large backdrop of South Park’s distinct mountains overlooked a section of the festival entirely dedicated to the long-running Comedy Central show. Guests could even participate in Double-Dare, the hit Nickelodeon obstacle course. Arrested Development was a large presence at Clusterfest, with Bluth’s Frozen Banana Stand and stair car sitting outside of the auditorium all weekend. A group of men covered in blue body paint and sporting short-shorts even led a parade around the festival grounds, an homage to David Cross’s character Tobias Funke.
Saturday’s headliners, a powerhouse lineup of all-female comedians, covered topics from dating in your 30s to sexting to politics. Before Amy Schumer’s headlining set, Nikki Glaser, Rachel Feinstein, and Mia Jackson brought their own brands of unapologetic, bitingly quick comedy to the mainstage. Nikki Glaser lamented the struggles of dating after your twenties and saying “how meditative” blow jobs would be if all they involved was just “blowing on it.” Rachel Feinstein continued the delightfully crude theme of the evening, bringing up the awkward nature of dirty talk. “I can’t do it,” she shrugged, “I just picture my mom in the room.” Feinstein followed with an impersonation of her mother critiquing her dirty talk techniques, to the delight of the packed audience. Mia Jackson rounded out Schumer’s openers, with a set focused on her imposing height. She called out the height privilege of shorter women, who can play fight with their boyfriends. “I can’t play fight with my man,” she laughed, “I’m a legitimate fucking threat.”
Sunday kicked off with a conversation with Jon Stewart, curated by SF Chronicle’s Peter Hartlaub on the Bill Graham stage. The audience packed the auditorium in order to hear Stewart in a more relaxed, low-key setting. He discussed the struggles of being a Mets fan, jumping out of a plane and dry heaving in front of members of the Air Force the day previous, and took audience questions. What stood out most about this more intimate look at Stewart was his complete sincerity. With every question, his response was eloquent and deeply thoughtful, all while being incredibly funny. Later in the day, a lesser-known comedian provided one of the day’s stand-up highlights on the same stage. Sam Jay, known mostly for her Comedy Central half-hour special, found a way to make calling out the audience on the city’s homelessness crisis funny. She stage-whispered to the crowd “it’s not as good as people told me it’d be,” referring to San Francisco. She parsed the difference between homeless people shitting in alleys and on main streets, because “there is a purpose to main street shitting.” Jay jumped from serious to absurd topics easily, covering the very real fear of using rideshares as a woman before finishing her set with speculating that white people are actually aliens.
Sunday’s musical performances drew a wide range of genres to the outdoor stage. Reggie Watts took the stage first, bringing his almost indescribable blend of alternative, improvised comedy and music to an eager crowd. The gloriously afro’d Watts began his set so casually and conversationally it hardly seemed like a performance at all. The largely improvised comedy was focused on San Francisco, from the monopoly of social media to mission burritos. Equal parts disorienting and entertaining, Watts interspersed his set with music. Heavily utilizing a loop pedal, Watts recorded all instrumentals and backing vocals in real time. Watts’s irreverent style delighted fans, who gleefully cheered along as he said “this is a song about algorithms.” Action Bronson was next. The gruff New York native spoke about his best-selling cookbook, joking about how impossible that felt when he “can hardly speak English.” The biggest musical performance of the day was undoubtedly Wu-Tang Clan. The high-energy set was punctuated by moments of deep sincerity from the group. They spoke of being felons and finding their way out through music. They praised the festival for bringing together music and comedy providing a platform to bring together artists to “tell our experience.”
Finishing off the festival’s last day was the hotly anticipated Jon Stewart. The beloved former Daily Show host and seasoned stand-up was simultaneously effortless, light-hearted, and searingly caustic. Though predictable territory for Stewart, his political commentary was a welcome catharsis for a crowd fatigued from outrage with no outlet. Stewart blasted those offended at Samantha Bee’s use of the word cunt, calling her the smartest, kindest person he knows. “If [Samantha Bee] called someone a cunt…” but rather than finish the sentence, he simply gave the audience a knowing smile. After detailing an absurd Twitter battle with Trump, including the phrase Fuckface Von Clownsdick and Stewart pointing to his own face and aggressively yelling “JEW!”, he shifted to a more serious discussion of politics. He called out the liberal crowd, urging them to stop counting on impeachment and to “beat him…with ideas.” While breaking up his monologue with levity (like comparing Trump to Sanjaya), Stewart offered a call to action to the crowd. Toeing the line between humor and sincerity is a skill that Stewart utilizes impressively, and for this Clusterfest’s audience, it was as welcome as it was necessary.
It would have been easy for Clusterfest to rest on its laurels. After all, having Jerry Seinfeld for a debut year casts a pretty significant shadow. Lucky for us, that didn’t happen. Interactive installations, surprise performances, and a star-studded lineup worked together to make the Bay Area festival a resounding success for a second year running. After two incredible years of comedy and music, it’s unclear just how exactly next year’s Clusterfest will live up to its predecessors. But if this year was any indication, there’s no doubt it’ll find a way.