Jun 06, 2018

The festival catered to a broad base of comedy fans.

SAN FRANCISCO — A few moments into her 30-minute set during last weekend’s Clusterfest, after the beat from DJ Khaled’s “Top Off” died down, Tiffany Haddish scanned the crowd and cheered, “This feels like a really f—ed up Jehovah’s Witnesses concert.”

The offhand line managed to summarize the ethos of the weekend, as a chance for comedy enthusiasts to gather en masse. Fans who usually chase laughs through screens and headphones or maybe even clubs could instead see stand-up and sketch comedy as part of an energized community. They could experience their favorite shows as sitcom tropes brought to life through carnival-inspired games.

”From a fan standpoint, being able to get up close to talent and to shows you love, and really being able to interact with them in a different way, in an immersive way, is such an important touchpoint,” says Steve Raizes, senior vice president of live, experiential, audio and podcasting at Viacom. “And not just for the Comedy Central brand … I think that’s just part of the culture right now.”

Headliners included comedians Trevor Noah, John Mulaney, Amy Schumer, Nick Kroll, Michael Che, Jim Jefferies, and Jon Stewart (in his first West Coast performance in 15 years) along with musical acts The Lonely Island (in their first concert ever), Third Eye Blind, Wu-Tang Clan, Salt-N-Pepa, and T-Pain.

“What it really represents is the year-long effort on behalf of Comedy Central and our talent department, scouring the country for the absolute best, freshest voices in comedy,” said Jonas Larsen, Comedy Central’s executive vice president of talent and development, West Coast.

On the festival grounds, a South Park corner included a Kick the Baby game, Member Berries skee ball, and Cupid Me Couples archery. A banana stand doled out $4 custom dipped frozen bananas alongside The Bluth Company stair car in honor of Netflix’s Arrested Development. Paddy’s Pub from FXX’s It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia was recreated again this year, as was The Donald J. Trump Twitter Library which had first been staged in June 2017 in New York City. And, a Double Dare Mtn DEW®-themed obstacle course included slime as well as its original host Mark Summers, in advance of the show’s reboot this summer on Nickelodeon.

The diversity of the programming and entertainment brands was deliberate, in order to attract a broader group of fans. Co-produced with Superfly and Another Planet Entertainment—the companies behind the Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival—the idea was to create IP activations, live reads, and programming that aren’t available elsewhere. And since smartphones had to be turned off during the closed sets, many of the festival’s moments could be appreciated only by those in attendance.

Class Reunion for Comedians

On the heels of what was a particularly headline-grabbing week for comedy on TV, the three-day music and comedy festival in San Francisco also gave the on-stage players a chance to hang out. It was something of a “summer camp for celebrities,” as comedian Joel Kim Booster dubbed it. “To have somebody that you admire look at you with a sense of peership is a terribly fascinating feeling to have,” the comedian Shane Torres told reporters at a press gathering. He was most looking forward to spending time in the same space as David Cross. “It’s not an equals feeling but you are at the same party.”

“It’s almost like a class reunion for comedians, where you get to see everyone you never get to tour with when we get on the road,” Roy Wood Jr., a comedian and correspondent on The Daily Show With Trevor Noah, said at the press preview. “I also enjoy the Comedy Central Up Next showcases because I like seeing young, motivated comics ’cause it makes me remember why I do this … You can get caught up in the business side of all of this and you can forget about just the sheer joy of performing. It gives a new opportunity to the audiences to discover these people as well because, ultimately, we need people to continue being fans of this art form in order for it to move along.”

For fans like Lisa Lome and Emily Neil, who traveled with a group of friends from Las Vegas to San Francisco to attend the festival, live events like Clusterfest serve as a convention of sorts, a judgement-free utopia of people who appreciate niche sectors of pop culture. Lome and Neil, along with their friends, are avid fans of comedy troupe The Lonely Island, which headlined Friday night on the main stage. They viewed the group’s premiere concert as a historic moment, and came clad in handmade, yellow felt capes (a nod to Andy Samberg’s costume in Hot Rod).

“These are my people,” said Lome, motioning to the crowd gathering by the stage, dancing and goofing around.

Live events for the long-term

Clusterfest was the first in a lineup of live events this summer planned for Viacom brands. Nickelodeon’s Slimefest begins June 9 in Chicago and The BET Experience takes place in Los Angeles’ Staples center starting June 21. Along with live shows like Spongebob Squarepants: The Broadway Musical, which received a dozen Tony nominations, expanding the company’s experiential footprint is a way to diversify beyond its core TV production business. Revenue from experiential efforts is expected to double year-over-year in 2018.

Live events give people the chance to “come together to find commonality,” said Jonathan Mayers, co-founder of Superfly, which launched Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival in 2002. “For brands, it’s an opportunity for deeper engagement, for people to understand your brand more and live it.” Live events enable brands and publishers to curate environments that are immersive and shareable, and incubate ideas to see how audiences react.

“We look at the opportunity for Clusterfest to be an annuity property,” said Raizes, who started as an assistant at Comedy Central more than 15 years ago. “We had an amazing festival this year, but festivals are living, breathing things. We are constantly, evolving, changing, iterating off of what really spoke to the crowd and that’s where the real joy is for all of us. Next year will be even better.”

with additional reporting by Lisa Di Venuta