Comedy Central’s Clusterfest, a three-day comedy and music festival, returned to San Francisco’s Civic Center Plaza for the second year in a row, bringing headlining big names including Trevor Noah, The Lonely Island, Tiffany Haddish, John Mulaney, Amy Schumer and Jon Stewart. The popular event also featured talkbacks with comedians and entertainment artists, musical acts and screenings, spanning the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium and an outdoor stage to smaller comedy clubs in the area.
Logistical issues dominated day one of the festival according to disgruntled ticketholders on social media, who lined up for hours to get through security and ended up missing opening acts. Another logistical challenge involved shows in smaller rooms of Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, such as the Room 415 Comedy Club and the Larkin Comedy Club. The smaller shows required a tricky dual ticket process in which attendees had to line up in a queue an hour before the show to get a paper ticket, and then queue again to get into the room. Amy Schumer’s set ended half an hour earlier than expected to the dismay of the audience and sex workers protested outside of the auditorium.
One of the highlights of the festival was discovering lesser-known acts, such as the Asian Pacific Islander headlining set, The Joy F*ck Club. Held in the intimate environment of Room 415, it was a strong contrast to the giant Coachella-esque outdoor stage in the plaza. Set up with folding chairs like a stand-up club, the event, hosted by Joel Kim Booster, featured a series of short routines by top Asian comedians. The biggest name, Awkwafina, only came out for a short Q&A with Booster, much to the disappointment of attendees, but the rest of the lineup shone brightly.
Booster started off the night by “pandering” to the Asian American audience — although, as he pointed out, much of the front rows were non-Asian. Especially as SF enters Pride Month, it was exhilarating to see a set dominated by queer Asian American comedians: Booster, Irene Tu, Bowen Yang and Patti Harrison. Each performer brought their own flavor of comedy, with Patti Harrison standing out with her avant-garde, absurdist routine. The set, which started off with her playing a ditzy awkward character, garnered confused giggles but ended with uproarious laughter as her jokes, delivered with an Aubrey Plaza deadpan, became increasingly ludicrous.
Daily Show correspondent Ronnie Chiang was also unafraid to get political, touching on the United incident in which a Chinese American doctor was assaulted. His pantomiming of the incident brought a needed dose of reality and consciousness to the situations that Asian Americans can face, despite eliciting uncomfortable chuckles from some audience members.
Other not to be missed highlights: The Presidential Library of Tweets from The Daily Show with Trevor Noah featured interactive exhibits such as a Trump Nickname Generator, an opportunity to choose the perfect Tweet for a simulated international crisis (whilst sitting on a golden toilet), and a golden memorial for deleted Tweets.
There were also other meticulously recreated sets of popular comedies — Paddy’s Pub from “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” offered $12 pints, the Bluth frozen banana stand sold hand-dipped chocolate bananas next to the stair car from “Arrested Development,” and visitors could play ring toss and darts at the South Park themed fairground. Many attendees sported apparel from their favorite pop culture shows or comedians.
The larger comedy acts, like Amy Schumer and Friends, drew a massive crowd, but similar to a festival like Coachella, the mosh pit of people made it nearly impossible to get close enough to see anything besides the massive screens. Nikki Glaser, Bridget Everett, Rachel Feinstein, Mia Jackson and Schumer drew big laughs with routines on Trump, dating and sex.
Two other sets looked promising: Thomas Middleditch and Ben Schwartz’s two-person longform improv show packed the auditorium, as did Michael Che’s headlining set with Joe Mande, Mark Normand, Dulce Sloan and Tim Dillon. In addition, Jon Stewart’s return to stand-up after a 15 year hiatus was accompanied by a talkback with San Francisco Chronicle pop culture critic Peter Hartlaub. Stewart talked about the Golden State Warriors and not being able to take down Trump with comedy in an hour-long discussion, drawing large amounts of applause from the always-eager audience.
After their improv show, Middleditch and Schwartz’s second performance at Clusterfest — a live reading of John Hughes’ classic comedy “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles” — also featured SNL alum Sasheer Zamata and “Arrested Development” star David Cross. After the success of last year’s live reading of “Wayne’s World” with Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer, Clusterfest brought another reading to the festival’s main stage featuring a range of today’s largest TV comedians.
The performance, held in the relatively packed Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, delighted audiences with a live band and a large screen behind the performers that displayed images to set the scene. Because the live reading was essentially a staged reading of the film — stage directions and other information read by the lively Jessica McKenna — it was up to the performers to bring the characters to life just from sitting in their chairs and interacting with each other in the limited capacity they were able to.
Middleditch, the star of HBO’s “Silicon Valley,” and Ben Schwartz, beloved comedic actor famously known for playing the obnoxious Jean-Ralphio on “Parks and Recreation,” riffed off of each other in an everyman-meets-eccentric-man fashion, mimicking their traditional typecasting but also reflecting the Hughes film’s general odd couple vibe. They even spooned standing up as described in the script to the delight of the audience, both exaggerating their motions and comedic acting whenever the audience reacted. Zamata and Cross also played fun smaller parts, using their voice acting skills to imbue the verbal script with life.
San Francisco, a center for stand-up and comedy and all forms, lends itself to a conducive environment from a comedy festival of this size. The City also hosts SF Sketchfest, a longer wintertime comedy festival featuring a variety of A-list performers, but where else can someone jam out to some Britney Spears next to musician Reggie Watts and run into comedian Jaboukie Young-White outside of the Joy F*ck Club set? If you kept your eye out, you may have been able to spot some lesser known — yet just as brilliant — comedians wandering the festival grounds — and the Daily even ran into Garrick Bernard (a Los Angeles-based comedian and writer, but the poor guy was just grabbing a burrito!). To be up close and personal with comedy’s biggest stars is a unique experience — an opportunity that continues to set Clusterfest apart.