Comedians at Clusterfest brought the house down — if you could find them

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Olivia Staser/Staff

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The folks over at Comedy Central should consider themselves lucky that they have connections to such a stellar lineup for their second annual Clusterfest comedy festival in San Francisco — if the musicians and comedians weren’t so damn talented, it’d be difficult to sell even the most die-hard fan of all things funny on a festival that on multiple occasions proved itself to be a logistical nightmare.

Opening day was met with considerable delays for anyone looking to arrive at the festival’s start, times were changed without notice, and information was inconsistent between the festival’s handy-dandy app and its flimsy pamphlet, all of which led some visitors to miss bits of their favorite performers. The concept of a schedule appeared to be an abstract one to the festival’s coordinators — Amy Schumer cut her performance 30 minutes short, while Jon Stewart went 20 minutes over (that being said, nobody really had a problem with either of those things).

But, as we said, this year’s Clusterfest brought a killer lineup. And while event organizers may not have stepped up to the plate, many of the comedians certainly did.

— Shannon O’Hara

Tiffany Haddish

Tiffany Haddish has had one hell of a year, but watching her Saturday set on the Colossal Stage, you almost wouldn’t know it. The “Keanu” and “Girls Trip” comedian wasted no time endearing herself to an audience that probably already thought the world of her. After all, she reminded the crowd, she isn’t that special — the self-identified Groupon addict will have to return her designer dress and heels to the store tomorrow.

Haddish’s opening — an impassioned but clichéd monologue about the fact that pretty girls poop too — may not have been much of a highlight, but she only built up from there. She moved between snarky musings about what makes you rich in Eritrea, her father’s home country, and pauses, during which she’d repeat “umm” three or four times so she could laugh at the way her voice echoed over the microphone.

Haddish told us she had some things she didn’t want to talk about during the set, but after her fans begged, she surrendered. Apparently, there’s a man out there that she’s madly in love with, but he won’t like her back. Any pent-up sexual energy this left her with was released upon the crowd when she promised both a Clusterfest security guard and a 66-year-old lawyer that she’d show them a good time.

In other words, all kinds of love were clearly in the air Saturday afternoon. If anyone needed proof, one couple rather abruptly provided it — with a proposal, right in the middle of Haddish’s transition into a new joke.

An ecstatic Haddish took the time to congratulate the couple, and as they lovingly embraced, she called out over the microphone, “Can I fuck both y’all now?”

To conclude her set, Haddish ditched comedic bits altogether, instead delivering a very genuine speech about her plans to care for foster children and encouraging the crowd to grow its own food. Her ultimate aim in life, she declared, was to bring joy and happiness to the world.

“I curse you with all the fuckin’ happiness you can handle,” Haddish proclaimed, before reminding her audience to spread love “like Usher spreads herpes.”

Oh, and the guy who doesn’t like Haddish back? Turns out, he’s 70 years old. But even still — who could help falling in love with Haddish? Certainly not the audience.

— Shannon O’Hara

‘Nathan Fielder & Kyle Mooney’s Video Treasures’

Fans of Kyle Mooney and Nathan Fielder’s humor were treated to a treasure trove of obscure, hilarious and bizarre YouTube videos that seem to have directly informed the comedians’ unique brand of cringe humor. “These aren’t really laugh-out-loud videos,” Fielder warned as he loaded up a 30-second tutorial of a chef mixing three different kinds of shredded cheese in a glass bowl.

The diverse set of videos shown ranged from local advertisements to blogs to audition tapes with only a few dozen views. “These are kind of character studies,” Mooney said while introducing a Myspace profile video that was probably the inspiration for Mooney’s “chris.”

The two comedians bounced jokes off one another, with Fielder’s deadpan attitude balancing out Mooney’s goofy, frantic energy. The stage was set up like a living room, complete with a couch, TV and amplifier, inviting the audience to be a part of the duo’s weird hangout ritual.

In this way, “Video Treasures” was potentially one of the most niche shows of the weekend, a welcome break from most of the other stand-up acts that beat a dead horse with their Bay Area gentrification jokes. Fielder and Mooney didn’t follow a script, preferring to just make off-the-cuff comments on the videos. Not every joke landed, but it was in line with the comedians’ signature off-kilter, awkward style.

When laughing at strangers on the internet started to feel a little mean-spirited, Fielder and Mooney offered up a couple of their own embarrassing (unpublished) videos to even the score. Switching out of Google Chrome and hastily closing a wikiHow article on how to stop premature ejaculation, the two played a couple videos that weren’t quite good enough to make it to their YouTube pages.

For dedicated fans of Fielder and Mooney’s web-native humor, the set was a fascinating and hilarious peek into the duo’s creative process.

— Jasmine Garnett

Michael Che

“You’re handsome!” one member of the audience shouted at Michael Che from the back of the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium.

“Take your pants off?” the “Weekend Update” host repeated after mishearing her. “Then what?” he followed up, chuckling with confusion.

If you were at Che’s Saturday evening set at the auditorium, you might have spent the entirety of it plagued by one pressing question — is this guy drunk, or is this just how he rolls?

That doesn’t mean Che’s set was sloppy by any means, though he did run a few bits into the ground. He stuck to only a couple of topics; alcohol was, generally, the theme of the entire first three-quarters of Che’s set, which opened on a comparison between edibles and tequila and moved on to quips such as, “Drinking is like religion — you do it too much, and now you’re an asshole.” Occasionally mumbled deliveries aside, Che maintained an easy confidence throughout the roughly 30-minute performance.

The crux of Che’s set rested on a story that he admitted has gotten him into trouble before. A “visibly” gay man once tried to get Che to come home with him by buying Che several drinks, and Che accepted, knowing he was just using the guy for free drinks. The controversy, he explained, came over whether it was acceptable to imply that you could automatically look at someone and know that they’re gay.

Che also made friends with one front-row audience member whom he returned to regularly throughout the set, confronting him on his views on LGBTQ+ issues as well as his relationship with his girlfriend, also in attendance. But the real kicker came when Che asked the man, named Jory, where his ancestors were from — and Jory had absolutely no idea.

“When you go to the ethnic food section at the grocery store, what do you get?” Che demanded. “What spice do you connect with?”

(After a brief internet search, it looks like the name Jory has Hebrew and Scandanavian origins.)

Eventually, Che moved on from gay men in bars and booze to talk about periods. He ranted about the way girls get upset if a man asks them if they’re on their period. He clarified his point — there’s a 1 in 4 chance that he’s right in a given month, after all.  

Whether or not his point was well-made, he made another point pretty clear — he’s certainly a comedian to watch.

— Shannon O’Hara

The Lonely Island

It was fitting that Berkeley’s own Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer chose to play their first ever full-blown Lonely Island concert in the Bay Area. The performance was one of the most successful acts of the festival, with the group playing up its signature obnoxiously over-the-top brand of humor to the crowd’s delight.

The Colossal Stage was packed with audience members of all ages singing along to SNL shorts such as “Shy Ronnie” and “Ras Trent.” Nearly every song featured a costume change to match the original music videos playing on the giant screens in the background.

Highlights included a handful of high-profile guest appearances. Chris Parnell rapped his verse on “Lazy Sunday,” Michael Bolton sang on “Jack Sparrow” and T-Pain performed during “I’m On A Boat.” Unfortunately, Justin Timberlake and Lady Gaga couldn’t make it — they were replaced by a very enthusiastic Taccone wielding look-alike puppets.

Despite pulling out all the stops for nostalgic crowd-favorite hits, the Lonely Island included some new material that the audience responded to just as positively. True to their Bay Area roots, Samberg and Schaffer performed a song as Oakland Athletics players Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire, featuring Taccone as Joe Montana. The most self-indulgent song of the night was an EDM-style remix of a video of the group falling off a horse during a photo shoot — with an accompanying light show and robot horse graphics — aptly called “We Fell Off a Horse.”

The Lonely Island threaded a few running gags throughout its 90-minute set. A recurring joke throughout the night was an invitation for anyone “trying to fuck” to visit the performers at the Oakland-Emeryville location of the Extended Stay America hotel, with the specific room number and a “bad bitches only” stipulation flashing up on the screen every time a new person got up onstage. Dedicated fans who actually showed up after the show received a “very special shirt” for their trouble.

The Lonely Island might be a parody group, but the concert that the band members put on was completely earnest. Samberg, Schaffer and Taccone were able to create a special kind of unity in the crowd — people of all ages and walks of life came together that evening to sing every word of “Dick in a Box.”

— Jasmine Garnett

Amy Schumer

There are probably two types of people who populated Amy Schumer’s Saturday night set on the Colossal Stage. The first — her loyalists, the ones who see her particular brand of controversial humor as an enormous feminist victory. The second — the lookie-loos, who stood in the brisk Civic Center Plaza out of some kind of morbid curiosity, dying to know what kind of trouble Schumer might get herself into next.

Both groups likely left at least somewhat disappointed. Schumer’s set was, in a word, safe. There was nothing out of left field — an ode to tampons here, a joke about Harvey Weinstein not being attracted to her there. You could have written an algorithm, based on all of Schumer’s previous jokes, that would’ve generated this set.

Schumer spent a fair amount of time sharing her experiences as a newly married woman, and she promised the crowd that marrying a chef was the smartest decision you could make with your life. Moments such as this one weren’t not funny, but they weren’t funny either. It seems Schumer’s own worst enemy is herself — people had come expecting much hotter takes.

Ironically, Schumer spent a good amount of time talking about how regularly folks protest her sets, and she even joked about San Francisco’s obsession with protests. It’s unclear whether this was a thinly veiled acknowledgement that Clusterfest was no exception or whether Schumer was unaware of the fact that a group of sex workers had protested her set earlier that day. She made no explicit mention of the fact, though she did make time to make the exact sort of prostitute jokes that had in part motivated the protest in the first place.

This time, Schumer admitted that she wished prostitution were legalized so that she could call a prostitute to “jerk off” her father, who is confined to a wheelchair and apparently has a propensity for sexually harassing his aides. Somehow, even this moment landed somewhat tepidly.

Watching Schumer’s set was kind of like eating lettuce — it was hard to feel strongly about it one way or another. But of course, that’s arguably a good thing, and maybe our obsession with Schumer’s tendency to take it just a little too far unfairly inflated our expectations. But for anyone who was feeling underwhelmed by the performance, they were at least somewhat in luck — the night ended a full 30 minutes earlier than scheduled.

— Shannon O’Hara

John Mulaney, Nick Kroll, John Early, & Kate Berlant

John Early entered the stage with a gymnastics round off maneuver to introduce his best friend and the first opener of the evening, Kate Berlant. The pair exchanged the kind of trash talk that only good friends are allowed to do, and then Berlant proceeded with her strange and disconnected performance, holding the crowd’s attention even when she jumped sporadically from subject to subject. At one point, she asked an audience member to leave because he had “the laugh of somebody that betrayed me once.”

Early cartwheeled onstage a second time for his own set, announcing immediately that most of his high school years were wasted “pretending to like Radiohead instead of learning how to have sex with my butt.” His stand-up performance was more like an unfiltered internal monologue, full of exaggerated physicality and an overriding sarcastic tone. Berlant and Early then reunited to introduce Nick Kroll, promising in another display of friendship to “check in with one another” backstage about their respective performances.

In comparison to Berlant and Early, Kroll’s performance came across as a little outdated. Coming out onstage and kicking a stool over, Kroll proceeded to make a few jabs at the Silicon Valley audience before talking about politics. He talked about how cool Obama was and then moved on to some jokes about depression, but his abrasive tone and body language made the mental health jokes seem disingenuous. It was his impression of a coked-out partygoer that seemed to fit his fratty persona the best, and as a result, this bit got the most laughs.

Despite being labelled as co-headliners, it was obvious that the audience had been waiting through Kroll’s set to see John Mulaney. In his trademark awkwardly formal style, Mulaney announced that he was going to be mixing some old material with new jokes that night, and the audience would be able to tell by “seeing how my eyes do or do not dart around the room.” He talked about current events, saying “wherever you stand politically” before genuinely apologizing for forgetting he was performing at a West Coast comedy festival. The majority of his stand-up, however, was dedicated to telling the audience how much fun it was for him to gossip with his wife, playing up his cattiness to the crowd’s enjoyment. Mulaney ended on a high note, sharing an anecdote about his weeklong friendship with ex-NFL star Ray Lewis; the punchline somehow included Lewis explaining the entire plot of “Gladiator” and Mulaney’s show getting cancelled.

The four stand-up acts ran the gamut from surreal to safe, but Mulaney’s tried-and-true brand of self-deprecating humor left the audience completely satisfied.

— Jasmine Garnett

Jon Stewart

It’s fitting that Jon Stewart was chosen as the festival’s concluding performer, because the former host of “The Daily Show” certainly needs no introduction. Still, those accustomed to seeing Stewart cleanshaven and donning a sleek suit may not have immediately recognized the five o’clock shadow and black T-shirt that appeared before them, and Stewart knew it, too.

“This must be exciting for you — to see live Jon Stewart’s grandfather,” Stewart quipped in his opening remarks. “Yeah, I know how I look.” He then blamed his Jewish heritage; Jews, according to Stewart, age like avocados.

But Stewart certainly didn’t need a sharp aesthetic to keep his audience roaring. He had the advantage few other comedians enjoyed at Clusterfest — he didn’t have to work to earn his audience’s adoration, even at a chilly outdoor evening show.

The content of Stewart’s hour-plus set could be distilled into a central theme of political correctness — beginning with a defense of Samantha Bee’s recent comments about Ivanka Trump and a comparison of her remarks with his own past usage of ignorant language.

Interwoven into the argument was a fond reminiscing about a Twitter war that once took place between Donald Trump and Stewart after Trump accused Stewart of rejecting his Jewish heritage by changing his last name from Leibowitz to Stewart. Stewart’s response? Spreading it across the Twitterverse that Trump’s real name was “Fuckface Von Clownstick.”

“Lincoln used to get into this shit all the time,” Stewart joked of Trump’s tweeting obsession. Continuing on the topic of Trump, he mocked those who would ask, “How could we elect somebody like Trump in America?” — firing back, “Have you met America?”

It’s possible that during the lengthy political roast, there was a dip in momentum somewhere in the middle. But if you dared to zone out for even just a moment, Stewart was there to shout “slow-cook my penis” into the microphone or go on a high-energy rant about Christian holidays appealing to children more than Jewish holidays.

All jokes aside, it’s not purely Stewart’s remarkable gift for satirical humor that defines his legacy; it’s also his optimism and his ability to offer words of encouragement that feel grounded as much in wisdom as in wit. The concluding 20 minutes of his set called for stricter gun control regulation, and more importantly, he included a plea for folks to be more willing to accept accountability for their own ignorance and to educate others without judgement.

“No matter how woke you are, everybody sleeps sometimes. And we all have to wake up together, or we won’t wake up at all,” Stewart proclaimed to cheers of agreement. “Which reminds me, I bought a gun.”

— Shannon O’Hara

Shannon O’Hara covers comedy. Contact her at [email protected]. Contact Jasmine Garnett at [email protected].