The Barbary at Outside Lands isn’t exactly the place for conventionally “cool” festival attendees, the ones raising meme-bearing poles and sweatily sharing blunts at Major Lazer. The comedy tent, which was curated in conjunction with SF Sketchfest, brings together the folks who discuss the Broadway transfer of “Oh, Hello” and the brilliance of Kate McKinnon while they wait an hour and a half in line for Fred Armisen.
The makeshift comedy club — with the interior of a “Prince palace,” according to Armisen — was a safe haven from the ruckus outside, where you can’t tell Karl the Fog from assorted fumes. During his Friday set, headliner John Mulaney drew attention to the muffled sounds of the musicians outside. “That’s the kind of confidence none of us have,” Mulaney joked.
These are people who chose to be enclosed by the intimacy of a 475-seat tent instead of rubbing up against thousands of rowdy concertgoers, after all.
Oakland native Moshe Kasher — a slick-haired, Wayfarer-wearing guy who looks like a byproduct of coffee-shop culture — opened the live recording of his “Hound Tall Discussion Series” podcast by asking how the audience felt about cultural appropriation. And the room fell silent.
Outside Lands audiences will show up for J. Cole and Vince Staples’ sets but one mention of cultural appropriation and you’ve almost lost your audience for the whole weekend. Apparently engaging with the issues behind the art is tough, especially when a comic is approaching you with them face-to-face. “Hound Tall” panelist Kaseem Bentley called the room out on its stiffness. “Y’all need to loosen up,” he said.
To make matters worse, Kasher interviewed Fillmore Slim, San Francisco blues musician and noted former pimp. During the Q&A session for “Hound Tall,” a woman asked Slim, “Yeah, I was wondering if you could define the word ‘misogyny’?” Wasn’t this supposed to be a lighthearted Q&A?
During Kasher’s Saturday set following John Early, he made a joke involving a 1940s segregated bar, which was met with groans. Swiftly, he responded, “I want to apologize for the historical accuracy of that joke.” Natasha Leggero, who toured with Kasher earlier this summer on their “Honeymoon Tour,” also called out the audience during her Saturday set, asking “Am I offending people? I thought I’d cut too close, San Francisco.” Lots of jokes cut too close last weekend, it seemed.
The disparity between audience and comic even got the best of Mulaney, who’s known for his smart, innocently self-effacing comedy. The comedian was meandering and fidgety after he realized jokes — bits about Nazis and playful digs at his wife, for example — weren’t working. With the line for his show stretching from the far end of Lindley Meadow to the giant Ranger Dave statue at the festival entrance, it was assumed that he’d get a universally warm reception. Instead, Mulaney got his biggest laughs from old Donald Trump material, a subject everyone in the room could agree upon.
Success came from those who stuck to topics that were less risky with the Outside Lands crowd. A refreshingly flamboyant John Early, equipped with an “elegant, artful, but still populous” brand of comedy, killed with a spot-on Britney Spears impression. Sasheer Zamata from “Saturday Night Live” and her best friend, comedian Nicole Byer, performed improvised sketches based on a pair of college students they interviewed. Beth Stelling described an incident involving her father and 73 backyard raccoons during her pre-“Goddamn Comedy Jam” set.
The Outside Lands crowd just wanted ridiculous fun. That’s what the whole weekend was anyway: endless recreation. Hard-hitting comedy, unfortunately, didn’t have a place at a festival of flower crowns and bandanas. Granted, most attendees bought festival tickets primarily for the music, but seeing the huge talents at the Barbary play second banana all weekend was hard to watch.
At least Sunday’s headliner Fred Armisen adhered to the standards of the festival crowd. Armisen’s trademark rambling humor, impressions and Ian Rubbish songs were immediately familiar.
As Armisen is a musician himself, he was more in touch with what would appeal to the audience at a music festival. He knew not to introduce heavy subject matter and to center his set around musical antics. He performed impressions of when you listen to specific genres of music. (Ever listen to jazz and then suddenly become aware that you’re listening to jazz?) Then, sharing the stage with Bay Area musician Bob Mould, played drums and guitar, even launching into songs from his “SNL” days as Ian Rubbish. The Ian Rubbish and the Bizarros tune “It’s a Lovely Day” even turned into a swaying singalong by the end of Armisen’s set.
The audience mostly came to Golden Gate Park for music, and beneath the purple drapes of the Barbary got a crowd-pleasing, alternative taste of it from an “SNL” character — named Rubbish, no less.