Clusterfest organizer Chris Sampson offers detailed look at coordinating upcoming comedy festival

Illustration of Chris Sampson
Ariel Lung/Senior Staff

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If you’ve been involved in the festival scene in any capacity, it’s likely you’ve heard the names Outside Lands and Bonnaroo, two massive music festivals that have seen huge headliners and even huger turnouts. But you may not have heard of Superfly, the team behind them.

This June, in addition to gearing up for the Bay Area’s Outside Lands, Superfly is putting on Clusterfest, a massive three-day comedy and music festival. The festival promises that its third year will be its biggest yet, featuring headliners including Amy Poehler and John Mulaney. In a conversation with The Daily Californian, Chris Sampson, executive vice president of programming for Superfly, explained all of the work that goes into building a festival as unique as Clusterfest.

“I was involved and helped along the programming at festivals like Outside Lands and Bonnaroo, and really felt that there was room in the marketplace for a festival that focused on comedy that was treated more like a music festival,” Sampson said. He went on to cite events such as the Moontower Comedy Festival and Just for Laughs as examples of what Clusterfest was hoping to achieve.

Clusterfest proved to be a different beast from its conception, derived from a relationship struck with Comedy Central through a partnership for Bonnaroo. The two teams went on to flesh out the concept and what they hoped to achieve with the new festival. In June 2017, Clusterfest was born.

The festival is set to draw crowds with its stellar lineup. Audiences can expect to see heavy hitters such as Issa Rae and Kumail Nanjiani, as well as musicians like Courtney Barnett — all examples of the work done to strike the perfect balance between music and comedy. Since the festival’s beginning, each year has seen music scaled back a bit more, resulting in what Sampson hopes is the ideal balance.

With this commitment to bringing comedy and music excellence alike to its audience, the festival offers a one-of-a-kind opportunity. Sampson stated, “Just having our fans being able to have access to see that great talent at the festival is really exciting.”

Like many festivals, Clusterfest doesn’t operate around a motivating theme. Rather, the team at Superfly finds itself motivated to outdo its work in years prior. “I think every year, you want to have the best talent that you can find, and I think we’re lucky that we’ve built a brand based over the last two years where the talent that has been there have talked to their friends — talked to their team — to say, ‘Hey, I had such a great time at Clusterfest; you should really consider it.’ ”

As well as attempting to build off of successes of the past, the organizers of the event were committed to diversifying the kind of content represented at the festival. This year has seen an increase in the presence of podcasts, with Sunday set to include a performance of popular podcast “My Favorite Murder.”  

This year, the festival also includes a new feature for audiences to partake in on Sunday: brunch specials! Sampson highlighted the culinary options as an exciting way for audiences to get together with friends before seeing a show.  

This diversity of events is evidence that a festival of this nature is wrought with moving parts. Sampson didn’t hesitate to draw attention to the often unsung heroes of the festival, stating: “I have so much respect for, and really think the ultimate reason why I get to work at a company like Superfly is, our operations team. You can create something really special, but once those people get there, if they don’t have a good experience, it’s really tough to keep on doing it.”

Be it deciding where people should line up or figuring out how much shade should be made available to guests, the team’s efforts to foster a successful event received compliments from Sampson.

Regarding the other end of coordinating, Sampson explained that much of the heavy lifting for programming next year’s show happens almost immediately after the current one ends. Sampson said it isn’t only a matter of recruiting talent and headliners, but also coordinating with the city of San Francisco and performance venues.

Sampson concluded the interview by offering a tip for navigating the festival and digging beyond its most prominent events. “Try and discover, because the headliners, you know you love them, you know you want to see them. But I would say, dig into those names in the middle that you may not be aware of.”

Clusterfest will take place June 21-23 at Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco.

Contact Areyon Jolivette at [email protected].