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Big names, bigger laughs at Clusterfest 2019

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This year’s Clusterfest may have felt like another oft-cited cluster for many in attendance. Clusterfest organizers did their best to make this year’s experience comfortable, or at least tolerable, for attendees by moving most sets inside and out of the biting (at least by California standards) San Francisco cold. Yet the festival experienced excessive overcrowding of venues on Saturday, much to the chagrin of its thousands of guests. Nonetheless, there’s a reason people showed up, and there’s a reason that people stayed — even if it meant violating fire hazards and waiting for hours in line. The lineup had steady feet of its own, flaunting names like Leslie Jones, John Mulaney, Amy Poehler, Ilana Glazer and many more. And Clusterfest is truly a Bay Area show curated for a Bay Area audience base, reminding audiences with sets dedicated to discussions of race, sexual orientation and mental health that the line between comedy and social activism is, even at its most defined, blurry. So, for all the disappointment, Clusterfest for the most part lived up to the commendable reputation it’s earned over its past two years in the city. The Daily Californian has recapped some of the most notable — though not always the biggest — names from this year’s lineup, bringing them to you in a bundle just a bit more tidy than the unruly festival itself. 

— Ryan Tuozzolo

John Mulaney

Clusterfest / Courtesy

Recurring characters from John Mulaney’s colorful comic career were highlighted Saturday at his headlining show at Clusterfest. From his wife to his mom to his dog, staple players from Mulaney’s various specials and talk show appearances were refreshed with new jokes, emphasizing the comedian’s progression not just in his career but in his personal life as well. 

Mulaney eased the crowd into the show with a city-specific quip about revamping the San Francisco seal to be “a guy going back for his sweater.” From there, he bopped from one bit to the next, from being mistaken for the guy who plays the Flash to his wife not being able to reach the top shelf of their cabinets. 

These smaller beats got full reactions from the crowd, but a joke about Mulaney’s childhood really got the ball rolling. He talked about a time he and his friends, John and John, were pulled over by a cop. As he patted them down, the cop asked for their names, finally landing on Mulaney and saying, “Your name better not be John.” 

While Mulaney shined with his trademark rogue Catholic boy charm, it was his second opener, Sheng Wang, who seemed to incite the most hearty laughs that evening. Wang presented a monotonous set of intuitively relatable jokes that earned him a standing ovation as he exited the stage. His ruminations on lotion application had everyone cheering, and his examination of the Mounds candy bar hit home. Wang’s set raised the question of whether or not Mulaney was getting laughs because of his celebrity or the quality of his jokes. 

Those concerns were pushed aside as Mulaney closed the show with notes on Marie Kondo, Donda West and Robert Kardashian. As he talked about his plan to use a shirt from Kanye West’s Life of Pablo tour to fight off a burglar, the audience was warmed by his out-of-touch, nervous persona. 

Mulaney may be ever more famous, may even be more mature. But as he demonstrated over the weekend, he will never stop being the lanky saltine we’ve come to know and love. 

— Maisy Menzies

SeatGeek / Courtesy

Sheng Wang

Many of the comedians who performed over the course of the weekend seemed to just happen to be at every stage you went to. This boded well for audience members who were often at the mercy of the erratic shuffle from big-name act to big-name act, because odds were if you missed a favorite, you’d be able to see them later.

This also paid off for lesser-known names, who were able to harness the visibility that came with repeated exposure to both new and returning audiences. For no one did this feel more true than it did for rising star and UC Berkeley alumnus Sheng Wang.

Wang, who has written for sitcoms including ABC’s “Fresh Off the Boat,” repeatedly played to huge crowds by virtue of opening for some of the biggest headliners (including John Mulaney and Tig Notaro). Both of these shows took place in the massive Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, which was constantly filled either to or over capacity during the festival. And to conclude his run at the festival, Wang also acted as an opener of sorts for Fred Armisen on the outdoor Colossal Stage as a part of variety show “Asian AF.”

Given the magnitude of exposure Wang was given, it would serve to reason that much of his material would eventually become repeated for a large portion of his audience. Not only was this scarcely the case, but even when it was, Wang’s bits still performed incredibly well. The comedian’s sets were often unassuming, paired perfectly with his monotonous and lower-energy delivery. Parrying self-deprecation with observational comedy, Wang remained fresh, approachable and relatable. In his performance, there never appeared to be a discrepancy between shows — he didn’t ham up for the big audiences or play it down for the smaller ones. Wang was adaptable and rode the wave of the audience’s overtly positive reception with ease. Over the course of the festival, Wang proved over and over that he is definitely one to watch.

— Areyon Jolivette

Clusterfest / Courtesy

Chelsea Peretti

At the Bill Graham Stage on Saturday, one thing about Chelsea Peretti was made very clear: She can dance. 

Peretti entered the stage to Marcia Griffiths’ “Electric Boogie” and danced almost the full length of the song. Christening every corner of the stage with her eccentric hip-hop moves, the comedian set the tone for her set as incredibly confident and exceptionally goofy. 

Returning to the stage after having a baby, Peretti centered many of her jokes for the night around motherhood, and her biting remarks on pregnancy were delivered with a seasoned cadence of both annoyance and superiority. She expressed her frustration with people asking her what her due date was, her response being: “It was five months ago, should I be worried? Will you hold my hand while I call my doctor?”

Though many of her most well-received jokes revolved around her experience raising her almost 1-year-old son, Peretti did step into political territory for a bit. Peretti featured her prowess with prose by reading a poem she wrote about how Sen. Mitch McConnell’s kids hate him. And, like many of the acts over the weekend, she brought up the issue of climate change, remarking that it’s great she has a kid but that it sucks that he is going to die soon because of the growing environmental crisis. 

Peretti’s set was brimming with attitude, charisma and electrifying confidence that exceeded all audience expectations. There was no hometown pandering, no eager attempts to feign relatability. 

On that stage, Peretti was simply herself: a silly mom, an observant comedian and undeniably one of the greats. 

— Maisy Menzies

BET / Courtesy

Nicole Byer 

Nicole Byer has been floating around the world of comedy for a number of years, gaining recent traction for hosting the hit Netflix baking show “Nailed It.” As such, many arrived to Clusterfest this past weekend with a passing familiarity with Byer’s work, and one of the most notable joys of the three-day festival was that of watching them fall in love with her. From her features in live performances of Adam Pally’s“Vino Diesel” and “Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion” to her hosting of “Pouring Stories,” Byer repeatedly served up a spontaneity that felt chaotic and electric. 

And audiences enthusiastically ate it up.

Byer’s talent shone most in her appearance on “Vino Diesel,” a podcast turned live show. The event had lines queuing up half an hour prior to its start — even as headliner John Mulaney played to a humongous crowd right next door. 

Throughout the show, which featured trained sommeliers educating the barely wine-literate, there was a palpable confusion mixed into the clear excitement; no one knew quite what to expect. And over the course of the set, an unrest emerged — evidenced most clearly by the noticeable exit of a number of audience members.

In all of this uncertainty, Byer’s presence was a saving grace. Byer didn’t give the show direction as much as she harnessed its chaotic energy and channeled it into a multitude of one-off jokes and bits peppered throughout the performance. Even as “Vino Diesel” descended into absurdity, Byer’s jokes were perfectly attuned to the audience; if the show dragged, Byer would throw out an “I left my house for this” or a similarly disillusioned quip. While the show as a whole was very self-aware — nearly every member onstage commented on its lack of direction — Byer was most clued into audience reaction. 

If the show was a near train wreck, Byer was the wiley conductor steering it away from disaster. She was adaptable and so confident that it never felt like she lost the audience. She consistently had her finger right on the erratic pulse of the show, demonstrating the consistent intuitiveness that has informed her entire body of work thus far. And even on a stage with comedians like the up-and-coming Jaboukie Young-White and the seasoned Pally, Byer held audience attention and favor. 

— Areyon Jolivette

NPR / Courtesy

Tig Notaro 

Tig Notaro’s Sunday set on the Bill Graham stage killed.

Opener Sheng Wang, who had also opened for John Mulaney the night before, called himself out for initially recycling jokes — he knew no one at Clusterfest missed Mulaney. He then provided new perspectives on his set from the previous night, tackling intentionally banal topics like printers and Costco lotion and making them funny almost solely through his deadpan delivery. Todd Barry, the next opener, began his set by promising to deliver the first 20 minutes of his Netflix special and remained self-referential as he analyzed instances when certain jokes of his worked and didn’t work — an exercise in reflection that worked, overall. 

This self-referential style was merely a warmup for the queen of revisiting the same joke various times from a multitude of perspectives. On paper, Notaro’s humor shouldn’t work. The closing act of her “Happy To Be Here” tour was 10 minutes of her repeatedly introducing the Indigo Girls and apologizing when they didn’t come out. But as she described times she’d misheard key phrases in her life, conducting full-bodied reenactments of interactions — both the way she experienced them and the way she was experienced — audience members cackled with unexpected laughter. She’d similarly “forget” and mess up her jokes, then bemoan her mistakes, her tone always impeccably balanced between keeping her audience in on the joke and feigning innocence.

Notaro’s performance felt naturally improvised while being anything but. Even in her one-sided conversations with the show’s “audio engineer,” which obviously weren’t really happening, her insistence that everything happening was real and true was funny enough in itself. The cringe-inducing result of the jokes’ clear scriptedness was intentional, just as her multiple references to the many celebrities she calls friends was. Closing her set with two iconic, female-led songs uniquely repurposed, Notaro carried her momentum through the closing number’s final note, and then some: The audio engineer, whoever they may be, repeated Notaro’s final song as the house lights rose, prompting continued laughs as audience members shuffled on to the next performances. 

— Caroline Smith

NOW Magazine / Courtesy

Trixie Mattel, Katya and Peaches Christ

Two years ago, “RuPaul’s Drag Race” alumni Trixie Mattel and Katya Zamolodchikova starred in a Peaches Christ-directed performance of “Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion” in honor of the film’s 20th anniversary. Yet on the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium stage performing for Clusterfest’s Sunday lineup, the identically starred “live read” version of the film lacked much of that Castro Theatre performance’s pizazz. Only so much can be done when all performers are seated behind scripts, the format of all the installments in Clusterfest’s “live read” film series. 

To their credit, Mattel as Romy and Katya as Michele still brought to the stage three costume changes as well as the addition and removal of a spinal brace and perfectly exaggerated readings. After introducing Romy with a leopard-print dress, red leather jacket and one of the larger versions of Mattel’s signature Dolly Parton-esque blonde wigs, Mattel’s heavy leaning into the “ohs” and “ous” of Romy’s Canadian accent was described by one audience member as “spot-on.” Mattel’s audience interactions amplified laughs: When an audience member yelled out “Post-its” when Romy and Michele attempted to think of their alleged invention, Mattel continued to say that everyone knows what Post-its are, “even that fucker over there.”

Katya began the show wearing a sparkly dress and feather boa-lined jacket, nailing her delivery as the airheaded Romy. As onstage band Brickhouse performed “Time After Time,” Trixie, Katya and Matteo Lane (as Sandy Frink) combined ballet pirouettes with loose arm wiggles and gentle head caresses in a painstaking recreation of Romy and Michele’s interpretive dance. The amount of laughs and applause it received just barely surpassed the magnitude that met all of Nicole Byer’s impassioned, high-pitched lines as the affirmation-deprived Toby Walters. 

Onstage conversations between Mattel and Katya were largely limited to Romy and Michele’s scripted banter, a disappointment given that unscripted, off-topic banter is the unofficial conceit of their web series “UNHhhh.” Yet perhaps this critique is unfair — Clusterfest did, after all, provide the opportunity to watch the duo in all its off-the-cusp glory at the Drunk History Pub for karaoke. 

— Caroline Smith


Contact Maisy Menzies at [email protected]. Contact Caroline Smith at [email protected]. Contact Areyon Jolivette at [email protected].

JUNE 26, 2019