6 Things That Made Us Laugh (and Cry) at Clusterfest 2018

Article by: Mia Quagliarello|@miaq

Tue June 05, 2018 | 16:20 PM

Music festivals are great and all, but the future feels like Clusterfest. Now in its second year, the San Francisco comedy-and-music showcase blows open the opportunities for curatorial greatness and exploits a thing that should be exploited by more people more often: laughter.

Granted, the Comedy Central-powered festival had us at the sheer fact that this was not the same collection of predictable acts you see making the circuit this summer. Salt-N-Pepa followed by Tiffany Haddish? David Cross with a side of Wu-Tang Clan? Cut Chemist sandwiched by Nick Kroll, John Mulaney and The Lonely Island’s concert debut? It’s wasn’t just different; it was delicious.

Well, mostly delicious. Clusterfest is still a gangly toddler, after all, and glitches abounded—from long lines to the world’s flakiest festival schedule—testing attendees’ resolve at being able to laugh at anything.

Here’s what made us laugh (and cry) this year...


A First, a Majestic Return, and the Arrival of Michael Che

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John Stewart. Photo by: Clusterfest by FilmMagic.com

Let’s start with the lineup, which was as stacked as Hans & Franz. Headliners not only represented the biggest names in the biz—Trevor Noah, Amy Schumer, John Mulaney, Tiffany Haddish, Nick Kroll—but some major milestones, too. It was Lonely Island’s first-ever concert performance, and it was fun, catchy, and terribly silly, with cameos from Chris Parnell, Michael Bolton and T-Pain.

But nothing could eclipse Jon Stewart’s majestic return to stand-up. “You know the saying ‘black don’t crack’? Jews age like avocados,” he joked of his own graying appearance before launching into a whip-smart set that had the entire Civic Center plaza hanging on his every word.

It was also a seminal moment for Saturday Night Live Weekend Update’s Michael Che. Che delivered two sets in an at-capacity 8,500-person arena. His first was almost entirely improvised as Che messed with some 16-year-olds in the front row. How anyone can ditch their material in favor of off-the-cuff banter that still manages to get everyone chortling is the sign of some raw effing talent.

It Bears Repeating: So. Much. Freakin’. Talent.

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Reggie Watts. Photo by: Clusterfest by FilmMagic.com

Despite the big names on the bill, one of the best things about Clusterfest was discovering new voices and feeling like *you* were the scout uncovering their genius for the first time. Daily Show Correspondent Dulcé Sloan, who received a standing ovation on Saturday evening, made us feel that way, as did Kate Berlant, Rachel Feinstein and Mia Jackson. And a special shoutout to weird-and-wonderful Reggie Watts, who mixed up music and comedy in a single act in the most awesome (and offbeat) way.

Political Jokes...Just the Tip

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Maria Bamford. Photo by: Clusterfest by FilmMagic.com

Naturally, politics played prominently as a theme—“We cannot physically kill the president of the United States,” said Maria Bamford, “but if someone could lead him into a bramble...”—but it didn’t overpower comedians’ narratives anymore than, say, #MeToo or butt sex. The escape at Clusterfest was dropping into someone’s life, warts and all, and experiencing the zeitgeist of what is happening right now in our messy culture. “Make the white man squirm” could have been a tagline, though someone like Jon Stewart flat-out owned his stuff, as he confronted criticism from 2010 that he didn’t employ enough women on his show. Then he turned the crowd on itself for a teaching moment: “What do you do? How’s your iPhone? How’s that made? How’s your chicken sandwich? All I’m saying is, no matter how ‘woke’ you are, everybody sleeps sometime. And we have to wake up together, or we don’t wake up at all.


In-your-face Homelessness and Comedy Don’t Really Mix

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It was hard to reconcile what was happening within the confines of the cushy festival with the activity just beyond its fences. San Francisco’s ever-worsening problems of homelessness, mental illness and drug addiction formed a ring around the perimeter, a gauntlet to jump through before luxuriating in comedy that was sometimes at the expense of those very people. “Your homeless are much nicer than the ones in New York,” said Che in the very first routine I heard upon entering the festival on Friday evening. Every time the crowd laughed at a homeless joke, San Francisco’s class chasm felt like it cracked ever wider, and that didn’t seem funny at all.

Also Not Exactly Hilarious: Long Lines and Loosey-Goosey Scheduling

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After homelessness, it’s hard to complain about much, so file these under #firstworldfestivalproblems, but the line to get in was a buzzkill for fans eager to get their laugh on. New “no bag” security rules requiring clear backpacks seriously slowed things down—so much so that T-Pain, originally slated to play on Friday around the start of the festival, refused to play because there were so few people in attendance. (Organizers moved him to 11:30 pm, after the festival was slated to end, when he finally got the reception he deserved.) Salt-N-Pepa were 45 minutes late to start, Amy Schumer ended her set early, Jon Stewart ran past the festival’s end, and a few schedule shuffles were generally baffling for people trying to plan ahead. And forget about getting into some of the more intimate venues—long lines screamed “stay away.”

SF Summer Festival?

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Pack your parka. The weather was beautiful...while the sun was out. But the second night fell, John Mulaney’s tried and tested joke never felt truer: “The seal of San Francisco should be a guy going back to get his jacket.” Brrr. Luckily, there were a lot of laughs to keep the core warm.