After a week that saw Roseanne Barr and Samantha Bee at center stage in the American culture wars, Clusterfest, the three-day comedy-and music festival that landed in San Francisco over the weekend, was in danger of being overtaken by the debate over comedy’s role in a divisive political climate that’s increasingly fueled by outrage, anger and frustration.
And although those elephants briefly lingered in the festival’s multiple rooms, the comics in the first two days of the event preferred to focus on their own messages.
“I don’t care about politics,” Michael Che said flatly during his Saturday performance inside the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, which looked close to its 8,500-person capacity. Given his other job as “Saturday Night Live” writer, “Weekend Update” co-anchor and future co-host of the Emmys, it’s doubtful many believed him.
The line came during a casual conversational set where Che spent far more time making fun of a young couple in the front row and unpacking a joke from his recent Netflix special that some had deemed homophobic. He sounded as if he needed the break. Which, after all, is why events like Clusterfest exist.
But one aside stood out in his admission, which came while Che was describing getting into “trouble” for saying President Trump was funny after he hosted “SNL.” “Not trouble,” he quickly corrected himself. “You don’t get in trouble in comedy.”
Except in 2018, comics unmistakably do. Barr quickly lost her rebooted ABC show after a racist Twitter “joke” about a former Obama official, and “Full Frontal” host Bee has weathered directives from the White House that TBS cancel her show after she insulted Ivanka Trump (both have subsequently apologized).
Though these moments are connected chronologically, Bee’s former coworker and fellow late-night host Trevor Noah saw a clear difference.
“What was interesting to me was how people conflated issues and ideas. They went, ‘Oh, Roseanne was the same as Sam Bee,’” Noah said, speaking with The Times backstage after a Friday afternoon panel with his fellow “Daily Show” correspondents. “I was like, ‘Look, man, one white woman calling another white woman a word is not the same as a white person calling a black person an ape. We’re dealing with different issues here.’”
With an even, analytical perspective that has marked his tenure on “The Daily Show” since taking over for Jon Stewart (who was scheduled to headline Sunday), Noah considered the larger themes from the controversy.
He expressed concern about the 1st Amendment violation in an American government calling for a TV show to be taken off the air, but also how well outrage — especially on Twitter, which he seldom engages with despite his show’s pop-up Presidential Twitter Library, which was also at the festival — is tapped for political gain.
“One aspect that’s really interesting to see is how well the administration has learned to play roles of both the victim and the victimizer,” he said. “In dealing with comedy, you are dealing with a volatile element. Somebody’s always going to be ‘offended’ in some, way, shape or form. Now, are you trying to offend people? That’s not my intention.
“I would apologize if I said something that was taken the wrong way that I didn’t intend. But oftentimes, I realize people just choose to express that offense because they get to use it as a tool against an idea or against a people.”
Noah’s set that evening on the festival’s massive outdoor stage reflected a bit of a break for him as well. He offered backhanded sympathy toward Barr in examining how much racists must miss “the N word” while joking about America’s “cheap and mass-produced” racism versus the apartheid of his birth home, South Africa.
But much of his material drew from a recent vacation to Bali, serving a bit of notice that the weekend was not going to be all politics, all the time — from him or anybody else.
Just as much of a getaway was delivered in the determinedly nontopical musical comedy of the Lonely Island, a comedy trio, including Andy Samberg, that headlined Friday night. Their boisterous set included cameos by Chris Parnell, Michael Bolton and rapper T-Pain, who skipped his slot that afternoon after interminably long lines at security thinned the crowds (his set was moved to later that night).
Theirs was an agenda of silliness, even if a new song dedicated to former Oakland A’s stars Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco might have tested the vintage pop cultural reach of their young audience.
Friday’s sets by the “Daily Show” correspondents on the main stage proved one could easily find plenty of political humor at Clusterfest. But as much as Roy Wood Jr. discussed the durable pleasures of the McRib and the Street Fighter game, politics was also addressed by performers whose work hasn’t yet been so easily defined.
Maria Bamford, who recently spoke of death threats she received after she filed a restraining order against Trump in a wry stunt against his nuclear war threats, began her wonderfully odd Friday performance with a reminder. “We cannot physically kill the president of the United States,” she said, leading into a set full of animated voices and vivid phrasing, “but if someone could lead him into a bramble...”
Others seemed to relish the safe space Clusterfest provided.
“I don’t know where you guys stand politically,” Nick Kroll dryly began before talking about the Obama years, which he said now felt like a distant dream. Entering to a big ovation on the strength of a recent Netflix special, John Mulaney had to catch himself in talking about the administration’s possible colluding with Russia.
“You don’t have to rely on Russia,” he said. “You can just hate a person. I disliked [Trump] personally since the mid-’90s.” He then went on to the stranger territory of his usual material, including a long, very funny bit about his encounter with the NFL’s Ray Lewis while working on the marketing of a sports video game.
Saturday headliner Amy Schumer mixed up new material with some seen on her recent gig hosting “SNL,” but she also drew from current events with a few pointed lines about sexual assault and the #MeToo movement.
“Women mostly fear violence, and do you know what men mostly fear? Ridicule,” she said, letting the words hang for a moment in the chilly night. “That’s got to be so hard for you guys…. men, do you guys run home because you’re afraid someone’s going to make a joke about you?”
Although Clusterfest’s roots lie in music — its co-presenter, Superfly, also produces the Bonnaroo and Outside Lands festivals — its flipping music acts into opening or interstitial slots on the bill with headlining comedy still offered the escape fans seek in a concert. Though there was little dancing, the big crowds laughing across a packed Civic Center Plaza found the same release as their counterparts in Coachella’s Sahara Tent this spring.
“This is beautiful,” a beaming Tiffany Haddish said after taking a pause in her afternoon set, which was bathed in the city’s unseasonably warm sun and was bound only to the topicality of whatever crossed her mind. There was no arguing her point.