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How Clusterfest, with a lineup led by Jon Stewart, proves comedy is more relevant than rock

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The scene in San Francisco’s Civic Center Plaza, with City Hall in the background, for Clusterfest in 2017
(Joshua Withers / Superfly)

Picture a comedy venue: a dark stage, a tight maze of cafe tables and, depending upon the club, a two-drink minimum.

Now, take most of those images and set them aside for San Francisco’s Clusterfest, a smorgasbord of stand-up served with a side of music that includes headlining sets from Amy Schumer, John Mulaney, Trevor Noah and — in his biggest West Coast show in roughly 20 years — Jon Stewart.

With its poster image crowded with stars from movies and TV as well as rising talents such as Awkwafina and the oddball duo of John Early and Kate Berlant alongside artists such as the Wu-Tang Clan and T-Pain, it’s tempting to look at Clusterfest as a sort of “comedy Coachella” that offers a sort of snapshot of the form in a given year. And you wouldn’t be far off.

Debuting last year in a collaboration between Comedy Central — the network home to many of the names on the bill — and Superfly Productions, the firm behind the long-running Bonnaroo in Nashville, the rise of Clusterfest adds credence to the well-trod notion that comedy is the new rock ‘n roll. (And, not unlike the days of punk and early rock, comics remain a target of concerned politicians after this week’s insult of Ivanka Trump from “Full Frontal” host Samantha Bee.)

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“That’s been going on for a while,” says Comedy Central president Kent Alterman, who was reached on a conference call with his Clusterfest partner, Jonathan Mayer of Superfly. “We do a lot of research into our audience, and what we found was . . . they use comedy as a way of expressing their own personal identity, and how they relate to comedy and [which] comedians they relate to has overtaken music or anything else.”

Podcasts have helped feed the boom with standard-bearers such as Marc Maron’s “WTF” and Jessica Williams and Phoebe Robinson’s “2 Dope Queens” (which was adapted into a series of live shows on HBO). In Los Angeles, a revitalized Comedy Store is once again bustling night after night, and the Upright Citizens Brigade theater still draws lines around the block. Around the country, comics continue to break out of traditional clubs to play venues more often associated with music.

That includes festivals, where comedy has been a featured addition at Coachella, Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo, which for more than 10 years has featured a dedicated tent alongside its rock and pop offerings, planting the seed for Clusterfest.

“We saw the reaction that our audience was having to the comedy presentation at our music festival. We thought that there was a really exciting opportunity,” says Mayer, who looked to Comedy Central for the next step. “To be able to collaborate with them on what’s the programming, what’s the flow, the emerging talent. I think that was really critical.”

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The organizers settled on a location in San Francisco, which also hosts another Superfly co-production, the Outside Lands music festival in August. Alterman said they chose the city in part because of its long history of being hospitable to the form and its performers. “We’ve shot comedy specials up there,” he says “The people of San Francisco, they really embrace comedy in a big way, so it also seemed natural in that regard.”

Such a festival isn’t a new idea. This year, the Just for Laughs conference in Montreal will enter its 36th year with appearances by Kenya Barris of “black-ish” along with Clusterfest performers David Cross, Roy Wood Jr. and Maria Bamford. But it also tilts toward an industry focus with talent showcases for performers. In the past several years, more festivals have popped up around the country, such as the Moontower Comedy Festival in Austin, Texas; the New York Comedy Festival and the Onion’s Comedy and Arts Festival in Chicago, which continues this weekend across seven venues in the city.

“It’s a growing trend in the U.S. but [more common] in Europe, like the [Edinburgh] Fringe Festival...a massive comedy festival that’s been going on for decades,” says Reggie Watts, who will perform at Clusterfest Saturday and Sunday. “Rocky [Rachèle Benloulou-Dubin], who used to program the comedy tent at Bonnaroo, was one of the pioneers of that comedy element in a festival situation, also [in] Seattle with Bumbershoot. Now it’s a natural thing.”

TV networks have also taken notice. The comedy-tilted TruTV sponsored previous iterations of the Onion’s event, and TBS collaborated with New York’s festival, which spanned six days and multiple venues in early May. Clusterfest will also feature a number of exhibits drawn from television, including “The Daily Show’s” Donald J. Trump Presidential Twitter Library and a “South Park”-themed county fair, along with attractions tied to Netflix’s “Arrested Development” and FX’s “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.”

“We kind of took a nod from places like Comic-Con or even theme parks and how we could create the immersive environments that celebrate these loved comedy television shows or films,” said Mayer. “Last year we had Jerry Seinfeld headline, and we recreated the ‘Seinfeld’ apartment.”

Unlike most comedy festivals, Clusterfest also offers a central location for the bulk of its performances, which will take place on multiple stages in San Francisco’s Bill Graham Civic Auditorium and the nearby Civic Center Plaza. Some acts will perform multiple sets that also incorporate a few pop-up club-style venues near the festival.

For a comic, Clusterfest provides the obvious advantage of a broader platform but also an atmosphere that’s friendly for the performers, which can be more of a challenge at music festivals.

”I’m a bit of a theatrical, quiet, mumbley act, which doesn’t always lend itself to large venues where there’s a lot of stuff going on — and you’re hot, and you can hear Snoop Dogg in the background,” says Bamford, who will perform two shows Friday. “One thing I find as a comedian is, I love it to be very dark, so no one can see each other, and you’re cool, so you’re kind of more primed for laughter.”

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While industry watchers have fretted about the proliferation of high-priced music festivals, their comedy equivalent has yet to reach the rarefied air of the luxe VIP tents and private charters that characterize Coachella. A limited number of Clusterfest tickets started at $99 for single-day tickets and $199 for three-day passes; those sold out, as did more expensive VIP tickets, but $135 (one-day) and $325 (three-day) general admission tickets were still available at press time. Plus, with the cancellation of L.A.’s FYF Festival due to slow ticket sales acting as something of a canary in the coal mine for promoters, a little diversification never hurt.

“I think why we’re doing this concept is the music festival space is pretty saturated,” Mayer says. “For us, Superfly, we’re in the live entertainment business, and it’s not just the music end of it. So this has been a really great example of that.”

“I think it’s a great thing. More comedy is good, especially in these times,” says Watts. “Most people are very depressed and disappointed on all sides. So we need comedy more than ever.”

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Clusterfest

When: Fri. June 1 - Sun. June 3

Where: Bill Graham Civic Auditorium and Civic Center Plaza, San Francisco

Tickets: VIP tickets sold out; single-day general admission, $135; three-day general admission, $325

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Info: clusterfest.com

See the most-read stories in Entertainment this hour »

chris.barton@latimes.com

Follow me over here @chrisbarton.

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