Social media was abuzz this weekend about how this year’s Clusterfest in San Francisco was a “disaster.” At one point the hashtag ”#clusterfyre” was trending on Twitter. Can you really call it the comedy equivalent to the Fyre Festival when the comedians scheduled to perform actually did get up on stage, though?
Festival organizers moved the main stage inside to the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, with a capacity of 8,500 people. Last year’s edition had an outdoor main stage, allowing for far more audience members to attend the headlining sets at once. In particular, Saturday’s lines to get into the Bill Graham Auditorium for John Mulaney got so long people started sitting on stairs and sidewalks in hopes of getting in.
As one man told CBS’s San Francisco affiliate, “I have not seen a single act. I’ve been in line four and a half hours.” Another stated, “I spent $150. I expected to get in everywhere. I thought I was buying a ticket to all of the events. I’ve had to wait in line the entire time.” It’s a truly heartbreaking situation. Spending that kind of money, only to not see a single performer, must sting. But it’s a self-inflicted injury.
While these people were waiting for John Mulaney, an entire comedy festival was happening nearby. There were three other stages and a pub running entertainment. This is why the news this week was so frustrating to read about. Clusterfest wasn’t a disaster; when audience members weren’t able to see the big name they wanted to see, they made the choice to not go see something else.
I have empathy for the person who paid $150 for an all-access Clusterfest pass and didn’t get to see John Mulaney. But as a comedian and attendee of comedy festivals all around the country, big and small, I have to ask… why didn’t you just go see something else?
During the first John Mulaney show this weekend you could have gone to see Courtney Barnett play live. You could have seen Comedy Central’s Up Next showcase featuring the next wave of comedians they’re pushing. There was a live podcast about jokes with Anthony Jeselnik and a screening of unseen Drunk History stories.
Reportedly only the first Mulaney show was packed beyond capacity, with the second late show having seats available. Some Twitter users have said that’s just because people got fed up and eventually left the line. My question is, why wouldn’t you leave sooner? When it became abundantly clear you couldn’t get into the John Mulaney show, why would you keep waiting?
Here’s the dirty secret of comedy festivals: there’s a decent chance you might not be able to see a big headliner if you don’t show up early. Even with reservation systems, unless you have a hard ticket for a specific seat, capacity is king. But here’s another secret of comedy festivals: other comedians are also good.
There’s no excuse standing in line for hours and not watching something, especially at a festival like Clusterfest, which is curated by Comedy Central and used to showcase the future of comedy as much as it is its current heights. No matter what show you walk into, it would be more entertaining than standing in line. I’d put money down on that, if I had any money.
Here’s my suggestion for people who read the stories about “what went wrong” at Clusterfest who question if they should go to a comedy festival: don’t go for one person. While comedy festivals use headliners to sell tickets and seeing a headliner is exciting, headliners aren’t the most exciting part of a festival. The most exciting part of a comedy festival is immersing yourself in comedy—just letting go and trusting that each show is a curated experience.
The fastest way to have a bad time in an environment where beer costs over $10 and you’re surrounded by people is to stop experiencing things. Seeing something you’ve been looking forward to feels great. But so does experiencing something you didn’t know you were going to love.
Going to non-headliner shows at festivals is how I discovered comics like Phoebe Robinson, Solomon Georgio, Allen Strickland Williams, The Grawlix, and more. Accepting you can’t get into the main room isn’t accepting defeat, it’s embracing the potential of what could be.
Anyone who is big enough to headline a comedy festival like Clusterfest will be back. Short of a tragedy, you will have the chance to see your favorite comedian again. But you won’t be able to relive a day standing in line, while a festival happens around you.
So take my advice. If you go to a comedy festival, go with an open heart. Make a list of the comics you want to see the most, but accept that anyone who is there is there for a reason. More often than not, the reason they’re there is because they’re funny. John Mulaney is a brilliant comedian, who will go down as one of the best of our modern era. But he’s not worth standing in line for hours and missing other shows for when you have options. Take a risk on someone you might not know. Perhaps you’ll miss out on discovering the next John Mulaney while you’re waiting in line, not laughing.
John-Michael Bond is Paste’s assistant comedy editor. He’s on Twitter @BondJohnBond.