Stand-up comedians generally frown upon shows that have them performing outside and in the daylight.
But Funny or Die’s Oddball Comedy and Curiosity Festival, now in its third summer run of dates across North America, offers just that to lure aspiring comics to its second stage. Not that the mainstage, which starts up just shy of sunset, doesn’t present its own set of challenges for the funny men and women onstage. Just ask Dave Chappelle, who faced off with, then walked away from the faces of a hostile crowd in Hartford two summers ago. Then again, don’t ask him. Know instead that Chappelle returned to Hartford last year, rather triumphantly.
Sometimes, though, the heckling comes from Mother Nature’s smaller creatures.
In quiet moments last Saturday night outside at PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel, N.J., it got quiet enough to hear crickets.
“Please tell me you could hear that, too!” Amy Schumer asked the audience of about 17,000 in central New Jersey. “That’s like a comic’s worst nightmare…actual crickets.”
This was far from that, however. Rather, the Oddball crowds sit with rapt attention when they’re not busy laughing at Schumer’s jokes and anecdotes. “I have had quite the year,” Schumer said, opening her performances over Labor Day Weekend. “I am newly famous.” She’s also newly close friends with Jennifer Lawrence, so her nightmares now exist mostly in her head, worry about hanging “with the best possible version of yourself” and seeing something different in the eyes and lenses of the paparazzi. Or joking about how she didn’t even make $1 million from the $100 million that the movie she wrote and stars in, Trainwreck, has earned at the box-office this summer.
But 2015 clearly is Schumer’s year.
She co-headlines the 2015 Oddball Fest with Aziz Ansari, but she was the first and only of any of Saturday night’s performers to generate a sustained standing ovation upon walking onstage.
A few hours earlier, the second stage opens up — in New Jersey, set up in a fenced-off section of the parking lot framed by giveaways and tents for each of the festival’s corporate sponsors. Big Jay Oakerson hosts and headlines “The Redds Apple Ale Festival Stage” from about 5-6:30 p.m., hoping to captivate concertgoers as soon as they’ve entered the gates but before they’ve settled into their amphitheater seats for the mainstage show at 7.
Who books that?
The proverbial half-jokingly asked question has a more complicated answer, it seems. Live Nation books some of the performers, seeking to give each tour stop a distinctively local flair. Some comedians told me they got their opening slot vouched by one of the other performers. Others, I’m not entirely sure. Show business! Regardless, the second stage provides an opportunity for some additional local or regional comedians to get a credit and 10-15 or 20 minutes of time before a larger captive audience than they’re accustomed to. Even if, unfortunately for one of Saturday’s performers, loud music from the amphitheater suddenly and rudely interrupted her performance, awkwardly filling in the silence between jokes. Oakerson made sure to make note of how unfair that had to have been.
Oakerson’s never one to avoid a tense situation, and yet, it still felt jarring to see him explain to hundreds of standing-room-only audience members in a parking lot on a Saturday afternoon how and why he and his fellow “Legion of Skanks” comedian Luis J. Gomez can’t go gay for each other.
Jeff Ross had the amphitheater audience involved from the get-go, hosting and roasting audience members who volunteered for the privilege of impromptu insults from the “Roastmaster General.”
Oddball’s set-up sets up for a live comedy marathon of back-to-back-to-back proportions, with the mainstage offering up an intermission between hours from four different all-star stand-ups. At the Holmdel stop, the first half of the evening lineup featured Todd Barry, Jay Pharoah, Michael Che and Jim Norton, followed in the second half by Anthony Jeselnik, Nick Kroll, Schumer and Ansari.
Donald Trump loomed large as a target for jokes, not only because he continues to troll the news headlines but also because of how much he looms over New Jersey (he had owned multiple hotels and casinos in Atlantic City, one of which closed last year, the other barely staying open through bankruptcy thanks to a union agreement). Norton joked how much Trump “is making Chris Christie look like a pussy,” which went over like gangbusters in Jersey. Caitlyn Jenner remains a hot topic, too, for comedians, although Norton makes it work in a way most stand-ups cannot by relating his own sexual history with transgendered women.
Michael Che has Trump jokes aplenty, already ripe for picking once he returns to the Weekend Update desk at Saturday Night Live. In even brighter news, perhaps, I can report that Che has developed much savvier, well-rounded thoughts on that catcalling video that got him into such hot water in social media. Che has turned the joke away from his own perspective and onto Harlem, site of some of the catcalling gotcha video, instead. “Harlem has gotten so much better!” Che jokes. “Used to be you couldn’t walk in Harlem for 10 hours, and still have a video camera.”
Pharoah has worked on a new Kevin Hart impersonation during his summer break from SNL, and also relays a story to audiences now about meeting another of his comedic voice role models, Eddie Murphy (introduced to him by Louis C.K., perhaps at SNL40 this February?).
Comedians joining the tour for various stops also include Ashley Barnhill, Bridget Everett, Dave Attell, John Mulaney, Nick Thune, Nikki Glaser , Rachel Feinstein, Rory Scovel, Sebastian Maniscalco, Tim Minchin, and T.J. Miller.
Here’s a highlight from an earlier stop along the Oddball tour, featuring Bridget Everett singing to and atop of an audience member:
A portion of the crowd left after Schumer, which may have had as much to do with show fatigue and the end of six hours of drinking in the sun and laughing through the night, than it had to with their preferences for one headliner over the other.
Ansari kept the grand majority grandly entertained and engaged past 11 p.m. with tales about relationships, including his own with his girlfriend of two years.
Funny or Die’s Oddball Comedy and Curiosity Festival performs in Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Jersey again this weekend, with tour stops resuming in October on weekends in Florida, Georgia, California and Texas through Oct. 18., 2015.