On Monday, July 23, beloved Mission District comedian Chris Garcia had one last hurrah at the San Francisco Punch Line comedy club. He’d decided to move to Los Angeles ostensibly for career reasons — “I’ve noticed a serious shortage of multitalented, big-hearted, and brash snaggle-toothed Cubans represented in Hollywood,” Garcia joked in an email — though in reality, he wants to care for his ailing father. That became apparent during the comedian’s fierce ninety-minute set, which started off with a few familiar quips but quickly devolved into unscripted personal anecdotes. His friends and acquaintances packed every seat in the 180-capacity room. Bobcat Goldthwait and Robin Williams opened. Garcia killed.
And now he’s back for Outside Lands this weekend, performing Friday with Marcus Monroe, David Cross, and Michelle Buteau. That’s a sign that Garcia has real stature in the comedy world — Cross, who had recurring roles on HBO’s Mr. Show and Fox’s Arrested Development, and who dropped a 2010 stand-up album on Sub Pop, is certainly no minor player. But it also shows that Outside Lands is really extending its curatorial muscle to the comedy realm. Last year it debuted The Barbary, a circus tent harboring a full lineup of stand-up acts and variety shows. This year the festival partnered with Adult Swim and SF Sketchfest to bring in more A-list acts — not only Cross, but also How I Met Your Mother star Neil Patrick Harris and reigning king of solo performance Reggie Watts. To festival spokesman Ken Weinstein, that’s a coup. It’s also essential to the rebranding of Outside Lands, which envisions itself as an all-inclusive arts festival, as well as a wall-to-wall concert.
This year, Rocky Benloulou-Dubin, who handles the comedy programming at Bonnaroo Festival (another creation of Outside Lands co-producer Superfly Presents), quarterbacked the lineups on Friday. It’s mostly centered on stand-up, albeit with adventurous and absurdist comedians: Garcia often performs songs in Spanish and Spanglish on guitar; Marcus Monroe juggles machetes and flaming torches while riding a unicycle; Cross will hopefully defend his much-maligned collaboration with Alvin and the Chipmunks — again.
SF Sketchfest steered the Saturday and Sunday lineups, partnering on Saturday with small podcast-turned-pop culture empire Nerdist Industries — which was acquired by media titan Legendary Entertainment a few weeks ago — and on Sunday with the TV network Adult Swim. Not surprisingly, it’s a little hard to delineate between “curation” and unabashed branding in both cases. For the Saturday bill, Nerdist repurposed a show it’s developing for YouTube with Neil Patrick Harris and the Henson Alternative Miskreant Puppets — i.e., the edgier counterparts to The Muppets. It also booked showcases with Harris, Watts, rising star Jonah Ray, and local yuckster Caitlin Gill, plus a yacht rock band called Mustache Harbor and Justin Willman’s Magic Meltdown.
Sunday features such Adult Swim shows as You Made It Weird and Delocated Witness Protection Program (a minor-celebrity talk show in which host Jon Glaser wears a ski mask and speaks through one of those voice-alteration machines). It will also include a staged rendition of The Eric Andre Show, another talk-show spoof in which hosts Eric Andre and Hannibal Buress pepper their guests with insipid questions (of the “So, do you like stuff?” variety), designed to make everyone feel as uncomfortable as possible.
Such additions to The Barbary show clear-cut ambition on the part of Outside Lands’ organizers, as well as their keen understanding of pop culture. Andre and Glaser’s shows belong with a spate of new sketch comedies that cannibalize the traditional talk-show format — New York Times critic Jason Zinoman dubbed it the “anti-talk show” trend. Outside Lands curators also recognized the importance of interspersing one-guy-at-a-microphone stand-up with flashier performance art, which appears to be enjoying its own resurgence. Watts, who has made his name combining free-associative comedy with beatboxing and improvised loop pedal compositions, is largely responsible for yanking the form back to its vaudeville roots; Monroe’s juggling act and Willman’s magic show take that conceit one step further. All of them have many imitators.
With all those frills added to a smattering of tent-pole headliners, The Barbary is almost a festival unto itself. It’s a great leap from last year’s billing, which featured local favorites like Moshe Kasher and Ali Wong, in addition to podcast host Paul F. Tompkins. This year’s Barbary is not only bigger, but also trendier, and much more conscious of new media. And with all that said, it’ll still give San Francisco’s favorite big-hearted Cuban his due.