David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” rings out. Dancers decked in gold shimmer and glide across the Shrine Expo Hall stage. Spotlights splinter the blackness, radiating off a disco ball’s many surfaces. Festival Supreme is a ticket to another world, spread throughout The Shrine’s vast hall, amphitheatre and grounds. Unfolding over the course of an afternoon and evening, it offers no single unifying experience. Festival Supreme is a multiverse, rich in possibilities and alternative outcomes.
Curated by Jack Black and Kyle Gass of Tenacious D, Festival Supreme is an annual one day music and comedy extravaganza, with Saturday 29 October being the festival’s fourth iteration. The atmosphere is charged with community. Every other festival-goer dons a costume, whether a superhero outfit or an original creation. Many have riffed on this year’s space theme, and Ziggy Stardust flashes abound.
On the Omega Stage located at the Shrine grounds, Eric Andre plays the host of a fictional TV chat show, a live rendition of Adult Swim’s “The Eric Andre Show.” It’s incredibly frenetic, with Andre launching cabbages into the crowd, and then himself. His zap of hair bobs within the sea of people. Short, aggressive video clips intercut his mock TV host act. Away from the main stage, there are food trucks, a fun slide, and a fairground ride for those who want to make instant room for another trip to the food trucks. That’s why Andre’s act is so breathless: there are too many other enticing distractions. He does well to retain a large audience throughout his performance.
Festivals are fitful affairs. You take in snippets of the acts, ducking out early or joining in late. As a result, you have that strange sensation of missing out while simultaneously partaking. Around five thousand fans mill about The Shrine, hopping between the three stages and various on-site attractions, such as 3D print exhibitions and intergalactic make-up stalls. Even though Festival Supreme is relatively self-contained, this intermittent, fractured nature is why music is more suited than comedy to the festival setting. It’s easier to listen to a song that’s half-way through than to grasp onto the thread of a routine hurtling towards a punchline.
For comedians, the audience’s ease of movement is not ideal. Comedians usually thrive within the claustrophobic, windowless box rooms of comedy clubs. The late, great Mitch Hedberg once said, “Comedy clubs have brick walls behind the performer. Bricks make you funny. When I’m in front of a fireplace, I’m hilarious.” He wasn’t wrong, comedy works best in a trapped environment. In the open air, laughter has the tendency to dissipate. When the audience can go elsewhere, the comedian is not on sturdy ground. But Festival Supreme is second to none when it comes to attracting top comedic talent. In years gone by, Reggie Watts, Amy Poehler and even a Python, Eric Idle, have performed under its banner–comedians of a caliber you don’t walk away from lightly.
Unfortunately, the afternoon is slow, with Jenny Slate one of the few engaging performers playing the Crab Nebula stage in The Shrine Auditorium. Both Maya Rudolph and Will Forte, former members of the SNL roster, spend too long mimicking singers Patti LaBelle and James Ingram respectively. Half-way through his set, Forte admits he didn’t know how he was going to fill his time and the performance confirms the confession. Two talented sketch artists without a great sketch in sight.
The festival really kicks into gear when Sarah Silverman steps onto the Crab Nebula stage. She’s a consummate performer and it’s a pleasure to see a comedian so assured in her abilities. Material about laser hair removal and dogs, trivial in the hands of another performer, is stinging and hilarious when rendered through her particular prism, which is playful in the face of despair. When taking in Silverman’s act, it’s easy to conclude that life is both meaningless and hopeless so it’s a good job there are plenty of laughs along the way.
Not everyone in the crowd is willing to let Silverman hit her groove. The briefest gap in her routine is filled by a heckle disguised as a compliment, “We love you!” Silverman is unfazed but clearly a little irked. What’s the best possible outcome of these inane outbursts? Silverman hands them the mic? She becomes their best friend? For the next Festival Supreme, some people need to adopt the alter-ego of a decent person with manners. Now that’s an elaborate costume.
Following Silverman, Jack Black introduces the stand-up comedian Patton Oswalt. Oswalt’s riffs on purchasing pants and spending Christmas in L.A. are classic. But his performance reaches new heights when he talks about the loss of his wife, the writer Michelle McNamara, in a way that is both poignant and side-splitting. Only six months on from her death, Oswalt shares details about his imperfect adjustment to life as a widower and a single father. His attempted graveyard heart-to-heart with Michelle is scuppered, so too is his effort to distract his daughter Alice from the inevitable grief of Mother’s Day.
In his 2009 special “My Weakness Is Strong”, Oswalt lampooned the idea that the gaffe-filled Bush presidency was a gift for comedians. That, as a never-ending source of mirth, the George W. Bush tenure was worth the pain it caused around the world. “I’ll happily give back the 15 minutes of ‘our president’s a sociopath who can’t speak and believes in angels’ material I wrote if we WEREN’T TORTURING PEOPLE ANYMORE.” No doubt Oswalt feels the same way toward his material about the mourning process. The prudish (and mistaken) might accuse Oswalt of being a grief merchant, but beneath each anecdote about life after his wife is his underlying pain and the wish that there was no grief to be dealt in. It is the reality he is living with and he mines it with searing insight. An hour passes. Oswalt’s performance is so candid that even the hecklers are stilled. Nobody leaves early to catch the last of “Weird Al” Yankovic’s set going on outside.
The night ends on a high thanks to Flight of the Conchords on the Omega Stage. With no more schedule clashes, the Festival Supreme crowd is finally gathered in one place to watch New Zealand’s self-described “most populous band” (they have two members, Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement). The pair play classic tracks like “Business Time” and “The Most Beautiful Girl (In The Room)” as well as newer songs, such as “Father and Son”, a droll take on the Cat Stevens song of the same name. Most affecting however is the rendition of “Bowie”, a tongue-in-cheek tribute to the pop musician and counter culture chameleon. In the year of David Bowie’s death, this freaky medley becomes an emotive homage. It’s the crowning moment of the day, threading together everyone’s disparate festival experiences. This is the contraction before the Big Bang: everyone heads home to their realities and Festival Supreme disintegrates for another year.
A different version of this review was published at Annenberg Media