Festival Supreme 2015 Review: From Worst to Best

The music was a little rough, but we’re still tired from laughing so hard.

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Photography by Philip Cosores

Most people are familiar with the “Yes, And” rule of improv comedy, which prompts one to simply accept what is happening and try to go along with it. This makes sense within the context of an improvised scene, during which performers don’t always get to choose the material they’re presented with, but it’s also a good guideline to heed as an audience member at Festival Supreme.

Now in its third year, the comedy extravaganza — curated entirely by Jack Black and Kyle Gass of Tenacious D and held at Los Angeles’ Shrine Expo Hall & Grounds — remains a wildcard on the festival circuit. You can count on Black exercising his Hollywood clout to create a lineup stacked with big names like Amy Poehler, Kristen Schaal, and Henry Rollins, but you can’t possibly predict what any of those people are actually going to do. Your best bet is to keep an open mind — to smile and say “Yes, And” when Aubrey Plaza runs out dressed like a Latina diva. Or when Charlyne Yi ditches the jokes for a set of depressing indie folk. Or when Tenacious D play 29 minutes of non-stop jazz. You get the idea.

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After all, most of these people don’t need to be here. Their careers don’t depend on it, so they fill their time with weird experiments that may or may not achieve liftoff. This is how Poehler can show up, sing a Bette Midler song, and exit the stage 10 minutes later to thunderous applause. It’s also how Rollins can grab the mic and slip into a story about pretty much anything he wants, like that time he acted in a children’s movie or opened for Ozzy Osbourne in Florida.

Such moments can be disarming or disappointing to fans who expect more for their money, but they’re also the stuff comedy needs to thrive. Because comedy at its best — be it sketch, standup, or improv — is a laboratory of ideas, and not every idea is destined to elicit laughs. Festival Supreme is a day-long roller coaster in terms of quality, but it’s also a refreshing alternative to the kinds of festivals that run like clockwork, where most bands just play the hits and the outcome feels more or less preordained.

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Speaking of bands, that’s the one area where Festival Supreme could stand to see some heavier tweaks in the future. Black and Gass have always been interested in exploring the intersection between music and comedy, but they’ve yet to find the address where the two line up seamlessly. Dan Deacon and Andrew W.K. make sense in the context of a comedy festival, but surely there are better headliners to be had than The Darkness and Die Antwoord, both of which skirt awkwardly between intentional and unintentional humor. If Festival Supreme can find a way to inject some more excitement into the very top of its lineup, this will be an event people talk about in LA and elsewhere for years to come.

Consequence of Sound was on the scene at the Shrine last Saturday, and we’re still tired from laughing so hard. But not so tired that we can’t report on the worst and best of what we saw. The good news is that some of our favorite acts (ahem, Morgan Murphy) were buried at the bottom of the lineup, giving us hope that they’ll ascend to headliner status in the years to come. We’ll be watching and weighing in, but for now it’s time to rank this year’s batch of weirdos. Go ahead. Laugh it up.

–Collin Brennan
Senior Staff Writer

DAN HARMON

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Dan Harmon burst onto the stage with his trusty bottle of Ketel One Vodka to deliver a freewheeling, scattershot set plagued by sound troubles and personal tragedies. Harmon was one of the first performers of the day, meaning he was forced to play before a not yet full house that echoed like a mine shaft. Despite the mostly vacant theatre seats, there were some special albeit troubling moments of raw emotion — such as Harmon announcing for the first time publicly that his marriage to fellow comedian Erin McGathy was ending in divorce — dropped in between freestyle raps about 9/11 and Harmon standing bare-chested as he changed into a hilariously misfitting hotel T-shirt. One can only hope that Harmon’s new living arrangements and makeshift wardrobe are not permanent. He’s a very clever guy who is just a bit down on his luck.

It’s no surprise that Harmon was at Festival Supreme. He collaborated with festival-runner Jack Black on the Heat Vision and Jack television pilot years ago. And while both have gone on to a number of incredibly hilarious projects — Community and Tenacious D, respectively — a reunion at Festival Supreme was just not in the cards, despite Harmon hoping that Black would join him for some musical accompaniment. “I didn’t write anything,” admitted a deflated Harmon, before segueing into a bout of crowd work that resulted in a kilt-clad audience member speaking about the recent loss of his father in a car accident. Harmon’s time was a beautiful tragedy akin to a dorm room RA squeezing comedy bits into a funeral eulogy. Hard to watch, but who can look away?! –Dan Pfleegor

DIE ANTWOORD

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Die Antwoord is a pop group that has shed all of the pretenses we normally associate with pop music, replacing them with whatever they find most shocking and offensive at the moment. The best thing you could say about them is that their aesthetic is fully formed, despite the fact that it lacks anything of substance and subsists on a diet of degrading lyrics and imagery that’s weasels its way into the darker recesses of your mind. I suppose you could also say that they pour everything they’ve got into their live show, which was certainly the biggest spectacle at Festival Supreme.

But biggest doesn’t always mean best, and the headlining act came across mostly as tedious and sophomoric after a long day of watching mature comics ply their trade. Die Antwoord deserves credit for spunk and originality, sure; sparkplug Yolandi Visser sounds like she’s singing at a faster RPM than the rest of the track, and Ninja pushes the energy into the red for the duration of the show. But there’s very little nuance in a typical Die Antwoord set, and this was glaringly true on Saturday night at The Shrine. The highlight came when Jack Black hopped on stage to assist Ninja in “Raging Zef Boner”, but the whole thing felt like a joke that only Black was in on, as opposed to a collaboration among friends. –Collin Brennan

CHARLYNE YI

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Charlyne Yi was only one half of the quiet indie folk duo that performed in her festival slot, and a few fans who had stumbled over to watch some comedy seemed caught off-guard by the sudden shift in tone. Yi’s band is called Sacred Destinies and also features the talents of guitarist Jet Elfman, who harmonized with Yi on nearly every song of their short set. The dominant subjects at hand were heartbreak and genocide (really), and the funniest aspect of the performance was how incongruous it felt at a comedy festival.

One of the things I’ve always liked about Yi is her tendency to surprise, but she might have misjudged her audience a bit. The general sentiment was polite but confused, and if the set had stretched any longer than 15 minutes, people might have started to drift away. That being said, it’s also a good example of how comics tend to treat Festival Supreme as a low-stakes way to try different material, or showcase a different side of their personality. Yi’s risk might not have paid off, but she should be applauded for trying to bring something new to the table. –Collin Brennan

AMY POEHLER

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The Jesus Lizard Lounge was packed in anticipation of Amy Poehler’s rare festival appearance, and cheers erupted as soon as Jack Black took the stage to introduce the Parks and Recreation star. The only thing keeping Poehler from a headlining set was the fact that she had only committed to 15 minutes, but she and Black made them count with a bit in which she played a reclusive singer-songwriter who had “retired” from TV and film to find a richer meaning in life.

Of course, they were also aided by a bit of good luck. After pulling up a member of the audience to interview, they learned that the woman’s ex-boyfriend was also sitting close to the front row. Poehler and Black then launched into a duet of Bette Midler’s “The Rose”, dedicating it to the estranged (or not?) couple. It was a short but sweet reminder of just how naturally this comedy stuff comes to Poehler, though fans couldn’t be blamed for wanting a little (okay, a lot) more. –Collin Brennan

PUDDLES PITY PARTY

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Clowns are scary. Watch just a couple minutes of Puddles Pity Party and you’ll get numerous exclamations from the audience about their fear of clowns. And Puddles plays off that, standing huge over audience members that join him on stage, and never speaking as he dresses them and pulls their bodies into his desired shapes. But when he does open his mouth, it’s to sing with a beautiful, almost heartbreaking tenor, whether it is a cover of “Dancing Queen” or Sia’s “Chandelier”. The biggest laughs come from his deadpan play off randos tying to take selfies with him mid-song, but the overall sum of the set is more performance art than straight comedy, making it pretty well suited for a mid-afternoon breather from the festival’s top-tier acts. –Philip Cosores

THE DARKNESS

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The Darkness is a pretty ridiculous band, and it’s kind of incredible that they’ve lasted as long as they have despite a bit of a break in the late aughts. Still, it makes sense that Justin Hawkins and co. would find their way into a prime slot at Festival Supreme in 2015. Their whole schtick is basically the premise of a joke that’s gone on for years: Hey, what would happen if the most unapologetic glam-rock band from the ‘80s actually formed in the 21st Century? The Darkness is not a group to take seriously on every level, but they are consummate professionals who can shred the living daylights out of their instruments and write hooks that occasionally recall the glory days of Cheap Trick.

Now four albums into their career, the band has proven that they belong in whatever conversation people are having about arena rock in 2015. But they’ve also shown that they’re mostly a one-trick pony. Hawkins’ antics are no doubt impressive, but they grow tiresome after a while. The dude throws enough picks into the crowd to stock a Guitar Center, and the band never finishes a song without a coordinated jump. Which is all good and fine because most people just come for “I Believe In A Thing Called Love”, which inevitably closed the band’s nighttime set. –Collin Brennan

NICK THUNE

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Not only was Nick Thune stuck on an outdoor stage on a 100 degree day at a festival that featured several indoor stages with air conditioning, but he was also up again both Amy Poehler and Reggie Watts on those stages. So, Thune rolled with it, and based the majority of his appearance on a long, drawn-out, often hilarious story about the time his dog ate a weed brownie the size of a VHS tape. Performing to a virtually empty expanse to begin his set, and gradually attracting on-lookers that surely had no idea what his story was even about, Thune was a epitome of focus and grace, joking “if you didn’t hear, Amy and Reggie were killed in a head on collision with each other.” –Philip Cosores

AUBREY PLAZA

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Jack Black took the stage before Aubrey Plaza’s set to regretfully inform the audience that the young comic was nowhere to be found. The gasps were silenced when everyone realized that Plaza’s replacement, “Yolanda,” was really just a new character she was trying on for size. Yolanda is Plaza’s send-up of a Latina diva, complete with high heels, a shiny silver jacket, and a thick head of blond curls. Being half Puerto Rican herself, Plaza can arguably get away with the exaggerated accent and slightly racist caricature, but it was hard to shake the feeling that she left the best parts of her personality backstage. It’s telling that the thing most funny and interesting about Yolanda – her unwavering fixation on death – is the kind of morbidity that fits comfortably in Plaza’s wheelhouse. –Collin Brennan

HENRY ROLLINS

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Former Black Flag frontman and lifelong punk Henry Rollins makes a big deal out of being approachable; he’s quick to mention that he drives a Mazda 6 and frequents the Starbucks in Toluca Lake. But Rollins is an intimidating figure even when he’s standing on stage alone, trying to be as relatable as possible. His 30-minute set involved a couple of stories, the first about his role as a surly hockey coach in the 1998 children’s film Jack Frost and how it led to an unexpected encounter with a surly biker dude at the aforementioned Starbucks. It was less funny than touching, but Rollins wasn’t really playing for jokes. After getting a little peeved with the sound guy and shouting down a drunken heckler, he settled down and opened up to the crowd, which remained remarkably quiet and attentive. Who’s to say whether it was because they were scared or rapt, but my guess is probably a bit of both. –Collin Brennan

NEIL HAMBURGER

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What more needs to be said about Neil Hamburger? The cantankerous comic is perhaps the last man alive who’s willing to tell it like it is. He’s a lighthouse in a sea of bullshit, a leeeeegend among his peers, and, if we’re going to take his word for it, the one act actually worth the price of admission at Festival Supreme.

Hamburger was in “rare” form on Saturday afternoon at the so-called Jesus Lizard Lounge, sandwiching his jokes with a couple of lounge tunes and using his time to call out celebrities as diverse (and perverse) as Gene Simmons, Eric Clapton, and Tupac Shakur. A sample joke: “What’s the worst thing about Fred Durst’s herpes? His music!” Never change, Hamburger. –Collin Brennan

KRISTEN SCHAAL

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Kristen Schaal isn’t known for her standup so much as she is for her roles on TV shows such as The Last Man on Earth, Bob’s Burgers, and Flight of the Conchords, but her stage persona draws on the same charming quirks that make each of her characters so memorable. That’s not to say her Festival Supreme set wasn’t diverse; on the contrary, she packed in everything from one-liners (“I want to open a Gothic-themed pet salon called The Catacombs”) to honest and self-disparaging remarks about her past love life (“I was covered in a fine layer of dust from never being touched”). She even dressed up as melancholic poet Emily Dickinson and performed a hilarious one-act play that highlighted the best of her oddball comic tendencies. –Collin Brennan

FINESSE MITCHELL

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Saturday Night Live alum Finesse Mitchell should be a familiar face around LA by now. That is, if you don’t mistake him for retired Laker Derek Fisher, which apparently happens enough that he’s incorporated it as a recurring standup bit. Unlike a lot of the comics at Festival Supreme, Mitchell didn’t use his set to test out a bunch of new material or adopt a different alias. He simply told the jokes and told them well, establishing a comfortable rapport with the audience and gently chiding them for not laughing as hard as they should. The veteran comic just celebrated his 40th birthday, and he drew a lot of his material from the familiar pains of growing old. His best bit involved a couple of middle-aged guys up front, with whom he commiserated about the limitations of their sex lives. “Count your pumps” is advice any guy could use as he enters the sunset of his sexual prime. –Collin Brennan

TENACIOUS D

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The kings of Festival Supreme were in fine form on Saturday night, playing a set of jazz that featured a couple of their family members on sax and harmonica and Craig Ferguson on vocals. In a way, Jack Black and Kyle Gass (the latter dressed lavishly in a blue robe) embodied the spirit of the entire festival, opting for a weird one-off experiment rather than another set of the standbys. They crammed a cover of Van Morrison’s “Moondance” and a slightly altered version of their hit “Tribute” into 30 minutes of mostly goofy improvisation, during which Black occasionally shouted things like “Rock is dead!” and “Life has no meaning.” The band closed the set with a dramatic crescendo, after which Black screamed, “That’s jazz, ladies and gentlemen!” If Tenacious D never does another jazz set again, the world won’t necessarily be poorer, but this one was definitely a thing to behold. –Collin Brennan

NATHAN FIELDER

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Nathan Fielder set the tone for his oddball Festival Supreme appearance with a spotlight-soaked rendition of Lana Del Rey’s “Born to Die”. As the house chandelier returned to its elegant glow, the Nathan for You star shared his plan to screen a sneak peek of season three, which premieres on Comedy Central October 15th. In the interest of preventing any leaked footage, though, Fielder brandished a water-filled fire extinguisher and even sat an eager fan onstage to demonstrate his camera-phone-destroying effectiveness. The young audience member was then made to change into dry clothes from a local Goodwill as Fielder bombarded him with hilarious banter and small talk about failed romance.

So as not to spoil the joke by revealing too much about the season three clip, I’ll just say that the segment started off like a bull in an antique China shop and just got stranger from there, as Fielder flexed his unusual talent for making new acquaintances reveal way too much about their personal lives. The packed Shrine Auditorium was brimming with excitement afterwards, so much so that even Fielder fist-pumped a triumphant “Yea!” as he exited. –Dan Pfleegor

THE KIDS IN THE HALL

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While Tenacious D receive reverence as the Festival Supreme curators, and Die Antwoord wrapped up the music lineup, the undisputed headliners of the comedy portion of the festival were The Kids in the Hall. The five-member Canadian troop (Dave Foley, Kevin McDonald, Bruce McCulloch, Mark McKinney, and Scott Thompson) are legends of sketch comedy, though the members even readily admitted that they were probably only well-known by the 41-year-old dudes who dragged their girlfriends to the festival because they liked the Kids back in college.

But, if there was any question of how their comedy has aged, it was quickly dispelled following a sketch with all five members donning wedding dresses in a commentary about gay marriage and a solo performance by McDonald singing about the history of the group. Some of the guys’ favorites found their way into the fold, like Thompson’s iconic Buddy Cole and “Running Faggot” from the Kids’ first season on TV. During the latter and throughout a sketch set in a high-end restaurant, the comedians would struggle to hold it together, finding each others’ character performances too funny to keep a straight face. It all felt vital and worthy of its placement, a reward for braving a hot day of hit and miss performances. –Philip Cosores

MORGAN MURPHY

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“Where are my medium penises at?” That’s what LA-based comic Morgan Murphy wanted to know as she kicked off an afternoon set filled with jokes about faking orgasms, searching for love on Tinder (her username is “12-Inch-Deep Vagina,” in case you were wondering), and watching babysitter porn. Murphy has the droll delivery of a woman who’s just tired of this shit, but her offhand observations about sex sparkle with an intelligence one rarely sees applied to something as crass as dick jokes. Though she wasn’t a top headliner by any means, Murphy’s material was the strongest on hand at Festival Supreme, and it resonated with a crowd of mostly 20-somethings who are bound to swipe right the next time she pops up on Tinder. – Collin Brennan

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Photographer: Philip Cosores

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