By Dale Roe
Editor’s note: This article was originally published August 25, 2013
Performers at the kick-off date of Funny or Die’s Oddball Comedy and Curiosity Festival Friday had a lot going against them. It was swelteringly hot. It started in the daylight. And it was held outdoors, in the beautiful but decidedly non-intimate Austin360 Amphitheater at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin.
Still, the performers delivered close to four hours of standup (most of them in woefully short sets, which gives you an idea of how long headliners Dave Chappelle and Flight of the Conchords commanded the stage).
Insult comic and Comedy Central roast-master Jeff Ross was a great choice for emcee. It’s got to be difficult to do crowd work in a venue with a capacity of 14,000, but Ross was masterful, whether picking on beautiful women, goofy-looking guys or the odd security guard with a neck brace.
A couple of "Daily Show" correspondents took the stage next. First was Al Madrigal, ho delivered what seemed to be a studied and well-rehearsed bit about Yelp reviews. If the set lacked spontaneity, it delivered in the humor department, building up to a story about lacing a children’s dance studio with hidden shrimp and his wife’s reconnaissance mission to retrieve it.
Kristen Schaal followed. Ross introduced the frequent SXSW performer as his male nephew, Chris, and she took the stage in a neon-green hoodie telling crass jokes about chicks in true "broseph" style. ater, she revealed her true identity. claiming she used the character to judge the level of sexism in the crowd. The ridiculous revelation was clever and hilarious, the highlight of a set that included a stripping-down and recreation of "Flashdance." That’s how you fight sexism!
Hannibal Buress had an engaging set centered mostly on rappers — especially Li’l Wayne — and an anecdote about how one rapper stopped his concert just to play for the audience another rapper’s song that he admired. "Comedians can’t do that," Buress aid, before playing a segment of Chris Rock, listening and nodding.
Comedy Central’s Demetri Martin delivered a great set of offbeat observations and trademark, goofy one-liners, many of them delivered over surprisingly competent finger-picked guitar riff. It was a good transition into New Zealand’s "almost award-winning, fourth-most-popular folk duo.
Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie took the stage, playing guitars, keyboards and various woodwind instruments while delivering a generous set of old and new musical numbers. Highlights included a song about wooing a lady in medieval times (the era, not the cheesy theme restaurant) and a new number comprised of a dialogue between a father and son. The hilarious piece was so new that the duo had to stop a few times to backtrack and pick up parts that they had forgotten, which really only added to the hilarity.
In between numbers, the pair told seemingly improvised backstage, tour anecdotes about getting caught in elevators and hotel room hijinks. In their final number, however, they wove all of the odd stories into the lyrics, betraying just how well-rehearsed the seemingly spontaneous banter really was.
After a long intermission, Chappelle took the stage to an adoring ovation. His set was preceded by Ross’s (probably unnecessary) encouragement to give the comic a huge welcome and an announcement that absolutely no recording of any kind would be allowed. In fact, audience members were told that no cell phones or cameras would be allowed out of pockets or purses during the set (and they weren’t kidding — security staff stalked the aisles during the comic’s performance, looking for people filming).
The final admonition of the announcement: absolutely no heckling would be tolerated.
It’s easy to imagine that the rules were set up just for Austin where, in 2012, interaction between Chappelle and hecklers in a surprise, hastily-planned Paramount Theater show resulted in a nearly universally-panned event. The problems that night began when Chappelle confiscated a recording device from an audience member.
The hecklers at the tour kick-off weren’t so bad, though they were there. It would be easy to blame emcee Ross, who set the tone of the night with bits that consisted almost completely of interacting with the audience. It can be difficult to get that horse back into the barn.
At one point during Chappelle’s set, Security guards swarmed someone near the stage who they’d caught recording. "Don’t kick him out; let him stay," the comic implored from the stage, "I need his energy."
Energy was in short supply during Chappelle’s set, although he did have moments of brilliance, especially when talking about abandoning his lucrative Comedy Central show ("It’s easier for the Pope to quit," he said) and his "breakdown."
"I don’t know if y’all have ever gone crazy," he said, before launching into revelations about what he called his worst week ever.
In between, there were frequent complaints about the heat and long pauses to light American Spirit cigarettes. He noted that he doesn’t consume any products marketed to African-Americans, because "that’s where they’d put the poison."
He had trouble finding an ending for his set which, he admitted, was 45 minutes stretched out of 11 minutes of material. Still, the audience loved it and treated him well enough to encourage future visits.
One final thought: the planes taking off from nearby Austin Bergstrom International airport might not be great during musical events, but they provided fodder for the comics, many of whom paused and commented on the interruptions. At one point what sounded like a fighter jet boomed over the arena. I can’t remember which comic it was (Ross?) but one of them got off this great line:
"I’m being heckled from 10,000 feet."
NOTE: This article has been corrected to note that Dave Chappelle was smoking American Spirit cigarettes, not Free Spirit as originally reported.