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Let’s get serious about comedy at RedFest

Staff Writer
Austin 360

By Dale Roe

Editor’s note: This article was originally published May 27, 2014

Watching comic Jeff Foxworthy perform at the inaugural RedFest Sunday night at the Austin360 Amphitheater reminded me of a couple of comedy’s tenets.

First, as we have seen time and time again — whether during outdoor podcast tapings downtown or stand-up performances in the steamy, yellow comedy tent at Fun, Fun, Fun Fest — outdoor comedy is a hard sell.

Whether it’s a case of too many physical distractions making it hard to concentrate, bad weather causing discomfort or ambient nuisances making it difficult for audience members to hear, comedy requires attention that can be difficult to hold outdoors. The best comics depend on audience reaction for timing, etc., even if they don’t specifically “work the crowd.”

Second, it’s really difficult to perform comedy for people who haven’t come to an event specifically to see comedy.

At RedFest, headlining comics played the Amphitheatre stage while lesser-known stand ups were relegated to the smallest of the festival’s three stages, the Showcase stage. Unfortunately, this tiny stage was located in the middle of RedFest’s Racing Village, where food, beverage and other vendors competed with the fest’s popular go-kart rides for attendees’ attention.

I watched from a distance on Friday as Dustin Ybarra, a very talented and funny stand-up from Texas, labored on the Showcase stage. A group of maybe a dozen people milled about around 25 feet from the stage (there were no seats) as Ybarra did the best he could to grab their attention. Clearly, they had not come to RedFest specifically to see him.

Although it’s ridiculously tough, comedy should appear effortless and I just couldn’t wait around to watch another comic suffer through that.

“Doing some stand up for 6 people in the rain. It’s as if god was telling me to wrap it up,” Ybarra noted on Twitter after a Saturday set on the same stage, posting a wet and blurry photo of the event.

While Foxworthy suffered a bit from the same problem — the loud and incessant chatter around the periphery of the Amphitheater on Sunday indicated that a lot of people were simply staking out spots for the band that would follow him, Florida Georgia Line — at least the crowd was comfortable. Foxworthy prompted plenty of big laughs during his set, talking about family, kids, parents, rednecks and other famliar topics.

I did not see Larry the Cable Guy’s turn on Saturday night, but other festgoers who did told me that he “bombed” (their word, not mine).

Comedy can work at the venue, as Foxworthy last weekend and 2013’s Funny or Die Oddball Comedy and Curiosity Festival proved. Even though the weather was extremely hot during that event, a packed amphitheater full of fans who had sweat right through their clothing remained attentive and raucous for acts such as Flight of the Conchords and Dave Chappelle.

I’m not sure what to suggest for RedFest organizers planning next year’s event. Maybe they should confine stand-up to one night and only stage it in the Austin360 Amphitheater as “comedy night.” That way, the performers could be sure that the audience was there specifically to laugh.

Then again, though Jeff Foxworthy told me that he wants to make RedFest an annual event, we’ll have to wait and see if it comes back. The crowds were thin (admittedly, I attended on opening and closing nights, perhaps attendance was better on the weekend). While the amphitheatre’s lawn was consistently packed, many of the more expensive seats remained unused (20 minutes before Lynryd Skynyrd took the stage on Friday, the seating area was practically empty).

While very short lines for food, beverages and attractions must have been pleasant for attendees, it’s probably not what organizers had hoped for.