I arrived at the USC campus woefully underprepared; with only two cigarettes, no photographer, and a general lack of awareness of my surroundings and the upcoming festivities, the odds did not begin in my favor. After pacing a few blocks in search of a bodega and coming up short, I surrendered to circumstance and made my way into the Shrine Auditorium & Exposition Hall.
Adorned with majestic Moorish Revival architecture, the building sticks out amongst the academic structures of the nearby campus, announcing itself as a historic hub of culture in an otherwise horrible place. I’ll admit now, my bias against USC stems from my lifelong UCLA fandom, not from any experiential or logical basis; that realization does not preclude me from taking potshots at the institution my father raised me to loathe.
Once inside, I was able to forget greater context and lose myself in the absurdity of the proceedings, both on and off stage. I assumed that the crowd at Tenacious D‘s third annual comedy and music extravaganza would be similar to just about any other festival, and I was more or less right, although my neighbors skewed older and more sober than most samples. There was still the odd mix of burners, families, and shrieking teens, the crazy costumes ranging from out-of-shape Chippendale’s dancers to a Gothic take on Harley Quinn, and the predominant demographic of young professionals dressed up like they were headed back to college for the day, even if this was nowhere near a proper university.
My first stop of the day was Nathan Fielder, so I headed straight back to the Karma Chameleon Stage and found a lone seat in the middle, right as the lights dimmed. From his first steps onstage, Fielder exceeded my expectations and set a high bar for the rest of the day. He strolled out to the opening swell of Lana Del Rey’s “Born to Die,” and while that was wonderful enough, he proceeded to sing the first verse and chorus in the nearly monotone and oddly nasal delivery that he has employed to tremendous effect on his Comedy Central show, Nathan for You.
While that show does not include any musical numbers, it does feature Fielder giving advice to local businesses on how to improve their profit margins, and his dryly absurd tone fits in beautifully with his guests’ often aghast reactions. As the third season started this month, Nathan wanted to debut a new clip, but Comedy Central was concerned about the audience filming the footage and leaking it online.
The star of the show’s solution? He stationed high-pressure water-based fire extinguishers throughout the theater and brought one audience member onstage for a demonstration of what would happen to any would-be pirates. After he soaked the 19-year-old student to the bone, Fielder had him change into, “the cheapest clothes from Goodwill,” behind a sheet, as the comedian awkwardly prodded him on his occupation, relationship status, and other personal details. I won’t reveal what the following footage held, out of fear of reprisal, but needless to say, it contained plenty of the maniacal capitalist scheming and endearing social ineptitude that made the first two seasons of Nathan for You one of the funniest and most cringe-inducing shows on television.
With a little time to kill before Amy Poehler, I strolled back towards the entrance and found a beer line as Neil Hamburger assaulted the audience from the Lounge Lizard Stage. While I can appreciate the theory of his anti-comedy and I certainly chuckled at a few outrageous punchlines, his schtick grew stale before long, especially with the dated material that he was delivering: jokes about the Doobie Brothers and KISS fell on unaware ears. When my turn came up, the bartender wasn’t having it, and she kept muttering about how terrible Hamburger was. A guy in line offered, “He’s supposed to be bad.” Maybe so, but I like my anti-comedy with a little more absurdist zeal. After his set ended with a song about watching girls on the street, I felt sweet auditory relief.
During the intermission, a ripple of enthusiasm and applause crossed the audience, and my neighbor pointed out the attraction: Tenacious D’s Kyle Gass, clad in a floppy sunhat, rested his forearms on the front of the balcony and eagerly awaited Amy Poehler, just like the rest of us. Gass’s bandmate, Jack Black, soon took the stage and introduced her as one of the all-time greats, a hyperbolic assessment that, nonetheless, was wholly fitting.
Rather than the smartly dressed and irrepressibly positive performer that I expected, Poehler entered with scraggly clothes, sunglasses, a prop cigarette, and an affected seen-it-all sneer that vaguely recalled Janis Joplin. As she conversationally sparred with Black and interrogated an audience member, Amy kept up the role perfectly, only cracking into her signature gleeful cackle when the audience member admitted to breaking the heart of her companion for the day.
After Black and Poehler had accumulated her personal information, they announced that they would turn her life into song; an old improv standard. Dedicating the song to the volunteer and the man “she emasculated today,” Poehler stepped behind the microphone, Black set up behind the keys, and they slipped right into a rendition of Amanda McBroom’s “The Rose.” By the time that I’d realized the bait-and-switch, the utter silliness of the move had been replaced by awe at Amy Poehler’s vocal chops. She belted the hell out of the song — giving Better Midler and LeAnn Rimes a run for their money — and committed completely to the passionate delivery. Amy’s performance may have elicited more smiles and chuckles than all-out belly laughs, but it was delightful to see another dimension of one of the most charming and talented comedians working today.
I hustled back to the Karma Chameleon Stage for the end of Reggie Watts. His combination of off-the-cuff standup and madcap music always makes for an entertaining show, and the segment that I saw did not disappoint. Mixing in everything from global economic policy critique to a pitch-perfect rendition of a booty-slapping rap song, consisting mostly of variations of “pussy,” Watts attacked the mic like a proper MC and prowled the stage like a lion, an effect enhanced by his majestic mane. On a day that highlighted the intersection of comedy and music, the current Late Late Show bandleader was the ideal act, and I wish logistics had allowed me to catch more of his set.
Fifteen minutes later, Jack Black came out and announced that Aubrey Plaza had, unfortunately, missed the show, but she had sent “Yolanda” in her place. Without further ado, piping hot Latin horns blared over the speakers, as Plaza shimmied and shook across the stage in a blonde wig, frilled black dress, and sparkly jacket, looking convincingly like a Puerto Rican incarnation of Shakira. For about five minutes, she danced across the stage to the same repeating song, pausing only to tease the microphone or flip a quick wave and a big smile. When the music cut and she finally spoke, she cried out, “Okay babies,” in a thick accent, noticeably out of breath, but fully committed to the bit.
That bit turned out to be a bizarro interpretation of a morose, death-obsessed current event comic. In her thick accent and with a hint of childlike naïveté, Plaza discussed the inevitability of death, the lack of meaning in life, and the confusion of the economy, all accented by her rallying cry of, “Okay babies,” and peppered non sequiturs like, “Everybody’s talking about robots.” Maybe her personality is simply more likable than Hamburger’s, but the former Parks and Recreation star’s anti-comedy proved far more successful and enjoyable to watch. She ended her set with a group chant of, “We’re all gonna die,” and danced off the stage.
I had intentions of burning through my last smoke and maybe rounding up some grub, but I was intercepted by a few friends on their way to Tig Notaro. Plans be damned, a little company and and a few unexpected detours would do me good. For whatever reason, I hadn’t sorted Notaro as a must-see; within minutes, her effortless stage presence and gently hilarious storytelling revealed my folly.
It’s hopeless to try and reprint the best lines, but be assured that she fully delivered on the comic possibilities of a story revolving around oral surgery, massive blood loss, and the startling nonchalance of neighbors. Notaro followed up that nugget with some riffs about Ringo inheriting “Yellow Submarine” and a childhood yarn about selecting “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” for the cool kid in class and sweating the choral intro, which naturally segued into her joining the house band on rhythm guitar for their own rendition.
The low-key, good-natured Notaro was immediately followed by the endlessly abrasive Bill Burr, which made for a disorienting one-two punch. Burr started strong with appeals to put the phones down and prophecies of a generation consumed by thumb cancer, but his shouted storytelling soon descended into old-man-on-the-porch levels of saltiness. Even when he had a good line or a decent point, something about his delivery left me ill at ease. It might have something to do with his repeated digs at Kanye West, an artist who I have repeatedly defended to the detriment of my social life; if I can turn down female companionship over offensive opining, a shouty stand-up doesn’t stand a chance.
We returned to the Karma Chameleon Stage for the start of Kristen Schaal, a favorite of mine from her work on Flight of the Conchords and, most recently, The Last Man on Earth. Staying true to her on-screen presence, Schaal was buoyant and disarmingly awkward. After teasing us with some non-existent magic skills, she explained her recent offer to shill for Hormel by wrongfully declaring, “I have a face for meat.” The set veered towards weirdness with widow fantasies and the introduction to a one-woman show based on the life of Emily Dickinson, at which point my companions wanted to depart. I was curious after Schaal’s conclusion, but I couldn’t resist the pull of social pressure.
Outside of the theater, we staggered to the Komodo Dragon Stage and were immediately bewildered by Andrew W.K. and his merry band of misfits. Joined by an excitable bald man, a non-stop aerobic dancer, and a Hawaiian shirt-clad guitarist, Andrew stood in the middle in all-white and pounded at a keyboard like it was a drum set. In his sonic universe, builds are a fool’s game; his songs are all climax all the time. Delivering a crazy person’s conception of rock and roll with percussive virtuosity and endlessly optimistic sloganeering, Andrew W.K. partied hard enough to make my one purely musical moment of the day an overwhelming and exhilarating experience. He tried to end the set with his thesis statement, “Party Hard,” but the sound cut halfway through; until you unplug him, he will not stop.
My companions made the poor decision of following the musical buzz off to Dan Deacon, while I bummed a smoke and made my way to the main event: Kids in the Hall. I found a lone seat front and center and soaked up the public buzz before the lights dimmed and the sketch comedy legends took the stage sporting wedding dresses and presenting a dramatic tableau. With synchronized gestures and sighs, the core crew of Dave Foley, Bruce McCulloch, Kevin McDonald, Mark McKinney, and Scott Thompson weighed the social benefits of their attire and critiqued societal norms before declaring, “We wear our wedding dresses for you.”
While they did not make good on my secret hopes for renditions of “Daddy Drank” and “Girl Drink Drunk” (I suppose I have an inclination towards their alcoholic sketches), their set was the perfect balance of nostalgic nods and fresh material. With new absurd premises, the return of classic characters like “Running Faggot” and “Superdrunk,” and interstitial monologues delivered by each member, the veteran group put their razor sharp rapport on display and snuck in frequent barbs at each other, with Foley the primary target of friendly fire. Covering everything from healthy attitudes about menstruation to casual cannibalism, the Kids in the Hall took home top honors for the day with their endlessly endearing and entertaining set.
There was more to see after they left the stage to a roaring applause, but my interest had peaked and I didn’t have the stomach left to stumble over to Die Antwoord. With a broad smile across my face, an accumulation of punchlines and societal insights rattling through my head, and a little soreness in my step, I passed through the academic wasteland and back to my car, content with a day full of good old fashioned funny business.
To compensate for our absent photographer, all images used are official promotional illustrations created by artist, Luke McGarry. More of his work can be found at LukeMcGarry.com.