Finding the Laughs at Bumbershoot 2012

When Labor Day weekend rolls around, downtown Seattle is overtaken by the country’s largest urban arts festival. Celebrating its 42nd year at the Seattle Center, Bumbershoot is a proudly eclectic event in every way. This year, the headlining act on Sunday was Tony Bennett; on Monday, it was Skrillex. People of all ages comfortably share the space, from toddlers to Baby Boomers. There’s local art and goods for sale everywhere; there’s also a New Girl promotional bus a few yards away from a Scientology stress test booth. The whole thing feels delightfully odd and uniquely Seattle, as the Space Needle hovers above us all.

Saturday, September 1 - 12:10 am

The first thing I notice each day is an incredibly long line within the festival grounds. As soon as the gates open at 11, hundreds queue to get a comedy pass. Each ticket holder is allowed one guaranteed ticket for a comedy show each day; every show has a standby line as well. Most wait for about half an hour for a pass, furiously consulting their schedules as certain shows “sell out”.

The inclusion of the comedy shows within the larger music and arts festival brings interesting crowds. There are enough shows that someone could have easily attended Bumbershoot primarily for comedy, and the types of shows on offer, like podcast tapings, would normally draw a comedy nerd crowd. But there are also a lot of general Bumbershooters, wandering into shows with little to no idea of what they’re seeing, or, evidently, how to attend comedy. One (admittedly drunk) group behind me seemed baffled that the lights lowered before a show. “I don’t know who any of these people are,” I overhear someone say at the start of a podcast taping. Many seem to assume the shows are interactive – there’s little heckling, but lots of helpful answers and concurring statements. Following one joke, a voice in the dark helpfully announces, “I like that one.”

Saturday, September 1 - 4:10 pm

As I wait for the first taping of Doug Loves Movies to start, I eavesdrop on the two guys next to me, who have arrived straight from beer garden. They’re discussing how little they know about the show, when a friendly podcast fan offers to bring them up to speed. His well-meaning attempt to describe the myriad of games that now populate the DLM universe is a bit overwhelming, and gives me a newfound sympathy for both Doug Benson’s efforts to explain the rules in his back catalogue of games, and for his guests and audience members struggling to keep up.

Podcasts were well represented at Bumbershoot, as DLM was joined by Earwolf’s How Did This Get Made? and local podcasts Read It and Weep and Too Beautiful to Live. Each drew a mix of devout fans and casual wander-inners, and had to balance pleasing regular listeners both live and at home with engaging newbies in attendance. For me, it was the West coast-based Read It and Weep that demonstrated this perfectly, delving into the delightfully mockable films of Nicholas Cage by employing a complex but well-explained structure that never made me feel left out.

Saturday, September 1 - 6:15 pm

Paul F. Tompkins And Friends (Real and Fake) starts off as any Paul F. Tompkins fan might expect: our host appears in a white linen suit with a loose set list and musings about Phil Collins and Chris Christie. Towards the end of Tompkins’ opening set, a severely intoxicated man decides to throw of a pair of sunglasses on stage. Playing along, Tompkins puts the pink plastic glasses on, makes a few jokes, then steps on the glasses and attempts to move on with the show. Not quite getting it, the man throws another, seemingly nicer pair of sunglasses on stage, which Tompkins, of course, smashes. (Here is photographic proof.) It leads to a long, mostly funny exchange, kept afloat by Tompkins superior wit and the heckler’s baffling responses.

Unlike Paul F. Tompkins and Friends, most of the stand-up shows were not hosted; instead each act introduced the next. Some combinations worked well, like the trio of Ron Funches, Dan Soder, and Doug Benson, whose laid back styles complemented each other and made for a great time of Skittles, hipsters, and found set lists. Other shows felt more jarring, like the switches from Damien Lemon’s porn-heavy material to Karen Kilgariff’s whimsical heartbroken comedy to Brian Posehn’s entirely fart- and Star Wars-based set. It was a case of three great comics making one odd bill.

Saturday, September 1 - 7:50 pm

As I’m entering my final show of the day, a blue haired girl is sitting outside the theater putting on sneakers. Her pink haired friend mentions that they’re waiting because “apparently there’s a shoe policy.” “Are you kidding?” the guy behind me says as he strolls by. “This is Seattle.”

Bumbershoot is a very Seattle festival, in all senses. It lives up the stereotypes – recycling and composting bins, vegan options galore, and the consumption of what must have been a metric ton of weed by hippies and hipsters alike. But it also does a genuine service in spotlighting local talents in all areas, including comedy. One of the three comedy stages was devoted entirely to comedy from the Pacific Northwest, with a mix of podcasts, stand-up, and sketch. Highlights included: the aforementioned Read It and Weep, a meticulously organized podcast that was immediately engaging without being mean-spirited; Canadian Toby Hargrave, whose rambling, charming set at the Vancouver ComedyFest’s Illegal Aliens show was a likeable blend of informal story telling and audience interaction that won over a reticent crowd; and young local Nick Sahoyah, whose short set showed a promise for the weird and silly.

Sunday, September 2 - 2:50 pm

As the second day’s taping of How Did This Get Made? gets under way, the occasional squeal and cry can be heard from the back of the theater. With impeccable timing, a baby weaves her way into a quite R-rated conversation about the 80’s cult classic Roadhouse. Eventually, the adorableness is overwhelming and Jason Mantzoukas marches into the audience, intent on holding a tiny child in his lap while swearing profusely. Wisely, the baby declines the join the gang on stage, but her input has all but made her the second guest on the show.

Kids are not only allowed to attend Bumbershoot, their presence is encouraged. An entire “Youngershoot” section offers activities for the youngest generation, and it’s common to see kids of all ages wandering around the grounds. The idea of an arts and festival that is a true family outing is fantastic; the end result of under-age patrons at a comedy show is not always so. The issues most often arose from kids in the 6-14 range – old enough to get something of what was going on, yet not really old enough to be hear the twisted things us grown ups like to indulge in at a comedy show. Some comics could work the kid into the act, while others were clearly thrown by the sight of a small angelic face staring up at them from the crowd. This led to the occasional self-censored joke, and noticeable pauses as comics debated continuing with certain material.

Sunday, September 2 - 4:00 pm 

There’s a lot of variety at Bumbershoot, with acts to accommodate many tastes. Even so, the inclusion of Tony Bennett in the lineup seemed (to me) to be an anomaly. Where could he possibly fit in at this festival? Knowing and caring very little about current music, I hadn’t intended to attend any concerts, but I mean, it’s Tony Bennett. So between comedy, I sneak in a few minutes to watch the 86-year-old Bennett croon out classics like “The Best Is Yet To Come” and “I Left My Heart In San Francisco.” I won’t say his voice is all that it once was, but he puts on a great show, peppered with adorable anecdotes, to an almost entirely full venue. He always gets a cheer after the first line, and a standing ovation at the end of each song. I love every second of it.

In a truly impressive attempt at inclusion, Bumbershoot featured sign-language interpretation at a few comedy shows. I never knew whether there were any hearing-impaired audience members, but the inclusion of the ASL signers was obviously fun for the comedians. Gabe Liedman and Jenny Slate’s set, with their characteristic fast-paced banter, was made even better when watching the swift signers keeping pace with their million words a minute. “Don’t watch us, watch them,” Liedman advised as they launched into a very explicit sketch, and both paused occasionally to see how their made up words or filthy phrases were interpreted. Later on, Fred Armisen pulled the interpreter into his set; practicing his own sign language, he made the ASL guy interpret it back for the hearing audience.

Can you spot the typo?

Monday, September 3 - 7:00 pm 

With a small window in the schedule on my last day of comedy shows, I venture over to the more intellectual “Words and Ideas” stage, where Jeopardy legend and Seattle resident Ken Jennings is hosting a trivia night. Dedicated to the 50th anniversary of the Seattle Center, it features one question for each decade in categories devoted to the different arts at Bumbershoot.

For your comedy trivia pleasure, here are the five comedy questions featured in the quiz. The answers (and the rest of the questions) can be found at Ken Jenning’s website.

1960s - Bill Cosby‘s debut comedy album includes three sketches imaging God’s conversation with what Biblical figure?1970s - Which of George Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” is now routinely said on network television?1980s - Frequent Oscar MC Billy Crystal hosted the “Comic Relief” benefits alongside two other comedians, both future Oscar winners. Name either.1990s - What comedian named his landmark 1996 HBO special Bring the Pain after Method Man’s first hit single?2000s - Who lobbied successfully for Merriam-Webster to make his coinage “Truthiness” their official 2005 “Word of the Year”?

Monday, September 3 - 9:27 pm 

After attending the final comedy show (a fun, if ramshackle, edition of The Benson Interruption), I’m stuck. My friend, who is attending the festival and is also my ride home, feels that we ought to check out Skrillex solely because we can. I’m a bit vague on who/what Skrillex is/does, but I’m determined to keep an open mind. When a five-minute countdown clock appears on stage, a girl near me lets out an ear-piercing scream, and I realize I’ve made a terrible mistake. Despite a genuine to attempt to make sense of the loud noises and bright lights in front of me, it’s a fool’s errand, and I bail after six minutes.

Overall, the festival has been good to me. All of the venues worked for comedy, from the fancy Bagley Wright Theatre, which lent a classy feel to the podcast tapings, to the stadium-seated Intiman, which had the distinct air of a college lecture hall, thus forcing its crowds to pay attention. The Vera Project, featuring local acts, was a small black box with a corner stage and red lights, allowing every performance to feel like underground late night show even at 1:15 in the afternoon.

As would be expected, the comedy itself was hit and miss. Sometimes, too much indulging in the festival atmosphere left even strong comics floundering on stage. But there were also gems – I don’t know how I lived so long without Karen Kilgariff’s album, but it is the new soundtrack to my life. If you want to spend a long weekend in perfect weather with 36 hours of comedy on offer, you can’t do better than this.

Elise Czajkowski is a freelance journalist in New York City. She’d love it if you tweeted at her and explained Skrillex.

Finding the Laughs at Bumbershoot 2012