Indie comedy finds footing at music festivals

Sat Apr 12, 2008 9:05pm EDT
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By Michael D. Ayers

NEW YORK (Billboard) - When Aziz Ansari, Paul Scheer and Rob Huebel, the creators of sketch comedy show "Human Giant," took over MTV's programming for 24 hours last May, it was more than just a last-minute effort to get their show renewed for a second season.

They wrangled indie music pals Ted Leo, Tegan & Sara, Mastodon and the National for live performances, giving them exposure on a network that doesn't have a dedicated place for their type of music.

In a lot of ways, Human Giant was simply returning the favor. Music festivals at one time weren't exactly the first place a comedian would look to make a splash, but in recent years, Bonnaroo, Noise Pop, Bumbershoot and Coachella have rolled out extensive comedy programs featuring such so-called indie comics as Human Giant, David Cross, Patton Oswalt, Eugene Mirman and Zach Galifianakis. These comedians, who are as likely to hit the stage wearing a Superchunk T-shirt as anything else, have also been a constant presence at South by Southwest.

"Bonnaroo is one of the largest comedy events in the country now," festival co-creator Rick Farman says. "We'll do between 25,000 and 30,000 people in our comedy tents and we're turning away 500-1,000 people for every show."

According to Farman, the success stems from Bonnaroo's 24-hour atmosphere, allowing fans to hunker down in the comedy tent and break the routine of running from stage to stage to see bands. "It's hard to pull yourself away when there are 20 bands you want to see in one afternoon," he says. "That hour to get away with comedy -- that dynamic really works in a camping atmosphere."

For comedians, these gigs afford the chance to indulge in subject matter they say just wouldn't fly at a traditional comedy club.

"We've done a few sketches where we reference the music industry and kind of make fun of it, and I think that helps us with this audience," Huebel says of Human Giant's newfound outlets. "I think the tastes and the sensibilities of indie music fans stem from alternative comedy. If you're an indie music fan, you're not going to like mainstream comedy."

Ansari found similar success skewering hot indie acts of the moment. "Early in my career I had a couple of videos that connected with my audience," he recalls. "Eugene Mirman and I did this thing about M.I.A., right when M.I.A. was blowing up. And a lot of people linked to it, because you don't have a lot of people doing comedy about something like that."   Continued...