April 13, 2008 / 1:09 AM / 10 years ago

Indie comedy finds footing at music festivals

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.”

Indie labels have taken notice. Last year, Drag City released a DVD from “Saturday Night Live” star Fred Armisen, and Matador jumps into the game April 22 with a compilation from Earles and Jensen, a prank phone call team that resembles a less vulgar Jerky Boys.

But Sub Pop has taken the deepest plunge, with a roster that includes “Mr. Show”/“Arrested Development” alum Cross, “King of Queens” co-star Oswalt, Mirman and spoof-folk duo Flight of the Conchords, who won the comedy Grammy this year for an SP; the New Zealand duo will release their self-titled debut for the label April 22.

According to the label’s head of A&R Tony Kiewel, signing comedians wasn’t originally in the playbook.

“We saw a community of like-minded individuals that really resembled the indie music scene,” he says. The label’s first release, Cross’ 2002 album “Shut Up You F—-ing Baby,” validated that belief. It went on to sell 109,000 copies in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

“Back in 2002, we were at a low point for the label — a far cry from where the indie community is today,” Kiewel recalls. “I think we had one artist that had scanned over 20,000 at that point of the active roster. But these (comedians) were touring and selling out places, getting on morning radio shows and late-night television, and they weren’t promoting anything. That just seemed really interesting to me.”

Now, Bonnaroo is trying to up its own ante, slotting its first comedian for the main stage at the 2008 event in mid-June. Chris Rock will perform right before Metallica, to what Farman estimates should be 70,000-80,000 people.

“We feel very lucky to come out to these festivals and perform,” Ansari says. “And people know who we are.”


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