A three-day music festival can be a grind. There's the sun (or conspicuous lack thereof), endless treks between stages, and lots of standing behind bros in feathered headdresses. Luckily for Outside Lands attendees, there's a respite from the grind in the form of the Barbary comedy tent. One of this year's highlights is ASSSSCAT, the long running improv show featuring the likes of Ian Roberts (Key & Peele, Reno 911!), Matt Walsh (Veep), and Horatio Sanz (SNL).
It may seem like a daunting task to transport their show, normally performed at the Upright Citizen Brigade's black box theaters in New York and L.A., to a music festival setting, but Walsh and Roberts — who founded UCB along with Matt Besser and Amy Poehler — are confident the change of venue won't have much of an effect.
“We have experience at it,” Walsh told SF Weekly. “We're not as interesting as mushrooms, probably. The hope is that we provide a nice interstitial between the rock and roll.”
Roberts agreed, adding that as long as comedy is scheduled into a separate venue, it works fine in a setting like Outside Lands.
“One thing that never works, though, is to have comedy open for music — or worse, follow it,” he said. “It just doesn't work. It's a whole different kind of attention and energy. That can be a nightmare.”
Luckily, there will be no such issues at the Barbary, where humor is the sole talent.
And while Friday's lineup is dominated by standup comics like Tig Notaro, Andy Kindler, and James Adomian, Saturday afternoon's ASSSSCAT show is a different beast entirely. Its performances originate with a one-word suggestion from the audience, which in turn prompts a guest monologist to share stories inspired by the given suggestion. Then the improvisers go to work, crafting a set of scenes based on the monologist's stories. He or she usually speaks about four times in a show, with a hearty dose of hilarious, on-the-fly scenes ensuing.
“The stakes are high,” Walsh explained, “because it isn't rehearsed. You can't fall back on material.” For readers mulling over what words to shout out, Roberts cautions against suggestions that strain to be funny. “Don't say 'nun robots having orgasms.' We're going to handle the comedy.” With that in mind, is there a type of word that makes for especially satisfying improv? “It makes absolutely no difference,” Roberts said. “That's the truth. It's just a jumping-off point.”
Of course, if even minor audience interaction makes for a frightening prospect, there's still plenty of Barbary content available. On the final day of the festival, Scott Aukerman brings his much-beloved Comedy Bang Bang podcast to the stage. In his loose-format comedy playground, Aukerman welcomes a stunning array of comedic talent, sometimes appearing as themselves, other times in character, and occasionally as both. While the “special guests” listed for Comedy Bang Bang's Outside Lands show have not been revealed, it wouldn't surprise anyone to see Adomian and Sanz, both frequent guests to the show and already appearing in other sets at the Barbary, join Scott at the mic. (Expect long lines if so.)
The placement of ASSSSCAT on Outside Lands' middle day is fitting, as it serves as a bridge from Friday's standup to Sunday's podcast formats. Improv is a blend of many talents, and one that Walsh and Roberts continue to return to, despite their individual successes in film and television.
“Improv keeps me in shape,” Walsh sad. “It's like a pickup basketball game. It's not quite exercise, but it's an activity and it keeps my mind sharp. And selfishly, it's a lot of fun.”
Roberts echoed Walsh's take, adding, “I think improv is very satisfying because it involves a couple of different muscles. You're writing on your feet and you're acting. And when people enjoy it, you know that the whole thing is yours. It's really fulfilling.”