Oddball Comedy Festival Doesn't Need a Laugh Track at the Shoreline

Open-air amphitheaters and comedy usually don’t mix, but on Tuesday night in Mountain View, an impressive array of the best comics working today laid claim to the Shoreline’s stage. Now in its third year, Funny or Die’s Oddball Comedy Festival has risen to the challenge of taking the often intimate experience of seeing live stand-up and morphing into a national tour at large venues. Humor heavyweights like Aziz Ansari and Amy Schumer served as the evening’s headliners, but there were few misses and many swings in the four-plus hour event.

[jump] Opening the proceedings was host Jeff Ross, known the world over as a permanent fixture on Comedy Central’s series of roasts. While Ross is probably most in his element insulting the likes of Pamela Anderson and Charlie Sheen, his non-roast material was a reminder that he's no one-trick pony, musing on topics like Tinder and taking lots of shots at celebrities currently in the headlines. As the host, Ross reappeared after the mid-show intermission to roast a series of audience members who had donated to a charity for the right to be humiliated. To one older gentleman in camouflage shorts and a polo shirt, Jeff asked, “So how long have you been dressing like a gay umpire?” While the joke wasn’t the stuff of deep philosophy, Ross’s ability to find something pointed to say without the slightest hesitation to 20-plus people was certainly impressive.

Following Ross’s initial set, Silicon Valley star T.J. Miller delivered a somewhat scattered set of one-liners and uncomfortable musings on morbid topics like death and suicide. Introduced as the star of Yogi Bear 3-D, Miller wasn’t interested in taking himself seriously, but seemed to find his humor in trying to make light of the darkest things imaginable. In one of his more memorable stories, he related the details of having his machismo questioned when a friend one-upped his complaints about having nightmares by telling Miller that he suffered from night terrors. As one of the funniest characters on a show full of humorous talent, Miller’s act felt it suffered in abbreviation (his set was about 12 minutes long). This of course is the downside of seeing so many great comics crammed into one evening: some of them won’t get the chance to get into their stride before the red light flashes and it’s time to cede the stage.

Up next was Donnell Rawlings, best known for his work on Chappelle Show. He came out to a rap song that endlessly repeated a certain infamous racial epithet, and tried in vain to get any of the many white males sitting in the front row of the venue to fill in the blank of the missing line by sticking the microphone in their face and having the sound drop out as the troubled term arrived. No one bit, but Rawlings’ set continued to focus on race, working through rather pedestrian musings on Asian and Mexican culture before really finding himself in an extended diatribe about how nothing is more gangster than giving birth.

Straight Outta Compton? Naw, it should be straight out of the vagina!”

The clever juxtaposition of gangsters and women in labor was reminiscent of the daring, brilliant way race was deconstructed on Chappelle’s Show, and one could easily see how Rawlings’ bit could’ve been a sketch on the program.

When Anthony Jeselnik arrived, the crowd was ready for a comic with his polished timing and ink black humor to deliver the first of many incredible sets that would take place over the course of the night. While it’s hard to distinguish the concept of an “equal opportunity offender” as nothing more than a sugar-coated synonym for asshole, Jeselnik indeed isn’t out to case his biting brand of shade on any one group in particular. He started with the neighboring city of San Jose, a metropolis he described as “a place where they tried to build the shittiest city in the world but ran out of money.” There were jokes about child molesters, September 11th, and everything in between. In the hands of someone less funny, the material could’ve bombed in the semi-sensitive atmosphere of millennial dot-commers that made up the vast majority of the 22,000 people in attendance, but Jeselnik isn’t less funny. He possesses the rare ability to make you laugh at something abhorrent no matter what your morals might be. As long as your funny enough, a lot of stuff can fly, and Jeselnik is most in his wheelhouse when he’s piloting the plane.

Closing out the first half of the evening was burlesque comedienne Bridget Everett. While it would be lazy to claim there are no words to describe her performance, there are not many that would do the spectacle of her fifteen-minute set justice. Of the course of a handful of original songs, Everett bounded into the audience to grind on one gentleman’s face and pulled another onstage where she instructed him to lie on his back so she could balance on his feet in a Superman pose. In short, she was hilarious. Everett’s energy and charisma was unmatched by any other performer, and while her humor wasn’t really tied to jokes or stories specifically, whatever it was she did on stage leading to the show’s intermission was unquestionably hilarious.

Oddball’s second-half kicked off with Ross returning to perform his obligatory (but highly enjoyable) roasts. He then introduced Sebastian Maniscalco, one of the lesser known names on the bill. Maniscalco started off a bit rocky, with a very subdued raspy voice forcing the crowd to strain to hear his patient delivery of bits about going on double dates and getting pulled over by the police. Luckily his energy ramped-up as his set progressed, including a memorable look at the lack of variety in Chipotle orders and an extended take on the dangers of going to a gas station at night.

“Why are the floors always wet in the bathroom? Are they cleaning up from the last murder?”

While it was a relief that Maniscalco managed to turn things around and deliver an enjoyable performance, his exit from the stage meant that only the three biggest names of the Oddball lineup remained.

John Mulaney, a former Saturday Night Live writer and beloved stand-up comedian, hit the stage in a suit and tie and proceeded to kill his slot with the kind of off-kilter, nuanced observations that have helped launch him into the highest rung of comic talent. He remarked that the seal of San Francisco should be a guy going back to his apartment to get a jacket and did an incredible job of deconstructing the idiom “why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free” by using it as a metaphor for his relationship with his wife. Mulaney also touched on the common phenomenon of Family Feud contestants giving subpar answers to the survey questions asked of them before using it to perfectly summarize the popularity of Donald Trump. There is no one quite like Mulaney: he doesn’t work clean, but his humor certainly isn’t crude. Rather one is most likely to be struck by how damn smart he is as a joke writer. SNL’s loss has certainly been our gain.

Although billed a special guest, the raucous applause that greeted Amy Schumer as she took the stage was evidence enough that many people were in the house specifically to see her. It’s understandable. In the last calendar year, Schumer has received numerous accolades for her Comedy Central show Inside Amy Schumer, seen her Judd Apatow-directed film Trainwreck go bonkers at the box office, and has a comedy special filmed at the Apollo in New York premiering on HBO this weekend. Watching Schumer perform, it was a welcome reminder that at the roots of all her recent and well-deserved success is a brilliant stand-up comic. She opened by telling the crowd that she must care about the show because she’d worn Spanx. She then addressed recent tabloid photos of her getting a pastry on the way to the gym by admitting that they had “nailed it.” Schumer was incredibly funny, mixing astute observations about life as a famous funny person with more generalized observations like “nothing good ever happens after a blackout” and with regard to a certain improv teacher she had once slept with, “If I had gotten pregnant with his baby, I’d ignore all the red lights on the way to Planned Parenthood.” There is no point in noting Schumer’s role in the show as one of two female comics as there is no need to add any clarifying modifiers to her title as one of the funniest comics working today.

Closing out the show was Aziz Ansari, who like Schumer, has had a remarkable fruitful 2015. His book, Modern Romance, was a New York Times bestseller, and his fourth stand-up special, Live at Madison Square Garden, premiered on Netflix in March. Netflix has re-partnered with Ansari on a sitcom, titled Master of None, which will hit the site on November 6. The trajectory of Ansari’s specials has seen him go from sillier topics like R. Kelly and bacon to more serious topics like long-term relationships and bacon. Food aside, the Parks and Recreation star has matured over the course of his specials, but not always to the benefit of his humor. His last special, while very smart, wasn’t especially heavy on good old-fashioned laughs. Luckily for the crowd at the Shoreline, Ansari’s new material seems have found the happy balance between things like Googling Ludacris on vacation and more high-brow social commentary. Addressing the death of Sandra Bland, Ansari was surgical in his ability to make fun of things like the officer’s comment that Bland seemed agitated (“Because most of us are so excited to get pulled over. Excuse me sir, do you know why I pulled you over? I wanted to give you these tickets to see Drake!”) while also bringing an important and somber issue into the spotlight. Thoughts on the inequality of birth control and the lack of authenticity in sex scenes in movies were also big hits. In the former, Aziz imagined the doctor explaining all of the things that his girlfriend would be force to do in order to ensure her birth control would be effective, before telling Aziz not to worry, he didn’t have to do anything, and did he want to get some jalapeño poppers?

Once again, Funny or Die did a magnificent job of bringing a wide array of comedic voices together. Given the show’s late date change from Saturday to Tuesday to accommodate Schumer’s duties hosting Saturday Night Live, the Shoreline was packed. Sharing humor with so many others is an odd sensation, but an immensely pleasurable one. It feels good to be in on the joke. Oddball let us in on a thousand of the best ones. 

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