Within an hour of arriving at Bonnaroo, I‘d stumbled into a smoky circle of kids from Annapolis. Across from me sat a shirtless boy who, between long draws from a Camelbak, kept loudly referencing The Tao of Pooh; to my right, one showing off the glass pipes he’d picked up at a roadside 3-for-1 sale. I checked my phone: still no service. With about 75 more hours of festival to go, this did not bode well.
A cross between Woodstock and spring break (circa 1998), in its ten-year run Bonnaroo has earned a reputation as a drug friendly hippie holiday, a completely immersive experience as focused on fostering good vibes as on curating an eclectic lineup. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the four-day music and arts festival, held annually on a Manchester, Tennessee field known as “The Farm,” though I had a feeling it’d be something like this:
But with the addition of a cinema tent, a “food truck oasis,” and a craft beer expo, recently it’s seemed less like a shit-your-pants-on-shrooms camping trip than a gentrified jamfest. And past years have included an increasing number of comics, from Ralphie May to Tim Minchin. So when the 2012 comedy bill was announced — with Marc Maron, Rory Scovel, Kyle Kinane, Pete Holmes, Reggie Watts, Amy Schumer, and Steven Wright, among many others — I was curious; when The Chris Gethard Show got added, I was in.
The Annapolis crew was camped near me, and eager to offer tips on parties they’d been hearing about, but I wanted to explore the mini-city of trailers, tents, and humming generators around the press compound. By early afternoon there was a line outside the 1,700-capacity comedy tent, though the festival grounds (“Centeroo”) were still fairly empty. The line remained all weekend, partly because comedy events were ticketed to ensure capacity — you had to wait once for a free pass, again to enter, an annoying but understandable policy that was a dealbreaker for some. One of the site’s few air conditioned havens, the big-top venue echoed 80s hits on a loop, and the crowd that filled it was especially wired; after about a dozen rounds of the wave, Thursday’s first house broke into a full-length rendition of “Don’t Stop Believin.’”
While the audience felt skewed towards live comedy virgins (based on my extremely informal poll of about a dozen people, and the number of requests yelled from the bleachers), Joe DeRosa, Natasha Leggero, Jon Dore, Andy Daly, and Rory Scovel all completely killed at the first two Comedy Central-sponsored shows. Daly kept it weird by appearing in character as topical comic Jerry O’Hearn (which was met with some confusion) and angry party-inciter Danny Mahoney (who led a massive conga line through the crowd); Dore had a scripted bit that called an audience member onstage to read about a dozen pages of dialogue.
Any uncertainty I felt about the festival’s general vibe melted away as soon as Ali Wong stepped onstage; with deliciously explicit bits about porn preferences and vaginal leakage, the tiny comic first shocked, then completely won over the crowd, setting the perfect tone for a second pair of shows that included host Geoff Tate’s amiable rants, Kyle Kinane’s booze-fueled storytelling, Pete Holmes’ unwavering energy, and headliner Brian Posehn’s (self-admittedly) dick humor-heavy set.
Aside from a few DJs and a Trapped in the Closet sing-along, The Chris Gethard Show was one of the few acts scheduled for the first early morning, with a 2 a.m. installment of their epically odd talk / game show that was weeks in the making. The will-he-or-won’t-he-make-it anticipation generated by the fest’s #BonnarooGethard campaign — in which the host basically hitchhiked from Los Angeles to Manchester, with mere hours to spare before showtime — drew a rowdy crowd that was more than willing to engage in several dance-offs, a round of carnival games, and an impromptu weird dick contest (which is exactly what it sounds like). Success.
Leaving the shelter of the comedy tent, even on this relatively quiet first night, was like stepping into a zombie apocalypse; the worn dirt road that served as the campgrounds’ only exit was lined by brightly-lit food trucks and folding tables full of comically large bongs, with hordes of stumbling campers wandering aimlessly in front of cars and golf carts. A contingent of weary-looking state troopers stood guard, halfheartedly herding people towards wristband checkpoints. It was crowded but quiet, and I’d been repeatedly warned that it’d “get really crazy tomorrow.”
The festival encourages attendees to “think of Bonnaroo as a giant communal art project,” which, y’know, philosophically it is; but with not one but two ferris wheels, fields of labyrinthine tent cities, and an Alice in Wonderland-inspired clocktower looming over the whole thing, The Farm is an acid nightmare to navigate. The gravelly paths and lantern-lit marketplaces are like 18th-century city streets, with stalls for wares like Dr. Sofskin’s Body Lotion Candles separated by gong choirs and gushing, mushroom-shaped fountains. After awhile, the hot dog carts and clusters of napping fest-goers you’ve been using as landmarks begin to blur together. But it’s nothing compared to the complete mindfuck of reading a map — the venue names are like a stoner’s attempt at “Who’s On First”: This Tent, That Tent, What Stage, and one just labeled with a rotating, fluorescent question mark.
So staying in one place seemed like a good idea (except for the hour I snuck off to catch Ludacris, which was an amazing idea). Friday’s lineup was worth sticking around for, with a music and magic variety hour and several stand-up showcases. Marcus Monroe opened things up with a knife-juggling act that enraptured the likely high crowd, keeping up the energy for the absurd Mike O’Connell and adorable Garfunkel and Oates (so much that the duo was nearly trampled by eager fans after their set). Former Men at Work singer Colin Hay — whose slot on the comedy stage seemed like a “sure why not” programming choice — rounded things out with an acoustic revue of his past and present hits.
Backstage in the Artist’s Lounge, actor David Koechner was filming mini-interviews, perched on a log stump so tall he and his guests’ feet were dangling inches above ground as they talked about friendship and sang improvised, keyboard-accompanied jingles. Nearby, Gethard and his crew — most of whom had spent the past week-plus on a cross-country trip — were parked in a shady corner, planning their final few videos. Back at the tent, Marc Maron was taking the audience on a tour of his inner monologues while Judah Friedlander defended his World Champ status, and Amy Schumer had one of my favorite sets of the festival:
Aziz Ansari headlined two early evening shows, and the atmosphere was nothing short of insane. The crowd — which had been chanting his name all weekend, at shows he wasn’t even on — went crazy for the suit-clad Parks and Rec star, standing O’s and all. Opener Rory Scovel’s heavily improvised sets tend to be the highlight of any fest, and this was no exception; the three I saw were all completely different, and absolutely brilliant. As the sun went down and the temperature dropped, there was one last Comedy Central taping, but I had staked out a hammock behind the stage Radiohead was playing and it was all downhill from there, energy-wise. Later, at my campsite, I fell asleep to the sound of a Boyz II Men karaoke party, which had assembled flash mob-style outside a nearby shower station and evolved into an all-night 90s nostalgia-fest.
It’s impossible to forget that the weekend is a self-described “ping pong match of amplified positivity.” If you want to be snarky about it, you could argue that the comedy at Bonnaroo isn’t just on one stage. With a list of activities that includes “build a hula hoop!” and a kombucha growing workshop, there’s a lot to mock, if tie-dyed Phish fans aren’t quite your thing. But if you’re gonna do this this authentically, you’ve gotta follow the #1 rule that’s plastered on everything from compost bins to port-a-potties: RADIATE POSITIVITY. By Saturday, people are powering through sunburns, sleeplessness, and hangovers; even before 11 a.m., most of the dusty campers venturing onto the grounds were clutching cans of sun-warmed Miller Lite. Backstage, double-fisting draft beer was the midday activity of choice.
The first two shows reprised Friday’s packed afternoon lineups, with Marcus Monroe adding a 7-foot-tall unicycle to his act, and Garfunkel and Oates inspiring an “I Don’t Understand Job” sing-along. Rhys Darby (best known as sad sack band manager Murray on Flight of the Concords) hosted Nick Thune, Reggie Watts, and Moshe Kasher, which — between Thune’s easygoing acoustic absurdity, Watts’ blend of stand-up and beat-building, and Kasher’s commandingly electric set — was worth the entire trip alone. The musical theme continued when, during the last show of the evening, which also featured Glenn Wool, Steven Wright brought out his guitar:
Childish Gambino (the alter ego of Community actor Donald Glover) drew one of the weekend’s most massive crowds, turning technical difficulties into an opportunity to showcase his freestyle skills. Glover, who had been wandering the grounds all day disguised by a bandana, worked the crowd with ease, shooting sultry, sweaty looks at the cameras broadcasting on massive stageside screens. After a relatively incident-free two hour set from Danzig, I caught Adult Swim’s “things you’ve never seen” in the Cinema Tent (it turned out to be an episode of the amazing Eric Andre Show, alongside a never-aired Aqua Teen) before Reggie Watts’ secret screening: sci-fi classic The Last Starfighter, with a live, perfectly synced soundtrack. Watts, a multi-year veteran of Bonnaroo, might as well be its official mascot, since his multi-disciplinary style so perfectly personifies its anything-goes philosophy:
After, I drifted through Skrillex, GZA, and a Van Halen tribute band, a back-to-back-to-back mix more disorienting than the lack of sleep. I ended up missing most of Day Four, heading out about five minutes after it started raining and I realized my setup wasn’t waterproof; a weather check confirmed the icy early morning showers showed no sign of letting up, and a day-long drive sounded better than the alternative. Since so much of the fest was filmed, I figured I’d have a chance to catch up later: Bonnaroo365 will be posting more videos from Chris Gethard and Judah Friedlander; David Koechner was backstage all weekend, filming his forthcoming web series; Slacker Radio has put together a playlist of sets and interviews.
And on June 23, Comedy Central premieres CC:Stand-Up: The Bonnaroo Experience, a selection of the week’s highlights (it’ll also be available online starting June 25). Hosted by Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, the special will feature Andy Daly, Jon Dore, Judah Friedlander, Natasha Leggero, and Marc Maron. Throw on your finest fanny pack and rustle up a post-show Frisbee match for a truly authentic experience.
Samantha Pitchel is radiating positivity.