Comedy Central and the Creation of Colossal Clusterfest: The Bonnaroo of Comedy

Comedy Central’s first foray into the festival scene, a three-day music and comedy fete in June called Colossal Clusterfest, was quietly introduced in a press release back in February with the simple tagline: “Comedy. Music. Comedy.”

The San Francisco-based cluster boasted superb stand-up, live podcasts, musical performances, and interactive attractions. There were sips and suds from California’s renowned wineries and local fare from artisan chefs. The circus culminated in a live Comedy Central special.

The goal—to pack a whopping, fans-first immersive experience into one weekend—was lofty, especially for a first-time festival. But attendees and critics largely agree that it was a colossal success.

Watch the highlight reel:

“[Clusterfest] shows that comedy can be taken to the Bonnaroo/Lollapalooza level,” wrote comedy blog “Superstars, emerging stars, and an outright party vibe with gigantic crowds.”

The network transformed high-caliber TV into a living entity by inviting fans to dodge corn husks chucked by a towering, blue extraterrestrial (aka T.J. Miller of The Gorburger Show) and head on down to South Park.

Come on down to South Park. (Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic)

Comedy Central’s decision to join the festival circuit seems like a natural  move for a company in tune with cultural progression. Millions of people watch Comedy Central’s award-winning, subversive shows on a weekly basis. The iconic brand has a robust slate of programming, balancing ludicrous gags with satirical, political commentary. Since 1991, Comedy Central shows have launched legendary careers, penetrated social discourse and accrued a massive fan base.

According to Viacom executive Steve Raizes, Comedy Central wanted to take their content to the next level with Clusterfest and let fans leap into the universe of their favorite show.

“The question was,” said Raizes, “How to view Comedy Central through a lens, and what to extract out of that prism?” The popular three-day music festival format was a logical place to begin building the foundation for Comedy Central’s theme park. The network chose to work with production company Superfly, widely respected for creating legendary events such as Bonnaroo and Outside Lands.

Holding the festival in San Francisco—an epicenter of cultural development, from Rolling Stone Magazine to Silicon Valley—was a wise choice. The Bay Area has been a hotbed of stand-up comedy since the 1970s; a place where iconic performers like Margaret Cho and Robin Williams began their careers.

“San Francisco has such a great tradition of comedy roots,” said Comedy Central President Kent Alterman in an interview with “It just felt like the natural, organic place to have a festival like this.” The cluster took place at San Francisco’s Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, a storied arena which has hosted NBA tournaments, the 1920 Democratic National Convention and performances by renowned artists including the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, Lady Gaga and more.

Clusterfest atendees watch a performance at the vibrant Piazza Del Cluster Stage at The Bill Graham Civic Auditorium. (Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic)

Now, the venue has reached another benchmark—hosting the largest comedy festival in U.S. history, with roughly 40,000 attendees.

Comedy Central wanted to “cross pollinate talent,” said Raizes, by integrating shows like Seinfeld and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (from non-Viacom networks), as well as bringing in stellar bands and musicians.

“Music is the pulse of the engine behind comedy,” said Raizes.

The emphasis on culinary creativity was sparked by Comedy Central’s ability to connect with fans through the optics of food. South Park’s infamous episode “Scott Tenorman Must Die” metamorphosed into an epic chili cook-off.

To be clear—Clusterfest was not, as it name implies, recklessly thrown together.

From the start, Comedy Central had a specific vision—according to Raizes, the company intended to create “The comic-con of comedy.” It was a hodgepodge of activity, yet prudently curated.

At any given hour, up to six sets overlapped. But thanks to the Civic Center’s layout, festival-goers could groove to Ice Cube’s raps, take a short walk to hear Moshe Kasher perform stand-up, and still have time to compete in the Flipadelphia tournament—all without hearing noise from conflicting acts.

In her review of the festival for, Amma Marfo commended the astute organization and execution of Clusterfest: “Staff and volunteers were polite and informed, the grounds somehow stayed immaculate despite tens of thousands of comedy and music fans flooding the Civic Center Plaza and Bill Graham Civic Auditorium for three straight days.” Marfo concluded that the talk of future Clusterfests “made [her] heart swell with excitement and anticipation.”

A recent Eventbrite study found nearly 77 percent of millennials consider live events, like festivals, the root of their best memories. It’s known as “the experience economy,” when America’s largest generation wields roughly $1.3 trillion in annual consumer spending, and we’re spending it on ephemeral pursuits.

Millennials prefer kinship and engagement to material products. We’re also driven by FOMO, aka the fear of missing out. Social media makes it nearly impossible to avoid seeing enviable events, which is why Clusterfest is such a lucrative business endeavor.

Our generation doesn’t just want to watch Seinfeld reruns, we want to meet the Soup Nazi. We want to dive into South Park’s Memberberry Ball Pit. We want to experience firsthand what It’s Always Sunny’s “Charlie work” really is. We want to touch and feel our favorite shows.

So, while Comedy Central’s award-winning programming is hugely successful, short-lived experiences are equally worthy of the brand’s talent, time, and money. One weekend of live music and entertainment can instill as much joy in a fan as binge-watching a season of their favorite show.

I can vouch for this—I’ve gone to hundreds of live shows and a slew of festivals since I was in high school. And while these experiences are fleeting, pricy, and grueling (think camping in the mud after three days of torrential rain) they are intrinsic to my life. The memories are more palpable to me than any material object.

Naturally, I suffered from FOMO during Clusterfest. While I was lucky to enjoy Comedy Central’s tent at Bonnaroo in 2012, I have never attended a festival that incorporated such a wide breadth of music and comedy into its roster, along with deeply interactive attractions. In fact, no one had. Clusterfest was the first of its kind.

And ultimately, live events like Clusterfest are cultivating more content for the network, as seen by the livestreamed coverage. This means no more FOMO—even if you couldn’t make the party, you can relive it, on demand at your leisure.

Watch the epic special online.


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