Entertainment

How Festival Supreme, LA's Comedy and Music Extravaganza, Came to Be

Published On 10/25/2016 Published On 10/25/2016
Tenacious D
Tenacious D | Cody Burkhardt

By lineup alone, the first Festival Supreme wasn’t revolutionary. Sure, it was stacked. In fact, it looked like one of the best comedy fests ever curated, with huge movie stars (Adam Sandler, Zach Galifianakis), troupe reunions (Mr. Show, The Mighty Boosh), and some music festival veterans (Tim & Eric, Tenacious D themselves). But the actual vision of Festival Supreme was something more specific, and even more special.

Tenacious D, otherwise known as Jack Black and Kyle Gass, had created an event in the same manner that Yahweh created Adam in the Old Testament: in its own image. Unlike most music festivals where comedy and music were segregated, here it was offered up simultaneously, the ethos of the band expanded to an entire event. Sandler brought his acoustic guitar and played songs. Fred Armisen appeared as character “Ian Rubbish” performing a set of punk songs. Maya Rudolph showed up with her Prince cover band Princess. The day was conceived with a vision that wasn’t readily apparent from just reading names on a poster.

And that vision has persisted to what will now be its fourth consecutive year when Festival Supreme descends on the Shrine Expo Hall and Grounds on October 29th. It’s a run that has seen a dramatic improvement in execution, and a longevity that couldn’t have been predicted when considering the issues that presented themselves during the fest’s inaugural soiree at the Santa Monica Pier.

Courtesy of Festival Supreme

Interestingly, the original vision and name for Festival Supreme were both different than their 2013 execution. “About five or six years ago, we started playing around with the idea of a Monsters of Comedy Rock Festival, a big throwdown with Flight of the Conchords, Spinal Tap, Tenacious D, and The Lonely Island,” Black explains by phone from Hawaii.

“But we found out we couldn’t use the Monsters of Comedy Rock name because Gene Simmons from Kiss owns Monsters of Rock,” Gass adds by phone from Los Angeles.

“Yeah, you can’t use the word ‘monsters’ with anything, it’s all taken.” Black says. “But I’m glad we couldn’t use it because I think Festival Supreme is superior in every way. So, we couldn’t get any of the four horsemen of the comedy apocalypse like we planned. We tried, but they were all busy. But then all these other people we asked said yes. Mr. Show said yes and Tim & Eric said yes and The Mighty Boosh said yes, so we looked at ourselves in the mirror while holding hands and said ‘we’re going to do this, we don’t need the four horsemen of the comedy apocalypse.’”

Finding the right location for the first installment also proved challenging. Tenacious D’s longtime manager Michele Ceazan-Fleischli recalls nearly giving up when they were unable to settle on a venue. “We had no idea where to put it and how people wanted to consume comedy and music,” she remembers. “I’d gone to so many festivals and seen the comedy tent struggle because the music was next door to it.”

“I don’t think anyone else was doing what we did, where we put the comedy at the forefront or at least hand-in-hand with the music. I felt like Jack and Kyle were trailblazing.”

It was through a friend’s suggestion that they began to consider the Santa Monica Pier, with the space’s history and scenic qualities as part of the appeal. The uniqueness of the space also matched the overarching idea for the event. “I don’t think anyone else was doing what we did,” Ceazan-Fleischli says, “Where we put the comedy at the forefront or at least hand-in-hand with the music. I felt like Jack and Kyle were trailblazing.”

In terms of sales, the event was a big success, selling out with approximately 8,000 people attending. But issues were apparent before fans even entered the festival. “We thought one of the biggest problems would be parking,” Ceazan-Fleischli says, “but that wasn’t a problem. It’s annoying to park down there, but I think everybody knows that already. But getting into the festival was an issue. The lines seemed outrageous.” The queue stretched beyond the base of the pier, and served as a preview for the environment fans were about to spend several hours in.

Tenacious D and their camp are still proud of that first year, to the point where Gass and Black aren’t quite anticipating discussing the hiccups that occurred. And they are right, in a sense. There were some amazing performances and some special moments that first year of Festival Supreme that shouldn’t go overlooked. The Lonely Island came out as a surprise guest during Tenacious D’s closing set, Eric Idle played with his own name by bringing out Billy Idol during his appearance, and David Cross and Bob Odenkirk’s revival of Mr. Show would end up as a preview for a full-fledged reunion for their eventual Netflix reboot. But The D are also realistic and know that certain aspects of the fest just didn’t work on the Santa Monica Pier.

“It doesn’t matter how good your lineup is if you can’t take a shit.”

“Club Intimacy [the small tent devoted to standups] was a total clusterfuck,” Black admits. “No one could get in there. That was issue number one. Issue number two was the plumbing, there was all kinds of problems with the shitters. And it was embarrassing because one of the great things we had advertised about the festival was the toilets. We had advertised the ‘golden toilet experience,’ where each one would have its own ‘butt-ler’ and everyone would leave talking about the toilets, and that backfired big time. We all had a little bit of shit on our face.”

“Because we’ve been to festivals, too, and know how important that is for your comfort,” Gass adds.

“It doesn’t matter how good your lineup is if you can’t take a shit,” Black says. “But be that as it may, even if you couldn’t get into Club Intimacy and you shit your pants, you still have to admit that certain acts were unbelievable. But yeah, there were definite growing pains.”

Ceazan-Fleischli also points to the issue with the standup comedy tent, where the idea of everyone floating around and just checking out a couple jokes doesn’t really work with the caliber of talent that they had. For the most part, people wanted to see an entire set, and the comedy was geared towards staying for the whole time.

As for the toilets, she confirms that Black and Gass take their plumbing very seriously. “Jack and Kyle, when they themselves tour, one of the things that they find to be most important are the toilets,” she says. “It’s hard to get that much water in and out of the pier and the event was oversold, so the toilets pretty much had to be shut down. We got a lot of sad and pretty grossed-out feedback.

Then there were technical issues of sound bleed from the main music stage into the tent hosting the sketch comedy. Some people singled out Adam Sandler for playing into Mr. Show’s set, but in reality his stage was just running late and he was merely finishing his allotted time. But the delay was noticeable enough that the performers struggled through it.

Tim Heidecker | Cara Robbins

“We’re wary of doing comedy on these outdoor, bigger stages, because some of the subtler, weirder stuff we do can be lost,” says Tim Heidecker, who played Festival Supreme with Eric Wareheim as Tim & Eric for that first year. He also appeared as Heidecker & Wood in its second year, and is scheduled for a solo standup set this year. Heidecker notes that he wasn’t really pleased with his performance at that first festival, citing the sound bleed as well as the difficulties in playing in the cold temperature. “We’re not seasoned musicians, but I remember picking up my guitar at the beginning of the set, barely able to hear it, and what I could hear was wildly out of tune.” The pier’s strict curfew made Heidecker barrel through the issues, and he recalls being livid with himself for the circumstances.

Had Festival Supreme been a typical music festival, these hardships would have been more easily overcome. Most music festivals are uncomfortable by nature, but beer, drugs, and mental preparation help make the experience tolerable, even fun. But for comedy, a certain level of comfort is required for things to be funny. It’s hard to laugh when you are packed in too tight, or when you’ve just missed an artist you were really looking forward to, or when you can’t find a reasonable place to poop.

Attendees took to social media to voice their discontent at some of the problems of Festival Supreme’s first run, and they were heard loud and clear. “With all the feedback, we knew we had to fix all this if we were ever gonna do it again,” says Ceazan-Fleischli. “We wanted to redeem ourselves. Kyle and Jack want to throw the best show in town. It was very important to them that everyone have a great time.”

“Flow is key. You want your festival to be moving. You want people to get a little bit of this and then go somewhere else to get a little bit of that. That’s sort of the electricity of festivals.”

When Ceazan-Fleischli speaks about the 2014 installment, it’s apparent in her voice how much she hopes people who took issue with the first Festival Supreme came back to second.

“Finding a venue was a huge part of the next year,” Gass recalls. “We looked at a lot of places all over LA, even up in Simi Valley to try to find the right place.”

“LA is tough,” admits Black. “For a second we were going to be out in Lancaster. But we found The Shrine, and that was the perfect destination. Instead of relegating the standups to the Club Intimacy clusterfuck tent that holds 1,000 people and is a bottleneck nightmare, we have the Shrine Auditorium which hold 6,000 people and is the velvety, golden toilet experience of our dreams.”

Another key to the Shrine’s success as a venue is the use of the Expo Hall, which Black points out is crucial in conveying their yearly theme, be it the dark circus of 2014, the Las Vegas lounge of 2015, or this year’s outer space motif. “I liken it to Ben-Hur because it’s this giant oval,” Gass says.

“Flow is key,” Black says. “You want your festival to be moving. You want people to get a little bit of this and then go somewhere else to get a little bit of that. That’s sort of the electricity of festivals, you don’t want people to stagnate, because if you do sit down and decide ‘this is the place I want to be to see people,’ that’s just a concert. You want people to move to different experiences and have to make some decisions.”

Courtesy of Festival Supreme

And that’s exactly what happens at the Shrine. Two outdoor stages alternate between musical presentations, while the indoor spaces allow for retreats from the heat and the sun. If someone wants to sit down for a while, the Shrine Auditorium is available for that, with ample space to accommodate the crowd size, which has settled in at around 6,500 for the past couple years.

“Moving to the Shrine alleviated all of our issues,” says Ceazan-Fleischli. “It’s the perfect venue for what we’re doing. The second year Jack commissioned his friend to design this circus of death. It was insane. There were two trains, there were all these performance artists, and there were art installations. A lot of people dressed up because it was near Halloween but not on Halloween.

“We had the space to do what we wanted to do, and we were very proud that no one complained,” she says. “We looked at Twitter because so many people took to social media the first year, but we couldn’t find anyone saying anything bad.”

And settling into their new home allowed for Festival Supreme to highlight its biggest strength: booking some of the best comedy rock lineups ever curated. As to how Festival Supreme impresses every year with the artists they bring in, much of that has to do with the relationships Black and Gass have cultivated over the years, and the high bar they’ve set through their own creative accomplishments.  

“Jack has my heart,” says Maya Rudolph, Saturday Night Live alum and star of numerous films and televisions shows. “He’s one of the people I’ve known the longest, since I was 14, so I would do anything for him. I didn’t really need to know what the festival was, but I already had some idea of what the festival would be because, in my opinion, Tenacious D is the template of music and comedy together as one, in the best possible sense. I say that because watching them throughout LA when they were first starting out was such a triumph to me. They were doing music and comedy so well and so beautifully, which was a testament to their musicianship, because we already knew they were comedians. I think a lot of people followed in their footsteps because of how well they did it. So, it’s only right that a festival has their stamp on it.”

Heidecker echoes the sentiment, saying, “We owe Jack so much. He was the first guest on the first episode of Tom Goes to the Mayor, and just a real early supporter of Eric and I. So if Jack wants us, it’s just a no brainer.”

This kind of esteem is why Festival Supreme is able to get big names to not only appear, but to be recurring figures. The 2016 lineup will see Sarah Silverman, Will Forte, Garfunkel and Oates, and Fred Armisen as just some of the talent making return trips to the festival. And that’s just what is properly billed. Festival Supreme has also made a habit of surprising fans with unexpected sets and appearances, a cue they’ve taken from promoter Goldenvoice’s most established property, Coachella.

In its first year, unexpected guests included Conan O’Brien showing up with Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog, while “Weird Al” Yankovic appeared unannounced in year two. And for year three, fans got a surprise set from Reggie Watts, who also played the inaugural fest on the Pier.

“It was super last minute because somebody cancelled,” recalls Watts, band leader for The Late Late Show with James Corden and star of the upcoming Netflix special Spatial, premiering on December 6th. For Watts, whose live performances are known for their use of improvisational song, playing on short notice was right in his wheelhouse. “It was a perfect situation for me, I’m always ready to go.”

“Jack and Kyle know every act and they know why they want them to perform. They have a reason for being there.”

Watts fits a particular niche of comedian that also performs music, the blueprint that the festival is built on. But Festival Supreme also began offering music-first acts that also happen to be funny. This wasn’t really present in its first year, but has become a trademark of the event since it moved to the Shrine. Black mentions Beastie Boys and Devo as two paradigms of what they’d look for in their musical bookings.

“It always comes down to whether the musicians have good senses of humor,” Black says. “It’s not always obvious, because there are some really great, serious musicians who are funny as hell as a byproduct of their personality, not that they’re necessarily going for that. Like The Darkness last year, who are notoriously funny as hell, but aren’t a ‘joke’ band. I feel the same way about Die Antwoord. There’s also a leaning toward performance art, which is why we had Peaches on the bill. She’ll make you laugh, but it’s because of the strange places she’ll go in her music.”

Be it comedic friends or musicians they admire, Festival Supreme never seems without a purpose. As Ceazan-Fleischli points out, “Jack and Kyle know every act and they know why they want them to perform. They have a reason for being there.” The door is open for the performers to try new things, to work without a net, and to embrace the moment. This has meant Aubrey Plaza doing an entire set in character as “Yolanda” or Amy Poehler subverting audience expectations by riffing as a reclusive singer-songwriter. It also means that Black and Gass reinvent Tenacious D from year to year, only headlining the first year themselves, trying out a jazz routine last year and booking themselves as DJs this year.

2016 will find Flight of the Conchords headlining the festival, a big moment for Festival Supreme since the New Zealand duo were one of the original acts The D wanted for the inaugural event. And beyond this year, the possibilities still seem wide-open, despite Reggie Watts’ initial concerns.

“I remember thinking ‘how are they going to keep bringing more acts every year,’” Watts says, “because they’ll run out pretty quick.” And this does hit on the difficulty that might occur with a festival with such a distinct lane, that there is only so much that could exist within the music and comedy banner. But four years in and the bookings remain creative and exciting. Some comedians, like Armisen and Rudolph and Heidecker, have enough varying talents that multiple appearances can still feel fresh. Otherwise, Black and Gass still have a number of artists they haven’t been able to land yet, noting that Louis CK, Dane Cook, or their white whale, Spinal Tap.

Ceazan-Fleischli is not ready to give up on Spinal Tap, noting that they want to do it, but there’s just a lot that happens in the Spinal Tap universe. “I wouldn’t rule it out, ever,” she says.

Because where else would be better for something like Spinal Tap to perform than Festival Supreme. It’s taken just a few years to establish an unlikely comedic paradise, one that can feel as much inclined for comfort and luxury as it is for dirty jokes and loud rock music. “Comedy tends to be an opportunity for kids at a music festival to sit down, to get out of the sun, to rest,” Heidecker notes. “And they are all high, and by the time they come into our tent, they are probably exhausted or feeling sick or dirty. It’s not my favorite kind of audience, obviously, but we adjust what we’re doing to to accommodate that. We’re not going to go up there and do something where we’d be disappointed if people didn’t get the subtleties. That doesn’t tend to be the Festival Supreme experience.”

“It’s good to see all the other comics, and it’s good to expose some people who might not be familiar with you to what you do,” Heidecker says. “And if Jack asked me to jump off a bridge, I’d at least talk about it with my wife.”

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Philip Cosores is Deputy Editor at Consequence of Sound. He's probably just a few Twitter followers away from verification. Help him out @Philip_Cosores

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