Superfly’s Chris Sampson & Comedy Central’s Jonas Larsen Talk Merging Comedy & Music For San Francisco’s Clusterfest

Misha Dimirskiy / Clusterfest
– Clusterf-word
A view of San Francisco’s Civic Center Plaza performance during the 2018 Clusterfest. For the festival, the Plaza merges with the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium to create one mega-venue with indoor and outdoor stages.

Now in its third year, Comedy Central Presents Clusterfest has quickly carved out its own niche in the comedy festival market as one of the few events to combine A-list comedy with live music at scale. This year’s installment, which takes place June 21-23 at San Francisco’s Civic Center Plaza and Bill Graham Auditorium, features rare live performances from TV/film stars like Amy Poehler and Issa Rae, headlining sets from John Mulaney and the popular “My Favorite Murder” podcast as well as one-night-only live reads of cult films “Clueless” and “Romy & Michele’s High School Reunion” with eclectic, all-star casts.

Clusterfest is a joint venture between Viacom’s Comedy Central and producer Superfly Presents, in association with Another Planet Entertainment. The event’s origins 
date back to Bonnaroo 2014, where Superfly’s Chris Sampson, EVP of programming, first pitched Comedy Central’s Jonas Larsen, EVP and co-head of talent and development, on what was initially conceived as a comedy and magic festival. Though Sampson jokes “I’m not giving up on the magic part,” the combination of comedy and music has proven to be successful, with one of the festival’s three days sold out at press time and conversations already underway for potential expansion.

Pollstar caught up with Sampson and Larsen for a sneak peek at this year’s programming, insight into the companies’ joint venture and parting thoughts on Superfly’s last year of involvement with Bonnaroo, which wrapped June 16. This conversation has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Pollstar: What’s different this year, and what were some of the more challenging bookings to put together?
Jonas Larsen: One of the things we try to do every year is create a unique experience for the consumer. That’s why we have these live reads of “Clueless” with Issa Rae as Cher and Kumail Nanjiani as Paul Rudd’s character, or “Romy & Michele’s High School Reunion” with the drag queens from “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” We’re creating these one-of-a-kind experiences you can’t see anywhere else with really great talent, as well as live tapings of some of the biggest podcasts in the country like “My Favorite Murder.”
Chris Sampson: Even though we’re in year three, it’s still a relatively new property, so we’re so excited to have Amy Poehler here. She doesn’t tour a lot, and the “Only at Clusterfest,” being able to bring her and Issa Rae here and work with their teams to put together shows, has been great.

Larsen: And in a way, it hasn’t been that hard to get big names. In year one, we had Jerry Seinfeld headline, who’s arguably one of the greatest standups of our generation, as well as Kevin Hart, Bill Burr, Jon Stewart. What’s hard is to bring those really unique experiences. We had Lonely Island come and do a performance last year and it blew my mind. 
Sampson: It was their first-ever show, and now they’re touring it. Clusterfest as the genesis was a big part of that, and that’s what we like to see with talent using these festivals as a platform.
We’re also very lucky to have Another Planet, who are also our partners on Outside Lands. This is their market and we wouldn’t do it in San Francisco without Another Planet. Their relationship with the city, this building, this venue is unparalleled.
And SF Sketchfest has been a programming partner of ours for the past three years. They co-curate six shows for us, and their knowledge of the market has been really great.

Comedy Central has been strategically aggressive in expanding its off-network ventures to include partnerships and sponsorships with other live events, including the New York Comedy Festival. How do you measure the success of these investments, and where else might we see you play in the touring market?
Larsen: We wouldn’t be in year three [of Clusterfest] if we didn’t feel like this was part of our future. We are absolutely looking to grow our on-the-ground presence in various ways. Clusterfest is our flagship, and something that has great potential to grow and expand into other cities down the road. There’s many other conversations we’re having and have had around our efforts to expand our brand beyond the linear platform as we’ve done in so many different ways with radio, our digital efforts and podcasts. 
What is the capacity for this year’s Clusterfest, and what percentage of tickets have been sold?
Larsen: Tens of thousands of people are gonna show up this weekend. We typically don’t divulge any numbers like that publicly in terms of ticket sales, but I would say this year we’ve sold out Saturday, that’s a good indication that we’re doing pretty darn well.
Chris, this past weekend was Superfly’s last year of involvement with Bonnaroo. Any parting thoughts as you officially hand the reins to Live Nation?
Sampson: I started working at Superfly in 2010, so I didn’t help start Bonnaroo but I was part of the team that worked on it for a long time. What’s great about Clusterfest is it could be my Bonnaroo. It could be something I’m helping grow with the team at Comedy Central, and Superfly’s ability to keep these festivals going for years to come.
Andrew Hampp is a music marketing consultant and founder of 1803 LLC, based in Berkeley, California.