Dallas — Stand-up comedy: A product of small nightclubs with seats just inches away from a barely elevated stage. How could this ever work in an arena? Surprisingly well, as Oddball Comedy & Curiosity Festival showed when its comedians performed before 10,000 fans at the Gexa Energy Pavilion in Fair Park on Friday night.
Expert lighting and superb camera work helped immensely. Four huge video screens enabled the nuance of facial expression and body language to come through, even to those in the back lawn seats. Lighting that allowed the performers to see the front rows, rather than the usual sea of blackness they face, made interactions with the crowd possible.
Sarah Silverman made the most of it, leaving the stage to sit on the lap and attempt to cuddle with a female audience member who remained petrified. In her first Texas show with Oddball, Silverman came prepared for battle sporting a “Stand with Texas Women” T-shirt. She pulled out her punchiest material on abortion and politics, and was met with applause, not hisses. She was visibly shocked.
While still in roaming mode, Silverman upped the ante, asking for a “straight white guy who really believes in God” to interact with. She shoved the mic toward him and asked him to define God. He replied: “God is love, God is all of us.” She looked deflated and headed back to the stage. It was a good enough set, but disappointing for a co-headliner (with Louis C. K.) on an arena tour to require crib notes.
The real woman power of the evening was Whitney Cummings, famed from the sitcoms 2 Broke Girls and Whitney. After razzing the guy in the front row wearing pink shorts—who was the gift that kept on giving for the night’s comedians—she launched into a set focused on sex. She dissected the double standard of sexual politics into miniscule pieces with one zinger after another—not printable, but not crude either, and all of them true. Notably, the trio of frat boys one row behind laughed through the entire set.
Hannibal Buress was definitely a crowd favorite. He’s sharp, playful, likeable, and energetic with a fun style that dances on the edge of exasperation. His main focus was sports, but with a distinctive take. He mused on what would happen if players abused PCP instead of steroids, zinged with jokes on the hypocrisies prevalent in college sports, and did a unique bit on the weird ways professional swimmers swim.
Perched on his emblematic stool, Marc Maron proved himself the master of the internal dialogue with a set of his classic material on rage and relationships, closing the gap between outburst and apology, and the correlation between ice cream and break-up misery. The bits are getting a little threadbare. But he’s promised his WTF podcast listeners that he plans to woodshed some new material. He closed with a clever bit on hyper-eclectic hipster stores that hints on where he’s going.
Louis C.K. was clearly the comic most people came to see. He possesses the skill to mine humor from small moments, while having the broad perspective to turn cultural commentary into comedy. He bore in right at the onset, joking about the immense backup on I-30 to enter Fair Park, while his African-American driver zipped in through the back way. “You’d rather sit in traffic for an hour than drive through a black neighborhood. You have Google maps, you know.”
It was a solid, wide-ranging and entirely satisfying set, with clever takes on airplane behavior (“A baby was crying, upset about gay marriage obviously”) and watching rats in the New York subway have sex (“Do rats orgasm? I don’t think female gets to”). Texting with his children and a summer with them in a rented country house (not his happy place) provided laughs. But better yet, in a foray into new territory he dipped into his childhood where he was loathed by his dog and tormented classmates with their inevitable mortality.
Relatively unknown opening act Grant Cotter was a surprise, combining tattoo swagger with terrific wordplay. Julian McCullough dispensed a set of unimaginative nightclub humor. Jeff Ross as emcee was awful, a sentiment shared by much of the crowd. (Overheard dialogue on the way to the parking lot: “Jeff Ross, he sure sucked. Why would they put him up there with the rest?” “To make the other comedians look better?”) A far finer choice would be Brody Stevens, who seems to be the heart of the festival and has been with it since the beginning. He’s wasted on the second stage in the food court where he hosted local comics including Chris Darden, Josh Johnson and Clint Werth.
Another improvement? Ditch the obnoxious DJ (also a source of post-show complaints) and give that time to the comics. And the intermission, done solely to stimulate more concession sales, is far too long, though the Funny or Die videos shown were fun. But big kudos to AEG that provided sign-language interpreters for a small group of deaf comedy fans.