AUSTIN — Once upon a time, before Formula One racing came to roost, before South by Southwest lay at the feet of Microsoft and Doritos, before everyone and their mother moved to the city to catch a whisper of hipness before it vanished into commodity, Austin quietly celebrated the spirit of the weird. Although the city’s eccentric soul is maturing into a more measured—dare I say mainstream?—metropolis, we’re lucky to be able to find pockets of strangeness hidden within the city limits.
Fun Fun Fun Fest, in spite of its continued growth-cum-commodification, remains a repository of bizarre performances and light-hearted play. Although the three-day festival has come to boast some major league headliners—among them this year are 2 Chainz, Modest Mouse, Judas Priest, Girl Talk, and Wiz Khalifa—Fun Fun Fun’s 2014 comedy lineup has remained firmly ensconced in the alternative realm, celebrating the odder funny folk among us.
On Friday, comedian Rachel Bloom, for example, presented a blend of stand-up comedy and musical performance well-suited to the musically-inclined crowd. Bloom, who recently scored a deal with Showtime, reinterpreted Beyoncé’s “If I Were A Boy” as a Kafkaesque fever dream in which a grown woman must contend with the fear and anxiety arising from waking up suddenly as a small boy (“Did I upset a witch?” Bloom inquired). After that performance, Bloom quipped that today’s pop music (Queen Bey notwithstanding, I’m sure) represented the downfall of our culture, and she lamented the possibility that English classes of the future would analyze Ke$ha lyrics like poetry. But really, who knows? Maybe Ke$ha is actually the Herman Melville of our generation: underappreciated in her time; her brilliance to be recognized only after her death.
Continuing the theme of celebrity declension narratives was the leeeeegendary Neil Hamburger, an unkempt and lugubrious character portrayed by comedian and musician Gregg Turkington. Hamburger’s dryly delivered one-liners resonated with this eager audience, even the so-called “garbage man” on his phone that the anti-comedian railed against. Then again, not even our most vaunted cultural heroes were safe in Hamburger’s set: Eric Clapton, KISS, Limp Bizkit and Diplo were on the receiving end of a few pointed barbs.
Closing the comedy proceedings was none other than John Waters, whose title I hesitate to write here because he’s everything: director, writer, actor, producer, comedian, journalist, artist, bibliophile, hitchhiker. This renaissance man defies easy categorization.
But what a perfect fit to close a set of performances that, to some extent, denigrated so-called low celebrity culture. Waters is a figure who celebrates, if not embodies, camp and kitsch. Here’s a guy who is not afraid to say that he loves Justin Bieber (“I’m his last fan!”) and Lana Del Rey, while also dropping references to the critically-acclaimed painter Cy Twombly and photographer Diane Arbus. Waters is a walking and talking postmodern pastiche.
Over a roughly hour-long set, the director took the audience on a largely autobiographical journey through his more infamous films—Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble (his favorite film, he says), Polyester, Hairspray, Crybaby, Serial Mom, Pecker, and Cecil B. Demented—with comedic tangents and behind-the-scenes moments woven throughout his filmographic story. We learned, for example, of the several not-so-authentic high school productions of the accidental hit (his words, not mine) Hairspray, wherein one school abroad featured a slew of performers in blackface, and another right here in Texas produced the show with an all-white cast (“we couldn’t find any black students,” they apparently said, probably with a shrug).
More than anything, however, we learned that Waters is a man whose affinity for the odd and the fringe does not blunt his equally strong love of the oft-reviled “mainstream.” Wish that we could all have such open hearts and minds!
I rarely leave comedy shows feeling anything but joy and low-grade exhaustion, but Waters left me feeling hopeful. Perhaps this sublimely-mustached cult figure reflects the true spirit of the festival and the spirit of Austin itself. Perhaps we can welcome new corporations, chain restaurants, hypercommodified happenings like South by Southwest, and slick tech start-ups—all while still maintaining our peculiar vibe. Perhaps the city can have its weirdness and eat it too.
photos by Carrie Andersen