AUSTIN — If Friday’s comedians at Fun Fun Fun Fest contended with the low lows of celebrity and popular culture, Saturday’s theme might as well have been “Damn the man, save the Empire.” Politics, politics, and more politics.
W. Kamau Bell’s set, for example, offered an appealing blend of his personal experiences and political critique that had the audience at once laughing and thinking carefully about how race works in America. No surprise that blackness poses some unique conundrums. Take the difficulties surrounding being a parent of two mixed-race children. When, for example, does one tell his or her children about being black? And especially about being both black and white? The Internet, he said, came to the rescue in contending with such questions. Bell’s wife stumbled upon a website that catered specifically to parents of mixed-race children: the apparently seriously named “Chocolate Hair, Vanilla Care.”
Although some of Bell’s jokes undoubtedly went over many of these audience members’ heads—who among them caught the hilarity of the comic’s reference to W.E.B. DuBois’s “veil” or to the civil rights activist Audra Lorde?—the crowd was largely smitten with Bell’s witty critiques, which gained momentum when the comedian delved more deeply into Obama-era politics. Challenging the strange logic of demands to see immigrants’ papers, Bell quipped, “My people didn’t even have papers, unless you count a receipt.” And that was the time hundreds of festival-goers heard a slavery joke at Fun Fun Fun Fest.
Where Bell’s routine was undergirded by personal experience, Jello Biafra—the former lead singer of the Dead Kennedys who now spends his time as a spoken word artist—was markedly less so. Biafra offered an hour of political critique and occasional ranting about the nation’s current state of affairs, focusing his vitriol on the NRA and the so-called “Talibang,” those virulent and emphatic 2nd Amendment activists who would sooner flood the streets with guns for all (men! women! children! pets!) than contend with any restrictions on their sale. I was surprised to learn that the former angry (well, maybe still angry) punk rocker has never owned a gun. His reasoning is simple enough: “I would have shot too many people by now!”
And who better to follow this legend of punk onstage than Ian Rubbish, the British punk rocker from the 1970s with a soft spot for conservative politician Margaret Thatcher? Rubbish, portrayed flawlessly by SNL veteran and Late Night with Seth Meyers bandleader Fred Armisen, performed a smattering of songs that celebrated the former prime minister, like “Sweet Iron Lady” and “Maggie Thatcher.”
The crowd was treated to the real Fred, too, and the show quickly became more about punk music itself than any explicit and droll social critique. Joined onstage by some other musical luminaries—J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr. and Tim Kerr of Austin’s own hardcore punk rock band Big Boys—Armisen continued his set with a cover of Big Boys’ “Sound On Sound” and a quick piece by The Damned. As tight as the performance was, however, the crowd seemed to hope for more comedic performance, less rocking out. Throngs of attendees left the tent when it became clear that Armisen would not be reenacting his character from the Californians or performing the always-spot on impressions of Barack Obama or Prince—a disappointment that was likely compounded when Armisen’s set ended a full twenty-five minutes before the schedule indicated.
Overall, Saturday’s proceedings were more likely to have the audience nodding their heads—nodding in agreement, nodding along to the music—than doubled over in stitches. But for a crowd of young music lovers, perhaps these blends of performance and politics were sorely needed reminders that creative expression matters.
photos by Carrie Andersen