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Review: Oddball Comedy Festival kicks off with Louis C.K., Aziz Ansari, Chris Hardwick and more at Tampa's MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre



Whatever qualms you might have about the 2014 Oddball Comedy and Curiosity Festival – and we’ll get to those qualms in a minute – it’s hard to complain about the funny you get for your money.

The tour’s kickoff Friday in Tampa brought a once-in-a-lifetime smorgasbord of stand-up to a city that’s never seen anything quite like it – Louis C.K., Aziz Ansari, Chris Hardwick, Marc Maron and more – all for as little as $35, less than it would cost to see most of these acts on their own. And there wasn’t even a two-drink minimum.

As with music festivals, there are tradeoffs to such an endless buffet of entertainment. Festivals lack the intimacy of a club or theater; a series of quick-hit sets, knocked out one after the next, may not be as fulfilling as a solo show by a single artist.

But seeing this much A-list comedy outside New York or L.A. is next to impossible. That’s what Oddball, now in its second year with organizer Funny Or Die, aims to change, one Middle American market at a time.

“Eff Coachella! Eff Bonnaroo! Eff Lollapalooza!” shouted comic Brody Stevens, who warmed up the crowd of 9,500 at the MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre. “This is all comedians! The best in the world!”

This being Oddball’s only Florida stop, the comics wasted no time getting in their shots about the Sunshine State. “I love this crowd,” Hannibal Buress said. “There’s definitely 10 percent strippers here.” Hardwick even acknowledged that he popped into Tampa’s Fetish Con Thursday night, and riffed on “the weird Scarface scene about to happen you call Ybor.”

The most impressive thing about Oddball’s opening-night lineup was the diversity of its content. Most of the comics did 15-minute sets, with Buress, Ansari and C.K. going between 25 and 35. That meant each guy generally had to stick to one or two topics – host Jeff Ross slung one-liners; Maron raged about rage and neurosis; Buress talked sports, Ansari handled relationships. There was some overlap (C.K. and Brent Morin, for example, did similar bits about regrettable under-the-influence texting), but for the most part, it felt like each comic brought something new to the table.

The consensus top dog of modern stand-up, C.K. covered aging and parenting in his typically black-tinged way, opening by saying, “I’m very pleased that none of our mothers got abortions so that we could all be here tonight.” Later, when telling the crowd his childhood dog died from face tumors, the Louie auteur burst out laughing. “Why does that make me so happy? I feel excited that I said a terrible thing.”

Hardwick, the host of AMC's Talking Dead and @midnight, touched on nerdy flashpoints like grammar and Twitter, but the bulk of his set focused on his father, a former Bradenton resident, who died last year. “This is something my dad said to me in the last year of his life: ‘I tell you, buddy, any day you can take a s---‘s a good day.”

Though his sets these days are generally laser-focused on men and women, the animated Ansari also offered effective chunks on technology and the immigrant experience: “Can you imagine if someone from my generation moved to Brooklyn with $20? ‘Oh man, I just bought all this fresh-pressed juice! I’m out of money!’”

And Reggie Watts, the wild-haired musician from IFC’s Comedy Bang! Bang! was a font of enjoyable space-case behavior. He falsely claimed to be from just outside Tampa, spouting off fake and useless trivia as proof (“Another thing that was invented here in Tampa was the crème brulee”); then drifted into a rambling Cockney accent as he meandered through the crowd. He improvised several of his traditional looped, a cappella jams and kept promising to bring out the night’s headliners, “Dave Chappelle and a surprise guest.” Unpredictable and inimitable, Watts may be the closest thing comedy has right now to jazz.

Couple of nitpicks on Oddball’s opening night:

Where are all the women? Only three of Oddball’s 24 touring acts are female — Sarah Silverman, Amy Schumer and Whitney Cummings — and none were on the bill in Tampa. Oddball’s lineups rotate by city, so that just seems to have been the luck of the draw, but still — was there no room even on an afternoon side stage for a local funny female?

Hashtag wars. Both Ross and Stevens reminded fans that if they tweet during the show, they should use the hashtag #OddballFest. Sounds great, except Oddball, like most comedy shows, has a maniacally enforced no-cameras, no-cell-phones mandate. Fans were warned at every turn that if they were caught fiddling with a cell phone, they’d first be warned, then kicked out. How, exactly, were we supposed to be tweeting?

There’s a reason most comedy shows aren’t held in amphitheaters. I sat closer to the back of the shed than the stage, and at that distance, in such a relaxed atmosphere, fans have no problem talking loudly during sets. Beer vendors even felt free to ply their wares in the aisles.

The surrealism of the setting hit its apex during Buress’ set, when lightning and thunder began striking all around the amphitheater.

“That’s crazy competition, you know?” Buress said. “It’s already a tough gig to follow Reggie Watts. Then it’s like, ‘Who is Hannibal going up against?’ ‘Thunder.’”

It actually would’ve been cool to see Buress lean a little more into it. The rolling thunder as he told a joke about a game of blackjack “made it seem like I was telling a scary gambling story,” he said. And later: “That should make my jokes sound epic. Boom! ‘How much did he pay to have thunder come in?’”

Such off-the-cuff riffs didn’t happen often, but they were appreciated. Late in his set, C.K. ended a typically blunt bit about his daughters someday having sex by telling the crowd, “I’m going to do something now that I’m not used to doing.” He then jumped into a one-man sketch about director Victor Fleming dealing with Ray Bolger’s overacting as the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz.

It was quite a left turn, hearing the sardonic C.K. so enthusiastically mimic the hammy Bolger: First they took my legs off and they threw them over there! The bit did fine, but it also felt like a sketch in progress, with C.K. still working out kinks. At the end, he chuckled and said, “That was a waste of time.”

Hardly. At Oddball, nothing went to waste. Who knows if we'll ever see anything like it again?

-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*

[Last modified: Saturday, August 9, 2014 2:59am]


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