Any aficionado of live comedy can tell you that there are tons of festivals out there. But in a world of comedic get-togethers, conventions and hoe-downs, the Big Fire Comedy Festival, happening this weekend a couple hours north of L.A., stands out like a rainbow-colored cactus in a bowl full of apples and oranges.
For starters, it’s outdoors, on a pristine patch of high-desert property, with the producers strongly encouraging attendees to camp overnight. The aim is forming a spontaneous arts village of sorts, a biosphere in which to create and appreciate performance, as well as just “be.”
Driving to last year’s Big Fire, at twilight, on nearly empty roads north of the 15 freeway between Victorville and Barstow, felt like some clandestine, Breaking Bad–esque errand leading to unthinkable illegal riches, sudden trouble or both. One passed a scrubby grid of high-desert terrain, Southern California’s arid version of the prairie, with wide-vista ranch homes, before reaching the slightly raised plane of acreage upon which Big Fire built its fleeting utopia.
You saw the lights — bulbs set in the ground, powered by who knows what, emanating crystalline beacons of color that can only have been chosen by good and decent people. The lights increased in frequency and pattern, leading lost drivers into a vaguely defined territory where tents, other makeshift structures and bigger atmospheric lights suddenly appeared hundreds of yards away, like some future-retro, quixotic mirage come to life.
Parking was adjacent to temporary residential encampments, with performing tents, stages and other provisional setups visible at distances hard to discern, through a murky darkness that made improvised paths tricky to negotiate.
Approaching the Mark Ruffalo Stage (one of the comedy venues was named after the respected indie-sensibility actor), the mind steeped in city-based stand-up grappled with the sight of seasoned comedians doing sets in an open-faced military-style tent, helped by a PA system and lighting powered by quiet gas generators, several of which were distributed throughout the multi-acre plot.
In this rarefied setup — what it might look like if USO comedians worked small, mobile field encampments in Iraq — the small Ruffalo Stage crowd was rapt and respectful. Sikh Indian-American comic Omid Singh, a slender, hipster-adjacent fellow deeply involved in the Roast Battle scene, related how his ethnic background jostles up against his very American upbringing. Later, Jordan Kurtzman, a pretty young woman from Boston, talked about being a nice Jewish girl who went through a phase of dating only Nazi-looking guys, and how old pets lead the best lives on Earth.
Stand-up and TV hosting veteran Josh Nasar, a buffed-out guy with a likable manic intensity, then hit the “stage,” a carpeted area under the open-sided tent. Nasar fully used the artistic freedom inherent in performing to the wide open, starry-skied desert, reeling off his cinematic, bizarro bad-boy L.A. biography, which included zealous bodybuilding, substance abuse, hanging with Sunset Strip/Beverly Hills party types, and dauntlessly selling massive amounts of frozen meat to wealthy residents from the trunk of his car.
Nasar’s set was pure confessional purging, a clear-headed, improvised litany of garish misadventures as told by a somewhat reformed man, in lieu of his regular prepared set. The audience in attendance — non-comedians and comedians alike — felt the irresistible interactivity of the set. It’s "real" to the fullest, and Nasar earnestly took questions from people about any aspect of his life.
“Part of it is taking the comedy out of clubs and venues in the city,” says Big Fire co-founder Blake Harrison. “People can redefine themselves. If you’re nervous about trying something totally new in your comedy, you can do it out here and leave it in the desert.”
Harrison and her friend Garret Mendez started the unusual festival, which has changed specific locations each time, three years ago, the backgrounds and passions of the two comedy fans combining perfectly to birth such a far-out concept.
“In high school and middle school, I used to throw a lot of backyard improv shows,” says Manhattan Beach native Mendez. “And those were my fondest high school memories.”
Years later, still doing comedy around L.A., Mendez discovered another equally powerful and therapeutic obsession — camping. He fell in love with the outdoors and everything about nature. It wasn’t too long before he hit upon the idea of combining the two; he brought in his Bay Area friend Harrison, who had vast event-planning experience.
Their first location was in Ojai, where they rented out a large camping space and threw a festival, which Harrison describes as “renegade.” They brought a 30-foot geodesic dome, a monkey hut, some popup tents and all the art from their living rooms.
Quickly outgrowing that woodsy location, they found another equally vegetated plot in Santa Clarita, where the festival got battered by some heavy rains. That would be the last of the timbered spots, arid scrubby climes proving far more practical.
Last year, the third was in the aforementioned spot outside of Helendale, and this year’s is to be held in the northern Antelope Valley, a little west of where highways 58 and 395 cross.
“I think the thing about the desert is isolation, and it’s a kind of open canvas for you to impress upon it whatever you like,” Mendez says. “This year we have even more isolation than before.”
That isolation, along with one visiting writer’s overactive imagination, should not be taken as equaling unsettling solitude or gloom. The festival is a warm, neighborly environs, the landscape littered with funky encampments, psychedelic-adjacent lighting, dance spaces and rugged-casual dressed folks traversing beelines through the shrub- and tumbleweed-splotched earth. More than a hint of Burning Man and other hippie-esque or neo-tribal nature gatherings comes through, and the founders are quick to admit the influence, with the BFCF burning an effigy of its own — another reason wooded areas are now a no-go.
“Without directly copyright infringing, we love everything about the spirit and the radical self-reliance and all that” of Burning Man, Mendez says. “We weren’t gonna be the comedy BM the first year in — with that 30 years of hippie activism that they had.”
Despite the name, the festival has a nearly equal focus on music, with acts ranging from acoustic solo performers to electronically accompanied groups to live DJs. Some headliners include Lonely Boy, Catalyst Club and FFUM.
On the comedy side, the lengthy roster includes Ryan O’Flanagan, Blake Webber, Neel Nanda and Cherdleys, with troupes as well as solo stand-ups. Non-entertainment daytime options include yoga and sound bath healing.
Finding the right land to create an enchanting entertainment/hangout/sleepover space on untouched, hardscrabble dirt is a tough task, and this year’s property owners are the same as last year’s in Helendale — sort of. The 2018 property owners OK'd last year’s deal but then sold that plot north of the 15 Freeway just before BFCF 2017, with the new owners luckily being motocross enthusiasts who were open to the innovative event.
At this point the festival is self-funded but not quite profitable, although the producers do see profitability in the very near future. Besides the obvious L.A., Orange County, Santa Barbara, San Diego and Bay Area regions, participants and audience have thus far come from Chicago, Texas and Florida.
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Part of BFCF’s idealism is leaving no trace behind and reducing its footprint. Also, each year organizers hold a retreat on the chosen land and go out a month prior with just their team.
“We check out the vibe and set our intention with the property,” Harrison says. “And we talk about our fears and what we’re excited about. We’re creating a home away from home for other people.”
This year, she adds, the art team is putting a lot of energy into building a "comedy club in the desert," attempting the elusive melding of cool, conducive theatrical space with the exhilarating infinity of the American Southwest. “How do we want to honor nature as well as honor the performers?”
Big Fire Comedy Festival, near Kramer Junction in the Mojave Desert, Fri.-Sun., May 4-6. Festival pass $100. Info at bigfirefestival.com.