Insider's Guide

Comedian Chris Gethard's Guide to Bonnaroo

The TV show host and author explains how his cross-country trip to the Tennessee fest last year changed his life... and why he's hoping that won't happen again
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Steve Mack/Getty Images

Chris Gethard is doing something different when he heads to Bonnaroo this year: He's taking an airplane.

Last year, the comedian/author/public access TV show host traveled from Los Angeles to the annual Tennessee music fest relying solely on the cars, food, gas, accommodations and generosity of strangers in a YouTube-documented stunt that was more-or-less insane. But it worked: He got to the 'Roo in one piece and put on his oddball variety TV series The Chris Gethard Show for an audience of mud-covered music lovers.

With Bonnaroo 2013 nearly upon us, we spoke with the returning performer about his transformative experience last year, what he's most excited about seeing this time around and what you absolutely need to bring when you hit Bonnaroo this weekend.

Bonnaroo Crowd Vibe

Everybody is there to have fun and it's intensely positive. Which is cool: With things that are that big, there's a high chance that people will get pissed off with the logistics of standing in line or whatever. But everybody seemed really laid back and to be having a good time. Of course, that was in the beginning. By the end of the weekend it's really nuts. Everybody is walking around with t-shirts over their faces because so much dust has been kicked up. It starts to feel really weird and post-apocalyptic, but in a pleasant way. It has that Children of Men type thing. The only other fest I've really spent time at was SXSW, which is so sprawling and spread out and doesn't have that sense of community. That's what I was struck by at Bonnaroo: People are taking care of each other. And there's a lot of friendly conversation with strangers, which is really nice. I'm excited to immerse myself in that culture and community again. It doesn't feel like people just want to watch bands and then go back to their tents and sleep. People want to get to know the other people who would come to a thing like Bonnaroo. It's a real cool feeling. Especially as a New Yorker, where you're generally intentionally closing yourself off from other people all the time.

Get Ready to Get Dirty

No one is clean by Sunday. I started to find it really intimidating, because you do have people who have been drinking the whole time. They're hung over, sunburned, wearing bandanas over their faces and grumpy and it starts to feel a little strange. It feels like the end of the party, but a party where there's thousands and thousands and thousands of people. But it's really fun no matter how you slice it.

Festival Camping and Swing Time

Tent City is really impressive [tour Tent City 2012 right here]. It's amazing that it functions and is so well organized. I remember wandering back there one day and finding this big canopy somebody had set up with these swings inside it. There were all these people sitting on them talking, even though nobody knew each other. I was really tired and just spent an hour swinging with strangers in a tent. And that was a pretty pleasant time.

Best Bonnaroo Memory

When we were doing our cross-country trip, some kids in Kentucky let us stay with them and then drove us the final leg. They weren't going to Bonnaroo, but the Bonnaroo guys were nice enough that they let us give these kids passes. They weren't expecting that. I was watching a concert and bumped into them among thousands of people. It was toward the end of the festival and they were so thrilled to be there. And it was cool to get them in and see them dancing and having so much fun. I was happy to be a part of that.

Worst Bonnaroo Memory

For me it was probably falling off the wagon and doing way too much MDMA and going ape-shit. In a good way, but in a way I should probably avoid this time around. I didn't freak out or anything but I did it for about 36 hours straight and came back to New York with a whole different mentality and perspective. And a lot of things in my life changed, ultimately for the positive. But between that crazy walk and coming out of honesty-inducing drugs, it was a year-altering experience. I made a lot of decisions in the wake of that. I moved apartments, I had been in a relationship I'm no longer in, so it was just a whole lot of stuff. But I think if you wander across the country you’re bound to ponder the state of things for yourself. So hopefully this time I can go and it can be more laid-back and relaxed.

Be Prepared or Perish

Come prepared or you might die. My experience was that I met a lot of people and did a lot of cool stuff that I couldn't have planned for. But be smart and plan for yourself and make sure you have enough water. My understanding is that the tents can get so hot people can overheat and dehydrate. It seems like the worst. 

Footwear Musts

You want to wear something you'll be comfortable standing and walking in all day. But also remember you'll be walking in dirt and mud, so I think if you were to wear flip flops or sandals, you'd be one of the more disgusting human beings by the end of that trip. I'm a sneakers guy myself and I might bring a couple pairs. If you have some old broken sneakers, those are advisable as opposed to brand new ones.

2013 Lineup Highlights

I'm really excited to see Paul McCartney and Tom Petty and Japandroids. On the comedian end of things, I think everybody is really good or at least solid. I'm really excited they invited the guys from The Improvised Shakespeare Company. I'm excited to see how it plays. They're so nice and what they do is so weird and they do it so well. They do 40 minute improvised Shakespeare pieces with Iambic pentameter. The Bonnaroo comedy crowd is more accustomed to stand-up so I'm excited to see them respond to something that trippy.

What Gethard Has Planned for His Gigs

Last year I did The Chris Gethard Show which is an experimental, crazy thing, but this time it's just stand-up. I have a pretty in-depth exploration of my Bonnaroo experience last year that I may tell on stage and see how the crowd likes it. I would call my act stand-up but I'm less of a joke writer and more on the confessional, philosophizing or whatever end. They're true stories. I'm playing Thursday and Friday. Then Saturday I'm hosting a look at public access TV with clips from my show and other public access shows that inspired mine. Things like Uncle Floyd—which I grew up with in New Jersey—and Chic-a-Go-Go from Chicago. Also, clips from my favorite prank call footage on various public access shows. And a lot of it will be clips from The Chris Gethard Show that I'm really proud of. But overall I just want to have fun and meet a lot more people. 

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