With more than 700 bands playing on 10 stages over the course of 11 days, Summerfest‘s claim of being “The World’s Largest Music Festival” seems accurate. That’s no secret to anyone who lives in Milwaukee or, really, anywhere in the Midwest. However, nowhere near as many people know that for roughly 40 years, Summerfest also used to double as one hell of a comedy festival. Even when ignoring George Carlin’s infamous 1972 Summerfest arrest after performing his “Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television” routine, The Big Gig annually offered up an impressive list of comedians who performed on the grounds. Yet the fest’s rich comedic past seems to be largely forgotten.
David “Punky” Wastak had a front row seat (or more accurately, a backstage pass) for much of the prosperous epoch of Summerfest comedy. As the longtime stage manager of Summerfest’s Comedy Stage, Punky booked an astounding list of comics, such as Jon Stewart, Dave Chappelle, Tracy Morgan, Jay Leno, Louie Anderson, Drew Carey, Billy Crystal, Dana Carvey, Paula Poundstone, George Lopez, Joe Rogan, Frank Caliendo, Emo Phillips, Bobcat Goldthwait, and his good friend Lewis Black. In the early 2000s, the laughs began to die down as the stand-up presence at Summerfest ground to a halt, which spelled Punky’s departure. He joined host Tyler Maas to share hilarious anecdotes, discuss the rise and fall of Summerfest’s Comedy Stage, and ponder whether we can expect comedy to return to “The World’s Largest Music Festival” any time soon.
This episode is brought to you by our friends at Vander Mill, a Michigan-based cider company that just hit Wisconsin soil. Music in this episode comes courtesy of Piles (“Blue Glue”) and Ugly Brothers (“Again & Again”). Subscribe to On The Record via iTunes or Stitcher (for free!).