Stop me if you've heard this one: 300 Def Jam comics walk into a Shell gas station in Baker, Nevada. No? Well listen up, then.
Now in its fourth year, the annual Burning Mac Festival brings together a collection of some of the country's best Def Jam-style stand up comedians in the high Nevada desert to reconvene with nature, come together as a community, and honor one of their fallen: Bernie Mac, one of the Original Kings of Comedy.
Since 2008, a growing number of fast-talking, confident black comedians arrive in caravans often stretching ten or more Escalades, with all manner of supplies overflowing through the sunroof. Tents, mattresses, fedoras, oversized shiny suits with shoulder pads, alligator shoes, baggy multi-patterned fluorescent shirts; every conceivable necessity is carted to the outskirts of Baker in early May. Within hours, impromptu streets and unofficial merchants pop up in the vast desert, creating a village of like-minded individuals looking for a communal experience.
The stage is always the first structure to be erected, serving as the focal point for nearly all Burning Mac activities, many of which run through the night and into the early morning. You'll always find someone on the stage, charging back and forth across the wooden planks with a microphone in their hands expounding on topics ranging from “child…” to “foolishness.” There are wide, uneven flat patches highlighting ambitious physical joke tellers that have tried The Worm and a six-inch wide hole where three hundred consecutive comics ended their sets by dropping the mic and walking off. There is always at least one audience member to soak in all this mayhem. Deep into the starry night you'll find a lone patron of the Def Jam arts, jumping out of his seat, clapping wildly after each aggressive punchline. Often times, he points at and high fives another audi ence member who isn't even really there.
Above all, Burning Mac is about support for an alternative lifestyle. The atmosphere beyond the two arched pimp canes is that of a simple maxim: share, experience, and “give your ladies the dick.” No money changes hands during the festival. Instead, necessities and niceties are given as gifts among the performers, with the simple expectation of reciprocation. On one dark Wednesday evening, as storm clouds threatened on the horizon, Lavelle Crawford swapped his only poncho for a pair of rimless sunglasses with a deep purple lens tint. Hours later, as pounding rain transformed the main Bernie Mac Boulevard into a mud pit, Crawford stood on stage in a cheetah yellow dinner jacket and green felt pants, eyes shining brightly through his new purple lenses. Crawford dazzled fellow revelers with thirty minutes on his wife’s sister always coming around.
During the final evening, all the comics convene at the stage to watch Mr. 3000, speaking along with the film’s dialogue. Yet, as the final credits end and the screen fades to black, so does the festival. The last of the last set fire to the stage, congratulating themselves on another year spent celebrating their craft, their community, and honoring the loss of one of their own. The final caravan pulls into the Shell gas station to fill up on road snacks for the long trips home. And with one “kick it!”, another Burning Mac comes to a close as all get ready for the autumn’s Steve Harviest Festival. ♦