I can still vaguely remember the first time I saw this man nearly 10 years ago. It was the first morning of my first Burn, and I was nervously sitting with the events book in my hands when the people around me started yelling "Good Morning Sammy!" I turned around to see a giant, lumbering teddy bear, crawling in his underwear out of a dirty, disheveled tent. His eyes were swollen from the sleep and he was really sweaty. It was probably around noon, and I couldn't figure out how he'd been sleeping in that boiling tent for the past four hours.
Little did I know in that moment, this man would become one of my dearest friends over the coming decade, and one of the few people that I would stay in fairly regular communication with, despite living on opposite sides of the country.
Sam Comen is someone I immediately looked up to. Out on the playa (the common name of the Burning Man desert) he was inspiring. There wasn't a soul this guy wouldn't strike up a conversation with. He has this uncanny ability to seamlessly begin connecting with any person at any time, and as soon as people are drawn in, more often than not they'll be laughing and bullshitting about god knows what, and somehow Sam will have some knowledge about their specialty.
A woman could mention her interest in typography and Sam will rattle off some details about how he recently photographed the only living man still using an OG printing press, or someone will casually drop that they just got back from Bolivia, and Sam will share some inane Bolivian trivia that, mysteriously, is quite meaningful to the person. It's amazing to watch. In this way, he's truly the dream wingman and I'm sorry we never hit the town back in the day as I'm sure we would have had a VERY good time.
He is also the master of The Yum Cart. For the few of you who I haven't verbally vomited on about Burning Man before, The Yum Cart is one of the main attractions of our theme camp. I'd describe it for you, but better to share a description that Sam wrote to help you get a feel for this man's playful exuberance.
"The Yum Cart is a dream on wheels. Any taste you can imagine. Any flavor that you can remember, or remember ever wanting to remember. The Yum Cart has the taste of foods, the taste of memories, the taste of music, the taste of color, the taste of hopes, and the taste of dreams. At the Yum Cart you can taste anything you want to. And we, the members of Camp Yummy Ruminations, the Yum masters and mavens, will take pleasure in the taste riches that the Cart has to offer, and better than that, we will bring those taste sensations to Burners far and wide."
Watching Sam run The Yum Cart was my introduction to his prowess as a curator. He has this knack for creating moments in time that are meaningful to those he is interacting with. If you're ever invited to an event he is hosting, do yourself a favor and experience the perfect ambiance that he has personally crafted for your pleasure. It won't take much effort to recognize that not a square inch has been left to chance.
This penchant for nailing down every little detail is what makes him such an incredible creator as well. His photographs are stunning, and it is clear that his meticulous attention to the most subtle aspects of the image are part of what make the viewing experience so rewarding. You can see it in his documentary work Lost Hills, an environmental portrait essay that illuminates the lives of migrant workers in a one-stoplight town in California's Central Valley, as well as all of his portrait work.
I didn't even know that this desert maniac was a professional photographer until he came to visit us my senior year at UC Irvine. He had just finished photographing Paris Hilton and decided to drop by. All of the sudden I realized this guy from Burning Man was a legit successful artist. My mind was blown. Just a brief visit to his website and you'll see so many celebrity faces, you'll think this guy is an A-list asshole living some kind of bougie Hollywood dream.
But he's not. He's the most down-to-earth good guy you'll run into.
Few people have been quite as supportive of The Kloons as Sam has been from the very beginning. He has offered his couches to us every time we've needed a place to crash in LA for the past ten years, but it goes far beyond that. He'll wake up in the morning and make us an artisan cup of pour over coffee, and ask us all about the latest developments in our sketch comedy pursuits. He'll ask about the industry itself. Before YouTube was quite the mainstream monster it is today, he wanted to know how it worked, what the standards were, why we were so interested in it, and what our vision for it was moving forward.
This isn't just how he is with friends either. When walking around Burning Man, he'll be drawn into an art installation, find the artist and ask them all about their process. "Why did you choose these colors? What's the intention behind the empty eyes? You know, it isn't lost on me that the layout of the piece mirrors the dimensions of the space-time continuum...blahblahblah" You know how fucking hard it is to meet people who are genuinely interested in things that don't immediately benefit them? Well, he's one of these rare people!
He's the kind of guy that will reach out, out of the blue, to connect you with someone he's met because he thinks it may be helpful in your career. And it's his impulse. It's not some self-motivated bullshit, he really cares. He seems to relish the success of his friends, and is offering whatever he can to help them bring their visions to life. I cannot tell you how many times we have filmed in his home. He and his wife Taylor have been so unbelievably accommodating, even going so far as to let us march around shooting giant fake machine guns to film what is basically a 60 second fart joke.
Again, the most beautiful part about Sammy is that this is not unique to me, I'm not the one friend that he's chosen to do this for. The living proof of this investment in his community is his ongoing annual portrait series '28 at 28,' in which seven years ago he photographed 28 of his friends at 28 years old as he felt they were all on the cusp. He has since photographed each of them EVERY YEAR, documenting them through time. 30 photo sessions every year! That is an insane time commitment, and an incredible gift to everyone involved.
Though his time is often at a premium, we've run countless scripts and edits by Sam to get his input and he always makes it a priority to give us his unabashed thoughts. In many ways, Sam has felt like he's been part of our team all these years. He's always one of the first to celebrate our successes and encourage us when the shit hits the fan. Having his support has been invaluable, particularly because I have admired him as a fellow creator.
It was just my luck that six years ago there would be a leadership transition at Camp Yummy RUMInations that would enable me to become a co-organizer with Sam, allowing me the opportunity to create alongside him. We were an incredible team, filling in the gaps for each other quite naturally. I've always lacked the patience and persistence for tedious minutiae, but not Sam! There he was making sure that we were using A FUCKING CHALK LINE IN THE DUST TO MAKE SURE THE STRIPS OF FABRIC WERE IN A PERFECT LINE AT THE FRONT OF OUR PROPERTY, YEAR AFTER YEAR AFTER YEAR. It was absurd, and it drove people crazy. It was a detail I didn't give a shit about, but in the end, it looked great. It was clean, sharp. A detail few would note directly, but one of a million things that subconsciously add up to a deep aesthetic appreciation by every passerby.
While the process of putting a Burning Man camp together is a nearly year-round activity and logistical nightmare, I loved working on it with Sam. The phone calls at all hours of the night discussing travel plans and social dynamics were exciting, and an opportunity for me to learn from someone who approached the same goal from a slightly different angle. Each year after the camp was built, but before the rest of campers arrived, we'd sit together for a minute and enjoy the glow of having seen our plans come to fruition. We'd congratulate each other on a job well done, and gleefully anticipate the magic of the week ahead. In those moments we shared a great mutual appreciation, knowing that few else would understand just how much goes into putting the whole shitshow together. And as the little moments we'd planned would come together over the week, we'd look at each other with a proud smile and then zoom off on our relative adventures.
It was this time together that forged the deeper layers of our friendship, and not once did I run into an experience where Sam was unwilling to be there for me. I've cried with this man about everything from love lost, to the emptiness of existence. I've quite literally been to "the edge of infinity" with him several times, and I can say you'd be hard pressed to find a better buddy for such encounters.
All this said, the true realization of how profound my love for this man is, came while sitting at his wedding this past summer.
Sam and Taylor asked me to be their "hype man," to build up the energy of the audience and get everyone involved in the ceremony. I was honored to have been asked, and delighted to be part of their celebration. I wrote a bit based on a conversation we'd had where Sam casually spit-balled an idea that I perform a yo-yo trick to get the audience enthused. Taylor looked at him like he was crazy, and I laughed thinking about a yo-yo trick being performed at a wedding in hopes of getting grown adults excited. Naturally, I had to do a yo-yo trick.
After performing the AMAZING yo-yo trick, I sat and watched the rest of their beautiful ceremony, a community-orchestrated testament to these two brilliant, loving humans and their decision to dive into the rest of infinity together. At a time where I found the convention of marriage personally holding less weight than ever, I was completely moved by their vows and felt a deep understanding for the power and value of both the decision of two beings to get married, and the public celebration.
Our friend Veronica was leading us all through a series of statements, and we were supposed to stand if we identified with what she said. She shared things like, "I have witnessed Sam make things unnecessarily complicated," which inspired uproarious laughter, and then she said something along the lines of, "I have cried with Sam." I stood quickly, with tears filling my eyes again as I looked across the room and saw so many others standing too. Instantly I recognized my connection to all of these humans through Sam, many of whom I had never met. All of us feeling safe enough in his presence to let our guards down, to share our real, sometimes terrifying feelings with a man who accepted us.
Suddenly I found myself humbled with gratitude to be counted among the friends of such a compassionate being. I cried my eyes out. I was overwhelmed with awareness of the ways in which I've leaned on this man for guidance and support over the years, and the fact that he has not once skipped out on the opportunity to give it. And there I was, again looking up to this brave man jumping into the unknown with his partner.
It was one of those strange nearly out-of-body-experiences in which I realized that somehow this man, whom is the epitome of so many traits that I value, is one of my friends, and even more, that he has asked me to be part of his wedding party...that I was invited to be in his wedding photos commemorating this momentous day in his life...He was going to look at these photos in the future and I would be in them...Holy shit, I felt LITERALLY #blessed to be part of it.
One of the other gifts of this experience was a hand written letter he gave to me as a thanks for being part of the wedding. It is one of the most heartfelt pieces of writing I have ever received, and in reading it was once again reminded of how special this man is and how lucky I am to call him a friend. His words were open and honest, and his reflection on our friendship was so poignant, I felt completely seen by him just in reading the letter.
It was then that I knew when I finally got around to this 'Showering The People' project, he would be the subject of my inaugural post. I've eagerly looked forward to having the time to sit and write about this man, and while many things I look forward to these days don't usually end up being all that satisfying, writing about Sam has been completely fulfilling.
Cheers to you Sammy...Thanks for being my friend for the past ten years. What do you say we roll off another few decades in these meatsacks?