COMEDY / Taking laughing stock: Jenny Landreth spends a week at the Montreal Comedy Festival

THE BRITISH comedians Mark Thomas and Jack Dee were sitting at a large table with five Canadian performers. 'Tossers,' said Thomas. 'Do you have tossers here?' The five shook their heads. 'No. We have arseholes and jerk- offs,' one said, 'but not tossers.' Thomas crossed out three lines in his notebook. 'What about hedgehogs?' asked Dee. The Canadians didn't seem sure, which was surprising; you might have thought the squashed hedgehog gag was international.

This global linguistics exercise is easily explained. Thomas and Dee were about to do their first warm-up gigs at the Comedy Nest venue, in preparation for the British Gala section of the Montreal Comedy Festival, Just For Laughs. And there would have been little point travelling 10 hours for seven minutes of televised performance only to fail on a technicality. It has happened before: a British comic was doing really well until he mentioned Sellotape, which so baffled his audience he lost them completely. Daunted by this story, Thomas and Dee were attempting to become international.

It's humid drizzle rather than blazing sky, but Just For Laughs is a kind of comedy Olympics. The Americans seem taller and healthier than everyone else, set on taking every medal; the British team seem eccentric in comparison. The performers train for their big event with warm-up shows and some heavy pep-talking from agents and managers, always ready with the mobile phone and warm towel when they come off the track.

This year is Thomas's first and Dee's second race. Heading straight for the comedy clubs from the airport, both were keen to test the humorous waters: there may be a world of difference between playing to 90 people in the intimate Comedy Works venue and 4,000 people in a massive urban theatre, but if those 90 don't get the one about Captain Birdseye, there's a fair chance the 4,000 won't either.

Tuesday night, and the Olympics began to hot up. The top British medal hope, Ben Elton, arrived to do an hour-long show (also in preparation for Thursday's gala, which he was to MC) at the Comedy Works. This was his Canadian debut, and a rare opportunity to watch a big man play a small room, Linford Christie at a school sports day. He presented a seamless, masterful hour; although seeing him in a tiny space is like watching a caricature of himself. The gesticulation, the grimaces, the Larndan accent become larger than life under the scrutiny of a small spotlight, and within the performance you see flashes of unexpected people: a young Robin Day, a salacious Frankie Howerd, a whirling Magnus Pike, even a De Niro Mean Streets shrug or two.

The evening is dampened when we all sojourn to the 'Nasty Show' at Club Soda. It should have been enough warning; we walk into a Samurai comedy troupe lighting their farts, and are finally assaulted by the bile of Bobby Slayton. The self-styled 'Pit Bull of Comedy' was the nastiest, most aggressive fascistic stick of a man I've ever seen. Racist, homophobic and misogynist, eaten away by bitterness . . . and the crowd bayed for more.

By the end of Wednesday, all the British had ran their heats. Eddie Izzard arrived, straight from a two-hour show in Vancouver, to do a seven-minute recording; comedy pop stars Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer had bemused an audience who simply didn't see that a 25-foot roll of beige carpeting was funny; Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse as DJ's Mike Smash and Dave Nice had mistakenly presumed that their audience might have a grasp on the simple notion of irony. And, without the aid of steroids, Mark Thomas had performed a stunning set that acted as a nerve-settler before the big night.

By Thursday, it was all over bar the shouting. By this stage, commentators were beginning to adjust their opinions, taking their money off the big players and grudgingly acknowledging that the younger British performers, Thomas, Dee and Izzard, might come through the ribbon first.

As compere, Ben Elton seemed to fit more snugly into the large theatre. And by the end of the evening it was clear who the victors really were. Jack Dee was first up, and set the pace straight away. He showed that he had found his feet and exactly the right material bang on cue. The crowd adored Eddie Izzard for his bilingual routine - you don't need to speak French to work here, but it helps. And Mark Thomas kept his best punches for the night, when the energy and precision of his target shooting was stormingly appreciated. Sometimes, it seems, outside runners are worth betting on.

Mark Thomas and Jack Dee are playing at the Assembly Rooms and Eddie Izzard is at the Gilded Balloon during the Edinburgh festival. Just For Laughs will be broadcast by Channel 4 in September.

Arts and Entertainment Musical by Damon Albarn


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