Just for Laughs: Day Five

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The Independent Culture

Since I landed in Montreal, last Monday night, I have kept the clock on my mobile phone to English time. This might explain why my body this week has been asking me questions like: What time is it really? Why are we up so early? Why are we up so late? When can we next have another shower/sauna/steam room session? As if the cacophony of an average of fifteen comedians a day weren’t enough.

It all feels like the Edinburgh Fringe before it has even started. There are marked differences between the festivals, though, other than location and length of history. One of the principal ones is that while Edinburgh is a jamboree for the public first and the comedy industry second while Just for Laughs actually holds sessions led by industry professionals for industry professionals alongside the shows.

Here you will sometimes see business cards swapping as if you were looking at a flipbook. I have to say it was rather amusing to see a business card for the British sketch troupe Idiots of Ants in the festival office the other day. Of course, it’s perfectly reasonable to have a calling card but I kept seeing it out of context, in a newsagent window perhaps or next to the cat-sitter business cards in a café. You never know when you’d need an emergency sketch troupe do you? Actually I do in my case; almost never. A bit harsh perhaps, but that’s comedy.

Sadly without my own business card (though I do have a signature whine I am quite proud of) I decided I would attend one of the more frivolous industry events on Friday afternoon, namely comedian Andy Kindler’s State of the Industry address and one which he has done for 14 of the 16 years he has attended Just for Laughs.

Kindler, who had a recurring role on Everybody Loves Raymond, told the throng of comedians and execs who had turned up to listen that he had just been made Secretary of Comedy by President Obama and announced a 20 per cent cut in shock comedy across the board, a fine for the use of the word "retard" and federal aid options to comedians not employed by Judd Apatow. And you thought that Obama had his work cut out for him with health reform. Thereafter Kindler laid into a range of targets including, his favourite, the rather jock-like comic Dane Cook, talent agencies and hapless cable presenters in a speech that undulated in its efficaciousness but when he scored, he scored big. Renaming I’m A Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here to I’m A Celebrity…Am I Completely Out of Options? being a case in point.

There was just enough time to pop to the steam room and grab a snack before going to the almost too comfortable (especially for limbs already soothed) Cinema Imperial to see Irish comic Tommy Tiernan. In some ways Tiernan is one of the great mysteries of the British/Irish comedy scene as he sort of "disappeared" after winning the 1998 Perrier award. At least that is how it seems from the UK perspective. Numerous DVD releases and tours might suggest otherwise but it would seem Tiernan’s stock is higher in the US and Canada than here.

I saw Tiernan a few years ago when he played Edinburgh and didn’t "go a bundle" as the saying goes. Tonight I found myself in the unusual position of admiring his charisma and intellect of this earthy, conspiratorial and demonstrative performer without being totally taken in by him. This was partly down to his antipathy towards Barack Obama, more specifically that the mantra "Yes We Can", used so effectively in the Obama campaign, applies mainly goals of financial greed. His solution of electing a tree was a weak payoff to an argument and early "parade piss" that I couldn’t go along with from the start. “I’m not a hippy” protested Tiernan, gesturing towards his smart, raffish suit. Get outta town Tommy, y’are.

Despite our divergent points of view and no doubt different expectations of government Tiernan waxed more smoothly and lyrically on other loves and hates, for example of coffee he noted: "I LOVE coffee. Sometimes I have an espresso before I wake up to wind up my dreams.” He dwelt on other stimulants too, on drugs he reminisced about taking Ecstasy although he didn’t expand on the idea of the hideous "black crow" feeling that replaces the love that the pills called "doves" gave him. Not that it was his duty to balance it up but his reflective routine was clearly trying to do so.

The pensive, yet buoyant, tone dominated two-thirds of the show that saw near poetic moments on human strengths and weaknesses and the odd blunder through a blind alley when faced with the dogma of politics and religion. Much to the relief of the lady sitting next to me Tiernan then turned up the heat in a literally and metaphorically more physical routine about sex that developed into an enjoyable sequence about how couples try and have sex without the kids getting in the way. Tiernan brought a dextrous freshness to this familiar problem, for example on the tricky task of maintaining and erection while cradling a child to sleep. I don’t have kids and I am suspecting that the lady next to me did, but we both enjoyed the routine equally. Of course I suspect it will have an added bonus for her given the advice imparted.

Incidentally, before Tiernan’s show started the lady in question, on spying my notebook asked me if I was “evaluating” the show. This was a new one on me and my European soul recoiled at this businesslike proposition. With none of the guile of Tiernan’s infamous countryman, and fellow wit, Oscar Wilde, I replied: “No, I am reviewing it.” I could have added “dear lady” but I wasn’t in the mood to ruffle feathers. Besides, it turned out that she was rather charming and I subsequently thawed to the idea of having a business card with "Comedy Evaluator" written on it.

With my re-branding in mind and dollar signs in my eyes I went off to see another lovely lady - Whoopi Goldberg - hosting a gala. It didn’t really matter that her matter-of-fact tale of being delayed travelling between New York and Montreal was run-of-the-mill you can’t help but think "she’s just so cool" over and over in your head for some reason. She got closer to certifiable stand up with some patter about the menopause and how that had affected the pungency of her farts or "air biscuits" as she put it. I know, Oscar winner and fart joker. Whodathunkit? Perhaps the most enjoyable part of her duties as a gala host was the complete abandon she showed when delivering the overblown CVs of the comedians that came on. Did you know that Ed Byrne was an "international superstar"? No? Neither did Ed.

Among Whoopi’s trumped up charges were Canadian comic Pete Zedlacher who did an great job unfavourably contrasting the Canadian goose to the American eagle including some advice on how to kill one (legal apparently) with croutons and a shovel. Though I am deeply suspicious of comics with one name, kudos to Earthquake ( Everybody Hates Chris, Clerks II) for tackling the issue of OJ Simpson’s imprisonment, an issue that almost no one seemed to want to comment on at the time: "Now white and black people are happy in America. We’ve got our black man; Obama the first black President, white people got their black man, OJ."

Next up was Tom Rhodes whose reformed stoner persona had a nice edge to it as did a number of his observations including noting that Elvis was the perfect allegory for his country that had entered its "fat Vegas jumpsuit era." As with Earthquake, I’d seen Gerry Dee warm up at a Best of the Fest the night before but was still able to feel the glow of his gentle wit. For a second time I enjoyed his routine on how couples earn brownie points to spend time with their friends after they have put in quality time together, so that when a group of his friends ask him to go to Vegas he replies: "Vegas? I don’t have enough points for Vegas. I could go for a back ride."

Last stop of the evening was Louis CK at Metropolis, an atmospheric venue that has been a skating rink, a theatre, a porn movie theatre, a disco and now a concert venue that has played host to The White Stripes and David Bowie among others. Jimmy Carr killed as a CK’s 15 minute support act with the crowd lapping up off-colour jokes like: "When a dog’s on heat, that means it wants sex. That’s my defence anyway…" and that Michael Jackson chose his own funeral hymns: "him 14, him 13 and him 12."

While CK, soon to be seen in Ricky Gervais film The Invention of Lying and a favourite among many UK comics, is less of a shock comic he still has a talent to play the bass line of comedy and make it sound good or at least describe how it sounds. He worries about falling asleep on planes and muttering unintended racial slurs and, while awake, he is frank about the ethnicity of his characters having some effect on his story: "it doesn’t matter that she was old and Jewish but it does" or "it doesn’t matter that she was Jamaican but it does." Consistent and measured, the burly ginger comic is adept at showing you glimpses of the line between his humanity and cynicism which makes him both "acceptable" and listenable. This is particularly evident when he talks about his children. While completely schmaltz-free there’s poignancy to his remarks on the fleeting nature of childhood happiness, and indeed happiness in general, remarking that buying a puppy means "we are all going to cry soon".

I’m not saying that CK is a big softy, although he probably is, and elsewhere there are steelier responses to pleasure, where he forcefully disabuses his daughter’s notion that birds "are like paintbrushes that make patterns in the sky". CK comes over to the UK again in the Autumn so you’ll get your chance to see for yourselves his take on tough love parenting. Needless to say leave the kids at home.

And so another day of fun in Montreal closed, a bit later than usual at around 2am. Some chose to party on a while longer because as Martin Short joked the following day: "Montreal is French for Toronto with actual nightlife."