The chance to see comic Martin Short was one of the things I was most excited about when I was leafing through the press material for this year’s Just for Laughs.
That was almost solely down to The Three Amigos, the 1986 film that also starred Steve Martin and Chevy Chase (I’ve just realised that having seen Chase at the Secret Policeman’s Ball 2006, I only have Steve Martin, the biggie, to go to collect the set). For US and Canadian audiences however, Short is equally known for his work on Saturday Night Live and reprised Ed Grimley, his dysfunctional juvenile adult character from that show, for part of his duties hosting one of the festival galas.
As opposed to Whoopi Goldberg, Short threw himself into the hosting duties as a performer rather than a cipher. He entered on a song, a mock showbiz number that ran: "my ego needs support the way John Goodman needs cake" and morphing into stand up he complained: "I wish Oprah would choose a weight and stick to it. I’m tired of retuning my flat screen TV."
Short got some nice local jokes in as well noting that Montreal had 300 strip joints and as many churches: "so either way your sexual needs are taken care of." Still youthful and sprightly and still touring, the 59-year-old (I am finding that hard to believe as I write that) was far from a pale imitation of his former self and outshone the acts he was to introduce; host’s prerogative admittedly.
His final flourish before the eights acts of the evening came on for their ten minutes of fame was a musical number called "Summertime Makes Me Cheat On My Wife" taking lounge music to the bedroom with a cheeky wink.
Despite the sparkly form of the host being somewhat dominant, that wasn’t to say that the rest of the acts weren’t good. Canadian Mark Forward, who I had seen earlier in the week, has a nimble mind. He observed that to make supermarket trolleys safe from being pinched by homeless people it might have been better to use hope rather than loose change as a means of securing them.
Actor and comedian Heidi Foss showed some of her armoury of one-liners: "I bought my cat a 15lb bag of cat food and she doesn’t even want it. Good job I like it"; "I was in a changing room and the pants I tried on didn’t fit… in my purse… so I stole a bigger purse." Not only did Foss entertain but she was a revelation to me in the sense that she was the first Canadian I’d heard who demonstrated the “Eh?” inflection that is the dead giveaway differentiation between Americans and Canadians apparently. It reminds me of asking a Kiwi to say "egg and chips" which is supposed to come out as "igg n’ chups", or so my Aussie friends tell me.
Before making a relatively early exit from the gala to go and see Bill Cosby I had time to catch Alonzo Bodden, known for competing in and hosting Last Comic Standing, told the audience that Obama was the right man to get the US out of a recession because black people were used to being broke and Ben Bailey (think Mad Men’s John Hamm with no hair) complained that he was allergic to people who were lactose intolerant.
Also in the mix were last year’s Fringe hit, music and sketch troupe Dead Cat Bounce. The group put a different spin on the concept of an Irish boy band with their ditties about running away with midgets, literally, and trying to get around wearing a condom: "I know you’ve got issues/but it’s ok I’ve got a box of tissues."
No such smut down at that colossal Salle Wilfrid Pelletier where 72-year-old Bill Cosby sat on stage for two and a half hours in baggy sweatpants and painted stately portraits of comedy about his childhood and his marriage. I wondered if I would find the man once known as "America’s Dad" too conservative, too pious or just plain safe. None of the above applied. What occurred was a stream of beautifully detailed stories, funny but occasionally tinged with background sorrow.
One depicts the young Cosby trying various tactics to get 15 cents for a toy from his broke parents pushing them so far that his exasperated father breaks down his door; "I am going to tell you something that I want you to remember for the rest of your life," he tells his son before knocking him out.
Don’t think that Cosby makes a gratuitous cartoon of his family though, there’s always a well-documented build up to moments of tension, people aren’t shouting the odds for the sake of it much like in the sitcom that made him so famous.
In charting his boyhood from 7 to 14, Cosby pays a fair bit of attention to his relationship with women. He recounts watching a friend’s older brother kiss a girl with tongues and vowing, along with his equally disgusted friend, that if a girl ever tried to put her tongue down his mouth he would "punch her in the stomach so she had a baby". Such a violent reaction is rapidly dispelled when, a few years later, a girl does exactly that to him as a game of spin-the-bottle is introduced at a teenage boy’s party.
Moving further into his teens he falls foul of a misunderstanding where his parents think that he has made a girl pregnant. This tale is layered with details and originates from talking about a best male friend of his, a friend that Cosby grandfather disapproves of because he was born out of wedlock. The payoff is that it is resolved that Cosby’s friend is to move in to the family home rather than the supposed pregnant girl.
That should have been it really. One final vignette to round everything off. So, when Cosby, surely worn out by the multitude of facial expressions he pulls during his tales, veers off into some amusing yarns about married life you can feel the audience tense slightly, and then tense further still with a spurious Vaudevillian tale of a visit to the dentist that doesn’t seem to belong in the show. It begins to feel ever so slightly like a hostage situation, although if anyone wanted to print "Bill Cosby Took Me Hostage, Montreal 2009", it would actually be quite a nice souvenir.
When he did finally call it a night the standing ovation was a two-fold gesture that said "Bill you were brilliant", which he was, but also "Thanks for letting us go". I felt that I saw recognition of this in Cosby’s face as he humbly left the stage but then again his no-fuss exit was perfectly in line with the simplicity he had treated us to all night.