Just for Laughs Festival: Days three and four

All the action from day two of the world’s second-largest comedy festival
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First off, apologies to anyone kind enough to be following these updates that day three disappeared. It was lost to jet-lag. No, actually the real reason is that Wednesday night’s big show, the "Britcom" gala to be hosted by John Cleese, is going to feature as a review in the paper next Monday so I didn’t want "type over my own text" as the written equivalent of "stepping on your own toes" must surely go. Of course the news that Cleese had to cancel because of a prostate problem is common knowledge now but the show went ahead and I will submit a longer review on the web when the print review comes out.

The man that stepped in Cleese’s breeches, Daily Show star Lewis Black, was the host of his own gala the following evening. Black, a recent visitor to the temporary Udderbelly venue on London’s South Bank, had changed his entire opening patter because of the demands of being televised twice but, despite this dexterity, still asked his audience to lower their expectations by 20 per cent in line with the world economy: "then there’s no reason to be disappointed."

It is hard to be disappointed by Lewis Black though. The more you see him the more he impresses you. "Most hosts are supposed to be ingratiating and warm. I don’t give a shit," he remarks. But while the 61-year old comic claimed not to be the host with the most, the largely Canadian audience (with a healthy dose of US industry types) allowed him to rip into their country recounting that when he recently toured here he experienced 36 hours of sun in 40 days: "At what point do you look up in the sky and say ‘maybe I should slit my wrists to see some colour?’"

A Just for Laughs gala is definitely a place for colour with the stage of the Theatre Saint Denis decked in a veritable ‘Boy George of colours’ (i.e. red, gold and green) and a backdrop reminiscent of a psychedelic Max Escher creation. Into this well-lit arena stepped up opening act Canadian comic Tim Nutt, resembling a cross between Billy Connolly and Grizzly Adams, who was amiable enough and who imparted a useful tip for anyone who wanted to look interested in a conversation they didn’t want to be having: think of the theme tune from I Dream of Jeannie. It was an inspired note to leave the stage on. Sadly, hard as they worked the next act, Aisha Tyler, could not work up much by way of inspiration. Tyler played the sexy palaeontologist Charlie in Friends, first the girlfriend of Joey and then Ross. In my world there’s probably a place in heaven for anyone associated with the show, so you might think that I might give Tyler a ‘get out of jail free’ card. Unfortunately her spurious tales of over zealous massages mid-Thirties physical malaise weren’t convincing enough for me and, though she came to comedy before acting, she demonstrated the over-demonstrative, over-ingratiating and transparent traits that actors who try stand up have a tendency to show.

Though the 54 year old comic Bobby Slayton has done his share of acting (including the Bruce Willis film Bandits and HBO TV Movie The Rat Pack) no one could accuse him of being over-ingratiating. Known as "Pit Bull of Comedy" and, according to Wikipedia at least, "Yid Vicious", Slayton somehow put me in mind of an older version of the character of Jimmy Barret in Mad Men, always "on" and with a snappy edge, a quality that makes him an apt host for the festival’s "Nasty Show’", a position he’s filled for a while and made him a favourite here.

Slayton describes marriage as a "job" and his excuse to his wife when she catches him eyeing up another woman is that he’s "looking for a second job". Later on he tells us that when his kids left home his wife said: “Now we can have sex any time we want” to which he replies: "why, are you moving out too?"

If this all feels familiar it’s because it has a very working men's club feel. Here this kind of battle of the sexes humour would be considered as belonging to the ‘Borscht Belt’ the name given to the upstate New York resorts favoured by Jewish holidaymakers in the 50s and 60s and played by almost every Jewish comic that ever existed from those generations including Lenny Bruce and Woody Allen.

However, Slayton’s material on race would not sit well with most Borsht Belt comics. He claims that he likes the Mexicans that he lives among in Los Angeles but that "we have too many of them." For some reason I am immediately reminded of watching Tony Parsons on Question Time a while back remarking that "Britain is full" and I realise that it’s the specificity of Slayton’s view that makes it, by definition, racist. It seems obvious but every truth has an individual defining moment of illustration. He goes on to ask how many Mexicans there are in the audience and about seven hands go up: "enough to clean up" he remarks.

Dan Finnerty and The Dan Band are next up with little by way of controversy, in fact it’s pure frivolous fun. The trio consist of a man dressed like a mechanic accompanied by two other men attired as if they were vaguely hip college lecturers in the 1950s, the front man lip-synchs to medley of tunes including "Whenever, Wherever" by Shakira and "Genie in a Bottle" by Christina Aguilera as the trio en masse dance their way through the medley as cheesily as possible. There’s another group effort with The Improvised Shakespeare Company whose bawdy one-off show, titled "Rubber Crazy" thanks to an audience member suggestion, surmount a cautious welcome.

After the break Northern Irish comedian, and regular face on British TV ( Fame Academy and the like), Patrick Kielty bounced on stage all cheek and swagger. He started with a rather tortuous routine about how Beyonce’s "Single Ladies (Put A Ring On it)" was an unlikely betrayal of her "Bootylicious" days and continued to throttle comedy by making some klunky jokes about terrorism. It’s a well-known fact that Kielty’s father was tragically murdered by loyalist paramilitaries but I don’t think that this is in his mind when he’s botching together clichéd jokes on the subject. Either way, it wouldn’t excuse the hackneyed approach of using failed suicide bombers to conjure up a league table of terrorism a table that the IRA go to the top of because if they had flown planes into the World Trade Centre they would have been back in Dublin in time for Guinness. Good comedians use terrorism to reflect back on the inadequacies countries that have been attacked by it, this is just tawdry.

Holding up just that kind of critical mirror was Marc Maron who couldn’t get his head around why so many Montrealians seemed to smoke until he realised: "oh you have healthcare" adding "we’ll never have healthcare in the US, we have 10 per cent unemployment so we need the turnover.” It was choice line among a number for this comic who has been around the block in the US with a number of TV appearances that include an, albeit short-lived, version of Never Mind The Buzzcocks. In an enjoyable set there was one line in particular that I’ll be sharing with people I know, always a good sign, which was: "I’ve lost a lot of friends to kids." Maron’s currently touring his second one man show and, having been to the Edinburgh Fringe with the first, there’s hopefully a chance that British audiences will get to see him in the not-too-distant future.

The same hopefully goes for newer talent Aziz Ansari who has been much talked about here and is already known for MTV’s Human Giant sketch comedy show and NBC’s Parks and Recreation a mockumentary from the producers of the US version of The Office. His tight style is similar to Chris Rock’s but probably a notch down on the indignation scale. There’s plenty of his act I could tuck into but the routine that stuck out was him reading that there was such a thing as a thread count for sheets and when, upon further reading, he finds that his expensive "Hotel Linens" sheets had a lower thread count than advertised he exclaims: "Are you kidding me man, I almost slept on that shit! If that was a drug deal I would have shot Hotel Linens in the face! Where are the rest of my threads [bang]?!"

Just by way of a footnote, because I am a glutton for punishment I also made it to Best of the Fest on Thursday night at Comedyworks. Though this venue is at the other end of town to the Saint Denis theatre, where the galas are held, it’s an interesting journey through ornately costumed performers and stalls, some featuring kooky French-speaking acts or others laying on board and parlour games and then on through the high streets of the city where the innately relaxed Montrealians merge with festival-goers to create a gentle buzz late into the night.

The show at Comedyworks was hosted by Dan Levy, who has a TV career that is also buzzing gently. He’s a very presentable chap who I would like to see do a whole show. His stint as tonight’s MC included a pointed gag about Michael Jackson being a good example of how you have to have more hits than indiscretions to avoid being disgraced. Meanwhile his charges included enjoyable Costaki Economopoulos (with his world weary take on compromise with his wife: "She wants A, I want Z. We settle on B.") the slightly surreal Mark Forward, the absurd Ben Bailey (who has played the Fringe twice) ex-teacher Gerry Dee and former banker-turned Daily Show writer Paul Mecurio who had the nice device of planting questions in the audience at the end of his set to get a nice twist on audience participation.

So ended another day in Festival City, punch-drunk on punchlines. I’ve no doubt with the potential calories on offer either at the nearby Dairy Queen I’ll be sufficiently restored for my next mirth marathon. I’ll keep you posted.