Comedy in Canada: it's no laughing matter

The Montreal Comedy Festival makes Edinburgh look like a Buddhist love-in.

I USED to think that the Edinburgh Festival was too television- industry-oriented. Too many producers, not enough art. Herds of comedians dancing for a baying mob of hungry television people. Me, naked and bedraggled, raging forth from Arthur's Seat at the superficiality of it all. Then I went to the Montreal Comedy Festival and was roundly slapped out of my illusions.

Montreal makes Edinburgh look like a Tibetan festival of inner light: a beautiful and languid gathering of artistic souls, indulging in the free and open exchange of ideas (imagine white-robed comedians drifting around smiling at each other in a futuristic way).

In Montreal things are more blatant. All the comedians stay in one hotel, called the Delta. The Delta bar is the after-gig booze and schmooze for all the producers, comics and agents. It is a kind of hell.

One evening, as I was drinking with a friend, a passing agent noticed the fellow I was with, paused and then, in a serious tone, announced "Hey! Great face", as though my friend's face was something he was working on. He then offered his name, some company acronym and a limp hand (in that order), all the while scanning the room for more important people. This was to be the first of many Hollywood handshakes.

A British manager was telling me that he had been approached in Montreal by an American with a project and asked if he had a "piece of talent" that would fit. A piece of talent. A piece of ass. A portion of product. It was odd to become a piece of talent for a week. To be bartered over even while you're within earshot. After perfunctory hellos your agent and the interested party move about two feet away from you. Suddenly you are being talked about in the third person.

"How old is he?"

"Got a good few years in him yet."

"Yeah. Can he act?"

"Yessir. He can do most anything he puts his mind to."

The American turns to me and appraises me again. I feel like Mandingo.

It was in fact quite thrilling and novel to be so brazenly objectified for a week. But I was always leaving, and never had time to take it seriously. Any longer, and I would have had to have started swinging at people with a wooden club.

The competitive basis of the whole festival makes for a divisive atmosphere. You gig. The agents bite or they don't. You walk away with a clutch of business cards or you stand around with your manager till the bitter hopeless end, desperately trying to look as though you could not care less whether anyone were interested in you or not. It took me straight back to school discos.

It was a tribute, however, to the British comics' style that, even in the midst of such a Babylon, they still found time to enjoy themselves on stage and not sell out.

At one club there was a house band, a sort of Letterman-style arrangement. Acts were punctuated by a seamlessly slick funk outfit called the Cherry Pickers. I was standing at the back with daytime's Tim Vine. Every time an American comedian came on stage they did the same thing. They'd announce their name and then, indicating the band, say: "Let's hear it for the Cherry Pickers." The audience, without fail, would break into rapturous applause. We were killing ourselves. Tim went on later; half-way through his set, which was going well, he looked over at us and said: "Let's here it for the Cherry Pickers." The audience applauded Pavlovian style. The British comics at the back were on the floor. Obviously the irony was lost on the audience. But it was at that moment that I felt an extremely rare feeling of national pride.

In Montreal you have to be on your guard at all times. In the lift, by the pool, at breakfast, the most unlikely person could be the ticket to your very own three-camera sitcom. In the elevator going back to my room, two comics get in and stand with their backs to me. I sense a tension in the air; we ascend in silence for a few floors, then one of them suddenly explodes: "F***in' LA pricks!!!" Suddenly they turn to me, panic in their eyes, wondering who they might have insulted. They clock my laminate: British. Relieved, they get out. I carry on, and it dawns on me that Hollywood has arrived. After that I tended to avoid the Delta bar. Far too scary.

At Montreal comedians do six-minute slots. An hour is unheard of. When I mentioned to Americans that a lot of British comedians aim at doing an hour-long show in Edinburgh I was met with puzzled pity. The attitude was, why make the suit without first showing the sample?

I did a gig at a great venue called Club Soda. Backstage an incredible man approached me with a clipboard, dwarfing me with his massive width. "Hi, Julian, welcome to Montreal. I'll be looking after you backstage here at Club Soda, you'll be on stage at around about..." - he squinted at his clip board - "7.48." Such precision. "You'll do six minutes. At five minutes thirty a red light comes on, At six minutes it starts flashing. At six minutes thirty we fade the microphone volume down. At seven minutes I come on and take you off stage personally." He laughs. I smile weakly. He slaps my back and crunches my shoulder with a burly paw: "Go get yourself a deal, Julian!"

After a series of gigs where I was met with baffled stares, I eventually managed to iron out the culturally specific references in my act and started to get into the swing of things. I had to cue the audience into the irony a little more boldly than I do in England, but it worked, and I started enjoying the gigs. I shook many hands and took many cards. Expect to see me soon in an obscure corner of some late-night cable schedule as Baines, the kookie English butler.

News
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.
peopleThe idea has been greeted enthusiastically by the party's MPs
News
Michael Buerk in the I'm A Celebrity jungle 2014
people
Voices
File: David Cameron offers a toast during a State Dinner in his honour March 14, 2012
voicesAnd nobody from Ukip said babies born to migrants should be classed as migrants, says Nigel Farage
Arts and Entertainment
Avatar grossed $2.8bn at the box office after its release in 2009
filmJames Cameron is excited
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
Stik on the crane as he completed the mural
art
News
Happy in his hat: Pharrell Williams
people
Arts and Entertainment
Stella Gibson is getting closer to catching her killer
tvReview: It's gripping edge-of-the-seat drama, so a curveball can be forgiven at such a late stage
News
Brazilian football legend Pele pictured in 2011
peopleFans had feared the worst when it was announced the Brazil legand was in a 'special care' unit
News
i100(More than you think)
Sport
Brendan Rodgers seems more stressed than ever before as Liverpool manager
FOOTBALLI like Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
News
The Magna Carta
archaeologyContemporary account of historic signing discovered
News
Phyllis Dorothy James on stage during a reading of her book 'Death Comes to Pemberley' last year
peopleJohn Walsh pays tribute to PD James, who died today
Sport
Benjamin Stambouli celebrates his goal for Tottenham last night
FOOTBALL
Life and Style
Dishing it out: the head chef in ‘Ratatouille’
food + drinkShould UK restaurants follow suit?
News
peopleExclusive: Maryum and Hana Ali share their stories of the family man behind the boxing gloves
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Langley James : Web Developer; PHP, MySQL, Java; Blackfriars; £25k

£25000 per annum + training: Langley James : Web Developer; PHP, MySQL, Java; ...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £45000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Key featuresA highly motivated ...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £45000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Key featuresA highly motivated ...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £30000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Do you feel your sales role is l...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game