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.

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