54 shows, 21 nights, 15 venues, 144 artists (for a grand total of $190 plus tax, not including drinks). I made a lot of use out of my Just For Laughs and Zoofest/Off-JFL passes in July. And I saw a lot of comedy. Not all of it was fantastic. A lot of it wasn’t even that great. But I can’t complain that I didn’t get a lot of value for my money.
For the benefit of those who couldn’t get out, or even those who did but couldn’t see the same shows — the peak of the festival had almost 100 shows a day including outdoor events — I’ve compiled a list of memories that stuck out below. I can’t remember every joke or even every comedian, but I do remember how I felt leaving their shows.
Surprise Party (July 11 & 18): This Zoofest show was basically a French version of the English festival’s Midnight Surprise: An hour-long midnight show in which the audience isn’t told who will be performing. And they can’t complain they didn’t get what they paid for. The shows I attended were split with half an hour for each headliner, and those headliners were pretty big names in Quebec standup: Adib Alkhalidey, François Bellefeuille and Louis-José Houde. All three were practising sets in preparation for a Netflix special taping going on later that week. And so they brought quality material. I’m not sure if the Netflix special taping is going to happen again next year on the same scale among Quebec comedians, but either way this is a show worth doing again.
La table d’hôte (July 16): This Zoofest gala had a handful of top-quality standup acts, but honestly all I can remember is its opening video, in which the comedians perform a lipsync choreographed dance routine to the Mixmania song Les 5 doigts de la main. Then they finish the song live on stage. They’re hardly professional dancers, and it was all kind of silly, but props for the idea and for putting in the effort to execute it. (I really hope they post that video somewhere.)
Josh Adam Meyers, The Cooties and Garfunkel and Oates (Amp’d, July 25): One of my highlights from last year’s festival was the Goddamn Comedy Jam, a midnight show at Katacombes in which comedians (including such stars as Russell Peters and Colin Jost) perform standup sets and then play songs with a band. It was such a fun party that didn’t get the attention it deserved. This year, I grabbed a ticket to Amp’d, another midnight music and comedy show at Katacombes, without much expectation. I really should have learned my lesson from last year, because this was also a great time. After an opening few songs by The Cooties (you can watch a show by them here), one of the standup comics didn’t show, so they brought in Josh Adam Meyers (coincidentally the host of the Goddamn Comedy Jam), who improvised a song about members of the audience. It was hilarious and so much high-energy fun. (Poor Mary-Lynn Rajskub, though, who had to follow it.) As a bonus, the show had special guests Garfunkel and Oates, who performed some new material including a brand new song (so new, they needed to read the lyrics, held in front of them by a member of the audience kneeling on the stage).
Ken Jeong (Ken Jeong gala, July 26): Just For Laughs galas can be uneven. Sometimes the host is just phoning it in, sometimes the comedians don’t feel like the best calibre. And while the performances at the Ken Jeong gala weren’t that great (with the notable exceptions of Orny Adams and Jim Breuer), the host was on fire. Jeong’s lovable self-aggrandizing, his jokes about his wife and his overall comfort on the stage were fantastic. As someone who’s never seen Community or the Hangover movies or Dr. Ken or anything else he’s been in, it was a pleasant surprise.
Dave Chappelle and John Mayer (Midnight Surprise, July 27): Dave Chappelle is probably the biggest reason why the Midnight Surprise has become so popular at Just For Laughs (which can be a bad thing — some guy on Twitter complained when he overpaid for a ticket and didn’t get to see a Chappelle-level superstar on Saturday night). And I didn’t get to see him the last two times he was here, so I was really happy to catch this midnight show. And also very happy that I could make everyone I know jealous by telling them I was there. I go into detail about this show in this blog post.
Tom Dillon (July 20): Dillon, in a doubleheader show with Janelle James, saw his set quickly degenerate when his punchlines didn’t hit, and started blaming the audience. A good self-deprecating well-that-didn’t-work joke or well-placed jab at an audience member can help bring a crowd back, but Dillon seemed more angry and that didn’t work in his favour.
Running Late with Scott Rogowsky (July 26): Not all midnight shows are home runs. Rogowsky, the host of the very popular HQ trivia show online, brought his late-night talk show to Mainline Theatre, complete with his dad as Ed McMahon-style sidekick. But despite the goodwill of coming out in an Expos jersey, his monologue bombed and his guests, including a filmmaker he invited just because the guy emailed him and wanted to be on the show, didn’t create much in the way of memorable moments.
Just In (July 25): I get that Zoofest isn’t always standup, and may not even always be comedy, but I expect more theatrical-style acts to at least have a bit of humour in them. This one-man show starring Lucien Ratio lost me in its first few minutes. I couldn’t even tell you the plot other than it having to do with Justin Trudeau, and there was a lot of use of a Canadian flag. In all the shows I went to, it’s the only one I considered walking out of due to lack of interest. But with only about 15 people in the audience, I couldn’t escape without being noticed.
Dave Chappelle and John Mayer (Bell Centre show, July 28): I have a lot of respect for some of the comedy Chappelle has done, but some of his habits annoy the hell out of me. And while the fun of a $20 midnight show at a bar can make up for a lot of that, a show in which people pay $75 a ticket and up should have a much higher standard for entertainment. It starts with the late start — of all the shows I went to at Just For Laughs, only three started significantly late, and two of those were Chappelle/Mayer shows. Then there’s the opening acts. The midnight show had Neal Brennan with good political jokes. The Bell Centre show had two opening act comedians whose jokes were mainly based on racist stereotypes. (When a comedian is disambiguating “Indian” by clarifying that he’s referring to “the dot people” and pointing to his forehead, you know you’ve reached the bottom of the barrel.) Mayer didn’t perform most of the songs the crowd knows him for, and Chappelle’s standup, while funny, wasn’t awe-inspiring. Overall, it’s not that the show itself was so bad, but it just didn’t justify the price tag.
Cabaret des perles rares (July 6): SNL Québec gave us some great young comedians who are headlining standup shows and TV series (Katherine Levac, Virginie Fortin, Phil Roy, Pier-Luc Funk…), but Mathieu Quesnel hasn’t seen the kind of superstardom as his colleagues. This theatrical mock talk show, in which Quesnel plays an over-the-top director, is absurd comedy the way we like it, and proof enough for me that he still has a lot of talent.
Les dessous d’Anne-Marie (July 18): One of the more hyped shows at Zoofest was a one-woman show by Anne-Marie Losique, the porn entrepreneur and former MusiquePlus VJ who has a habit of giggling. The one-night-only performance at Monument National was billed as a way to get up close and personal with the woman behind the caricature, with some laughs that she got some help scripting. Unfortunately the show wasn’t very funny, and there was far too little in terms of revelation about what goes on in her head (what little there was, like her Croatian roots and family history, seemed rushed through and quickly abandoned). Instead, it was an hour of her reading off a teleprompter that left her no opportunities to go off-script and really connect with the audience.
Et si on changeait le monde (July 20): I’m sure it seemed like such a good idea: Bring together a panel of comedians to talk politics and try to make some suggestions that could change the world. But the execution failed on so many levels. Held at Monument National’s 800-seat Salle Ludger-Duvernay, the setup turned the tables by having the audience sit on the stage, facing out, and the panel on couches at the front of the stage facing us. The intimate arrangement was cool, but created some technical problems because neither the lighting nor the sound was designed to work for such a physical arrangement. They actually turned off everyone’s microphones because the echo made it hard to understand what they were saying. But more important than the technical problems were the ones related to content. They simply bit off more than they could chew, having a panel that was too large and trying to talk about too many topics for an hour-long show. The result was a discussion that wasn’t really funny, didn’t educate much and provided very little in the way of suggestions for how to solve political problems of our time.
Michael Ian Black (The Alternative Show, July 28): Black, whose comedy is more on the awkward/absurd side, decided to take the name of Andy Kindler’s Alternative Show literally and propose something different from his regular short set of jokes: He looked up the script to The Jew of Malta on his phone and just started reading it. He gave the audience a choice — this or a more traditional set — but the audience probably figured there was something bigger at play here. Reading a play out loud for eight minutes worked a bit with Black’s style of comedy, and his pauses and asides made for some good laughs, but I think the audience was expecting a bigger punchline that never came.
Pierre-Yves Roy Desmarais (Bonjour, July 12): This young comedian got me hooked pretty quickly during his one-man show, with some musical bait-and-switch comedy reminiscent of Bo Burnham (if you don’t know who that is, watch this now), and the energy and timing of Louis-José Houde. The guy’s got a bright future ahead.
Josiane Aubuchon (L’Aubuchon à sa façon, July 17): An entirely improvised show based on questions members of the audience put into a bowl beforehand and are picked out at random, this was an enjoyable hour that left me impressed by Aubuchon’s stage presence and ability to not only think on her feet but be funny doing it.
Mekki Leeper (New Faces, July 25): Leeper’s jokes about how you don’t need to like gay porn to support gay people, and his ex-girlfriend going out with a college basketball star (both of which you can see here) made for a solid five minutes.
Simon Gibson (New Faces, July 25): Gibson blew well past his allotted time the second time I saw him at New Faces, and I feel like he should be penalized for it. But his high-energy slapstick style is so original I have to include him. His introduction (also seen here) was well done.
For a full review of New Faces, you can check out this post at The Comic’s Comic.
Jackie Kashian (Maria Bamford, July 27): I feel bad not being familiar with Kashian — here she is performing at a gala in 2003 — but her no-nonsense real talk style was quite enjoyable to hear as a warmup to Maria Bamford’s show. If I didn’t love Bamford so much, I’d have wished the show could see more of Kashian.
What were your highlights or discoveries? Offer some names in the comments.