Well, no one could say Russell Brand didn’t try.
Last Wednesday, he work-shopped some material for hosting MTV’s Video Music Awards at “The Green Room” on Bleeker Street. Brand had hosted the show last year as well, but the crowd didn’t know what to make of his jokes about the Jonas Brothers and their promise rings. It was enough of a debacle that Brand spent a fair amount of his first United States comedy special talking about it. Good fodder for one show, but I’m sure he’d rather talk about something else in a second U.S. special.
The first thing you would notice about the impromptu show was the female/male ratio of the crowd. It tipped about 80/20. Brand’s lusty persona has a hold that’s really rare in the comedy world. I can’t remember the last comedy show where the opposite sex from my own was so strongly represented.
Brand framed the evening for the audience, but first realized he was a bit hungry and bemoaned he left behind a banana backstage. No worries however, an audience banana is quickly produced and in between mouthfuls, Brand told us how he wanted this year’s stint as the VMA’s master of ceremonies to go much better, specifically a desire to avoid “death threats.” So he was gong to try his material out on us. We were heavily encouraged to raise our hands if we believe Brand was nearing territory which would make him a target for more than a joke.
Hand-raising was the least of the contribution Brand sought from the audience. The audience acted like a writer’s room at times for Brand, offering punch-up for bits. Sometimes it was just a word - don’t say “Fuck”, say “Nail.” A long diversion occurred about what word to use for asshole. (“Orifice” - not specific.)
But a few times it was a bit more. One in the crowd had a reaction to the tail end of the joke, and Brand immediately earnestly question that didn’t he have to have a third thing, citing comedy’s “rule of three.” It was a generous assumption that the audience would know what he was talking about.
Brand might have been too generous. Brand at one point elicited suggestion for a bizarre thing he could suggest Pink might do in her performance. A voice from behind me yelled, “Pink comes out and fucks Michael Jackson’s corpse.” Thankfully, lost in the din of other suggestions.
Another joke about P. Diddy and Jennifer Lopez elicited a response that it should be about P. Diddy’s current girlfriend. Russell Brand made a good observation that true for constructing all monologue jokes, stating that “a fact that nobody knows, it’s almost like it’s it’s not a fact.”
A variation of this is also a lesson for Brand, which, after watching his parts of the VMAs, I think he’s unfortunately had to learn twice. Brand’s obsessive sexual persona is great for his stand-up, but it’s still so unknown on these shores that people just wonder “why is this British guy is saying dirty stuff about our pop-stars?” If the jokes rely a bit on who you are, and you’re still relatively unknown, then no one is going to get your jokes. Brand knows this, he even said so much in that aforementioned first US special.
I think the VMAs are a terrible place to try and be funny anyway. Just like the Oscars, the audience is full of music folks taken a relatively meaningless awards far too seriously (see Kanye). The best reaction you’re going to manage is clapter - the clapping for a political point of agreement- not laughs. Brand’s best moment was when he referred to Britain having free healthcare, and it was more of a statement than a joke. (It was a popular line the night he was working out material as well. And wasn’t part of his initial monologue. No wonder he moved it up.)
And Brand’s talent is two fold, the second being something that’s could never be part of the VMAs but was part of the show I saw. He’s more than just a prancing pervert, but dares into metaphysical stream-of-consciousness, where he imagines that we’re all connected backwards to prior generations and each other by umbilical cords, suggesting that as a reason to cast a kinder eye at celebrity. His mind ventures in places that MTV just doesn’t cover unless it’s pretentiously shown in a rarely aired music video. I can’t imagine MTV offering the VMAs again, but if they do, hopefully, Brand won’t try and make the third time the charm.
This story about Jon Stewart having playing good host with neo-conservatives reminds me of that joke that ends “But you fuck one sheep…” Not that Jon’s a sheep fucker, but it’s assumed that he’s supposed to be a confrontational partisan. I think it’s because of his infamous Crossfire appearance which ultimately destroyed the show. A single, out-of-character conversation colors the expectations for what people think Stewart is doing.
It’s amazing how much the media avoids understanding that the most constant target of the Daily Show is the media itself. Particular the constant yelling and screaming of positions with attempts to score points without any attempt to understand, to bring clarity and focus to the people at home. If there’s any one thing Stewart will not do with his guests, even those with views he disagrees with, is add to the frustration that passes for political discourse on TV. Just like he’s shown the news media that they can play a clip that demonstrates a politicians lie, he’s also demonstrating how to make entrancing, education and often, still funny, talk about the issues of the day.
But it often seems many media folks just assume he’s just as much of an assertive pundit as Limbaugh, Hannity or Olbermann. Like what feel like 99% of our news media sometimes. They’re so involved with this sheep, they can’t imagine anyone else doesn’t want to fuck it too.
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There it is, publishing date of July 29, perfect manifestation of the biggest downside of Just For Laughs: The reacclimation. It’s not merely the detoxing, or the catching-up on sleep, or the returned attention to unanswered e-mails and voicemails and general treadmill of real-life responsibilities. It’s the epic emotional crash from the Festival high that hits hardest.
Of course folks on the 5:30 Sunday flight to New York had it even worse, when inclement weather forced Godfrey, Christian Finnegan, Horatio Sanz, Kevin Brennan and several other comics to board a plane at Trudeau, fly home, circle the city, and head back from whence they had just come for a final night in Montreal. Add the lingering after-effects of the final evening in the Hyatt Bar—around 4 a.m., lingering revelers discovered that taps hadn’t been turned off at last call a few hours back, thus an impromptu kegger raged until roughly 5:30 a.m.—and a good chunk of talent and industry was looking at a tough 24 hours.
But overall the close of the annual equivalent to Comedy Summer Camp left a slightly unexpected impression. The June debut of Just For Laughs Chicago raised questions about the effect its timing and physical proximity would have on Montreal, and there were several familiar Festival faces that opted to remain stateside for their one yearly comedy gorging. In terms of talent, multiple sources admitted that there weren’t as many boldface names as in years past. The overall scope of the Festival, however, unquestionably exploded.
Official stats put numbers at 718 artists in 306 shows in two dozen venues, not counting outdoor and street-fair performances. The Film Festival arm’s debut of Funny People was a massive draw, as was the second incarnation of the simultaneous three-day Comedy Conference. And that’s exactly where things got overwhelming. Used to be there was time aplenty for afternoon lounging, a mad stampede of shows, then nightly socializing. With panels and events from 10 a.m. to at least 5 p.m., things got a lot tougher. Throw in the onslaught of newly participating Zoofest shows (at peak, about two dozen a night), and things got darn near impossible. At least JFL remained semi-discriminate enough to put their stamp on only select Zoofest shows (some of the off-program stuff I wandered into was absolute bottom-barrel crap). Who and what will return next year? Remains to be seen, come July 15-25, 2010.
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He’s already a star in Canada for his correspondent gig on CTV’s Canadian Idol as well as The Jon Dore Television Show (A female passerby joined our conversation outside the Cabaret Theatre to gush, “I watch you religiously…when I’m not homeless.”) Then Variety named him a 2009 Comic to Watch and he spent the week hopping from the Comedy Nest’s Comedy Night in Canada to Best of the Fest to Go West! to Galas and everything in between.
Dore was certainly winning on his own, but word quickly spread after his Friday-night Alternative Show appearance, when he brought New Face Rory Scovel on stage to perform at the same time under the guise of a time crunch. The ruse repeated Saturday night: Host Andy Kindler apologized for the show running long, and out Dore came with genius musical wordsmith Reggie Watts to talk over each other for seven straight minutes. In all honesty, neither was actually doing his act per se, but instead simultaneously rambling and listening intently, filling the spaces with improvised absurdity and subtly mocking themselves, the onstage “character” all comics embody to some degree and pretty much the entire show and Festival as a whole. Both even returned for an “encore,” with Dore soulfully crooning Bryan Adams’ “Heaven” as Watts flexed a foreign tongue on a nonsensical ditty apparently containing a “Ching chang chong” chorus.
“Maybe I’m old school,” Kindler mock-apologized following the thunderous applause. “But I found it very distracting.” Distracting? Yes. Perhaps the most memorable set of the entire Festival? Yes again.
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Leave it to Bill Cosby to put things in perspective. Think two or even three seven-minute Festival sets a night is adequate? On Saturday, Cosby performed to 3,000 in Place des Arts’ cavernous Salle Wilfried Pelletier for two hours and ten minutes, waited 45 minutes for the old, impressed crowd to file out and a new, eager crowd to file in, and did it all over again. And the stuff he did…it was good.
Gray-haired and comfortably bumming in a long-sleeve t-shirt, sky-high sweatpants and Crocs, Cosby spent the majority of his time at stage center, seated in a chair draped with a red sweater reading “Hello Friend,” a nod to his own Ennis William Cosby Foundation. In that chair he hemmed and hawed about one singular topic: Marriage. “So there I am,” he began. “Mrs. Cosby. My wife. That’s what I want to talk about. This Evening.” He leaned back and rolled his eyes in despair. He sat poker-straight, making dazed, hangdog, “old-person” expressions. He knelt on the stage to depict himself cutting down a Christmas tree for the sake of “romance” and hunched forward, hands on knees, explaining and warning what one was in for as one aged. There were car rides, health woes, grandkids, Biblical reinterpretations, wolves, wives and mothers. Things weren’t as tight towards the end as they had been at the beginning, and it was an uncomfortable physical effort just watching him perform for so long, but in terms of tone, cadence, exaggeration and outright life wisdom, the 72-year-old is clearly still one of the top storytellers around.
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I had made it a point this year to stick to shows featuring artists I rarely had the chance to see live. Thus no Rich Vos, no Christian Finnegan, no Golds either Judy or Elon, no Aziz Ansari, no Marc Maron, etc. The same was supposed to hold true for Louis CK, yet I was easily swayed into catching his final midnight show at the 2300-cap Metropolis [an additional last-minute show was announced for tonight at the Kola Note]. Prolific as ever, CK managed to fill at least half of a one-hour, 45-minute show with material crafted since his spring Hilarious CD and DVD tapings. As for the old stuff, I overheard the quoted phrase “You are sitting in a chair…IN THE SKY!” twice more before the evening was out.
On the downside, as always, a sacrifice had to be made. I opted out of the midnight Alternative Show, where I had hoped to catch Duncan Trussell, an out-there New Face whose darker stuff had previous been nixed from the Cabaret Theatre. He was one of the fortunate ones, however. Scrambling to fill late-night space vacated by Paul Provenza in the St. Catherine Theatre, two free New Faces…Encore shows were announced, only to quickly be dubbed “Best of New Faces.” Normally the top of the New Faces crop gets play over at Comedyworks, the Comedy Nest and elsewhere, and it still happened to some extent, but now not being included in Encore equated to instant, in-Festival failure. Ouch. Aren’t these guys already under enough pressure?
Over at Doug Stanhope’s second annual Just For Spite Festival (two nights at Cafe Chaos, in the heart of the JFL street fair grounds), both shows were sold out by Friday’s 8 p.m. start time. As a result, Stanhope will be making more money off two independent sets than most acts will make in their entire Festival run. [Full disclosure: I’m married to one of Stanhope’s business cohorts.]
Speaking of selling out, Russell Peters checked “Sell out the single biggest show in JFL history” off his to-do list. Recently named one of Forbes’ “Top 10 Earning Comedians” Peters counted 11,000 paid tickets at the Bell Centre, later celebrating the achievement at a “Midnight at the Opera” shindig in association with Just For Laughs Comedy Conference at Club Opera.
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“Um, hi, you don’t look the same, either,” Bobcat Goldthwait announced upon taking the stage at Friday’s Bubbling with Laughter show. Though he was due on much earlier, the former Jimmy Kimmel Live director (in Montreal promoting the Canadian premiere of his Robin Williams-starring World’s Greatest Dad) ended up in the penultimate spot after a phone call to his hotel room informed him the show he thought was tomorrow was currently underway.
With the same eardrum-splintering voice but shorter hair, the once-retired stand-up also relied on some old material: Having a woman approach him to say, “I don’t mean to insult you, but you look like Bobcat Goldthwait” and relating a story from the set of Blow in which he asked Johnny Depp and Paul Reubens who amongst them was not on probation.
Fortunately sandwiched in between was some eye-openingly introspective stuff about his return to the live stage (“There’s a connection I make with the audience that in the other things I do…I ran out of money, ladies and gentlemen!”) and a transfixing story about being trapped on a plummeting airplane with a team of Special Olympics athletes. None of it was particularly hilarious, and was in fact reliably hesitant and stuttery, but it definitively marked what could be a more personally revealing direction. Then he blew the light, admitted to stealing his entire act from Sesame Street‘s Grover and left no question that yes, the same old Bobcat had returned.