Just for Laughs 2014: A festival for the ages

 

From up-and-comers to icons, the acts at the 32nd edition of the world’s largest comedy gathering were of the highest calibre

 
 
 
 
Whether bantering or crooning, gala host Don Rickles was a wonder.
 
 

Whether bantering or crooning, gala host Don Rickles was a wonder.

Photograph by: Dario Ayala, The Gazette

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MONTREAL — Jerrod Carmichael is 26. Don Rickles is 88. The latter represents the grand tradition of standup comedy; the former, the future.

Both were among the 200 or so comics who appeared at the 32nd Just for Laughs festival, which wrapped Monday night with the second of Russell Peters’s galas.

It’s not for nothing that Carmichael is being hailed as the next Dave Chappelle. And even that is a disservice to this comic philosopher, who held sway for a week’s worth of solo shows at Théâtre Sainte Catherine. Carmichael is a provocateur, a risk taker, a contrarian.

He veers into territory guaranteed to unsettle and even offend, but there is a method to the man’s political incorrectness. He hits nerves that touch on our hypocrisies. He is raw and he is refreshing. And he is but one in an array of new faces — many of whom were also at the fest — who will change the course of comedy.

Rickles is a wonder. He is old-school, and yet he is held in the highest esteem by the Young Turks of the comedy world. Rickles closed two galas and helped morph Place des Arts into Vegas on those nights. Sitting on a chair on stage, having survived near-fatal flesh-eating disease this year, Mr. Warmth not only gave it his all in bantering with and chiding his audiences, but managed to croon a few tunes with surprisingly impressive range and feeling.

Wish that gala host Chevy Chase, 18 years younger than Rickles, could have given anything at all, rather than try to float by on his celebrity. He couldn’t even read lines printed for him on the teleprompter. He simply phoned it in.

And yet Chase is hardly the most abysmal gala host to have appeared at Just for Laughs. Hello, Jeremy Piven, Pam Anderson and Tom Arnold.

What’s remarkable about this year’s laugh fest is that of the vast number of performers who appeared over the last three weeks, I can count on the fingers of one hand those who truly stiffed. Be it at galas or theme events or one-man shows, the calibre of comedic talent was unprecedented.

And so the world’s largest comedy gathering continues to evolve and draw the best wits.

The question has oft been raised as to why veterans like Rickles keep at it. Clearly, it’s not for the money in his case. It’s all about the rush of galvanizing an audience, the comedy equivalent of walking a tightrope without a net.

Live comedy is the ultimate addiction. Few comics retire. They will go for the giggles until they flame out or pass away. As long as they are invited back into the ring, they will answer the bell.

And many made magic at this year’s festival. So many highlights, some as dramatic as they were comedic.

For starters, on an emotional level, how about the return of Mike MacDonald on Sunday, after undergoing a life-saving liver transplant in March 2013? MacDonald, who has appeared at Just for Laughs more than any other standup, delivered one of his strongest sets ever, proving the adage that comedy is tragedy plus time.

On the level of pure unpredictable entertainment, it will be hard to surpass Seth Rogen’s Hilarity for Charity gala from Saturday night. Rogen noted that whenever a Canadian hosts a gala, they pander to the crowd. So he decided to out-pander all the other panderers, by having Youppi toss out Timbits from a wheelbarrow full of them and by bringing out P.K. Subban to sip beer through a straw from the Stanley Cup.

And that wasn’t even the most surreal development of the evening. That would have been Los Angeleno actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt dropping in with electric guitar in hand and crooning a complex and fast-paced Jacques Brel classic in perfect French. Simply dazzling. Turns out the star of 3rd Rock From the Sun, Looper and 500 Days of Summer is a francophile.

For the record, the comedy portions of the Rogen gala were simply stellar, too. In fact, all the galas — even the one hosted by Chase — as well as the club and solo shows probably had the strongest laugh components of any in festival history.

Hell, it’s hard to go wrong with gala hosts like Rogen, Peters, Bill Burr, super-mensch Andy Samberg and Jim Gaffigan — who brought along his five young offspring. Or with established pros like Hannibal Buress, Lewis Black, Marc Maron, Mike Wilmot, Kathleen Madigan, Ron White, Tommy Tiernan, Robert Kelly, Chris D’Elia, Mike Birbiglia, Dave Attell, Aziz Ansari, Dom Irrera, Alonzo Bodden, George Wallace, Godfrey, Nick Offerman, Tom Papa, Gabriel Iglesias, Angelo Tsarouchas, Elon Gold, Orny Adams, Nick DiPaolo, Maz Jobrani, Bobby Slayton, John Heffron, Jim Jefferies and Jim Norton.

And can’t forget the stunning array of up-and-comers, apart from Carmichael: K. Trevor Wilson, Nikki Glaser, Ron Josol, Joel Creasey, Nathan Fielder, Wil Anderson, Vanessa Bayer, the Lucas brothers, Kumail Nanjiani, T.J. Miller, Chelsea Peretti, James Adomian, Broad City, Mark Forward, Michael Che, Paul Virzi, Al Madrigal, Joe Mande, David O’Doherty, Michelle Wolff, Monroe Martin, Ruben Paul, Hailey Boyle, Ryan Hamilton and Erin Foley.

Even novelty acts like magic man Justin Willman and the Boy With Tape on His Face were inspired.

And special props to the hometown brigade: Derek Seguin, who killed in the Nasty Show with an unforgettably graphic bit about the joys of childbirth; Heidi Foss, who managed to shine in the Chase gala with her dry and droll one-liners; and Mike Paterson, who stole the show — en français, no less — along with bilingue host Mike Ward at four Juste pour rire galas two weeks ago.

On that note, it would have been nice to showcase more locals in primo spots at the fest. There is a wealth of anglo comic talent in town, and many more merit an opportunity to be showcased.

Once again, it would be greatly appreciated if organizers didn’t cram the vast majority of shows into the last week of the fest, and would spread them out more evenly over the entire three weeks.

And what’s with the different designations? We have been presented with Just for Laughs, Off-JFL and Zoofest, but the lines are forever blurred. Can’t organizers simply put all the shows under one Just for Laughs umbrella and eliminate the unnecessary confusion?

Ultimately, though, all that matters is what’s funny. And there was plenty of funny at this year’s fest. Good thing, too — in this town, we always need the laughs.

bbrownstein@montrealgazette.com

Twitter: billbrownstein

 
 
 
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Whether bantering or crooning, gala host Don Rickles was a wonder.
 

Whether bantering or crooning, gala host Don Rickles was a wonder.

Photograph by: Dario Ayala, The Gazette

 
Whether bantering or crooning, gala host Don Rickles was a wonder.
Seth Rogen’s Hilarity for Charity gala featured a surreal list of guests, including P.K. Subban.
Comic philosopher Jerrod Carmichael earned his hype.
Mike MacDonald’s set at Jim Gaffigan’s gala was an emotional high point of the festival.
Jim Gaffigan brought out his brood when he hosted a gala on Sunday.
 
 
 
 
 
 
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