Hometown hero Jay Baruchel wasn’t an obvious pick for gala host, but showed his true colours on Thursday.
Photograph by: Peter McCabe, The Gazette
MONTREAL — If a festival is to survive, it must evolve. It must take chances. It must constantly find young blood yet pay respect to the veterans who remain relevant.
Fact is, a festival can’t rely on its fast-aging regular clientele to keep sustaining it. It must bring in a new generation of patrons.
This is no small task for festivals of any genre. Particularly those that have hung in for extended periods.
Just for Laughs, which wrapped Sunday, turned 31 this year. That’s old in festival years. It could have easily placated many of its regular patrons by bringing back the same old tried and true, as it has done in the past few years.
Yet while re-recruiting some of its old reliables who merited return engagements, the fest went after some fairly audacious young talent. Sure, not all panned out, but no risk, no reward. And on the whole, festivalgoers were abundantly rewarded this year.
On the subject of risk, enlisting the reclusive, unpredictable Dave Chappelle, among the sharpest of comedy minds ever to grace a stage, could have gone either way. Chappelle speaks his mind and adheres to his own set of rules and values. The first of his 10 performances, on Wednesday, was said to be unfocused. But he adjusted and in the subsequent shows, including the Thursday performance I caught, audiences were rewarded with routines that were nothing short of brilliant.
Many have tried to recruit Chappelle over the last decade, but most have failed. Don’t know what JFL director of anglo programming Robbie Praw did to lure him here, but it turned out to be a master coup — even if the deal only got done after the festival began.
Speaking of super acquisitions, how did Praw manage to land Seth Meyers as a gala host? Meyers had enough on his plate this summer: Saturday Night Live’s head writer and Weekend Update anchor had just been announced as the replacement for Jimmy Fallon on Late Night, and is about to get married. No matter — Meyers showed sterling standup panache hosting Wednesday’s gala. He also got by with a lot of help from an SNL buddy, the magnificent John Mulaney — only 30 and clearly destined for greatness — and ex-SNLer Rich Hall.
And how about the pride of N.D.G., Jay Baruchel, making his fest debut? Also risky, but Baruchel, only the fourth Montrealer to host a gala, was right in his element and delivered, particularly after being named honorary Habs captain by Geoff Molson and being presented with a sweater by Chris (Knuckles) Nilan. Baruchel also had the good fortune of having two of the hottest talents on his bill: the equally unbridled Bo Burnham and Moshe Kasher, a sort of postmodern Don Rickles who also brought the house down at his Théâtre Sainte-Catherine solo show.
Though the move may not have appeared risky to some, having megastar Dane Cook come to host a gala left many a cynic’s eyes rolling. He’s hardly a darling of the critics, but few could find fault with Cook’s hosting, or his one-liners.
Most are aware that comedy has long been a boys’ club. Sure, lip service has always been paid to women — programmers tend to throw in one or two on a bill of a dozen. Past JFL fests have been as guilty as others in this regard. But this year there was no tokenism. Six of the 10 anglo galas were hosted by women. That shatters previous records. And talking of risk: how about having Kristin Chenoweth, better known for her musical abilities, host an evening that ended with the laff fest morphing into a sob fest as she crooned the ageless Smile? But it worked.
And how about 80-year-old Joan Rivers — the comedy world’s answer to medical marvel Mick Jagger — carrying an entire gala on her shoulders? She did just that on Saturday. The rest of the lineup, save for closer Tom Papa, need not have bothered showing up. They mostly died, trying to follow the Queen of Mean.
Kathy Griffin could do no wrong either. She, like so many others, had a field day with the Biebs. Whitney Cummings was on fire as host of Sunday’s closing gala, with ribald shtick about men and women’s differing notions of great sex. And while Sarah Silverman, who hosted two Saturday galas, is an acquired surreal taste for some, this jaded soul felt she set the perfect tone in her first show and was at the helm of one of the best galas ever. It didn’t hurt that her beau, Kyle Dunnigan, previously an unknown quantity here, broke out with one of the most innovative and hilarious acts unleashed at the festival.
Beyond the galas, the women made their mark at club and theatre shows. Tig Notaro, another unknown quantity to many, fast made believers. Maria Bamford, Amy Schumer, Bridget Everett (who out-nastied the boys) and Kristen Schaal already had believers here and came away with more.
Aussie Kitty Flanagan, who appeared at the Griffin gala Friday, is also welcome back any time. In her astute analysis of burlesque, or “special-needs stripping,” Flanagan had this insight: “I have never heard of a man heckling in a strip club: ‘Where is the narrative?’ ” Easily among the best quips of this fest.
Hannibal Buress started on a languid note, but stepped it up into high-octane mode. He was also ubiquitous, showing up everywhere — at galas, opening for Chappelle, doing his solo show, hosting a hip-hop karaoke soirée and even getting down and dirty at the Nasty Show.
Also ubiquitous and versatile was Robert Kelly, who is believed to be the first comic to do both Date Night: The Relationship Show and the Nasty Show. He also found the time to perform his tender and whimsical one-man show Cry Like a Man. He would joke that a bipolar disorder enabled him to do it all. Perhaps, but prodigious talent helps.
Also on the Nasty Show bill was Brad Williams, who wanted Montrealers to forever remember him. And we won’t soon forget the vertically challenged Williams ending his twisted sets by performing a perfectly executed lap dance for unsuspecting but invariably appreciative female patrons.
Apart from Williams, Kasher and Dunnigan, the other consensus breakout star this year was Ryan Hamilton. Although he had been here before, few seemed to notice until he was conscripted as a last-second replacement to be the closer for the Ethnic Show. Go figure: the whitest white guy around, a Howdy Doody doppelgänger, steals the show, with nary a nasty word spoken. Hard as it may be to fathom, one can work clean and still kill.
Trusted associates had glowing words for Colin Quinn, Bobby Moynihan, Taran Killam, Nick Kroll, Pete Holmes and Mulaney’s spectacles. But as is always the case, the big bummer about Just for Laughs is that so much of it is back-ended into the last week, and even if one sees three shows a night, it is still impossible to take it all in.
So once again we plead: please share the wealth and scatter the goodies throughout the three weeks.
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