Just for Laughs 2009

The fest keeps expanding; for the most part, so do the laughs.

WONDER WALL Ross Noble proves his unpredictability at a gala.

WONDER WALL Ross Noble proves his unpredictability at a gala.

From July 3 to 26, Montreal’s 27th annual Just for Laughs festival presented 718 performers in 306 shows (including English and French programming). In addition, JFL produces festivals in Toronto; Nantes, France; and, as of this summer, Chicago, as well as sponsoring international tours and televised specials throughout the year. As one comic put it, “They’ve got their hands in every pocket.”

Mostly this is good news: The festival bridges the gap between American and Canadian scenes, provides exposure to rising talent and spreads the joy—I say without irony—of laughter. But I saw a very wide range of talent in Montreal this year. Much of it was good; a lot was filler. However, in loyalty to the adage, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all,” I’ll focus on the praise.

Best couplet
At the end of the Improvised Shakespeare Co.’s set at one of the prestigious televised galas, two boys found themselves about to kiss in front of the rest of the group; one said, “Worry not, t’will only be seen by just those three...it’s not as if we’re on TV.”

Best one-liners
Nick Thune: “Life Savers only work if you’re diabetic.” New Yorker Kevin Brennan on the dangers of phones in cars: “I was driving and saw this guy texting; I thought, Oh look at this motherfu—, and then I hit a car.” Jimmy Carr’s foolproof pickup line: “Does this rag smell of chloroform to you?”

Best series of jokes
During Andy Kindler’s annual State of the Industry address, in which he lambastes the current comedy world in front of its professionals, he announced new reality shows, including I’m a Celebrity, Am I Completely Out of Options?; I’m a Celebrity, Who Died and Was No Longer Able to Keep Me from Making These Horrible Choices?; and I’m a Celebrity, What Did I Do to Deserve This, Not Counting This?

Best physical work
L.A. comic Josh Fadem began his act before it began, entangling himself in his microphone cord and eventually rolling off the stage and into the crowd. It wasn’t mere slapstick; he has a fluid agility reminiscent of Buster Keaton.

Best breakdown
In the middle of Ari Shaffir’s hilarious set in the Nasty Show—on his knees, imitating, in slow motion, the split second during a money shot when a porn actress betrays her true disgust—he paused, looked up and said, “What am I fucking doing with my life?”

Best invention
At a 1am haphazard showcase, Canadian John Dore recruited New Yorker Rory Scovel to join him in something he calls the Double. The comics performed their sets at the same time, from beginning to end, without acknowledging each other; so many layers of funny.

Best impression
While waiting an egregious amount of time to get the bartender’s attention at the Hyatt, I asked Austin impressionist Mike MacRae to deliver the second half of his very funny set into my ear; it was like being serenaded by the ghost of an adorably racist Gregory Peck.

Best YouTube plug
U.K. phenom Ross Noble once convinced a throng-size audience at the Latitude Festival to follow him, postshow, in a conga line toward a vegan snack stand in order to request, one by one, sausage rolls; instead, a stampede ensued. He told the audience at his solo show to Google it, which I later did, and laughed.

Best heckler extinguisher
New Yorker Kumail Nanjiani to a rowdy group: “Stop talking! Just stop talking. Shut up. Shut up! Stop talking. [Beat] So where are you guys from?”

Best of what I didn’t see
Although I missed Nikki Payne, Mike Kosta, Andy Daly and New Yorker Godfrey, it’s worth mentioning they were industry favorites (in addition to others mentioned here). Having seen them all before, however, I wasn’t surprised.

Most unlikely laugh
It is a testament to Louis C.K.’s ability to tackle the cruelties and resignations of life with humor and pathos that this line got a huge reaction: “There are people who are born and go, 'Oh I’m hungry,’ and then they just die.”

Hardest I laughed all weekend
I sat through a dozen shows during which I frequently thought, Oh, that’s funny, but rarely made a sound—such is the effect of my job, for better or worse. Yet Nick Kroll had my belly literally aching. His entire set was great, but the impression of American Spanish-language radio is really a gem (hear the character interview Morgan Murphy on YouTube).

Best anti--theme-show argument
With so many rosters booked by race (Uptown Comics), gender (Nasty Girls) or style (Alternative Show), the juxtaposition of lithe, buttoned-up Brit Jimmy Carr and loud, large African-American Thea Vidale was heaven-sent. He delivered wickedly dry one-liners; she offered a very visual lesson in fellatio. When she walked off stage saying, “Thank you for lettin’ me be myself,” I thought, Indeed.

Biggest missed opportunity
I wish sublime improvisational beat-boxer Reggie Watts, who hosted the musical-comedy night, Amp’d, had been given a solo slot instead—especially considering his talent stood head and shoulders above so much else on offer. Why book lackluster acts at all? Must the festival be so large? The short answer is that tickets sell, regardless. To cite another adage, “The eight-hundred-pound gorilla sleeps wherever it wants.”

See more in Comedy