Friday, December 14, 2012

Inaugural Notable Awards honors Quebec’s best of the best young entrepreneurs and professionals




After attending the inaugural Quebec Notable Awards ceremony at the Montreal Science Center on December 6, I am proud to say that the entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well in Quebec

Julian Brass, the founder and publisher of Notable.ca (the event’s chief sponsor), agrees.

“It’s not just the entrepreneurial spirit that’s alive and well in Quebec, but also the intra-preneurial spirit. It’s becoming a major trait, in which a lot of young people start their own businesses or ventures while maintaining their jobs and professions within a major corporation,” he told the Grapevine in a brief interview before the awards ceremony began.

 Notable.ca, which Brass founded four years ago, is a website that helps connect young professionals across Canada in order to have them conduct a balanced life professionally, socially and charitably. It currently attracts about a million readers every month. “Notable.ca is THE online publication for young professionals, in which many hard working young professionals can be motivated to be their best and go further every single day,” he said. “After years of working in Silicon Valley, it was my dream to give back to entrepreneurs and help them stay motivated, which is why I decided to establish the Notable Awards, so it can give them the recognition and the moment in the spotlight that they deserve.”
 
Over 500 nominees were culled in 19 different categories ranging from entertainment to social media to fashion to education to healthcare. The long list was then narrowed down to just over 100 finalists, and the public voted for their preferred nominees, which helped the selection committee determine the winners in each category. At the ceremony, emcee Genevieve Borne announced the 19 winners in five separate related category “clusters”; after each winner in their respective cluster went onstage to accept their awards, they sat down with Brass and Borne for a brief, five-minute panel discussion (pictured at right).

The Grapevine would like to congratulate the following Quebec Notable Award winners: Benoit Beauchemin (Advertising & Marketing), Zebulon Perron (Architecture & Real Estate), Daniel Seligman (Arts & Culture), Brahm Mauer (Best Bar Professional), Jojo Flores (Best DJ), Patricia Gajo (Best Personal Brand/Blogger, who writes a series of concise, engaging lifestyle and fashion blogs for such websites as luckpennydaily.com, huffingtonpost.ca and tourisme-montreal.org), Dr. Anita Nowak (Education) Anne-Marie Wittenshaw (Entertainment), Isabelle Randez (Event Planning & PR), Efran Elfassy (Fashion), Olivier Akian (Finance), Dr. Mirko S. Gilardino (Healthcare), Claudia Emde (Hotel Management), Ethan Song (Best Online Business), Tierry Rassam (Law), Roberto Porres (Best Restauranteur), Jeff Baikowitz (Social Good), Martin-Luc Archambault (Social Media) and Micaela Whitworth (Sports & Fitness).

A special Grapevine honorable mention goes to Paul Telner, a finalist in the Entertainment category (pictured at right with me during the Finalist's Cocktail Party). A native of Ottawa, I first met Paul eight years ago at the Just For Laughs festival, when he and business partner Byron Pascoe were hoping to find backers for their independent TV comedy production “Campus Cram”. Through his boundless, manic energy and his fondness for orange clothing and hats that extolled the virtues of Orange Crush and Coca-Cola, Paul managed to attract the attention of several major producers in the U.S. and the U.K. and developed several TV projects (including a reality gags-type show which he starred in called “Apauled”); he even did a stint as Just For Laughs’ English language blogger in 2011. These days, he is channeling his creative energies as a development executive for Galafilm, an international TV production company based in Old Montreal.
 
With the help of its major partner the Ford Motor Company of Canada, Notable.ca staged a first class event to celebrate its inaugural awards ceremony. All the attendees (finalists, guests and media) were given the red carpet treatment (complete with your own red carpet photo to take home); they were treated to a wide assortment of delicious hors d’oeuvres from Montreal caterer extraordinaire Nicolina Servello, as well as from such Montreal restaurants as m:brgr (especially their delicious burgers on a stick), the Old Port Fishing Company, Bevo and Brasero Hardi. And thanks to the Ford Motor Company of Canada, the guests got the opportunity to sit behind the wheel of the 2013 Ford Fusion and check out the latest technological innovations of their brand new plug-in hybrid model of automobile (that's me on the right, admiring the Fusion's features); and although we couldn’t drive home with a Fusion of our own, everyone received a scale model of the 2013 Fusion as a special gift (pictured below).

A truly notable night.


Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Getting into the head (and out of the mind) of Joey Elias

Montreal comic Joey Elias is catching up on his reading between his stand-up gigs these days. This time, he decided to pick up "Joseph Anton", the memoir by controversial novelist Salman Rushdie.

Why the choice of this memoir by the British novelist, who gained notoriety for the death sentence ("fatwah") that was placed on his head by the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989 for his novel "The Satanic Verses"?

Well a few short weeks ago, a Montreal Metro ticket taker had the audacity to tape a homemade sign on the glass in front of the booth in the subway station where he was working. It said -- in French -- that "In Quebec, we do everything in French". Not content to just be complacent about another shot fired in the ongoing Quebec language war, Joey decided to do his bit of civil disobedience in response to the ticket taker's stance on language. So he decided to take a photo of himself, posing in all-Canadian maple leaf shirt, pants and headgear. He then posted it on his Facebook page and announced that he would take his case to that Metro ticket taker in person ... maple leafs and all.

Needless to say, his human Canadian flag photo created a media maelstrom. It garnered a great deal of positive responses; however, the storm was fast and swift. Lawyers from Astral Media (the parent company of CJAD, where Elias hosts his nightly "Comedy Show" broadcasts) told him to pull down the photo and all the posts from Facebook and was told to state that his opinions were of his own and did not reflect those of both the station and the parent company. Then he got angry letters from three French language organizations (including the ultra nationalist organization the St. Jean Baptiste Society, which issued a press release on the matter).

"It was flattering to think that I'm that powerful and that my picture can incite that kind of reaction," Elias told me in a recent interview on the terrace of a local Starbucks. However, he also received several death threats along with all those supportive and angry responses.

Hence, the decision to read Rushdie's recently published memoir.

"I'm reading it to get some helpful survival hints in case they decide to declare a 'fatwah' on me," he quipped.

Elias' maple leaf incident is one of the stories that he will recount to an audience at Club Soda this Sunday night (October 21) in a performance of his one-man show "In My Head ... and Out of My Mind".

One of Canada's top comedians to emerge from Montreal, Elias has been plying his trade for 20 years, and performs 200 stand-up shows a year in clubs across NorthAmerica, not to mention his share of commercials, TV shows and films (he played a security guard in the disaster epic "The Day After Tomorrow" that starred Dennis Quaid). He started writing the script for his one-man show (which took him five months to complete) as a way to respond to all the questions that his fans, friends and family kept asking him about how he started out in comedy, and what it's like to be a professional comedian.

"I was never a big believer of the idea that everybody's here for a purpose, but when I started telling those stories to friends and family of what happens on the road and in my life, I realized that maybe that was my destiny," he said. "So I started to write the show as a away to answer all the questions that I ever had."

The inspiration for "In My Head ... and Out of My Mind" came from comedian Billy Crystal, in particular, his Tony Award-winning autobiographical solo show "700 Sundays", in which Elias read the companion book with a great deal of enthusiasm. "The book to Crystal's play was so amazing," he said. "You're reading one page and you're dying of laughter, and then you're crying uncontrollably. You're not going to cry uncontrollably at my show, but there are more serious moments to it."


The show will have Elias recount his life story “starting at my circumcision to the present day”.  He will present it in his usual jovial onstage persona, from his bar mitzvah, to his beginnings in stand-up comedy, to his road stories (including his tours of Afghanistan entertaining Canadian troops there). But there will also be serious moments that will be addressed, such as his diabetes diagnosis and how he copes with anxiety issues.
“For the first time, I open up about how I deal with anxiety. And the more I spoke up about it, the more I was able to cope with my anxiety,” he said. “Since I started doing the solo show last spring, I have been getting e-mails from people who suffer from anxiety saying that they never really looked at it in the humorous way I presented it. Now I accept it and doing stand-up is a way that I cope with it.”
“There is stuff that I’m doing in the one-man show that I’ve never done  -- or would never get away with -- on a stand-up stage. And that’s the beauty of the one-man show; it gives you a little more leeway and you can tell more in-depth stories. You have more time to talk about topics you can never talk about in a comedy club. And as long as I do it in a humorous way, people will get the gist of it,” he added.
“In My Head ... and Out of My Mind” made its debut last spring at the Village Theatre in Hudson, and then he did an abbreviated, one-time performance at Zoofest this past July. The version that is going to be presented this Sunday at Club Soda will contain up to 30 minutes of new material (including the story at the beginning of this column).
Elias realizes that doing a solo theatrical stage show is quite different from a headlining stand-up set at a comedy club. And he has to thank his show’s director, Sarit Klein, for helping him to make the transition from stand-up comedian to onstage performer.
“Sarit is a wonderful woman with a theatrical background who was gung-ho about my show from day one. She’s got vision, she brings the show to life, she understands comedians and she understands theatre. And more importantly, she’s patient with me,” he said.
She also gave him a sense of onstage discipline, especially when it comes to how he moves around while on the stage. “While rehearsing the show, Sarit told me not to sway when I’m talking,” he said. “I didn’t realize that stand-up comics shuffle and bob and weave a lot on comedy club stages, because the stage there is usually quite small.”
Elias admits that the show will always be a work in progress and stories will be interchangeable (with the exception of its first 10 minutes, which will remain unchanged) and will always be subject to the occasional tweaking. One way he keeps track of the stories that make up its framework is a giant bulletin board that hangs in his home, which is filled with cue cards and notes of those stories.
“When Sarit and me agreed on what stories worked, we would say ‘put it on the board.’ And when it made it to the board, it ended up in the show,” he said. “For example, when I first performed the show, I didn’t talk about school. Now I talk about my high school years, when my dad was my principal, which was a weird dynamic when I was growing up.”
Elias would like to perform “In My Head ... and Out of My Mind” five or six times a year on a regular basis on top of the 200 stand-up gigs he does annually. He is taking it to the Moncton Comedy Festival this upcoming February for four performances and is shopping it around to different comedy festivals, and hopes to take it to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. “I hope to do this show for a very long time, and I’m really happy with the way it has turned out, because the stage is the last bastion of where you can say what you want.” 









Monday, October 8, 2012

Making the leap from music to ice cream to comedy: a conversation with Joe Avati

Last week, I had a brief phone interview with Australian-Italian comic Joe Avati, who was in Montreal to promote his recently-launched "Back To Basics" comedy tour of  Canada (which will play three dates in Montreal, on October 21 and 22, and November 11). What amazed me at the offset of our conversation was that Joe remembered me when we first met about 12 years ago, when myself, Al Gravelle and Eramelinda Boquer interviewed him on the CJAD show "Freeze Frame", just before his first appearance in Montreal at the Saputo Theatre of the Leonardo Da Vinci Centre in St. Leonard, a Montreal suburb with a predominantly Italian population.

I then recounted to Avati when I attended his first Montreal show back in 2000, when he played to a packed house on a Sunday afternoon. I marveled to him how the audience was mostly made up of family members of all ages and generations, and because of how he built an international following through the pre-iTunes download service Napster, his fans in attendance that afternoon were able to recite the punchlines to his "Nonna's Car Accident" routine word for word (and this was before American comic Dane Cook built his large following through the internet, in which many more followed his example of going online to expose their comedy to worldwide audiences). As well, after the show, the wide assortment of Joe Avati merchandise (t-shirts, baseball caps and CDs) were literally flying off the shelves from the makeshift souvenir kiosk that was set up in the Leonardo Da Vinci Centre's foyer. I couldn't believe I saw such an enthusiastic fan response to a comedian whom I only first heard about a mere two weeks before!

"I bet you weren't able to understand all of my jokes then," Avati retorted with a laugh. He was right ... to a point. Although he did his set-ups in English (and was very good at it), he delivered every punchline in Italian. The audience responded with loud, uproarious laughter. I was ready to pull my hair out in frustration, because I didn't speak or understand Italian, so I never got the chance to fully experience Avati's brand of observational humour that dealt with growing up Italian "down under", which has earned him the moniker the "Italian Jerry Seinfeld".

Avati's career as an international comedian has been extraordinary. Wherever he tours around the world, he always plays to sold-out crowds, whether it be in his native Australia, the United Kingdom, the United States or Canada (where he holds the record for the fastest-selling comedy show ever; an appearance at the Toronto Centre for the Arts sold all of its 3200 tickets in just nine minutes). He also has an impressive line of tour merchandise and has produced five international bestselling CDs and five DVDs.

But Avati's career in entertainment didn't start out on the comedy stage. He began as a self-taught musician, and became quite proficient with several instruments, including piano and guitar. "I originally wanted to be a rock star, but I didn't have the voice for it," he said. "So my dad told me that I should get a degree. I enjoyed food and science, so I decided to pursue a degree in food science." When he got his degree in food science, one of Avati's first jobs was to work for a major food company in Australia, where he helped to introduce the Magnum line of premium ice cream (it's the brand of high end ice cream bars, in which its North American commercials show actress Rachel Bilson climb over cars in a traffic jam to get herself one of those coveted frozen treats from a Magnum truck).

However, being a sharp observer since he was a child, Avati decided to pursue comedy just as strongly as he pursued his other career paths. "What made me go into comedy on a hardcore basis was the fact that doing stand-up allowed me to be more of myself onstage," he said.

While few comics do bilingual shows (Sugar Sammy has broken ticket sales records with his "franglais" shows in Montreal throughout this past winter, spring and summer; and Greek-American comedian Basile still tours the U.S. with his shows in Greek and English), Avati enjoys doing his shows with the set-ups in English and the punchlines in Italian. "I love doing the double entendres and play on words in both languages," he said. "It's a fun technique that really evokes a lot of laughter, and I get a big kick out of being funny in two languages."

He also enjoys the fact that whatever city he performs in, his shows manage to bring together their respective Italian communities of all ages. "My shows attract kids, teens, parents and grandparents. Usually, I would see three generations at my shows laughing along with me, and it makes me tick," he said. "When come to my show, you leave entertained and you talk about the good experience you had there."

For his first tour of Canada in almost five years (which will play in 14 cities in four provinces, including Windsor, Toronto, Hamilton, Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver), Avati promises his classic routines that have made him an international star, along with new material and even a musical segment. "I would rather be an entertainer than a comedian," he said. "The show that is going to part of the Back To Basics tour I've developed over the past three years. So far, since I started last month in Sudbury and Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, I have been getting a lot of positive responses from the audience, and I'm really happy with it."

For more information about Joe Avati's "Back To Basics" tour of Canada, check out his website at www.joeavati.com.



Thursday, September 27, 2012

In the Presence of Greatness: Harry Belafonte

I always believed that if a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity -- ANY opportunity -- comes your way, you seize the moment and take advantage of it. Pass it up, and it may never come your way again.

In my nearly 50 years on this planet, I have done both seized and passed up those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. I've had the chance to see Yoko Ono and George Burns up close in the flesh; I saw a rare stage performance of the Muppets; I bought a book autographed by my all-time favorite comedian Groucho Marx; I managed to be part of a private audience with the Governor-General of Canada -- Her Majesty's representative -- at his Rideau Hall residence; and I was a contestant on "Jeopardy!" On the other hand, I passed up a chance to purchase a first edition (in hardcover, with dust jacket) of Ernest Hemingway's 1940 novel "For Whom the Bells Toll" at a second hand bookstore in Montreal nearly 30 years ago for -- get this -- $5! To put it mildly, I'm still kicking myself around the block!

Lesson learned: NEVER PASS UP THOSE ONCE-IN-A-LIFETIME OPPORTUNITIES!

Since I began writing my Grapevine column for the West End Times five years ago, I upheld the spirit of the above-mentioned lesson, and I'm glad I did. I have covered my share of fundraisers, gala events, festivals and even the 2008 Grey Cup when it made its way to Montreal (I even got the chance to see the game from the Big O press box). So imagine my excitement when I attended the press conference for the Montreal International Black Film Festival earlier this month, that I found out that organizers planned to have legendary singer and activist Harry Belafonte personally attend the festival not only to promote "Sing Your Song", a documentary about his storied life and career, but also to accept in person the festival's Humanitarian Award at its opening night.

Believe me, it's not everyday that you get the chance to see a bona fide show business legend live in the flesh, especially one who has made an impact on the music industry and the Civil Rights Movement like Harry Belafonte. And for me, this golden opportunity didn't happen once, but twice!


The first occasion was on the festival’s opening night on September 19. Belafonte, accompanied by his wife Pamela and festival president Fabienne Colas, came to the Imperial Theatre for the screening of the biopic “Winnie” to accept the festival’s Humanitarian Prize for his more than 50 years’ dedication in service to the Civil Rights Movement, as well as a score of charities and non-profit community organizations.
When the 85-year-old Belafonte arrived at the Imperial and took his seat in the theatre’s front row, he was immediately surrounded by photographers (myself included) as they wanted to get good close up shots of him, in which he graciously and compliantly posed for. Then it came time for Belafonte to accept his award from Colas and festival spokesperson Sonia Benezra. He humbly accepted the honour, and then shared with the audience of how much Montreal has meant to him, as well as the first time he performed here during the 1940s, in a venue that was actually a burlesque house.
“I accept this award with great satisfaction. It’s an overture of validation of what I have done and it means a lot to me,” he said. “The late singer/activist Paul Robeson once told me that artists are the gatekeepers of truth. And the world is in need of artists for what they can do. I have enjoyed the world of celebrity, because it made me understand the power it has and what good it can do to inspire people.”
The following night at the Hall Building of Concordia University, at a screening of the documentary about his life and career called “Sing Your Song”, it made me fully understand why he was given this award.  Told in Belafonte’s own words (as well as colleagues and contemporaries such as Sidney Poitier and Desmond Tutu, to name a few) as well as plenty of rare film and TV footage, this is an excellent documentary that chronicles an impressive career in entertainment (in which he popularized calypso music in North America with such songs as “Day-O”), as well as using his celebrity status towards the many charitable and humanitarian causes that were close to his heart. 
It’s amazing to see what he has accomplished in this respect. He was one of the organizers of the famed March on Washington in 1963 (best known for Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial); he helped organize a fundraising concert on the final night of the Selma to Montgomery March in 1965; he was one of the architects of USA for Africa, the celebrity group that recorded the megahit song “We Are the World” to benefit the victims of the Ethiopian famine in 1985; and although he doesn't perform as much as he used to, he is still involved with several organizations that help at risk teens in Los Angeles towards a better future.
After the screening, Belafonte spent another hour in conversation with Sonia Benezra and answered questions from a very eager and understandably star-struck audience. He patiently answered each question with his trademark soft, husky voice and fired off several humorous replies. One of my favorite replies was “If Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were still alive and things worked out, all of North America would be Canadian!”
He also had this to say about Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney: “I get up every day and thank God for the presence of Mitt Romney, because the Republicans are delightfully burying themselves every day. So I encourage Romney to keep on talking!”
The Belafonte love-in continued after the Q&A wrapped up, as a multitude of those in attendance rushed up to him -- many clutching copies of his memoir "My Song" or original copies of his RCA Victor albums from the 50s and 60s, (including his live at Carnegie Hall record and "Calypso", the LP that earned him a gold record in 1958 for being the first album to sell over a million copies in a single year) -- in order to get a prized autograph from him on their respective collectible. I'll admit, I was also one of those autograph hunters. I had a review copy of "My Song" that I hoped he would inscribe, so that I could add to my growing collection of autographed tomes. Although I came quite close, it was getting quite late and after signing several books and LPs, Belafonte was quickly being ushered out of the auditorium. However, as he was being led out, I found a quick vantage point and snapped a final, up close picture of Harry Belafonte looking cool and confident amongst the swell of fans that surrounded him (pictured below).
Thus ended my encounters with Belafonte. At the very least, it was great to seize that rare opportunity and be within the presence of a legendary entertainer who was also a catalyst for social change, and wisely used his talent and fame to make sure that change happened. In a way, that's probably even more valuable than an autographed book.




Monday, September 10, 2012

Electoral Dysfunction: A must-see documentary for anyone who ever casted a vote


While covering this year's edition of the Montreal World Film Festival (MWFF), it gives me the chance to catch some interesting and offbeat documentaries from around the world, some of them tackle subject matters that are of interest to me that I wouldn't expect to get the documentary treatment. Then there are those docs that when I first glance at their respective descriptions in the festival catalogue, my immediate reaction is "gotta see this!". “Electoral Dysfunction”  falls into the latter category. 

This is a humorous, informative (and right now very relevant) look at how frustratingly imperfect the electoral system is in the United States. Political humorist (and correspondent for CBS News’ “Sunday Morning” program) Mo Rocca went on a four-year journey to discover how America votes, and the result is “Electoral Dysfunction”. With a style that’s influenced by controversial muck raking filmmaker Michael Moore, this documentary focuses on one of the 13,000 voting districts in the U.S. – in particular Jennings County in Indiana – during the 2008 presidential election from both the Democrat and Republican sides, and all the lengths their respective organizers go through to get people to the polls on election day. As well, it explained how some stringent measures prevent civic-minded citizens from exercising their right to vote, such as the Photo ID Law, which was dubbed as a “modern day poll tax”. It's amazing to discover how many voters in this district (not to mention the 32 other states that have this photo ID law in their books) -- and many of whom were dedicated voters every election day for years -- were turned away at the polls because they didn't possess the required photo ID that is prescribed in the law. Then they are instructed to go to the local Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) bureau to get a free photo driver's license (eventhough they never owned a car, let alone sit behind the wheel of one) in order to go back to the polls to cast their vote; however, if they don't have a valid photo ID at the DMV, they can't get that coveted driver's license. Talk about "Catch-22"!

Rocca, along with the film’s writers/producers/directors Mridu Chandra, David Deschamps, Leslie D. Farrell and Bennett Singer (pictured below), were in Montreal to attend the two screenings of the documentary during the festival (the first one, which I attended, was the final film that was shown at the NFB Cinema on St. Denis Street, before it closed down for good the following day thanks to federal government budget cuts) and explained that the film’s impetus was the 2000 presidential election was decided by the Supreme Court and gave Republican candidate George W. Bush the presidency over Democrat Al Gore.

The film has been shown at both the Democrat and Republican conventions (and will air on PBS on October 18), and they hope to have it available for high school and college students in order to open their eyes about the American electoral system and spark some dialogue amongst them about this sacred right to vote that’s not even mentioned in the U.S. Constitution. And with this year's presidential race between Obama and Romney becoming a tension-filled, tight race, "Electoral Dysfunction" should be required viewing by every eligible (and ineligible) voter in America to why casting that precious vote is important (oh, yes ... and how you can distinguish the difference between "voter" and "elector").
This prompted Mocca to quip during the Q&A session that followed the screening: “Maybe we have too much democracy in America!” 


Monday, September 3, 2012

My Memories of 1411 Fort Street

This past weekend an era in Montreal radio broadcasting ended, as CJAD, Virgin Radio and CHOM FM left 1411 Fort Street, its collective home since 1980. And with that, a new chapter began, as of September 1, CJAD began broadcasting at its new, state-of-the-art home base at 1717 Papineau Street near the Jacques Cartier Bridge; the area also houses a group of Montreal English and French TV and radio stations, such as CTV, RDS, CBC/Radio Canada and CKOI (CHOM and Virgin will be setting up shop by the end of the weekend).

I first set foot at 1411 Fort in September of 1984. At the time, I was a devoted listener of CJAD's "Trivia Show" and they had a contest where listeners would win a one-shot co-hosting gig on the show with host/creator Michael Libling. All you had to do was write to him and say why you would like to be a co-host, and what your area of trivia expertise was. Mine was (and still is) the Marx Brothers. Somehow, Libling was convinced, and I was one of the contest winners. I don't remember much of the show, but one thing that sticks in my mind is that I was completely calm in front of the mic and really enjoyed the experience of doing radio, live in studio.

Fast forward to April of 1985. After winning another prize from "The Trivia Show" (after waiting the required three months between prizes), Libling took the phone during a commercial break and wanted to know if I wanted the gig of "Igor the Screaming Screener" as of the following Sunday. Of course, I took it and for the next three-and-a-half years, I spent most of my Sunday mornings in master control of 1411 Fort screening calls and taking down information of the prize winners. But it wasn't all just answering phones and filling out prize forms (and piping in answers to Mike and Dave Fisher). I got a few fill-in gigs to host the show when Libling was on vacation to get some on-air experience. Then there was the time when Libling cracked up with laughter several times one morning when my friend Barry visited the station before taking off for Israel for the summer ... sporting a new blue hairdo! And then there was the embarrassing appearance on "The Trivia Show" by 15-minute celebrity of the day Mark "Jacko" Jackson, the loud, obnoxious Australian Rules Football star who was best known in North America for his TV commercials plugging Energizer batteries (OYYYYY!!!).

At the same time, I was contributing trivia questions for John Oakley, who was CJAD's popular late night host. I finally got on the air with him in early 1985, doing his "Friday Free-For-All" programs doing nothing but trivia with him and the listeners. We would do them from midnight to 5:30 a.m. and I took away from that experience two things: it was great to work with Oakley, who is a consummate radio pro who was just as well read and articulate as myself; and after doing several midnight to sunrise stints, I certainly appreciated the world of late night radio a whole lot more.

Which leads me to the longest serving gig I had with CJAD at 1411 Fort. In the fall of 1990, I pitched to then-station manager Rob Braide about a radio segment that was quite uncommon at the time: book reviews (normally, a host would interview the author about their book, but would never bother to review it on the air). Two weeks later, Peter Anthony Holder (a producer/announcer for CJAD and FM-96 -- and fellow trivia buff -- whom I first met at John Oakley's Christmas party broadcast in 1984), called me and heard about my book review idea and liked it, and as a result, invited me to make it a regular feature and his recently launched late night show on CJAD called "Holder Overnight". On November 15, 1990, "Book Banter" made its debut on "Holder Overnight", an association that lasted 19 years.

During its first two years, "Book Banter" aired once a week at 1:15 a.m., and we pre-recorded the segment earlier that evening. In 1992, when Peter's show moved to prime time (8-10 p.m.), after a busy night when he was busy scrambling to adapt to the new format, he had no time to record the segment. I suggested I come back later and do it live. And for the rest of the segment's run, it was always done live on the air. There were plenty of books read and reviewed during those 19 years (almost 3,000) and plenty of great (and funny) memories. Doing the show live from a phone booth at B'nai Brith Perlman Camp in Starlight, Pennsylvania (Peter was convinced the phone wires from Starlight were held together with duct tape), from the casino at the Mandalay Bay Hotel in Las Vegas, or from third base line box seats at the Rogers Centre during a Blue Jays-Red Sox game (and in the middle of a Jays rally, which had Peter laughing hysterically back home at 1411 Fort ... I was alternating between book reviewing and play-by-play sportscasting) ; losing it while doing the "Kids' Korner" portion after Peter tore apart a book I just reviewed on the history of the TV series "Hee Haw!"; and Peter's "walk out" from the studio as I was about to review Kitty Kelley's latest celebrity bio.

In 1999, another phase of my CJAD involvement at 1411 Fort began with my involvement as one of the on-air regulars on "Freeze Frame", the entertainment-oriented show that aired every Friday night as part of the "Al & Era" show that aired throughout the week, which was hosted by veteran broadcasters Al Gravelle and Eramelinda Boquer. What I liked about doing this show was that everyone involved with "Freeze Frame" were entertainment junkies, which ended up with lively on-air discussions about classic and current TV and movies. I did everything from being a movie and TV expert, to "Survivor" authority, to comedy correspondent. I'll never forget doing a special Saturday night broadcast with Al about "Survivor" in August of 2000 ... while sick as a dog with bronchitis (yet I did a solid two hours on-air like a true showbiz trouper); letting Mark McKinney, of Kids in the Hall fame, do our weekly "Top Ten" lists that were complemented by his snarky comments ("BECKER!!! Who watches BECKER?!?"); and comedienne Lisa Lampanelli making us permanent fans of her when she demolished some arrogant members of the Upright Citizens Brigade improv troupe during a live "Late Nite Laff Zone" broadcast at the Delta Hotel.

Being a "comedy correspondent" for CJAD during the 2000s had its fringe benefits. One of them was during the 2002 and 2003 festivals, in which Just For Laughs hired me to be a special festival correspondent when Ric Peterson hosted the morning show (2002) and the afternoon drive home show (2003). Basically, I was armed with my notepad, flashlight, stopwatch and several Digital Audio Tape (DAT) cassettes to record several of the Club Soda shows (thanks to Club Soda's tech guy Yves Moquin's DAT machine), select some choice lines from the comics who performed that night and do a live 5-minute report on Ric's show the following morning around 7:30 (in studio, I might add). So during those two summers, my daily routine was to catch and record that evening's Club Soda shows, head back to the Delta and appear on "Late Nite Laff Zone" from midnight to 3 a.m., make a beeline to CJAD to edit and compile that night's selected highlights (based on my copious notes), go home to grab a couple of hours of sleep, and then head back to CJAD to do my live report on Ric's show. Exhausting, but a lot of fun (and all of my selections made Ric laugh out loud, so I guess it was mission accomplished).

The last time I appeared on-air at 1411 Fort was last summer. It was a sort-of "Freeze Frame" reunion, when Al, Era and myself did a couple of Saturday afternoon fill-ins and discussed the jazz and comedy festivals, and which shows were highlights and not-to-be-missed. It was just like 2000-2001 all over again, and I couldn't find a better way to make my CJAD swan song.

I always enjoyed coming to do radio at 1411 Fort Street, wander the halls after hours and revel in the laid back camaraderie with the on-air and tech operators, who were and are the backbone of the operation. Although like the previous generation of CJAD personnel who had fond memories of its previous home on Mountain Street, the 27 years I spent as a guest and regular contributor for CJAD at 1411 Fort Street will always give me great memories of how much fun radio broadcasting can be. And I am sure that the next generation of CJAD/Virgin/CHOM personnel will garner their fair share of memorable moments in their new Papineau Street digs.

And most of all, it was the numerous people -- past and present -- whom I encountered and befriended during that time that helped to make it such a joy to go to 1411 Fort, no matter which day or time of day it was.

First, there's the on-air personalities as Michael Libling, John Oakley, Peter Anthony Holder, Al Gravelle, Eramelinda Boquer, the "Freeze Frame Gang" (made up of Oliver Sedra, Jim Pacheco, Jason "Video Boy" Wiley and Wayne Appleby), Jake Lawrence, the late, great Mark Rennie, Abe Hefter, Ric Peterson, Dave Fisher, Chrys Goyens, David Edey, Shuyee Lee, Kathy Coulombe, Richard Deschamps, Jennifer Potvin, Laurie and Olga, Sharon Hyland, Pete Marier (the world's number1 Rodney Dangerfield fan), Too Tall, Billal Butt, Rob Kemp, Derek Lind, Rob Kemp, Dan Delmar and Mark Bergman.

And there's the unsung heroes of 1411 Fort Street, the technical operators who always pushed the right buttons and literally made the shows happened: Keith Tomasek, Peter Wilkinson, Earl Eichenbaum, Mitch Beim, Glen Wildemon, Mark Silverman, Peter Lopata, Leo D'Estrala, Shawn Starr, Anthony DiBiaso, Sheldon Fried, Corinna Vierek, Derek Stanbridge, Esteban Vargas, Matt Stone, Merv Willaims, Toby Goodfellow, Brandon Craddock, Tina Lullham, Larry Martos and John Collette.

Finally, there were the people who ran CJAD, Virgin and CHOM in its different managerial departments on a day-to-day basis: my sister Nancy (who spent five years in the commercial traffic department), Rick Moffat, Lisa Fuoco, Matthew Wood, Joanna Bennett, Pat Burke, Stewart Currie, Andrea Elias, Mickey from the mailroom (who always placed my bulky parcels filled with review copies of the latest book releases in a safe place for me to pick up, for which I am eternally grateful), and last but not least, Rob Braide who took the time to listen to my "Book Banter" pitch back in that fateful tete a tete at 1411 Fort in the fall of 1990.

Good bye, 1411 Fort Street. You will be missed. Hello 1717 Papineau.

Pictured below is a copy of a profile that was written about me in November of 1997. It appeared in the employee newsletter of CAE Inc., the flight simulator company where I was working as a technical editor at the time, and was written by Tech Pubs colleague and friend Craig McPherson (whom I have known since we worked at The Suburban newspaper in the late 80s). The photo of me -- taken by Craig during one of my "Book Banter" broadcasts -- is a rare one of me "in action" at 1411 Fort; the reproduction is not the greatest, but it did complement the profile).




Monday, August 20, 2012

Confessions of a NASCAR rookie at his very first race

Since NASCAR arrived with great fanfare in Montreal five years ago, I basically relegated myself to the outdoor street festivities that took place on Crescent Street, Montreal's party central, and immersed myself with admiring the NASCAR autos on display, listening to the free concerts, collecting the free swag and taking pictures with some hot, comely models who were there on behalf of Ford Racing. Basically, I took in the festivities, but I never attended the actual race at the Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve.

That was until this past weekend, and I have to thank the State of Florida for that.

About a week ago, I got an invitation to attend a NASCAR media event at the Circuit on race day, August 18, that was hosted by www.VISITFLORIDA.com, the state's official website that promotes Florida tourism, and the attractions, restaurants, hotels and events that the Sunshine State has to offer throughout the year. Being a frequent visitor to South and Central Florida on a regular basis (and enjoyed every visit), and curious to experience the phenomenon that is NASCAR racing both on the track and in the paddock, I enthusiastically my RSVPed my attendance for my very first NASCAR race.

And what is www.VISITFLORIDA.com's connection to one of the most popular spectator sports in America? Well, besides the fact that two Florida locales host NASCAR races (Daytona and Miami), the website also sponsors two Mazda cars that race on NASCAR's Rolex Grand-Am Sports Car Series (one of them is pictured below). They are part of the Dempsey Racing team, which is run by actor Patrick Dempsey (best known as Dr. McDreamy from the popular ABC series "Grey's Anatomy"), who is himself a NASCAR driver for five years running. Unfortunately, Dempsey himself wasn't able to attend the Grand-Am race here at the Napa Auto Parts 200 series, because he was behind the wheel at the Road America race.

So I made my way early Saturday morning to the Circuit with many of the NASCAR faithful from across North America. I somehow felt out of place, because I was one of the few attendees not decked out in a NASCAR team jersey, t-shirt or pit cap. As I made my way to the Mazda Hospitality Area at the www.VISITFLORIDA.com paddock, I was immediately immersed into the world of NASCAR. There were crews surrounding both cars, doing last minute repairs, maintenance and testing to these complex, mechanically sophisticated souped up driving machines for the race that would begin at 11:15 that morning. The paddock of each team was represented by a long, rectangular metal trailer displaying their respective colors and sponsors, with a vertical banner waving in the breeze in front of each paddock trumpeting how many racing championships the team in question has won. And there were no shortage of fans wandering around, enthusiastically taking photos of the Grand-Am cars as they were being wheeled out of the paddock on their way to the track, or with themselves and the drivers.

The representatives from www.VISITFLORIDA.com treated myself and the other members of the media who were present at the hospitality area with open arms, as they introduced us to the two sets of NASCAR crews who would be racing their cars at the upcoming Grand-Am. The drivers -- Tom Long, Scott Maxwell, Charles Putman and Charles Espenlaub -- were very cordial and were equally passionate about their careers as NASCAR drivers. The common denominators that each driver said to us were how special the Montreal fans are, and how unique the track at the Circuit is, which is unlike the type of track they are used to racing on the NASCAR circuit.

"This is one of the most educated crowds we have seen and they make the race special for us. We love coming here," said Maxwell, a native of Toronto. "And we like the track here because it involves a lot of heavy braking and passing."

And on the subject of autos and Florida, the www.VISITFLORIDA.com reps told us about a recently opened museum dedicated to classic cars. The Dezer Collection Automobile Musuem in North Miami features a diverse collection of 1,200 classic cars of all makes from all eras, including cars of Hollywood stars, rare cars and vintage autos from the U.S. and Europe. And for all of you James Bond fans -- in time for the release of the upcoming Bond thriller "Skyfall" -- the museum also has an exhibit that features some of the best known cars, planes and boats that were driven by 007 throughout 50 years of his screen adventures.

By 11 a.m., our gracious hosts escorted us to our seats in the stands by one of those perilous turns on the Circuit (and second row from the safety barriers) to witness the two sponsored Mazda autos participate in the Rolex Grand-Am Series race. First order of business as we got to our seats was to put on the ear plugs that were provided in the media swag bags that were given to us (which I am doing pictured below). I had an idea that the engines on a NASCAR auto were quite loud (which was quite evident during engine tests that were conducted at the paddock before the race), but I never knew how eardrum-popping loud it could get when these cars were making their way around the track at a terrifying, furious speed. And believe me, those ear plugs were an essential tool for a two-hour, 74-lap race. Although Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas of Chip Ganassi crossed the checkered flag to take the Grand-Am race this year, the two www.VISITFLORIDA.com cars helped provide an exciting race that certainly got my adrenaline pumping and fulfilled that need for speed.

I have to admit that my first NASCAR racing experience was everything that I it expected to be. And what I found so amazing was how many people this race attracts every year in Montreal, and how its drivers and pit crews are so accessible to its many fans. That was evident when I decided to stick around after the race and check out the carnival atmosphere around the Circuit, which doubled as a fan fair. There were BMX motorcycle demonstrations, autograph sessions, photo ops and plenty of souvenir kiosks, where fans where eagerly snatching up all sorts of NASCAR team merchandise (the most popular were that of drivers Patrick Carpentier, Andrew Ranger and Danica Patrick, in her godaddy.com Chevy). I left just before the main Nationwide Series race was about to begin. But before making the trek back to the Metro, I caught the introduction of the drivers who were paraded around the track in Dodge pickup trucks. The driver who got the loudest and most enthusiastic response? You guessed it ... Danica Patrick!

It was quite a full day for this NASCAR rookie. Next year, I will be back at the Circuit. This time, wearing my www.VISITFLORIDA.com racing colors.



Sunday, August 5, 2012

"WIcked" a bewitching experience in the land of Oz before Dorothy arrived

I've been familiar with "The Wizard of Oz" since I was a kid. I watched the movie everytime it aired on TV (before the days of VCRs, VHS and DVDs, it was regarded as a highly-anticipated TV event that always got high ratings). In fact, I even played the Scarecrow when my camp group staged the play when I attended Green Acres Day Camp back in 1973. Even without reading the series of Oz books by L. Frank Baum, I couldn't imagine how far they could take the story of Dorothy, Toto, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion and the Wizard of Oz -- from Kansas to the Emerald City and back -- to another level.

That's where "Wicked" comes in.

Based on the best selling novel by Gregory Maguire, "Wicked" made its Broadway debut in 2003 and quickly became a smash hit, garnering three Tony Awards (including the coveted Best Musical award). It also gained a lot of critical acclaim, and has been heralded as one of the best Broadway musicals in a very long time. With its national and international touring companies included, "Wicked" has been seen by over 30 million people around the world.

"Wicked" is sort-of like a prequel to the Wizard of Oz. It begins at the point where the 1939 movie ends ... when the Wicked Witch of the West meets her demise thanks to some water that was thrown at her by Dorothy. Glinda, the Good Witch of the East, meets up with a group of Munchkins afterwards, and explains to them the unlikely friendship between her and Elphaba, the future Wicked Witch of the West. The show then flashbacks to the first day at Shizz Academy, where Glinda (whose actual name is "Galinda") is a new student, and Elphaba is there to watch out for her wheelchair-bound sister Nessarose, by request of their father, who is the current governor of Munchkinland. However, Elphaba is different from the rest of the students at the school; she was born with emerald green skin, which makes her an object of fear and derision amongst her fellow students. Somehow, by accident, Galinda agrees to be her roommate. Through her bubbly optimism, she teaches Elphaba that she too is a beautiful person, and she can be popular in her own right.

Elphaba has her own ambition, which is to meet the venerable Wizard of Oz in the Emerald City, and learn to use her unusual powers in a positive manner. But somehow, through a misunderstanding during that audience with the Wizard, strange forces turn Elphaba's intentions into evil, and transforms herself into the Wicked Witch of the West.

"Wicked" overall is a magical theatrical experience. The sets are visually dazzling and looks like they come alive from the pages of Maguire's (and Baum's) novels. And for mavens of the Oz movie, you get to see the unlikely origins of many of the elements of Oz, from the flying monkeys, to why the Wicked Witch wears her pointy black hat, to the beginnings of such characters as the Scarecrow and the Tin Man. As well, it gives a moral lesson to the age-old expression "opposites attract", the power of friendship and how not to judge others by their outward appearances.

The performances by the entire cast are strong, especially the two leads Christine Dwyer (Elphaba) and Jeanna De Waal (Galinda), who use the right amount of humour and drama to express the message that "Wicked" effectively conveys (which is why -- understandably -- they received a loud, thunderous ovation during the curtain call). And for the two showstopper musical numbers; "Defying Gravity" will leave you amazed, and "For Good" will leave you in tears.

After seeing "Wicked", I can easily understand what the excitement was all about for this genuine Broadway blockbuster. It certainly defines the new face of American musical theatre, and a offers an entertaining, bewitching night in that wonderful land they call Oz.



And for those who want to catch "Wicked" during the remainder of its run at Place des Arts until August 26, take note. A day-of-performance lottery for a limited number of orchestra seats will be held for the production. Two and one-half hours prior to each performance, people who present themselves at the Place des Arts box office will have their names placed in a lottery drum; thirty minutes later, names will be drawn for a limited number of orchestra seats at $25 each (to be paid in cash only).  This lottery is available only in-person at the box office, with a limit of two tickets per person.  Lottery participants must have a valid photo ID when submitting their entry form, if chosen, when purchasing tickets.




Friday, August 3, 2012

Two Star Trek captains, Malcolm McDowell and the Batmobile (circa 1989) making its way to Montreal Comiccon 2012

While enjoying a week off from my day job at the English Montreal School Board (and at the same time, winding down from a whirlwind 17 days at the Just For Laughs fest), I decided to spend my afternoon of the first day of August at the Terrasses Bonsecours in the Old Port. It wasn't to enjoy a sunny summer day or the cool breezes from the mighty St. Lawrence River, but to immerse myself in a fantastic world of comic books, sci-fi, fantasy and animation.

In short, it was the press conference to officially announce this year's Montreal Comiccon, which is taking place at the Palais de Congres from Sept. 14-16.

Personally speaking, I grew up an avid reader of Mad magazine and Batman comics (especially those 100-page special issues with reprints of 1940s and 50s Batman stories ... all for 60 cents!) back in the 70s. I didn't continue my interest in them as I graduated from high school. However, when I attended last year's Montreal Comiccon, seeing all those booths with tons of books, comic books, magazines (and lots of old issues of Mad) for sale, not to mention seminars, panel discussions and autograph sessions with pop culture stars past and present (including Adam West and Burt Ward from the 1960s ABC "Batman" series -- along with their 1966 vintage Batmobile), needless to say my interest was immediately sparked again ... not to mention countless happy memories in front of the TV and the local newsstand suddenly resurfacing.

So when I found out the line-up of personalities appearing at this year's Comiccon, I knew this was another event I must attend and cover for my column.  To make things more interesting for those members of the local media who were present at the press conference (and create a great deal of buzz), Comiccon organizers brought out a whole parade of sci-fi, comic book and fantasy characters ... C-3PO, Star Wars storm troopers, Poison Ivy, and even the Incredible Hulk, not to mention a couple of lovely ladies dressed in skin-tight latex Star Trek costumes. Even Kristen Hager, one of the stars of the TV series "Being Human" made an appearance at the press conference to promote her Comiccon appearance (pictured below).

Organizers also announced a very special event that will take place on the evening of Sept. 15. To commemorate the 25th anniversary of "Star Trek: The Next Generation", two generations of Star Trek captains -- William Shatner and Patrick Stewart -- will appear together to talk about their own memories onboard the deck of the Enterprise (I guess that explains the Star Trek lovelies; Trekkers ... get your Vulcan ears ready and set your phasers to stun).

Along with Hager, Montreal Commiccon will also feature appearances by these personalities: actor Malcolm McDowell (here's a person whom I would pay to meet and get his autograph ... I would like to discuss the days of how he practiced the old ultraviolence as my favorite droogie Alex in "A Clockwork Orange"); Star Trek: TNG alumni Brent Spiner and Wil Wheaton will also share their Trek memories; Adam Baldwin ("Full Metal Jacket"); Davis Blair (them man behind Dire Straits' iconic "Money For Nothing" video); "Hellboy" creator Mike Mignola; Quebec cartoonist Mike Rabagliati (author of the popular series of "Paul" books that are huge bestsellers in Quebec; my favorite is "Paul Gets A Summer Job"); Gunnar Hansen, who starred as Leatherface in the original "Texas Chainsaw Massacre"; and Lloyd Kaufman, the man behind the cult film studio Troma Entertainment (remember "The Toxic Avenger" and "Surf Nazis Must Die"?). And for those who like their pop culture on four wheels, Comiccon will have on display the Batmobile from the 1989 Batman movie, the car from "Starsky and Hutch" and the famous "Mystery Machine" van used by Scooby-Doo, Shaggy and company to help solve all those mysteries (I wonder if it will show the compartment where they stored all those Scooby Snacks?!?).

Based on the overwhelming success of last year's Montreal Comiccon (which prompted the move to the much larger Palais de Congres and the addition of one extra day), it is helpful advice to say that you should get your tickets now (and arrive at the Comiccon site early). That way, you will get your fill of childhood memories, favorite characters and make those additions to your respective collections. No doubt about it, Montreal Comiccon will promise three days of sheer, unadulterated fun (and this time, I will be expanding my 1960s Mad magazine collection).

For more information, go to www.montrealcomiccon,com.










Sunday, July 29, 2012

Just For Laughs journal --- My Top 5 Highlights from JFL 30

Last night, around 1:15 a.m., the audience departed the Cinquieme Salle of Place des Arts after catching an intense, laugh-filled two hours that was the live taping of Marc Maron's popular WTF podcast. For me, it was my 20th -- and final -- show of this year's Just For Laughs festival.

Early this afternoon, as crews were dismantling all the sets, stages and decor around the Place des Arts complex and the Place des Festivales, the Just For Laughs/Juste pour rire brain trust (pictured below) held a subdued, final press conference at a tent in front of Salle Wilfird-Pelletier to announce the final results of JFL 30.

And the final numbers are quite impressive. Almost 2 million people attended a record 250 shows that were performed by over 4000 artists, with over 300,000 tickets sold for its French and English shows.

To give a different approach to the press conference, instead of rattling off a list of numerous festival highlights, each of the five festival executives onstage decided to give their respective top five highlights. For the record, JFL prez Andy Nulman chose (in order): the Muppets gala, the Howie Mandel gala (including the salute to Mike MacDonald), the Bill Hader gala, Tommy Tiernan's killer set at both John Pinnette galas, and the song that was sung by Ben Folds and a teenage choir that climaxed the Bob Saget XXX gala. JFL COO Bruce Hills and chief programmer Robbie Praw's list of highlights were the sold out Kevin Hart shows at Metropolis, Aziz Ansari's show (also at Metropolis), Patton Oswalt's solo show (which took place at -- you guessed it -- the Metropolis), Neil Brennan's Midnight Surprise show, and Jim Jeffries solo show (he had to cancel the final two nights because he had to fly to California to promote his upcoming FX TV series).

With that in mind, I decided to wrap up my coverage of JFL 30 on my blog with my own list of top five favorite highlights (in order).

1) The Muppets Gala. This is the gold standard that future JFL galas will have to go by. The audiences that packed Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier for the two once-in-a-lifetime galas were indeed privileged to be treated for a rare live show by Jim Henson's legendary puppet creations in their fuzzy glory. Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Gonzo, Rowf and so many more characters certainly did not disappoint, as Muppet fans of all ages (many of them wearing Muppet t-shirtd and hats, with younger fans clutching stuffed Kermit dolls) greeted the appearance of every Muppet character with loud, deafening ovations. The sketches were classic Muppets, including Gonzo and his chickens doing a "Cirque du Poulet" routine, Miss Piggy and Kermit singing a duet (that was topped with a typical Miss Piggy karate chop to poor Kermy), and the loveable Swedish chef cooking up his version of Poutine (pronounced "pew-tine"), in which audience members sitting in the front rows (myself included) were pelted with cheese curds and the Swedish Chef getting a heart attack after sampling his pew-tine (and later being zapped back to life several times). By the time the gala ended with the entire Muppet cast singing "Rainbow Connection" the audience joined along (many of them with tears in their eyes) to this fitting ending to this Muppet love-in. This was Just For Laughs' most memorable gala that will have everyone talking for many years to come.

2) Mario Cantone. When I caught the premiere performance of his solo show at the Gesu (which he plans to bring to Broadway in the near future), I didn't know what to expect from this flamboyant comic whom I have heard about before, but I have never seen him perform. However, this bundle of nervous energy provided one of the most non-stop entertaining two hours that I have experienced in a solo show in a very long time. Cantone had his audience eating out of his hand with his whirlwind display of song, explosive rants and dead-on celebrity impersonations (including my favorites: the three stages of Bette Davis and Bob Dylan's Christmas album). Once this show makes it way to New York, it will definitely become the new toast of Broadway.

3) Amy Schumer's Slaughterhouse. One of my favorite shows from the impressive line-up that was offered by Zoofest. Schumer (pictured below), who burst onto the scene in a big way with her cutting remarks at the Comedy Central Roast of Charlie Sheen earlier this year, took no prisoners with her hilarious raunchy hour -long set (one of my favorite lines was about how she recently slept with her high school crush. "I'm expected to go to his prom; I don't know where I'll be in three years."). And what makes it so significant is that Schumer has such a sweet-looking face, you get shocked at the vitriol that she spews out. Also, as a special bonus, Schumer gave us a special sneak preview of what she plans to say when she appears at the Comedy Central Roast of Roseanne Barr next month. All I have to say is that Jane Lynch, Sharon Stone, Jeffrey Ross and Roseanne, you better watch out, because Amy has her cleaver sharpened and ready to go.

4) JFL Late Night with Leon Black. Comedian JB Smoove took the late night talk show to a whole new level in the guise of his fast-talking character that is seen on the popular HBO comedy series "Curb Your Enthusiasm". Smoove/Black had three different guests every night who performed a part of their stand-up sets before joining Smoove/Black on the couch for some free-flowing colorful banter. When I was there, he entertained Hannibal Buress, Allie Wong and Godfrey (I also heard that on the final night, Larry David surprised the audience with a special appearance by phone). Smoove/Black also likes the unconventional and spontaneous, which was exemplified when he asked his three guests to join him for champagne and croissants (actually it was croissants with champagne poured into them).

5) Daniel Sloss and James Adomian. Every year, I have the privilege to catch a great deal of up-and-coming comics who are making the festival debuts, whether they are performing their own solo show or featured in the line-up of a showcase type of show. The ones who have impressed me the most with their unique brand of comic talent I deem as my "discovery of the festival". This year I have two "discoveries". First of all, there's 21-year-old Scottish comic Daniel Sloss, who played a series of Zoofest solos shows at the Salle Auteuil of the Gesu Theatre. A comic since he was 16, Sloss entertained the capacity crowd with his take on everything from his parents planning their first trip without the kids, to the double entendres created when he was taught how to shave for the first time ... while he was simultaneously thinking about sex, to his condensed description of the Twilight movies (and says that Robert Pattinson has the emotional range of Keanu Reeves after a stroke). Sloss maybe quite young for a comic veteran, but based on his performance, he will emerge as one of the finest comic talents to emerge from the UK.

I first saw Adomian perform as part of the line up of "Paul F. Tompkins and the Hilarious Trinity (Plus One)". What I liked about his set was his ability to impersonate a certain group of people, which was hilariously exemplified with his impressions of New York airport employees and NYPD cops (when I ended up laughing so hard that my perennial sides hurt and I slap my hand on my seat's armrest until it turns red, then that's an indication from me that a comic is on his game big time). However, he put himself over the top when he introduced Andy Kindler before his annual "State of the Industry Address". Only this time, he did it imitating Kindler; and Adomian got every nuance of Kindler down pat: clothes, hairdo, glasses, voice, mannerisms and "Kindlerisms". If Adomian needs a side career to supplement his stand-up comedy, he could do it as a "faux" Andy Kindler. This is a talent to watch out for.

The festival officially ended for me around 4 a.m. last night/early this morning, as the Hyatt Hotel personnel shooed us out of the hotel bar so that it could be cleaned up. While the artists and industry people went up to their rooms to pack and take the airport shuttles for their respective flights back home, I encountered an image outside the Hyatt that really concluded my JFL 30 experience on a high note.

As I was exiting the hotel with a group of friends, I spotted two people sitting outside the hotel main entrance on Jeanne Mance Street. It was two well known Canadian comics. First there was gravelly-voiced Mike Wilmot, who was happily puffing away on a huge cigar after performing in 18 Nasty Shows, as well as the Bob Saget XXX gala and the WTF podcast taping ("Did you enjoy how I dished out the filth?" he asked me, which I replied with an enthusiastic "yes").

Sitting next to Wilmot was a familiar face whom I haven't seen in three years. It was comedian Mike Macdonald, who was enjoying the pleasant late summer evening with Wilmot. Macdonald is a longtime veteran comic who carved out a reputation as the "Ironman of Just For Laughs", due to the fact that from 1985 until 2009, he appeared in every festival without fail. He was scheduled to perform at this year's festival; however, earlier this year, he was struck with Hepatitis C and became gravely ill. He was confined to his mother's home in his native Ottawa and had to cancel. Macdonald is seeking an organ transplant to ensure his survival, and until that compatible organ is found, he has to take some very expensive anti-rejection drugs, which have sapped his savings. Just For Laughs and the comedy community have banded together to help out Macdonald in his time of need. A benefit fundraising show was held recently at a major L.A. comedy club. And Just For Laughs pitched in by donating $4 for every ticket that was sold for the Howie Mandel gala to benefit Macdonald's medical and living expenses. And at the Mandel gala, he made a surprise guest appearance during a special salute that was the emotional highlight of the evening (which was tinged with a bit of laughter when Macdonald was about to deliver a couple of jokes, but had the microphone snatched away from him by Mandel before he uttered a word).

When I saw Macdonald sitting outside the Hyatt with Wilmot, I noticed that his hair was greyer, he lost a tremendous of weight, and his voice was reduced to an inaudible whisper. However, the big smile on his face and the sparkle in his eyes because he was in a familiar place conveyed a poignant message to me: "I'm happy to be back here again."

Mike, I wish you a speedy recovery and hope that you will soon be returning to the Just For Laughs stage triumphantly to continue your reign as the festival's ironman. Take it easy.

See you next year at JFL 31.





Saturday, July 28, 2012

Just For Laughs journal -- A Talk with Wayne Brady

If you were a frequent viewer of the American version of the improv comedy show "Whose Line Is It, Anyways?" on ABC during the late 90s, you couldn't miss troupe member Wayne Brady for his extraordinary skills of taking a bunch of audience suggestions and turn them into a cohesive, funny song in a matter of mere minutes.

Brady, who was a Just For Laughs gala host 10 years ago, returns to wrap up this year's 30th anniversary edition with his solo show "I See White People", which is playing at the Gesu Theatre until tomorrow (July 29), and two additional shows have been included, which is another example of Brady's massive popularity with Montreal audiences.

"I took up improv when I was about 19 years old, when I was studying theatre in college. I also joined a comedy lab and a theatresports group in Florida. I found that improv was fun because we were always playing around, and it helped me to become a better writer," said Brady in a recent phone interview prior to the premiere of his show.

However, it was an onstage incident doing a serious production that forever cemented Brady's future towards comedy and improv. "I was onstage doing this huge fight scene and right in the middle of it, I forgot my lines in a major way. So I looked to one side of the stage, smiled, waved and walked off. I then went to the dressing room, got my stuff, went into my car and drove off. It was quite embarrassing, but when I look back at it, I'm glad it happened," he recalled.

And what about that incredible ability to create a song on the fly, and make it sound like it was professionally written and recorded, which has become Brady's trademark? "I'm a songwriter by trade, and I enjoy listening to music. When audience members give me suggestions for the song improv exercises, I process it like I'm in a recording studio, and a computer screen pops into my head to help me process the suggestions. I don't have the luxury of being in a recording studio, where I can incorporate a variety of elements that are given to me that I can do in about 20 minutes. When I'm onstage, I have to prepare the song immediately. In fact, I see the words in my head as I'm singing it," he said.

I asked Brady about the choice for the show's title "I See White People" (which is a takeoff of Hailey Joel Osment's immortal line from The Sixth Sense), and he admitted that there is a racial undertone to it and the show. He told me that there is plenty of audience participation in some of the improv exercises, as well as song writing exercises, but he also wants to focus on promoting harmony.

"The reason for the show's title is first and foremost to create a reaction in which people will go 'Huh?' and 'What?'. I'm an open-minded person racially. I want to create an environment where race is not the issue, but to prove to people how good you are, how smart you are and how fast you are. I grew up in an environment where I was told I was not black enough or I was too black. My goal in life is to create an end result in which people will ask if I am funny or trusted enough to be the best guy around," he said.

"Some of the improv exercises that I will be doing with audience will show through doing some fun improv that racial stereotypes are silly. There will be no preaching at this show and if there is any, it will be funny preaching," he added. "The best kind of comedy around is the type that makes me laugh my butt off, but sometimes makes me pause and think about it."

Brady has quite an expansive show business career, with "Whose Line...", his self-titled TV show that earned him an Emmy Award, continual touring and a stint as the host of the revived version of the classic TV game show "Let's Make A Deal"; however, there are more projects on the horizon that he wants to undertake.

"I would like to produce and star in my own long-running sitcom; I would one day like to win a Grammy Award; and I would like to perform on Broadway. I can never feel fulfilled. There is still so much more to do."

And that's the name of that (improvised) tune!

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Just For Laughs journal --- Mario Cantone heads to Broadway via Montreal

To say that actor/comedian Mario Cantone is a spitfire, a whirling dervish and a walking dynamo is indeed quite an understatement.

But he was all that and even more last night, as I caught the premiere of his solo show during Just For Laughs in the friendly, saintly confines of the Gesu Theatre (it's located underneath a church in downtown Montreal).

But with Cantone, nothing was sacred. This bundle of nervous energy used his razor sharp tongue to slice and dice (not to mention julienne) old Hollywood, current Hollywood, the state of the U.S.A. and a lot of general hypocrisy. And he accomplished all of this through dead-on celebrity impersonations, loud, screeching rants, as well as a few Broadway-style musical numbers.

Cantone's show (which has no title) is basically a work in progress for a solo show that he plans to bring to Broadway in the near future, and Montreal audiences were indeed privileged to catch a sneak peek during its development stages. However, based on what Cantone presented and the wild response given to him by the packed crowd at the Gesu, this show in progress has the makings of a smash Broadway hit.

Let me give you a few examples. Cantone did some great impersonations of the three stages of Bette Davis ("Dark Victory", "All About Eve" and "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?"), Shelley Winters in "The Poseidon Adventure", Lauren Bacall and Kathleen Turner doing voice overs for the Turner Classic Movies channel and the one that got me laughing so hard 'till I cried, his impersonation of Bob Dylan singing Christmas carols for a holiday album; then there was his story of when he hosted an off-the-wall kids' TV show for a local New York City station (in which one of the games he did for the show was called "Find Sammy Davis, Jr.'s Eye in the Pie"); and for a fan of Alfred Hitchcock like myself, I howled at his bit about why the famed Master of Suspense decided to film the school children attack scene in "The Birds". He also gave a personal message about how he rose above the constant bullying he got when he was in high school because of his homosexuality (in which, miraculously, he never contemplated suicide or going on a shooting rampage).

The show ended with a "duet" between Liza Minnelli and Judy Garland (similar to what Natalie Cole did with "Unforgettable" 20 years ago); once again, Cantone was right on with the voices and nuances of both performers. The end result: a lot of laughs and a thunderous standing ovation by the time the show ended.

Mario Cantone might have been a little nervous at first for doing this bold experiment in developing a show. But  the reaction he got from the crowd at the Gesu could give him the needed boost to build this show that could make him a future toast of Broadway. It continues at the Gesu at 9:30 p.m. every night until July 28.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Just For Laughs journal -- A Night at the Mainline

The above title for this blog post may sound like a possible title for a Marx Brothers movie. Although Groucho, Harpo and Chico (and sometimes, Zeppo) were not present at the Mainline Theatre on a stormy Monday night in late July, the four comedy shows that I saw there did have traces of the comic insanity that was made famous by the brothers.

The four-hour long shows were part of Zoofest (produced by Just For Laughs), and represented the diverse type of stand-up comedy that this branch of JFL has successfully promoted over the past three years. In fact, it was three years ago that I did this comedy marathon of catching more than a single show at the same venue on the same night (it took place at the Theatre St. Catherine, in which I caught three Flying Solo Series shows, one of them was Marc Maron's Just For Laughs debut).

The first show of the night featured Australian comic and JFL veteran Adam Hills. Called "Mess Around", it was a show that had very little structure, but was a showcase of Hills' strong ability to interact with members of the audience (because, as he constantly stated "you're more interesting than celebrities") and work on that without breaking his rhythm. Hills did that with success, as he made great comic opportunities with such audience members as fellow Aussie "Togs" (who likes to talk with only vowels) and Peter, a Dutch native who, as a result of a photo Hills took with the two of them and tweeted immediately (and got a great deal of tweets that commented on their man boobs), launched a challenge to have both of them exercise each day to try and reduce their "moobs", get sponsors and raise money for Montreal's Hope and Cope wellness centre. Peter will return to Hills' show this Saturday night (I guess as a special "results show").

Hills also demonstrated his storytelling skills. I especially liked his tale of meeting Queen Elizabeth II following a Royal Variety Performance show in London, and how Prince Phillip is not afraid to shoot from the hip with some unabashed remarks of his own.

* * *
Another Adam took the stage for the second show. This time, it was British comic Adam Riches with his show "Bring Me the Head of Adam Riches, which brought prop comedy and audience participation to a whole new extreme level. From the start, Riches burst onto the stage with a high-strung, manic energy that had the audience going throughout the entire hour-long run time.

For the second sketch, Riches got me to be one of his unexpected audience participants. Dressed up as a tennis pro and speaking like a faux Rafael Nadal, he taught me the fundamentals of a new tennis-related sport called "swingball". We went through some swingball warm-ups, lessons, rules and rituals, and as a test of my abilities, gave me 10 seconds to run outside the theatre to find a bottle of wine he planted at the door. Well, the bottle of wine wasn't there, and as I raced back into the theatre (all short-of-breath), I found "Nadal" trying to pick up my lady friend Rose, who was sitting next to me. I told him that Rose and me were just good friends, but he didn't believe it, until a friendly kiss between us convinced him otherwise. Now, back to the game. As we were about to play "swingball" (which meant hitting a swinging tennis ball on a pole with a special plastic red racket ... but in the dark), "Nadal" somehow had another motive. As the lights went out and I tried to futilely hit the ball in the dark (which hit me in the face once), the light went back on a minute later and what did I find? You guessed it ... "Nadal" once again tried to pick up Rose. I formally forgave him (which followed with a hit on the head with my racket). All in all, it was a blast and I enjoyed playing along with Riches to make the sketch work (without trying to upstage him). And after all that, he gave me my swingball racket to keep as a souvenir (I am pictured below holding up the racket with pride).

* * *
A packed crowd were witness to some pure stand-up comedy with the third show of the night "Paul F. Tompkins and the Hilarious Trinity (Plus One)". The nattily-dressed Tompkins (resplendent in a striped jacket) showcased four of his favorite stand-up friends and let them spread their comic gospel to the gathered masses. My favorites were James Adomian, who had me perenially laughing 'till my sides ached with his routine about life in New York City, and the reasons why Disneyland was never built in NYC (I also loved his impression of a Disneyworld-type animatronic robot of an old west prospector); and Todd Glass (whom I first saw at Just For Laughs in 1992 with his mobile comedy show that he did on the back of a pick-up truck), and his dissection of late night TV commercials and infomercials was a masterpiece. Mark Little and Rory Scovil made up the rest of this comic opus dei.

Also, I liked Tompkins' smooth, professional way of how he can adlib and improvise to any situation that's presented to him. Case in point, he saw an unoccupied club table and two chairs and instantly created an improvised talk show called "The After Set", in which he conducted a brief chat with every featured comic after their sets (or in the case of Todd Glass, the "Pre Set").

I am very curious to see what other funny friends that Paul F. Tompkins has in store for subsequent Hilarious Trinity (Plus One) nights for the rest of this week.

* * *
The fourth and final show of the night was an interesting experiment to how far you can stretch the boundaries of the art of stand-up comedy. "Set List: Stand-Up Without A Net" is the brainchild of Troy Conrad and Paul Provenza (best known for his Showtime series "The Green Room"), and gets comics to do the impossible in their profession: to perform stand-up without any pre-written material or structured set list. It's basically improvised stand-up comedy. Provided with a selection of topics onstage (and the aid of written audience suggestion drawn from the "Audience Box"), "Set List" tests a stand-up comic's ability to be funny off-the-cuff in front of an audience.

The night I was there, five British, Irish, Australian and American comics (Daniel Sloss, Keith Farnan, Sam Simmons, Paul F. Tompkins and Paul Foot) were put to the Set List test. The variety of topics that were flashed to them during their respective sets were of the rather off-the-wall nature (for example, "Bondage Regret", Post-Partum Getaway Car", "Non-Racist User of Racial Slurs", "Grizzly Friendships = Great Idea", "Catatonic Dominatrix" and "Velcro Mutation".

Some sets were hit or miss (which is to be expected), but when one got rolling on a certain topic, it was a sheer example of how combining two genres of comedy is more than just a humourous experiment. Paul F. Tompkins was the best example of the above, as he smoothly told a credible bit of logical comic storytelling based on the topic "Cardiologist/Vulture Owner".

This show was highly recommended to me by my friend Matthew Cope, and I can see why he was so enthusiastic about it. Seeing some of the biggest names in stand-up comedy practice their craft without the aid of written material just shows how difficult -- and courageous -- the art of funny really is.

* * *

It's now 1:15, Tuesday morning as I leave the Mainline Theatre all laughed out, but feeling satisfied I got my nightly comedy fix sitting in on four consecutive comedy shows. I am all revved up and rarin' to go and see multiple Just For Laughs and Zoofest shows every night this week. Can I handle this? Can I survive and endure until this Sunday? Yes I can ... because I survived "A Night at the Mainline" comedy marathon!!!!



Saturday, July 21, 2012

Just For Laughs journal: A double-barrelled dose of Zoofest with Dave Gorman and Mike Ward

What started out as the Flying Solo Series back in 2006 (where people got to discover Zach Galifianakis, Demetri Martin and Marc Maron, amongst others), as evolved into a terrific alternative comedy festival that is a branch of Just For Laughs, which offers American, British, Australian, Canadian and Quebecois comics a chance to perform one-hour sets in an intimate club setting. And best of all, it offers reasonably priced tickets for the best comedy value around every summer.

This is what Zoofest is all about.

Don't get me wrong. I still enjoy attending Just For Laughs shows, and I always look forward to catching its flagship galas and specialty shows such as the Nasty Show, the Ethnic Show, the one-person show series and Talk of the Fest (the new name for the long-running Bubbling with Laughter series). But the Zoofest shows give me a chance to see popular and up-and-coming comics that normally wouldn't get to see at a comedy club, as they perform some of their best material to eager Montreal comedy fans. As Zoofest's slogan accurately states, it's a "festival of discoveries".

I started my Zoofest comedic adventure on July 20 with "Dave Gorman's Powerpoint Presentation", which played at the Underworld Club (which is situated above a skate shop). The British comic made his Just For Laughs debut over a decade ago with his solo show "Dave Gorman's Googlewhacked Adventure", in which he chronicled the misadventures he experienced as a result of his quite thorough informational digging using the famed internet search engine.

This time, Gorman uses his expansive computer tech knowledge and his fascination with social media to come up with a damned funny show. Armed with a MacBook Pro laptop, a remote control and a large backlit screen, Gorman talks about different aspects of his life and career, which he breaks down into a business-style power point presentation. To the packed crowd gathered to see and hear his presentation in this cramped, intimate venue (whom he deemed as "the 80 most cultured people in North America"), Gorman tackled such concerns as how everyone thinks he is Jewish (he is actually a Christian), which goes as far as being listed as #12 in a British magazine's ranking of the top 25 literary Jews (he placed two notches above Nobel Prize-winning novelist Saul Bellow), anti-perspirant commercials that promised 48- to 96-hour protection, why clock and cellphone ads always have the time "10:08" displayed, and a personal experiment involving asparagus, beets, a vitamin C drink mix and a sugary cereal that goes awfully wrong.

Gorman may spend too much time in front of his computer, but his penchant for thorough research and his unending curiosity makes his power point presentation both very funny and quite informative in a rather unorthodox manner (my only disappointment was that it lasted only an hour; it could have easily run for another hour and he still would have held the audience's attention).

As Gorman succinctly puts it: "Is it not human to be curious?"

On the extreme other end of the comedy spectrum, Quebecois comedian Mike Ward unabashedly went for the throat and succeeded with his English language solo show "Pedophile Jokes and Death Threats", which attracted a sold out crowd at the Katacombes club (a rather dark, heavy metal-type club on St. Laurent Blvd.).

A big star on the French language comedy scene in Quebec (he has hosted several Just pour Rire galas over the years) and his comedy DVD sold hundreds of thousands of copies, Ward's material has tackled many taboo subjects, which has garnered his share of controversy throughout his career.

The reason behind the show's title was based on a joke he said during an appearance at a JPR gala three years ago, which made reference to a recent abduction of a little girl in Quebec. His set got him a standing ovation, but the press pounced on that one joke, and a firestorm of controversy evolved from it. It got to the point that angry citizens were lining up outside his home. Then there were the death threats; in particular, an e-mail he got from an elderly woman named Huguette, a woman, according to Ward, who "should be making strawberry jam and funeral arrangements." The message stated that Ward likes to kill and rape children. "When I have kids of my own, Huguette is not coming to the baptism," said the fluently bilingual Ward.

The rest of the show dealt with Ward's take on other subjects that were part of his life and career, such as his trip to entertain Canadian troops in Afghanistan (and how "traumatized" he got when he saw an Afghan local defecate on the roof of his home); how comfortable he is renting gay porn movies with his wife; taking viagra (and how the drug's effects take place at the most inopportune time and place); sex with his wife; and how creative editing on a Radio-Canada newsmagazine show item dealing with comics going too far made Ward looked like he was going WAY too far with his material.

Witnessing Mike Ward in action with "Pedophile Jokes and Death Threats" is vivid proof why he is one of the busiest comics/vedettes in the Quebec entertainment world. Hopefully, he will do more shows to build a following with English language comedy fans. And with an upcoming appearance on the JFL XXX gala (hosted by Bob Saget) this Friday night -- and if he succeeds -- hopefully Mike Ward will take his comic talents (controversial jokes, death threats and all) south of the border to the lucrative, yet heavily competitive, U.S. market.

Much more Just For Laughs stuff to come this week ... more Zoofest shows (Amy Schumer, Adam Hills, Paul F. Tompkins) ... Mario Cantone ... Hannibal Buress ... Marc Maron's WTF podcast ... Comedy Conference ... and galas with Lewis Black, Bob Saget and the Muppets.