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.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Just For Laughs journal -- Laughing through some "Ethnical Difficulties"

Due to ethnical difficulties beyond our control, we interrupt this blog, so please stand by ...

I know it may sound like a cheap (but effective) pun, but after catching this year's edition of Just For Laughs' Ethnic Show: Ethnical Difficulties at Club Soda (which runs until July 22, followed by an extra show at the Metropolis on July 26), it was the first line that popped into my head and I thought, it would be a shame to waste it.

The Ethnic Show brought together six comics, each one representing a different ethnic background. And these days, with so much inward and outward prejudice going on (not to mention racial profiling), it's refreshing to see that Just For Laughs has decided to dedicate a show to promote racial and ethnic tolerance and understanding through laughter.

"When you promote understanding through laughter, it brings people together,” said Iranian/American comic Maz Jobrani, who is hosting the Ethnic Show for the second consecutive year, during a phone interview I conducted with him last week for my Grapevine column.

And the show certainly brought a lot of people together, as its premiere performance played to a packed house at Club Soda. Jobrani began his set interacting with members of the audience according to their respective ethnic origins and making humorous, inoffensive comments based on them; he got a Hungarian, Italian, Jew and an Egyptian named Charles ("It must be your airport name," quipped Jobrani).  He also got in some great lines about how tough Russians can be, based on an experience he had with a Russian repairman who was sent to his home to fix his heater ("I fix the filter, then I kill," said the rather gruff repairman). He also did a great routine of the hazards being a parent when you take your kids to a cinema to catch "Happy Feet 2".

The show then continued with Filipino comedian Ron Josol, who said he looked like the end result if Elvis made love to a big Samoan. He also lamented the good old days of cassette tapes, when a pencil was the main tool needed to fix an unravelled tape, and the days when if someone had a cell phone, they were mainly a drug dealer.

Montreal comic Frank Spadone (representing the Italian delegation), told how ironic it was that this year was the 150th anniversary of Italian unification, yet no one talks to each other in Italy (he cites one Italian man who was angry at another man because "he didn't call me so I could wish him a happy birthday").

Jewish-American comic Orny Adams vehemently ranted about germ phobia, sneezing, gluten (which he pronounces as "glutton") and world overpopulation, which got him a lot of laughs. To quote another Jewish comic -- Krusty the Klown -- "Angry ... angry ... angry young man."

Representing the land south of the U.S. border, Mexican-American comedienne Melissa Villasenor (who also appeared on "America's Got Talent"), entertained with her wide variety of celebrity voice imitations (my favorite was her impression of comedienne Wanda Sykes in the middle of a traffic jam).

The Ethnic Show ended on a high note with its closer, Nigerian-American comic Godfrey. I first saw him perform at the Ethnic Show two years ago, and he killed back then. And he was still on his game on a massive scale. Using different voices, gestures and gesticulations, Godfrey tackled airports, the NYPD, hunting for terrorists, gay ghosts, fitted sheets and the coup de grace, his hilarious dissection of what it's like to travel in an airplane. It may be a typical staple for a comedian's routine, but Godfrey's spin on it (including his takes on the safety video and the inflatable life vest) had me laughing out loud and banging my hand on the table at the same time; he brought this much used subject matter to a whole new level. In short .... HE KILLED ... AGAIN!!!

This year's edition of the Ethnic Show was quite an enjoyable one. OK, I have to admit, it's a virtual United Nations of comedy, and maybe the UN Secretary-General should consider appointing these comics as special ambassadors. Maybe some of the world's major problems could be solved much quickly with a good dose of international laughter as a means of diplomacy.

....We now resume with the Just For Laughs festival, which is already in progress.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Just For Laughs journal -- Stuey N. meets Epic Meal Time

What a way to officially start the 30th edition of the Just For Laughs comedy festival for me.

It was an early evening of morbid gluttony, food insanity ... and plenty of strips of bacon. Yes, I had the good fortune to meet the six mad men behind the mega successful series of "Epic Meal Time" videos, which attracts an average of 5 to 8 million viewers on YouTube EVERY WEEK!

For those who have not tuned in to their videos -- or are sensitive to having their arteries clogged -- "Epic Meal Time" creates some of the most extreme recipes that promotes the cause of cholesterol and its after effects. "This is not a cooking show. It's a celebration of food shows, and what we mix together tastes way better," said Harley Morenstein, the heavily-bearded manic leader and spokesman for the group. Some of their heart attack-inducing creations included a massive egg sandwich made up of 84 individual egg sandwiches wrapped up in a huge doughy blanket, and a lasagna stuffed with hamburgers and covered in vats of tomato sauce.

Morenstein, along with his Epic Meal Time henchmen Dave, Tyler!, Mookie, Prince Atari and Muscles Glasses, staged a media call at the Improv Montreal venue to promote their upcoming live show on July 27 at the Metropolis Club during the Just For Laughs festival.  For this occasion, the guys created an original dish made of poutine, BBQ chicken, hamburgers (complete with buns), Tim Hortons donuts and of course, bacon, the omnipresent Epic Meal Time staple (in fact, the moment I entered the room where the media call took place, I was immediately assaulted with the smell of cooked bacon strips, which permeated the air). After the vicious mix of cheese, fries, ground beef, poultry, pork and deep fried sugary donuts was slammed into an Epic Meal Time creation, the rather eager media present (who used their eagerness to hide their junk food death wish) decided to step right up to the stage to sample a morsel of this example of culinary extremism. I was one of those brave individuals and tried the sandwich made of hamburger, bacon and surrounded by two chocolate donuts (in fact, I was one bite away from a massive coronary and a diabetic coma). It tasted rather good, but was rather messy (I spent the next 10 minutes -- and several sheets of paper towels -- cleaning all that greasy, messy residue from my hands and fingers). And above all, it was certainly fun to take that flirtation into the Epic Meal Time danger zone (take a look at the photo above of me chowing down on this way out creation).

And how successful is "Epic Meal Time"? Their videos are seen by millions across North America, the UK and Australia; their line of Epic Meal Time merchandise is wildly popular and they hope to do an eventual DVD/Bluray release of some of their best videos. Not bad for a group of friends from Montreal's West Island suburbs who liked to hang out together and originally wanted to do a series of workout videos (an idea that quickly went out the window the moment food became involved).

And what do they plan to create for their audience at their live show on July 27? Morenstein told me it's a closely guarded secret, but I can guarantee that bacon is going to be a key ingredient.

After personally going through the Epic Meal Time experience, I went home to indulge in some boiled white rice and fresh fruit. It did my conscience (not to mention my heart and blood glucose levels) some good.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Jazz fest 2012 wrap-up

At 4:30 this afternoon (July 8), the last note was played at this year's edition of the Montreal International Jazz Festival.

And it ended at Salle Wilfrid Pelletier of Place des Arts in a grand big band fashion, as the fifth edition of the Battle of the Bands played out to a full house between the orchestras of two big band era royalty: the Duke (Ellington) and the Count (Basie).

Enthusiasts of the music of that era were not disappointed, as many of Ellington's and Basie's standards were played, such as "Take the A Train", "April in Paris" (which was also used in "Blazing Saddles"), "The Kansas City Shuffle" and "The Cotton Club". The first half of the show had the two bands play their respective numbers separately in an alternating fashion. The second half had both bands perform a few numbers together, and the result was a boisterous, brassy, high energy hour of music. The winner was Count Basie's orchestra; however, in a very classy move, the musical director dedicated the victory to Ellington, because in his lifetime, Count Basie has so much respect for the Duke, that he always made sure that his orchestra play an Ellington tune at every live performance.

It was a not only a great way to spend a Sunday afternoon, but also to cap off the jazz fest in such a lively fashion.

I spent the final weekend of the jazz festival catching two other shows. On July 6, I caught Montreal singer Sarah MK, who played the first of two shows to a sold-out crowd at the Savoy, a small, intimate venue within the larger Metropolis club. Sarah combined the musical styles that she has embraced in her young lifetime, such as blues, jazz, pop and even rap. She is a talented, vivacious singer with a soulful voice who can also dance, rap and do a dead-on imitation of a trumpet. And on top of that, she is a very warm, personable individual who has a very personable approach with her audience. She calls her group "The Worth It Project" and believe me, it was certainly worth it to spend a couple of hours watching this rising star perform. If she keeps this up, Sarah MK won't be performing in small venues any longer (the photo below is of me and my friend Rudy with Sarah MK -- in the center -- shortly after her show at the Savoy).

The following night (July 7), I magically went back into time to the Copa Room of the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas, circa 1960, with the tribute show "The Rat Pack is Back".

The show is a recreation of the series of appearances the Rat Pack (Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford) did at the Sands while they were on location in Las Vegas to shoot the classic caper flick "Ocean's 11". Four actors in the guise of the Rat Packers did the tribute show (minus "Lawford") did the show in true old Las Vegas fashion in song, jokes and good natured ribbing and kibitzing. There was a lot of cigarette smoking, booze drinking and risque jokes; it may not have been politically correct, but hey, this was showbiz in Las Vegas 50 years ago and anything went!

I have to give credit to the four actors in this production, who got the voices, gestures and mannerisms down pat. This is especially so for the actor who portrayed Frank Sinatra. I even went as far as closing my eyes during one of his numbers, and I could have sworn that it was the genuine "Old Blue Eyes" singing onstage.

"The Rat Pack is Back" was a fun time in this showbiz time warp, as you personally witnessed how a group of some of the top entertainers of that swinging era genuinely enjoyed the show business life -- and the camaraderie that went with it -- in a city that was more like an adult playground.

Well, as I exited Place des Arts this afternoon after the Battle of the Bands concluded, practically every stage, sign, banner, kiosk and decoration were taken down; you wouldn't believe that a jazz festival took place there the previous evening and was crammed with thousands of music fans and people who were out enjoying a perfect Montreal summer evening.

But that sense of void won't last for long. Within the next couple of days, the Just For Laughs festival takes over the site for nearly three weeks of laughs of all types and languages. So get ready for the green and red invasion. And I'll be there to cover every bit of it, as I attend my 27th JFL fest. It all starts for me this Tuesday, with the premiere of one of Just For Laughs' most popular series of shows .... The Nasty Show, hosted by the Pitbull of Comedy himself, Bobby Slayton (you can read my interview with Slayton in my Grapevine this week; just go to, on page 38). By the way, there is a Rat Pack connection with Slayton. About a decade ago, HBO did a TV movie about the Rat Pack, and Slayton portrayed Joey Bishop.

Congratulations to jazz fest head honchos Alain Simard and Andre Menard and their crew for putting together another top notch festival. And special thanks to Ludivine Dubus from the communications office for her tremendous help handling my media accreditation application and coordinating my ticket requests for the six shows that I caught this year.

And now, bring on the 30th anniversary edition of Just For Laughs!