Sunday, June 30, 2013

An Interview with Shaun Majumder

With the 31st edition of the Just For Laughs comedy festival set to begin in 11 days' time, I am blessed to attend -- and cover -- the festival for the 28th time. And with the days leading up to the festival, the good people at the JFL p.r. department are not only giving me the chance to see a selection of shows to write about in my Grapevine column, but also get the chance to interview a select group of comics who will shortly be making their way to Montreal. One of them is Canadian comic Shaun Majumder, a longtime Just For Laughs veteran (and best known for his sweaty correspondent character Raj Binder, whom you see regularly on CBC's "This Hour Has 22 Minutes"). This year, Majumder is hosting a live Just For Laughs show for the very first time, which will be the Ethnic Show, which starts its run at Club Soda on July 10. Last week, I had the chance to conduct a phone interview with him from his hometown of Burlington, Newfoundland. The end result is below, which originally appeared in my Grapevine column in the June 29 edition of the West End Times (oh, and by the way, that's Majumder and me pictured above, schmoozing it up outside the Delta Hotel bar one late Saturday night during the 2006 Just For Laughs festival).

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Comedian Shaun Majumder was born 41 years ago in Burlington, Newfoundland, the son of a Bengali Hindu Indian father and a native Newfoundland mother of European descent. But what was it like to grow up in this unique Canadian province as a child of mixed ethnic heritage?

“It was great, but it was challenging, too, especially when me and my friends played different sports. We picked a favorite player and we had to be that favorite player,” said Majumder in a recent interview with the Grapevine. “I was always the Black guy or the Chinese guy, like Michael Jordan or Bruce Lee. And when we played hockey, I could never be Wayne Gretzky; I had to be Grant Fuhr!”

A longtime veteran of the Just For Laughs festival, Majumder will be performing hosting duties for the very first time, as he will be helming this year’s edition of The Ethnic Show, which will be playing at Club Soda from July 10-14 at Club Soda, and July 26 and 27 at Metropolis. Joining Majumder on the Ethnic Show lineup will be Gary Gulman, Trevor Noah, Cristela Alonzo and Fahim Anwar.

“I’m really excited about hosting a live Just For Laughs show for the first time. It’s the only festival that I always commit myself to doing because it is THE greatest comedy festival around. I also enjoy the challenge of being the person who strings all the elements together. In a way, you get to spend the evening with me and we make a connection until I have to introduce the next act. I’m the sounding board where I mix the ethnicities who are appearing on the show, which is sort of like C3PO with the ability to speak six million languages,” said Majumder, who was speaking from his hometown of Burlington.

A veteran comedian who has appeared in a wide array of American and Canadian TV shows such as “Republic of Doyle”, “The Firm” and “Detroit 1-8-7”, not to mention as a regular on CBC’s “This Hour Has 22 Minutes” in the guide of the sweaty, nervous correspondent Raj Binder, Majumder realizes the importance that people should be able to laugh at their own ethnic traits, as well as those of other communities, as long as the source of that laughter has plenty of honesty and sensitivity to it. “Our planet has so much biological diversity to it, that nothing is pure to begin with. The Ethnic Show is not just ethnic jokes, but looking at different perspectives of different people, which is what comedy is all about, not to mention the power of diversity,” he said. “At the Ethnic Show, we are going to spray the crowd with a lot of diversity.” 

These days, Majumder is focusing on his latest project, a reality series called “Majumder Manor”. Since it started airing earlier this year, the show traces his efforts to help make his hometown of Burlington, Newfoundland a potential hot spot for tourists. So far, Majumder – who is the only shareholder in the project – reports that a greenhouse has been built and is fully functional, and is in the midst of developing a luxury campsites for potential visitors in which prospector tents will be used for accommodations. There will also be an arts and cultural festival about anything and everything concerning Newfoundland called “The Gathering”, which will take place in Burlington from August 23-25.

“Majumder Manor is a long process and not an easy one, but at least this project will benefit the community at large in its mission to draw tourists to Newfoundland. This is quite a challenge, because there is not much here in Burlington, but I am excited about its prospects,” he said.

Fr more information about the Ethnic Show or any other Just For Laughs shows, visit their website at And if you want to find out more about Shaun Majumder’s upcoming The Gathering Festival, go to

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Sculptor Gary Bernett carves out a new chapter in his life in his native Montreal

Author's Note: I knew the Bernett family when I was growing up in the Montreal suburb of Ville St. Laurent during the late 60s and early 70s (they lived several blocks away from our Alexis Nihon Blvd. home). David Bernett served the community in the local sports scene; I knew him as a referee every Sunday morning during our Beth Ora Hockey League games at Chamberlain Park, and his son Gary was there at these games, too (and he remembers that I was a less-than-terrific player on the ice, to which I fully agreed with him). Early last month, I bumped into Gary at his newly-established open air kiosk on St. Catherine Street West, where he displayed and sold many of his hand-crafted relief sculptures, and after hearing many of his stories of his life as an internationally-renowned sculptor, I knew this would make an interesting lengthy item in my Grapevine column. The following blog originally appeared in my Grapevine column, which was published in the June 15 edition of the West End Times.

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One of the desktop sculptures that are on display – and on sale – at Montreal sculptor Gary Bernett’s open air kiosk in downtown Montreal is the saying “nothing is etched in stone.”

A rather catchy phrase that can apply to Bernett’s livelihood that has made him an internationally-renowned, award-winning sculptor. However, it also applies to a new chapter in his professional and personal life. After travelling across the United States to display and sell his works at some of the finest arts and crafts shows over the past 18 years, he decided to return to his Montreal roots.

“After so many years on the road, I wanted to stay closer to home, so I decided to come back to Montreal to work, enjoy the summer, be a parent and have a wonderful time doing so,” he told the Grapevine during a recent interview at his mobile display and kiosk, which is situated in front of Ogilvy’s department store on the corner of St. Catherine Street West and de la Montagne (right next to the famous Spoonman).

Bernett, who creates many of his relief sculptures at his Dollard-des-Ormeaux home as well as a workshop he owns, works primarily in marble and granite and each sculpture takes an average of two days to complete. “Sculpting takes a lot of patience and I find it quite therapeutic,” he added. “I focus so intensely on my work that I forget about everything else for that moment.”

His sculptures beautifully portray a wide variety of subjects, from Canadian wildlife, to Arctic scenes, to scenes from the Old and New Testaments, to traditional and national symbols (even the Canadian flag), to one of his best-known works, which portrays a circle of dancing children. He has also done commissioned works for the Montreal Expos, the Toronto Blue Jays (when they won the 1993 World Series, and is still on display at the Rogers Centre), the White House, for professional golf and tennis tournaments, as well as for major corporations and community organizations. Former Prime Minister Jean Chretien even bought 12 of his Arctic scene sculptures when he hosted the G7 Summit in Halifax, and were presented as gifts to such world leaders as then-U.S. President Bill Clinton and the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Raised in Ville St. Laurent, Bernett’s talent as a sculptor goes back to his grandfather and his father, who both worked as craftsmen at the legendary L. Berson & Son monument company on St. Laurent Boulevard. “In 1974, my dad once created a couple of sculptures there, and he brought them home and asked me ‘what do you think of this?’ He then did a couple of more pieces and sold them immediately, because people liked his work,” he said. “When I was 19, my dad asked me to work with him and by the age of 20, I knew I had something that I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”

However, it was in 1979 that Bernett began to get wide recognition for his work thanks to former tennis champion Bjorn Borg, who won a Canadian major tennis tournament and Bernett was contracted to create the championship award. “Borg liked it so much, that he personally took it on the airplane with him back to Sweden; he wouldn’t let them ship it home,” he said. “Borg’s reaction to my piece helped to put me on the map, and I have never looked back since then.” Recently, he found a clipping from the Hamilton Spectator that was in his mother’s collection with a photo of Borg proudly displaying the sculpture; Bernett had it laminated and he proudly displays it at his kiosk (pictured at right).

Since he set up shop on St. Catherine and de la Montagne early last month (he lucked out when he applied to the City of Montreal for a permit, and discovered that this certain corner was available when his name was chosen by lottery), Bernett has been encouraged by the response he has been getting from passers-by, He has sold his relief sculptures of various sizes and subjects (which range in price from $49 to $225) not only to Montrealers, but also to tourists from Toronto, Calgary, New York, Boston, Michigan and Atlanta, and enjoys the personal interaction that he conducts with anyone whose interest is piqued by his display of eye-catching sculptures.

And the story behind his “nothing is etched in stone” sculpture? Bernett attributes it to a request – and a misunderstanding -- from a customer based in Philadelphia. “When that client asked me to create that sculpture, I thought he just wanted the word ‘nothing’ carved in stone,” he said. “So I did it in two colours and I sold it right away, and knew I had a winner. Since then, the ‘nothing is etched in stone’ sculpture has become an integral part of my display.”

Gary Bernett’s sculpture kiosk and display on the corner of St. Catherine Street West and de la Montagne is open -- weather permitting -- from 12 p.m. – 6:30 p.m. (Sunday to Wednesday) and 12 p.m. – 9 p.m. (Thursday to Saturday). 

Friday, June 7, 2013

A Night at the Fringe-For-All ... or How I Spent an Interesting Monday Night Watching Nearly 80 Acts in Three Hours

After the unforgettable experience I had last year covering the St. Ambroise Montreal Fringe Festival for the first time, I came to this year’s festival launch and Fringe-For-All program at Café Campus with the same sense of excitement and speculation of what to expect – and not to expect – from this year’s massive line-up.

First of all, festival director Amy Blackmore and interim general manager Al Lafrance welcomed the members of the media who gathered for a friendly 5 a 7 Fringe launch party at the Petit Campus venue, and presented brewer Peter McAuslan with the inaugural Peter McAuslan Award for Fringe philanthropy for his ongoing support towards making the Fringe Festival such a success year after year.

Immediately after the brief welcome and award ceremony, I had the opportunity to chat with Montreal actress Johanna Nutter (pictured at right), who was selected to be this year’s official spokesperson for the Fringe Festival, although she admitted that sometimes she is uncertain of what a spokesperson is supposed to do.

“A spokesperson welcomes people, so I guess I am in charge of being welcoming,” the lively Ms. Nutter told the Grapevine. “I think when you have someone from the outside sing the praises of the festival, it carries more weight. I am perfectly happy to sing the praises of the Fringe Festival.”

Ms. Nutter, who last year won the Cauchon D’Or Award for the best independent theatrical production in Quebec for the French version of her critically-acclaimed solo show “My Pregnant Brother”, will perform the show once again for one night only (June 10) at the Mainline Theatre at 7 p.m. (French) and 9 p.m. (English) as a benefit fundraiser. The proceeds from both performances that night will help her towards staging “My Pregnant Brother” at the world famous Edinburgh Fringe Festival later this summer, where she will perform it at Edinburgh’s legendary Pleasance Theatre.

“Edinburgh is the core of the Fringe, and the chance to perform there is wonderful and very daunting, because of that possibility of performing the play in the best theatre in Edinburgh,” she said.

Ms. Nutter is practically a child of the Montreal Fringe, who has been involved with the festival since its beginnings in 1991, and has nothing but high praise for what the festival has done for her development as an actress and writer. “The Fringe Festival has showed me that I can build my own doors, and that I can write and perform in a show that I have created by myself,” she said. “The festival allowed me to have a sense of control and focus on being creative and create something that people will respond to, and help me towards making a living as an actor.”

At 6:45, we were escorted from the Petit Campus and head upstairs to Café Campus’ main venue, where we were about to experience the “Fringe-For-All”. This is basically the ultimate Fringe sampler, in about 80 local Fringe productions (in both French and English) gave the packed, raucous crowd a taste of what to expect from their respective productions … but at only two-minute snippets per show.

Helmed by the ever entertaining trio of Shane Adamczak, Cat Lemieux and Holly Gautheir-Frankel (aka “Miss Sugarpuss”), the “Fringe-For-All” provided a valuable service to the rookie and veteran Fringe goers of the scope of productions that will be featured during the two-week Fringe A to Z series; some of them were hilarious, some of them were curiously innovative and original, and some bordered on the “it-came-from-left-field” bizarre.

After witnessing all of the nearly 80 Fringe-For-All tidbits, here are some of the shows that caught my attention and will make my potential must-see list: “The Balding” (pictured above), “Racial Roulette”, “Now That I Have Your Attention”, “Beat The Percentages” (a satirical look at Mitt Romney’s political comeback, which is pictured ob the left), “Verbal Diarrhea”, “Made of Meat” (a high-octane dance show that is pictured below), “Annoying Visitor”, “Art-Chaut” and “Alex Cross and His Rise to Fame” (which has three alternate endings).

Finally, one thing that was quite prevalent during the Fringe-For-All was the plethora of promotional flyers, cards and gimmicks that many of the theatrical companies who are part of this year’s Fringe Festival were constantly handing out to us media people to get us to catch their respective shows. And then there were those companies who went the extra gimmicky mile to get our attention, such as “Talk, Mackerel”, which were handing out cupcakes with their promo cards (pictured above); “Cherry on Top!” in which the girl group trio Les Cherries handed out fresh cherries (pictured below ... notice the bowl of cherries at the foot of the singer in the middle); and “La Cravate Bleue”, which had their flyer wrapped around a condom.

Now that I have experienced my Fringe sampler during a lively, jammed packed night at Café Campus, it’s time to really study all the promo material that I was inundated with and make some strategic scheduling of the shows that I would like to catch and make my Fringe experience as interesting as last year. Let the Fringing begin!

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Just For Laughs speaks the language of funny for its 31st edition

On May 23, organizers for the Just For Laughs comedy festival announced the lineup for its 31st edition at the Buonno Note restaurant on St. Laurent Boulevard … the same Buonno Note restaurant where the infamous “Pastagate” incident erupted.

Why they chose this certain venue to unveil their lineup is simple. In a time when language tensions have once again risen in Quebec, Just For Laughs wanted to prove that they speak one language and one language only: funny.

And after learning about the impressive selection of shows and comedians who will be plying their trade across the downtown core from July 10-28, I can readily say that comedy enthusiasts will be laughingly proclaiming “they’re speaking my language!”

Let’s start off with the flagship series of shows that have defined Just For Laughs since the beginning: the Videotron Galas. This year, they will be helmed by British comedy legend Eddie Izzard (July 24), who will commemorate the 20th anniversary of his festival debut by hosting a gala for the very first time; future “Late Night” host Seth Meyers (July 25); Sarah Silverman, who will host two all-star galas (July 27); and stand-up legend (and “Celebrity Apprentice” winner) Joan Rivers will be doing the talking on July 27 during a special matinee gala at 5 p.m.

And the ever-popular Club Series will once again present the series of stalwart shows that have attracted sold-out crowds to the venerable Club Soda and Metropolis, including the Ethnic Show hosted by Shaun Majumder (July 10-13 at Club Soda, July 26 and 27 at Metropolis), The Relationship Show hosted by last year’s breakout star Godfrey (July 17-20), The Bar Mitzvah hosted by comedy’s good Jewish boy Elon Gold (July 25) and of course, the always blue, always shocking Nasty Show, hosted by the Pitbull of Comedy himself Bobby Slayton, for two separate runs: July 17-20 at Club Soda, and July 24-27 at Metropolis.

And to make the Club Soda experience a little more interesting, Just For Laughs is offering for the Nasty, Ethnic and Relationship shows a chance to get much closer to the action with the "Sit In The Pit" package. For an extra $50 per person, fans get a private table right in front of the stage (and directly in the line of fire of the comics' barbs, zingers and insults), as well as VIP access to Club Soda.

Just For Laughs 31 will also mark the return of several comics who have quickly become festival favorites, such as Mark Maron (who will do a brand new stand up show on July 27, plus a live taping of his immensely popular podcast “WTF”); Amy Schumer (July 24); Danny Bhoy with a new solo show called “Dear Epson” (July 26 and 27); Hannibal Buress (July 24 and 25); Bo Burnham (July 25 and 26); and Colin Quinn, who will be performing his solo show “Unconstitutional” (July 25-27), as well as delivering the keynote address on the opening day of the Just For Laughs' ComedyPRO (formerly known as the Comedy Conference) on July 25.

And another Just For Laughs favorite who will be returning to the festival after a six-year absence is the duo of Colin Mochrie and Brad Sherwood, who will bring three nights of original, unpredictable improv comedy to the Gesu from July 26-28.

For those who want to catch some of the brightest, most relevant comics today as they perform full-length shows in an intimate club setting, then don’t miss the brand new “Off-JFL Presented by Sirius XM” series, which will feature an impressive lineup of comedic talent including Maria Bamford (July 18-24), Todd Barry (July 22-26), Todd Glass (July 22-27), Montreal’s DeAnne Smith (July 22-24), Tig Notaro (July 23-27), Judah Friedlander (July 22-27) and “Set List” (July 23-25), an experimental show that I saw last year, in which comedians perform a routine based on a set list that’s presented to them just minutes before, and I found to be one of the highlights at last year’s festival. And best of all, the Off-JFL series offers the best value for your comedy buck, with tickets going for $20 each, or two shows for $30.

"Saturday Night Live" fans will not be disappointed at this year's Just For Laughs festival. Besides Seth Meyers hosting one of the Videotron Galas, SNL cast members Taran Killam and Bobby Moynihan will be two of the three hosts (along with Kristen Schaal of "30 Rock" and "The Daily Show") of Just For Laughs' popular break star showcase "Talk of the Fest", which takes to the stage of Club Soda from July 23-26.

Finally, Just For Laughs will do its part to promote linguistic harmony in Quebec with Le Bilingual Show (July 23). Hosted by the fluently bilingual Quebecois comic Mike Ward, the show will feature a group of Francophone comics performing their sets in English; and in turn, several Anglophone comics (including Joey Elias) will take the stage and perform stand-up comedy in French. This is certainly a show that should get OQLF approval.

Stay tuned to my blog for further reports, reviews and interviews from Just For Laughs 31.

For more information about the lineup of this year’s Just For Laughs shows, or to purchase tickets, go to