Thursday, July 17, 2008
I went up to the Great White North for my summer vacation and to check out Just for Laughs, the Montreal Comedy Festival. Years ago, what started as a strictly French language affair has blown up to be the place to go for up and coming comedians from all over the world. Many of the greats have made their mark on the stage at Just for Laughs throughout the years, from Bill Hicks, to Bob and David and The Kids in the Hall.
This year the all-star gala included Jeremy Piven, Jimmy Fallon and Kathy Griffin. Being a certifiable Anglophile, I went straight for the British stand-up comedy showcase, Britcom.
Craig Hill, a flaming Scotsman who wore a leather kilt and took the stage gyrating to Madonna, hosted the “British Invasion” of comedy. He explained the tourist industry in Scotland, “You can always tell when somebody’s a tourist because they’ve got something that the Scots don’t. Hope.”
I recognized Paul Tonkinson from his stint on Asylum, a mid-nineties comedy series starring Simon Pegg and Jessica Stevenson. Tonkinson discussed the pros and cons of married life with a bit of a violent edge, kind of like if Louis C.K. was a Manchester United fan.
Paul Foot was very good, too, and he was dressed much like a young Rod Stewart in a stylish cream pantsuit. One of Foot’s rants was about the awkwardness that occurs when two people are eating cake together, and no one goes out of their way to point out the moistness of the dish.
Most of the comedians in this show were fairly young, so it was great to see some new faces that you wouldn’t necessarily see on Comedy Central. There really was something for everyone, from Hal Cruttenden’s dry observations to Pete Firman’s gory magic tricks.
If you are interested in going but can’t afford tickets to more one or two of the shows it’s still worth making the trip because they have a huge free street festival every night of Just For Laughs that takes up most of the Latin Quarter of downtown. I got to see some French clowns, too. I don’t speak the language, but there was a woman standing on an oil drum in full makeup, yelling at the audience, while the face of a crying clown was projected behind her. Apparently French Canadians take absurdist comedy very seriously, which I guess is why no one laughed during the performance. I also found out that there are no less than two clown colleges in Montreal.
There were a huge amount of people at the street festival, several thousand had gathered for the festivities in the Latin Quarter, but it was ok, I didn't feel like my life was in danger or I was going to pass out. So it wasn't like when Live 8 came to Philadelphia. My friends and I went down to the street festival just about every night of our vacation and saw something new every time. There were giant mechanical insect puppets, break-dancers, fire-eaters, and various costumed actors in hospital gowns pretending to be drunk.
On the whole, the experience was a positive one. There were at least five other festivals going on at the same time as Just for Laughs -- Reggae, Jazz, and a number of French drama performances. I can’t say that I was really digging the Reggae, but at the very least it was in a lovely spot on the waterfront, and Montreal does have some pleasantly mild summer days.
One last thing that was funny, but not actually related to the comedy festival. One night I bought a pack of Canadian cigarettes - Viceroy's - and instead of the typical "cigarettes kill " warning there were statistics of all the deaths in Canada in 1996. I’m not sure why they chose 1996, but basically they were saying tobacco kills the equivalent of a small Canadian town every year. Sure, ok, fine. It's bad for you. But the weird part was that they had statistics on murders and suicides, too. And about 500 people were murdered in the entire country of Canada that year.
Alas, our holiday had come to an end and we crossed the border to head home, back to Philadelphia, the city that has more murders than the entire country we had just visited.