Published on September 22nd, 2014 | by Sharilyn Johnson0
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Passes, credits, and the 29 Dufferin bus to the Queen Elizabeth Theatre: it can only mean that JFL42 is back in Toronto. It’s like TIFF for comedy nerds, except instead of a red carpet, the performers will just be hanging out at the bar afterwards.
The festival kicked off last Thursday with a slate of 7pm shows at multiple venues. And if everything got off to a perfect start right out of the gate, it wouldn’t be as fun, would it? Cameron Esposito walked onto stage at the new Bad Dog Theatre with no introduction, and also discovered that her stool was inexplicably placed in the front row of the audience. She sunk her teeth into the flawed start, excitedly taking the mic backstage with her to do an over-the-top introduction herself before proceeding to charm the pants off the crowd. From being what sounds like the most awkward kid ever, to having a South African beach romp with a celebrity crush, Esposito has no shortage of entertaining tales to tell. Unexpected highlight: a seemingly improvised bit about a Dairy Farmers of Canada commercial.
Saturday night’s Nikki Glaser show at the Mod Club (above) was a standing room only affair, and it was warranted. The show also resulted in the most explicit set of notes I’ve ever taken as a comedy reviewer (seriously, all I can make out on one page is “sucked a dick,” and “side sex”). She mixed up the sexually-charged material with tamer (but equally sharp) commentary on street harassment, and her own embarrassment over never being up to date on world events. But Glaser’s strong suit is that she shies away from nothing, and that includes talking about anal sex at a 7pm show. “This is the earliest I’ve ever done that joke,” she said. “It’s light outside.”
Forget all about Ron Swanson. Parks & Recreation’s Nick Offerman, as himself, is perfectly funny and charming (particularly when he lets out a cartoonish giggle when he amuses himself). But I was left feeling like we didn’t see enough of him at the Sony Centre on Saturday night.
The good parts: anytime he was talking about his own life. He loves the outdoors, eschews technology, is the only member of his family who isn’t a “generous, heroic public servant,” and of course is deeply dedicated to woodworking. His excitement about his journey to the Lee Valley store on King St. earlier in the day was utterly endearing (the idea of him jerking off to their catalogue is just plain hilarious), and he may be the only man who can so effortlessly compare his wife’s face wash regimen to a BBQ sauce recipe.
But overall the show lacked momentum, stifled by an overload of comedic songs he performed throughout. I loved his sampling of Johnny Cash songs turned into woodworking-themed tunes (Ring of Fire = Compound Miter), but others were just clever rather than outright funny. We didn’t need to hear several of them — and certainly not with the clunky pauses as he transitioned in and out of musician mode.
He doesn’t have a standup background, but he does have a point of view that’s strong and unique enough that he could do an hour-plus of just jokes and stories if he wanted. Approaching his stage show as a full piece (rather than a disjointed series of bits) might do him more justice. More of his own stories and perspectives, with less musical filler (even three songs would be a good balance), and this would have been a killer show.
Mike Birbiglia‘s show at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre Sunday night was part of his Thank God For Jokes tour (though like Offerman’s “Full Bush,” these titles have been stripped from the JFL42 billings). Unlike his previous one-man shows, Casino offers bonusesSleepwalk with Me
and My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, in which he wove a single story throughout, Thank God For Jokes has more of a traditional stand-up format.
It does still have a theme: the linked his stories together with brief perspectives on jokes, and the role they’ve played life (which, as you can imagine for a comedian, is big). He told us how he hates the idea that he might offend someone with his comedy, parlayed that into a tale about an airplane seat mate’s nut allergy, and then into a story about a young audience member’s reaction to the story he’d just told. He talked about desperately wanting to be a comedian but not having his mom’s support early on, which led to his account of being pulled over (and arrested) on the way home from an early gig.
And of course, he told how jokes got him into trouble on stage: a material miscalculation at a Christian event, his awkward start to a high-profile spot on the Muppets gala at Just For Laughs Montreal a few years back, and how he derailed an awards show with one daring act.
I think it’s easy to underestimate how delicate it is for a comic to overtly address their relationship with the audience, without taking the audience out of the moment completely. I don’t mean doing crowd work, I mean simply acknowledging what each party is there for. No matter how savvy we are as audience members, enjoying comedy requires us (at least to a degree) to buy into the premise that this person is just hanging out chatting with us. By talking about his job – and audience reactions to it – so plainly, Birbiglia stripped that down and engaged us in a subtly meta journey that only strengthened his connection with us.
Perhaps the most clever example of this was his explanation of how having a shared joke can make people feel closer to each other. He launched into a hilariously vivid tale about his wife and a mouse infestation, letting us think it would be the origin story of a marital in-joke. But he bookended the story with two similar (and really lame) puns. Upon getting a laugh with the second, he pointed out how we all collectively agreed that it was dumb the first time, but funny the second time. That was the entire point of the story: not to tell us, but to show us. He made us feel closer with a shared joke.
“It’s like we’re married,” he told us.
Rest assured, this aspect of the show wasn’t as heady or lovey-dovey as my fixation on it suggests. He executed this all with a light touch, and the comedy came first.
Birbiglia remains one of my favourite comedians to watch live, and not just for his material. His self-effacing honesty has a special level of comfort to it. He’s not out to test us, there will be no dark surprises around the corner, and he has no agenda other than to reveal himself as an imperfect, well-intentioned, and very funny person. Thank God for that.
General takeaways from the first weekend: none of us want to go to the Queen Elizabeth Theatre (please, JFL, any other venue), we’ve all surrendered to barcode weirdness and check-in errors as a fact of life and have stopped freaking out about it so much, and the club shows are a perfectly tight length (we get released into the wild within 90 minutes of the advertised start time).