Tuesday, October 1, 2013

JFL42 Comedy Festival 2013

Last year's JFL42 festival of comedy started off on a wrong note with a horrendous delay in getting the festival passes after ordering.  Coupled with the confusion about how the festival works and not having a usable smart phone to effectively check in and reserve shows, there was a lot it had to overcome to make it worthwhile.  What it has was some damn incredible comedeians and the more shows you take in the more value you get out of the festival pass.

It was an easy decision to do it again this year, particularly when discovering the early announced line-up included four of my favourite acts (Mulaney, Kinane, Maron and Burress) with two of the headliners (Silverman and Ansari) vying for my headliner selection.  The ticket ordering process this year went incredibly smoothly, with my festival pass arriving within hours and buying a pass for my wife at the same time required only a couple clicks on a simple "Transfer My Pass" process.  Months before the festival, it had already started things off right.

What wasn't so great this year, however, was the scheduling, partly my fault but also a problem with the organization of the acts.  There was a bit of bunching of the bigger names towards the end of the festival, overlapping at the same time, which was problematic and caused me to miss out on two favourites, Hannibal Buress and Maria Bamford (there were midnight show options for each on Thursday and Friday nights, but not much of an option with work and kids.  As well, there didn't seem to be as many name acts this year as there were last year, and it was very close to the starting date when the last half of the 42 were revealed.  There were a lot more hosted events, which I guess is fine, but I didn't think to investigate them until deep into the festival.

So committed to the festival this year were we that I called in my mother to fly in to watch after the kids.  We only had four nights booked when we asked initially but we took advantage of the in-house babysitting and jumped on a couple of extra shows.  I matched my show attendance from last year (8 shows) but packed even more extracurriculars with my wife into the week.  Where she only saw three shows plus the headliner last year (Louis CK), she caught all the shows with me this year and it made for a far better festival experience.

Here's a few brief recaps of the shows:

Mark Little and Kyle Dooley (opener Todd Graham) - September 20, @The Comedy Bar, 7PM
I didn't know what to expect.  I love Picnicface, the sketch ensemble of which both are members, and Little is a great stand-up in his own right (saw him last year), so I had hopes they could deliver something entertaining.  And it was something, all right.

Todd Graham was an inspired choice for opening act.  He has a quiet, reserved delivery, with dry punchlines and methodical pacing led to a slow laugh build-up (often to the point of uncomfortably awkward), but ultimately quite funny.  Little and Dooley follow Graham on stage with a stark counterpoint, kicking over the mics, crunking to some hardcore hip-hop and screaming like they're wrestlers from the 1980's WWF.  The aggressiveness was disarming, like shocking your skin by jumping in the snow out of a sauna, bracing but it wakes you up.  They don't let up from there.

Little and Dooley construct a loose, free-flowing narrative about attending their high-school prom that takes dozens of diversions that seem improvised (and to a degree are) but are still an important part of the overall structure.  There's a third member to their team in the booth playing music queues and interfering with the proceedings causing Little and Dooley much hilarious consternation (as the unseen third man, he's brilliant and every gaffe or interruption led to comedy gold).

Little and Dooley's irreverent production was jam packed with so many clever elements and funny bits that my mind overloaded.  A section of the show found Little becoming so irate with the errors from the sound tech that he starts ranting, his rants at first repeated by Dooley, then Little starts speaking for Dooley (which Dooley also repeats) before stepping out into the crowd, doffing his shirt, taking glasses from various audience members and piling them all on one audience member as a "glasses totem".  It's hard to effectively describe, but certainly a memorable live experience.

The overall show was so amazing that my wife and I had every intention of returning for an additional viewing but scheduling conflicts interfered with that plan.  Definitely the right way to start off our festival, an easy highlight.  My biggest hope is that one of the performances was captured on video as there's so much in there I would like to witness again.  I wonder if much of it was the live setting (I'm quite sure of it) but I also believe that it would translate well to home viewing.

Jerrod Carmichael (opener Mark Forward) - September 20, @The Comedy Bar, 9PM
 I've heard him as a guest on Comedy Bang Bang a couple of times and heard a few short sets he's done.  Carmichael is a new-ish comic that's garnering a lot of attention, and the kid has some definite comedy chops as well as charm to spare. . What he doesn't have is a solid 45 minute set, and thus it felt more like a workshopping appearance and less a refined headliner.  His attempts to engage the crowd weren't received well.  He basically just asked two or three times if anyone wanted him to riff on anything, and the only reply he got was "Rob Ford" (eliciting major groans from the crowd), but once he learned he was the crack-smoking mayor, his eyes sparkled and he went off.  Carmichael can riff, I'll grant him that, but while full of promice, overall the set was a scattershot work in progress.

Opener Mark Forward was great.  Forwards a Canadian pro, with a solid roster of odd material (including an opening conceptual piece about monitoring his phone for news about his grandmother which had a great payoff).  I got the sense he could easily have pulled a headliner set.

Sam Simmons - September 23, @The Drake, 7PM
"In Australia, all comedy is like this".
What a delightfully odd place that must be.
Simmons I caught on a Jon Dore hosted Just For Laughs alternative program earlier this year.  I didn't catch his name at first but upon seeing a clip while looking for shows at the JFL42 site, I immediately recalled how much I enjoyed him.  His hybrid stand-up/prop comedy/performance piece ebbs and flows between self-effacing, self-aggrandizing, hyper-sexual, off-beat, way-off-beat, outright bizzare, conceptual, clever word play, silly word play, groan-inducing wordplay, audience interaction, odd-ience interaction, audience berating, conversations with himself (pre-recorded), and things with food.  Lots and lots of food.  It's a little more than an hour of weirdness pummeling the audience, with an 80-to-20 hit to miss ratio, and a lot of those misses Simmons can turn into hits with his self-effacing or audience-berating tactic ("Fuck you guys, that was brilliant").  Simmons has no shame, even when he's pretending to be ashamed.  There's running bits throughout the show, with the Old El Paso Taco Kit playing a major part right up until the epic taco-crushing finale.  A decidedly entertaining and unique experience.

Marc Maron (opener Andy Kindler) - September 24, @Queen Elizabeth Theatre, 7PM
I've been listening to Maron once or twice a week, almost every week for four years.  His podcast, WTF, has reached over 400 episodes now, and each episode he engages in a one-sided conversation about his life and what's going on.  Maron's not just a comedian to me, he's a friend, a dear friend, someone whom I care about, yet I've never met.  I had only heard him perform shorter sets, seeing them on youtube or Comedy Central programs, but it was only early in the year when I received all four of his stand up records that I ever heard him as a full act.  But listening to him over those four albums is to hear him evolve as a person, not just as a comedian, and a lot of the stories and jokes were familiar to me in one form or another as he reshapes them on the podcast in rants or conversations (often he retells them in a "I have a joke about that with X as the punch line" way).  It's great stuff, but at the same time, knowing Maron so intimately -- as all his regular What The Fuckers, What The Fuck Buddies, What The Fuckanadians etc do -- is to worry about him and hope his show goes well (he had just had a bomb set a week or two before his JFL42 appearance so that was fresh in my mind).

But Jesus, what I forgot is that Maron is a fucking professional comedian, a 30 veteran of the industry, and seeing him on stage is to see a master at work.  He is incredible.  Within seconds of him arriving on stage you could tell he was loose, poking fun at his opener and friend Andy Kindler (more on him at the end), and he was ready to get into it (he followed that up with a brutally funny physical impersonation of his friend and fellow comedian David Cross).  Maron is a professional talker.  He has bits and his bits are incredible.  He's managed to hone his bits into a form where they don't sound like bits, they sound like conversation, and so when he's not in his bits you can't really tell he's riffing.

This was the first time I've seen Maron perform an hour that's wholly fresh to me.  I was thinking that because of his podcast that I would have known all the jokes or knew where he was going but I was absolutely swept up by seeing someone so capable of working a crowd and engaging them both as friends and potential enemies.  I love Maron, so there's total bias in this write up, but he absolutely killed and I was just floating by the end of the show.  It was like I finally got to put a face and physicality to that disembodied voice that rings around my earholes so often (Maron's also taller and more handsome than I had pictured).

Now Andy Kindler, on the other hand... well, I was immediately soured when he was announced and took the stage as opener.  I don't like Kindler for all the reason's he seems so completely aware about why people don't like him.  He's opinionated but in a manner that makes him seem bitter and envious.  His act is free of jokes, save for some Vaudevillian one-liners he likes to toss around knowingly, otherwise he's just got this shtick of being a jaded bottom-rung Hollywood type and completely self-denegrating.  He gets his laughs from his sad-sack self-awareness (he acknowledged the warm crowd at length and discussed how this was his best show ever, despite the fact that it was only a lukewarm crowd), but it wears thin very quickly.  His anger and vitriol towards specific individuals or organizations or movies or programs in Hollywood seem to have no other viewpoint than "I don't like it because it's successful", leading to no jokes, just hate.  The best thing to come out of Kindler's set was the end...no not that tired joke, but Maron's poking fun at him.  For all the jokes Kindler makes at his own expense, within a minute of being on stage Maron topped those two or three times over.

John Mulaney (opener Sean Patton) - September 25, @Queen Elizabeth Theatre, 7PM
If there was one act I could not miss this year, John Mulaney would be it.  His "The Best Meal I Ever Had" is my all-time favourite stand-up routine for a few years running.  His two albums, The Top Part and New In Town are comedy classics, the product of an affirmed comedic voice, one that seems to be getting better with age.  Mulaney's an expert storyteller, a gifted wordsmith, and he has mind-mouth coordination like few others.  His bits waver from funny to stitch-ripping hilariousness.  He entered the stage expressing that the evening would include a lot of new material, but if that was actually true, none of it was evident (except at one point where he declared "That's staying in the act!").  It seemed as polished a routine as either album, and whether it's just the confidence he has on stage or just general quick wit, there was nary a lull in his hour-long set.

Mulaney closed the show with a sister piece to "The Best Meal I Ever Had", which was a story called "The Best Night I Ever Had", about the time he was 8-years-old and met Bill Clinton.  The story takes a few necessary diversions (as most of his stories do) but it all builds an incredible picture that puts you right into the scene with young John as your avatar.  There's a moment in the story where Mulaney notes that the fundraiser where he would meet Clinton was held at the same ballroom that you see at the end of the Fugitive.  He drops a few notes of description, pauses for a moment to gauge the audience, then proceeds with the story, only to backtrack and detail more descriptors, not of the ballroom, but of the scene from the Fugitive.  He then pauses, assess the audience, then proceeds with the story once more, only to stop, backtrack and go off on a very intricate, 2-minute, obsessively detailed description of the climax of the Fugitive.  It's an applause worthy feat that sets a peak for the Clinton story that doesn't let down.

I was unfamiliar with his opener Sean Patton, but his set was entertaining, and I like his style, which was enough for us to fill in our Thursday night 9:00 gap with his headline performance.  More on him shortly.

Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet - September 26, @The Dakota Tavern, 7PM
Okay, I know it's not a JFL42 show, but it could have been.  Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet were the house band for the Kids in the Hall, which makes them a part of comedy history and certainly helped in endearing them to me as one of my favourite bands of all time.  The Shadowy Men, a not-quite-surf-a-billy threesome disbanded in the early 90's and after the death of bassist Reid Diamond were destined to be a band for the history books.  With their first album Savvy Show Stoppers reissued on vinyl last year, Shadowy Men reformed with Sadies frontman Dallas Good (if you're going to replace someone named Reid Diamond, only someone named Dallas Good can fit the bill), who played with Diamond and drummer Don Pyle in their post-Shadowy effort Phono-Comb.  The reforming was a three show event which led to a few more smaller shows last year, and a surprise residency during September this year at the Dakota Tavern.

This was my third Shadowy Men show in two years and where the first time was a quasi-religious experience (so many emotions from my youth came flooding back, as well having one of my best friends from high-school and adulthood there with me who lives on another coast, experiencing this live performance we never thought would happen... it was miraculous), this third time matched the second in a smaller, far more intimate venue with a hundred other devotees of old, and a few new.
The Shadowy Men rip through their repertoire at breakneck speed, one song leading into another, into another, into another...six or seven in a row without a pause.  I love the music and know the songs intimately, (though, through the years the names of the tracks have begun to escape me).  It's like a warm audio hug, just utter pleasure listening to Brian's guitar sing and watching his hands move, seeing Don's sweat over his drums and dropping a few pithy comments at rare intervals when he speaks.  I noticed I haven't paid much attention to Dallas Good in the past (since Pyle is the voice of the band, and Connelly is the spotlight, the bassist is easy to overlook), but I made a point to focus on what's going on with the bass this time.  Knowing that Good is playing Diamond's original bass I have to wonder just how much that particular instrument is integral to the band's sound.  The bass is so prevalent in the songs but also so overshadowed by Connelly's amazing hands that one so often wants to attribute signature moments in the songs to Connelly's guitar.

They played two sets, Connelly blowing out his amp at the end of the first set, causing a delay for the second, and thus causing us to miss out on its latter half as we had another place to be.  Still, absolutely amazing, every time.  I've had Shadowy Men songs running through my brain ever since.  I love it and will never tire of it.

Sean Patton (opener ?) - September 26, @The Comedy Bar, 9PM

This was a blessing.  Patton's opening set for John Mulaney was good, but it didn't imply how great Patton was a headliner.  The undersized crowd at the comedy bar spoke volumes as to how criminally below the radar Patton is flying, but judging by his uproarious, often shocking, often dark, often jubilant set, he's slated to appear all over that radar very soon.  Patton kicked off his act by sermonizing the crowd, then launching into his deep impression of Christian comedy, which at once is painfully unfunny, and conceptually hilarious in execution.  Patton then launches forward into a masterclass on storytelling, interspersed with some straight up jokes and aces crowd work.  His storytelling, an exaggeration of his own life, is filled with dark spots but presented with an affirmative nature so that it never drags too deep so as to take it out of comedy (though it threatens a few times in his closing story about his 12-year-old naive indiscretions).  He wavers in and out of hinting at a southern Nawleans drawling accent, and on occasion plays fully into it as a character type.  He knows his material and can command a stage, he's got a refined voice and he's ready for the next level.  His subject matter may not be to everyone's taste, and he likes to fuck with the audience's trust just enough to perhaps be off-putting to some, but overall should definitely break him out.  It was a revelation, one of my new favourite comedians.

His opener (whose name I've forgotten, but probably for the best) was a bit of a mess on the other hand.  Her act was a shambles, with punchlines flying out without jokes and jokes without punchlines.  Often repeated was "I don't know what I'm saying" which may not be a bad catch phrase if she's able to say a lot of hilarious non-sequiturs in a manner that seems like she doesn't know what she's saying.  Unfortunately it came across as her not actually knowing what she's saying, far too often.  It was continually unfocused and unrefined, there was a lot of senseless cursing and at times unbridled anger that seemed to have no direction.  Somewhere in there is a voice that has a unique perspective but judging by this performance it's a ways away from being found.

Kyle Kinane (opener Rob Mailloux) - September 27, @The Mod Club, 7PM

If there was a highlight of the festival, it would be Kyle Kinane.  I've been a fan of Kinane since he appeared on the Nerdist's first Comedians You Should Know showcase (episode 51) and he's only gotten better.  His first album Death of the Party found a not-so-young-but-still-young Kinane presenting his unique dark hilarity in a refined state, but his second album, Whiskey Icarus revealed the genius that was hiding from that first album.  Like Mulaney's set this year, Kinane has a new hour that seems polished and ready to go to press, his voice so strong that he fills every moment with a nugget of brain joy uniquely his own.

Comedy can be about telling jokes, but the best comedians are storytellers, those that can take even the smallest moments, like throwing out a handful of change, and turning them into epic reveals about the human psyche and making them relatable, as well as spinning them so cleverly on their previously unknown axis that they build in how funny they are.  Kinane this hour bares his soul, yet somehow in the most reserved way possible.  He's crying out about how lonely and damaged he is while contrasting it by doubling over his audience in laugher.  Kinane has a gift of riffing, able to talk and hit upon particular words that even if you miss two-thirds of what he's saying it's still going to perpetuate your laughter.  He has a bit about gay porn which is funny, but only crescendos when he starts expounding upon a scenario he's never seen but would like to see.  Though it's unlikely I'm ever to hear "butt-to-butt" out of the context of this joke, if ever I do I'll likely collapse in giggle fits.  His "butt-to-butt" riff sustained for so long that I nearly threw up from laughing so hard.  It's a good thing I didn't eat dinner before I went.

Kinane, even moreso than Mulaney, has one of the most unique voices in comedy, strictly speaking timbre and tone here.  The only other comedian who can make me laugh so hard just by talking is Buress (still sad I missed him).  Kinane's set was a gift, a treasure trove of turns of phrases that are so odd, yet sharp that you want to swirl it in your ear, rattle it around your brain and slide it out on your tongue again and again.  You will want to develop your own Kinane impersonation because half of the hilarity is in the delivery.

Rob Mailloux was the dark and tortured opening act.  Steeped in material from his seemingly very painful personal life, Mailloux talks about being adopted and his own anorexia as well as about horrifying medical maladies.  He's able to inject enough humour to make them palatable but they're still too shocking and too bleak of subject matter (and obviously still all too relevant to Mailloux) to fully transcend in the same way Maron or Bamford deal with their demons on stage.  His act is really good in foundation but it's still too much of a gut punch to be considered enjoyable.

Aziz Ansari (opener Kyle Kinane) - September 27, @The Sony Center, 10PM

In 2005, whilst visiting New York City, I bought 3-disc comedy compilation called Invite Them Up, a weekly premiere alternative stand-up showcase presented by Eugene Mirman and Bobby Tisdale.  It was a concerted effort on my part to discover more comedy, having then-recently found David Cross and Mitch Hedburg and realizing I liked this stuff.  On that compilation the stand-out sets came from two sources, one Demitri Martin, the other Aziz Ansari.

In that set, Ansari talked about a senator who compared gay marriage to bestiality, particularly with box turtles, and postulated that this senator was really into turtles.  He also had a delicious rip on Kanye West whose music he loves, and whose personality he's fascinated with, and speaking Tamin in a brief encounter with M.I.A.  Ansari's dive into both pop-culture and political arenas was just what I was looking for and he became a fast favourite well before his major turn on Parks and Recreation and his subsequently awesome comedy albums.

This time around Ansari is laser focused, a singular topic in mind...that of, err, being single.  His new set is part comedy, part culture study, as he walks through all he's researched and learned and observed on single life, dating rituals as they compare to other countries and other eras.  It's evident that Ansari is growing up, and despite being a successful actor and comedian he's still trying to figure out some aspect of life.  It was surprising to witness a whole act without a single story about Kanye, but also kind of refreshing to watch him interplay with the audience and build upon that freewheeling in his act.  It was a strangely intellectual yet no less enjoyable.

What I learned though was that a multi-thousand seat theatre, like the Sony Center, isn't the best way to view comedy.  Particularly after coming off of seeing Kinane in a few hundred seat room, it was interesting to see him repeat much of the same material in a much bigger room, on a much grander scale.  The comedy doesn't play as well, though still amazing, and I've figured out that, at least for me, it's the space.  The laughter doesn't fill the space of a big theatre like it does in a smaller setting, the laughter needn't drown out the comedian, but they should have to fight to keep pulling you back in.  For stand-up, the Queen Elizabeth Theatre is probably the largest venue that can house it without destroying the sense of intimacy.  Ansari has gotten used to working crowds the size of the Sony Center and has built an act that's meant for such a space.  At the same time, it doesn't have nearly the same impact as Kinane's Mod Club set or Mulaney or Maron's Queen Elizabeth Theatre set.

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For JFL42 next year, some recommendations:
- Doug Benson for the whole week, doing stand-up, doing Doug Loves Movies, and doing Benson Movie Interruptions.  I would go to every single one.
- Deborah DiGiovanni I haven't seen do stand-up in some time, and I miss her.
- Kristen Schall and Kurt Braunohler
- Ron Funches
- Jonah Ray
- Kumail Nanjiani
- Headliner suggestions: Flight of the Conchords, Tenacious D, David Cross, Mindy Kaling, Joan Rivers (seriously)

...I've got more (I'll add them for posterity later).