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Structured Perceptions & Edgy Punchlines: The 2010 Montreal Just For Laughs Comedy Festival – Feature

The Just For Laughs Comedy Festival, held in Montreal, as an ideology, speaks to the balance between experience, life and its justification in the entertainment industry. One of the exceptional intensities of Montreal is its ability to interact and promote the arts within its own community. The progression of many festivals up and down the streets, especially resititute in street fairs and parades, shows an encouragement in the arts that might be missing in the daily life of other countries.

The workshop element of the arts, available locally through the affordable use of rehearsal studios and local productions prevalent throughout the city, shows the ability of artistic enhancement truly within the community. While performance art and stage productions seem to take a bigger take than music, the tendency is served also by the different pockets of artistic brilliance bounded by social interaction whether it be on Ste. Denis, off Bishop Street or on the backwater of Ste. Catherine.

Just For Laughs, simply as a conduit, has been a functional lightning rod for burgeoning and established talent. Funneling the material and bouncing it off other acts in a festival setting, whether it be comedy or otherwise, is necessary at times to figure out what truly works. Whether highlighting returning acts like Lewis Black or Billy Burr or bringing new friends into the fray like Cheech & Chong, the key is voice and perspective.

The performance galas, which use big names to anchor new and established stand-up talent, encourages the use of new ideas which ultimately is what creates and identifies burgeoning pop culture.

The Relationship Gala, the first in these sets of packages, seeks to approach the ideals of the modern texture of companionship but within the changing perception of marriage, the cyclical breakdown of the family unit and the accepting of evolving gender roles. These perceptions offer a mine of prevalent material but also intuit social commentary within the minds of new comedic voices. Some skirt the issue while others bitterly flaunt its faults.

Brad Garrett hosted this showcase but most lucidly used his icy vise on the complacent element of the audience, more than egregiously in the front row. The idea of societal roles, based on a global context in terms of Garrett’s ideas, makes for funny outlays despite the critical edge he perceives.  This became especially noticeable once the structure moved in for audience interaction. The man many know as the lovable goof from “Raymond” showed the delightful venom that he also retracts on himself. The questions from the crowd ranged from a flirtacious gay man to a federal lawyer who happened to be there with his daughter to a newly engaged French teacher there with her Egyptian fiance which caused no lack of reprisal in terms of stereotype restructure Garrett unleashed.

Within this structure of relationships. the more innocent approach with an edge of sneer seemed to provide a basis for rising spirits of goodwill among the continuing and following foray of comedians.

Tim Minchin, with his foppish branding of a persona between Russell Brand and Dominic Monahan on “Lost”, captured the audience despite his offputting spaciness gag (which tends to serve him well on the BBC and within the Buzzcocks brand). The Brit established his litheness in an opening song without hesitation using an undeniable ballad explaining the viable positives in his mind for blow-up sex dolls. While his in-between banter rambled with flimsy but comedic gold, his love song to his wife on what she might do without him worked its intention well on the crowd.

The Doo Wops, engaging music as well as a framing mechanism but falling more within a SoHo version of “Flight Of The Conchords” (despite much less lyrical perceptions on their mind), used almost Simon & Garfunkel stigmata (without the genuine musical genius) to fashion two songs (detailing their ideas about the other guy in the group) which simply worked because the timing was so radically in sync.

Straddling the edge between the first two, the persistent voice continuing on was none other than Tom Papa, who hosts “The Marriage Ref ” on NBC. Jerry Seinfeld called him at last year’s TCA press tour one of the most funny comedians he has ever met with a genuine perception of marriage which allows him to be a very intrinsic judge of character. In a structure of material (which is not viscerally on status within NBC’s normal viewing population), the highlight in this JFL performance was witnessing some of the more uncensored views he had which made a slightly older heavy church going woman behind this writer lose her breath from laughing so hard. Papa’s ideas were fairly plain but undeniably effective in this fashion ranging everything between kids’ small talk in “smelling rainbows” to the “yapping” progression within the marriage life.

Best Of The Fest, which are smaller club based performances, envisions a strong cross-section of rising comics with a dexterity of hit-and-miss progression which at times visualizes their strengths and weaknesses between lack of theme and the balance of blue material. Hidden away here within the small club context of Comedyworks upstairs from an Irish pub off of Rue Bishop (compared to the large hall for The Relationship Gala on Rue St. Denis), certain contents of sets translate well while others suffer from a lack of pace.

The most successful by far because of the grace of his sheer talent despite the bar set in front of him by Jeff Dunham is Paul Zerdin who, like Dunham’s Walter, brought out his own puppet Sam who gave one of the audience members a little bit of a scolding. However after playing down his ventriloquism skills, Zerdin’s parlay of throwing his voice and later placing a volunteer with an actual dummy mask on worked exceptionally well.

Bret Ernst, known for his partake in Vince Vaughn’s Wild West Comedy Tour, highlighted the perceptions of “guidoism” with a bit of naughty structure specifically in terms of technique. Funny but squirming movement persisted amongst the audience yet women especially two in the back near your narrator especially loved it. Bill Burr, despite his own disclaimer, approached sexual idealism from a little more agressive point of view especially in terms of the yelling/argument dynamic between man and woman. However, his persistent parallels between a stand-up air conditioner perched just beyond the stage and his subject matter also gave a perspective of random thinking.

Two others from the “Best Of” line-up allowed for some intrepid thoughts. Glenn Wool, with a bit of the mannerisms of Bobcat Goldthwait combined with the political tactics of a sober Dude, drove the audience with thinking specifically with a slightly stoned-graced proliferation that was both thought out but precariously funny. Bonnie McFarlane, with her subtle “Reality Bites” situated humor (like the earlier Mary-Ellen Hooper) understands that the perception of ladies and mothers in comedy walks a thinner line than men (because of society’s changing perception of gender roles) thus making for a clever intellectualization of progressions.

“An Afternoon With Kevin Smith”, an outlay of the industry-specific conference of the festival, shows the following that this once-independent director has curtailed over the years. From his own words, this is the side of his fame he enjoys the most because, despite his lack of comic approach, his ideas and forthright opinions seem to interrelate just that, which is an odd progression. Like John Leguizamo, who has found a similar ideal but had always created an idea of a one-man show as a structure, Smith simply talks about his life which many people still find infinitely interesting even if he really doesn’t. The ballroom, in which the discussion was held, was packed beyond the gills.

After the Southwest Airlines debacle in which he famously swore off airplanes after getting in a PR war which undecidedly played into the release of his last film “Cop Out” starring Bruce Willis, Smith related another progression which had just happened that morning. He had taken to driving everywhere in a “Rock N’ Roll” bus as he calls it (which is more akin to one of the party shuttle buses). In crossing the border to go to Montreal, he and his crew got stopped and he was placed under arrest in his pajamas. While known as a celebrity pot smoker, he nonetheless said that he wasn’t carrying any since he “loves Canada too much” and didn’t want to get in trouble. The cops eventually let him go but something must have set them off. Smith was also very honest in his perception of being scared though this brush with the law will probably never make it to print in the newspapers because of the play-down factor.

After relating this story as well as the acquisition of the “Prom” Bus idea which was highlighted by his good friend Malcolm whom he produced the doc “Bear Nation” for, Smith continued to take questions from the audience which at best took on great diatribes but, with others, just related simple anecdotes. One of the most telling, which was a true moment of directing that was apparent in his film “Cop Out”, is when Smith (who says working with actor Willis was taxing for him) asked the movie star to play a moment of the movie like David Addison in “Moonlighting”. Smith’s reaction was true in that within the movie Willis drops away and you can see the true actor, not the persona, which is rare. But he was infinitely scared initially to speak of it to someone of Willis’ stature. It is these types of insights that Smith with his ideas straddling both worlds can understand and relate to the common man. Life is funny that way.

The Pamela Anderson Variety Gala, in terms of its host, seems an odd choice but her inherent influence in terms of pop culture in Montreal even reflects today. Her opening lines addressed the criticism her latest PETA ad with her fairly naked received to which she responded that it was “puritanical” coming from a city where the big tourist destination, in her mind, is strip clubs.

The variety essence of this program, which was paradoxical to the set up of The Relationship Gala, was inherently on view in the form of different ideas that, while interesting at times, were blase in others.

Like the night before at Comedyworks, the most effective performer was Paul Zerdin with his ventriloquist scenario. While within a club environment, the response was more intimate, the punch lines here also worked well on a larger scale especially when the puppet Sam reacted to the upstairs integration of the audience.

BluPrint, which was proceeded by Pam Anderson doing a tango on-stage, functioned as a dance crew and, while some of the barely legal females in the audience seemed to beat along, its overall reaction was delayed and underwhelming.

Beardyman, by comparison, foresaw the same reaction but despite this, his DJ skills were unmatched. Again, like BluPrint Crew, he was an unlikely performer at this type of festival because the setting did not truly allow his possibility to be put to the test. Upon first glance, he has Michael Winslow’s capability but when he retreats back behind the DJ set, the mixing is undeniably skilled but disconnected. A good example of this is when he took suggestions from the audience and created a mix from just his voice that mixed ideas of country, reggae, rockabilly and country. However, as indicated, the requisite impact was lost within the lack of context.

In structure of a smaller intimate venue at the Ste. Catherine Theater in a more youth-oriented district, Upright Citizens Brigade Montreal balanced a pair of performers which, while having moments of inspiration, tended to overplay the scenario.

Sean & Dominic work as a pair on general issues but work best within the sketches of specific possibilities like the one of  “The Salesman Incarnate” highlighting ideals of perception in a changing marketplace. Another sketch “The Power”, revolving around how to use certain pick up lines in reverse to entice the female of the species, reflects more a sordid cynicism than an actual commentary on male/female relations.

More successful though infinitely less defined despite ideas in terms of his persona, Paul F. Tompkins began by relating his comments with Sean & Dominic on his vision of spiders. While front dwelling audience members started to find this progression of comedy hilarious, the immediate thought was that these were “friends” of the artist since the performance itself fell flat. The most diametrically effective story, despite this, involved an anecdote on a trip to The Magic Castle in Los Angeles and the inherent scam artist mentality inherent in its existence. Tompkins’ persona has potential but the step-by-step dynamics hit the mark very touch-and-go.

The late show by Jamie Kilstein at Ste. Catherine entitled “No War, No God, No Nickelback” filters from the idea of New York oratory functionality. More ensconced at times in beat poetry and the pulpit functionality, Kilstein pulls himself back into reality as his rants reach effective force. While the girls in the front enjoyed the perfunctory intelligence spewing from this mind, it was more a function of technique than specific knowledge. The effective structure that very much highlights the show is Kilstein’s perception of young Christian youth and the perspective they bring into child raising and sex from an altered point of view. While viciously honest at points, Kilstein’s insights don’t provide the balance (if one could call it that) of Glenn Wool at Comedyworks because effectively being the punchline has to be part of the persona.

The Cheech & Chong Gala brought the crowd to its feet with the duo hardly needing to move a muscle to entice the audience. Tommy Chong’s wife Shelby, lithe in her dress, started the festivities with stories about tripping on acid in a supermarket in Vancouver which is how she met Tommy. Cheech followed into the mix soon after but he was on the FBI Wanted List because he was the only Mexican to sneak over the Canadian border into the US. This laid back exchange between the two pros showed a dexterity but not abandon that one would expect. Still, the crowd ate it up. Their endurance continued including the performance of dance interlude between Tommy and Shelby as Cheech sang his Mexican anthem. There was also one dog sketch which perfectly suited the pair but seem mired in ideas of a lost pot idea. However, despite this, in between acts Tommy kept the timely quips coming purely on target especially involving the current Mel Gibson rant.

The comedians who followed had some dexterity but required a little more finite tweaking in terms of adhering to a bigger picture. Jim Jeffries, whose small one-man show had been selling out for nights, came across more rogue than vicious especially dealing with an insert of him in Baghdad that was less flattering than it was funny. However, his blind joke progression about bathroom wiping squarely hit the audience in the jaw.

Noel Fielding, as a comparative, used a Toronto reference that took an instant to get going, focusing on the rivalry between that city and Montreal which festers over the veracity of hockey. For a Brit, this approach signifies a lack of understanding of this country [Canada] while the parallels of soccer within Scottish and English perceptions can maintain pertinence in the UK for years.

Bill Burr, seen earlier at Comedyworks, seemed to take the larger stage in stride, riding on different material unlike some of the other comics who performed the same material over requisite nights. This showed a spontaniety that lifted him above the rest. His rant on the perspective of motherhood as a real job versus fighting a war was ironically funny especially his quip about “watching cartoons and taking naps”.

Lavell Crawford also stood out from the pack. Despite his girth, which was a focus of point in terms of obesity as a theme in many of the festival comics, the man carried his revelry with pride and dressed to kill in a killer yellow suit. His first perception hit on the mark balanced with undeniable facial expressions which bring to mind The Fat Boys’ “Wipeout” in the mid-80s. His play on poutine which is a Montreal speciality which has fries topped with gravy and melted cheese curds got the house rolling. The one running joke he maintained, almost to fault, was about parenting when his mom told him as a young boy not to open the door for anyone, even when his grandmother and father showed up. The quip was innocent but candescently funny because it provided a point of view all members of the audience could identify with making Crawford’s delivery the most successful at this particular gala.

The Late Night Gala Of A Million Opinions, hosted by Lewis Black, didn’t get as political or definitive as the lead comic would have liked but having never seen his plight live on stage, Black’s popularity reflects now in a more understood way. For a man of 62 (as he pointed out), his vigor and anger on certain subjects was palpable. The surprise was in his ability not to blow a gasket. Black’s first ideas centered around the idea of his generation failing miserably in terms of progress and infrastructure but functionally admitted that, if they legalized pot, everyone would forget about it. People in the States back in the day within the enforcement community made the push banning pot, according to Black, that paved the way for heroin. He comments that, in terms of pre-determined addictions, “so do pretzels…especially the honey mustard”.

The biggest surprise in tendency of this specific gala was Derek Edwards, a soft-spoken Canadian who more than brings to mind the Emo Philips of today, if he reverted to a meek older man. Imagine Bill Nighy smaller and acting like a pussycat and you get the gist. Edwards spoke about driving into Montreal (making his ideas in many ways the most localized) calling getting off the freeway “an agenda of friends” into “a wall of stink”. His voice sounded like almost crying which added to the persona especially when he speaks of finding “poutine in a can” which used the reference to infinite use since Lavell Crawford introduced the American perception of an Montreal original dish at the Cheech & Chong Gala. Edwards again understands the perception that, if one doesn’t go full blue, the reverse works successfully in a similar fashion without having to worry about the censors.

Kathleen Madigan, who ensured Lewis Black’s love by moving and talking about issues in the moment offered her vote of “no hope” when approached with Black’s environmental introduction that fixing the economy does not compare to being “up to our dicks in dead polar bears”. Her continuing cynicism of America within her set including the idea that the Chinese will show up at our doors one day saying “you go home” and an anecdote about Greenpeace approaching her and Black on a tour stop in Vancouver (while she was smoking a cigarette and eating a hot dog), shows her skewed but essentially dark view of the world.

After a misstep much like the previous night at Ste. Catherine, Paul F. Tompkins‘ interlude here involving cake versus pie purely missed the mark and was lightly but specifically criticized by emcee Black. Following this train wreck of sorts, Mike Wilmot approached the plate using his intro as a “raging alcohlolic” to good use. The initial idea of his 8-foot wife who beats him up moved into a more understandable progression on campers and Canadians revolving the idea of retreating “into the woods”. He relates that the definition of the phrase means “going to drink” but says he feels bad for “those poor trees”.

Like Edwards from a different side, the best relateable subjects of comedy come in the relativity of simple objects. Wilmot dictates that you know a place by its sandwiches, specifically identifying Schwartz’s locally [which was sampled a few days prior (seen above)] as a identifier of Montreal’s intention in opening its arms. The reference Wilmot gives for Toronto is that they “are too busy for sandwiches” while the Chinese, in a psychological dig, “have no sandwiches” but rather “they have dumplings” which he says are “sneaky” adding that he once found a small bird beak inside one. Wilmot is effective and pinpoint in his actions which makes his slightly paradoxical set both edgy and funny.

Lewis Black, unlike other gala hosts made a distinct point after each set to interact with his peers, making them think on their feet which some like Wilmot, Madigan and Edwards (though he looked a little nervous) could handle. His final point with Dom Irrera, who most dictated in his comedic progression that he liked to drink and that in his older age he liked “goat headed girls” as long as you “clip the tail”, showed a personal interaction at the outset with Black that gave a warm ending to the proceedings.

The late night in the dark recesses of a candlelight club brought Dance Animal. a variety show of sorts that if amped-up might have ideals in the Vegas market, The French language mainstay of show with bits of English definitely gave it a more European flavor. While some idealization seemed amateurish, the vaudeville integration of the performers at times played well. The Spiderman homage resonated a bit weird as did the “Sheep Tease” but it played within the structure finally when the Celine Dion/Olivia Newton John lead dancer, advancing in tandem ahead of the pack, took charge of the vision in the latter part of the show with a new energy. Despite a mediocre and literal visual translation interpretation of Coldplay’s “Vida”, the most effective abstract angle of the performance was an almost Shakespearean effigy of “Roscochi” about the downfall of a suitor at the hands of a King’s gun. While clearly played in jest, the darkness of piece reigned which gave it an edge missing clearly from the rest of the show. The burnt red conclusion of vision on “Jai-Ho” from “Slumdog Millionaire” highlighted the use of lighting and form dancing which, in any music medium, gives an altered illusion of life which is what people want to see. The idea of “Dance Animal” also purveys to the open workshop nature of Montreal which becomes more and more clear.

Bringing the texture more urban, “The Best Of Uptown Comics” at Club Soda moved the running style to a more balanced intensity, with parenting and sex befitting the late night crowd.

Nick Cannon, renown for his diversity as well as his recent marriage to pop diva Mariah Carey, wasted no time finessing into ideas of life within the spotlight. The angle truly has not gone to his head interrelating with the audience his understanding the precarious nature (in general) of his said situation. The timeliness of a Kanye West joke about him “not being invited” to his wedding was prepped as a punch line to a Jay-Z/Beyonce reference which hit extremely close to the mark. Again mirroring this edgy structure, Cannon allows the idea of kids with Carey making reference that he now has a niece named “Juicy” and talks about Brad Pitt having a “darky wizard beard”.

Deon Cole next ruled the roost as his position as writer for Conan O’Brien suggests. His idealism worked the edge between blue and practical. His rendition of Barack Obama introducing the new jams on a radio station worked inspired while holding a paper in his hand, he seemed (or was just playing that way), to introduce new material giving the seque “Let’s hear it for the ladies!” if it didn’t work to the great chagrin of the crowd. His reference to a black Starbucks (“make mine a Precious”) and his ode to natural breasts (“propeller titties”) hit directly on the mark with the widely receptive audience.

Mrs. Pat in progression next offered an antecedent showing the element of heavier women but ingratiating it with not taking any lip. Her perceptions including the admission that her panties sometimes are “folded like the flag” and that it pisses her off being called “Captain of the Fat Chicks”, showed her distinct element of timing.

The All Star Gala closed the proceedings with an array of different perceptions not necessarily connected in a certain order despite a lateness of register.

Harland Williams, known in the past for some of his Disney movie interludes including one where he farts in a space suit, sported the trucker mustache motif while still keeping his act one of a blend between physical and mental prowess. His comedy, still decidely American-based, used “Barack” as a comparison to a velociraptor mating call prancing around the stage in mock-attack form. While his “Goonies” film reference seemed to make an impact (surprisingly!) it was a sex shower dance (in ode to Montreal’s small showers) that ran the gamut making funny while the blue peeked through the cracks.

John Pinette offered the other bright All-Star light pummeling the audience intense like Lewis Black’s distant nephew who forgot his politics and just loves thinking about food. Pinette has been on the circuit for a while (like most) but understands interweaving stories for his audience so the punchline can be saved for 20 minutes down the line testing the listening curve. From his ideas of salad (“Arugula…what is that shit?”) to additives (“Bullets are gluten free”), he understands the thin line between love and hate. However it was the Montreal tinge encumbent in his “Beaver Tails” story that rocked the crowd using the idea of  skating to the middle of an ice lake to get a fried dough concoction but smashing into the Ottawa family’s stand when he is unable to stop. His later reference about a trip to Jamaica as he is being pulled on a banana boat (a raft pulled by a motorboat) reaches its pinnacle as in a sharp turn he is thrown off and lands on the same Ottawa family on another raft. Pinette is definitely not subtle but his comedy is impactful.

Just For Laughs, both as a festival and a comedic mecca, uses its ideology of mixing up the brands to create a community of peers that understands that only experience begets new material. While agents and managers swirl the Montreal Hyatt Regency where many of the industry scans for the next big thing, the key is getting the minds together to find the new breakout or simply encourage the exchange of ideas…which is ultimately the key to any great art.

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