16 Talking Points From Montreal’s Just For Laughs Fest, 2009

As I sit here, living off of the boissons gratis of the 24-hour Subway restaurant and paying for temporary WiFi access in Montreal's Trudeau airport terminal, I realize that my initial plan to bring you a full slate of reviews from Montreal's Just For Laughs festival today might not come to fruition. Something about spending most of the afternoon trying to get a flight to New York City, then boarding a flight that takes off, and almost makes it there only to circle back and land in Canada, forcing you and your fellow passengers to pass through Customs even though you just left (the Customs agent had a quizzical view of the situation, as well), then spending the rest of the evening and into the morning hoping that the skies have cleared and airports reopened — it all leaves me tres fatigue, as the French write. At least for a few hours, though, I was sitting in a chair in the sky!

With that nod to Louis CK, who put on two of the best shows (and hottest tickets) during the fest, I do want to share some initial thoughts about Montreal's annual celebration of comedy, and how it fared this summer. More in-depth reviews of the shows I saw will get published once I'm back home in New York City, to be sure. But first, a few thoughts, opinions and ideas to get you thinking about — and hopefully talking about — comedy.

1. Is Louis CK crazy for already having about 45 minutes of brand-new material that's thoroughly funny when he only just recorded a new hour-plus set for a CD and movie, Hilarious, earlier this year? Or is he just crazy good at figuring out how to turn the commentary on his own life into a stand-up comedy routine that is both relatable and, well, hilarious? It's as if the guy has cracked the code.

2. Louis CK performed an "encore" routine in two shows in Montreal that, in itself, is a bit that's barely a year old. Compare that to Bill Cosby, who as an "encore" to his bravura display of sit-down storytelling that goes for more than two hours (and in two different such sets in one night!), goes all the way back more than a quarter-century to show he can still leave an audience howling with his interpretation of visiting the dentist. Go on, try to compare it. It's not apples and oranges, more like delicious apples and delicious apples. Or, maybe, the freshest grapes and fine wine? Or something something awesome stand-up and awesome stand-up?

3. People never might have figured out exactly what Zoofest was, or why some shows were billed as Zoofest rather than Just For Laughs, but I can tell you one thing that Zoofest meant — you never heard the Just For Laughs theme song at a Zoofest show.

4. If you want to know what I thought of the "New Faces," well, let me say this. I already knew and loved a few of them, who weren't new to me. And I think the moniker itself is a bit of misnomer, much in the same way that the Grammys often nominate and honor a Best New Artist who has released previous albums. If you think about New Faces as being the annual Debutante Ball for Stand-Up Comedy, then it makes more sense — these are the new batch of stand-ups who have matured to the point where they are ready to be presented to the show business industry. 

5. On that note, it seems as though the more relevant and exciting show for fans and industry alike was the Alternative showcase. Festival staff quickly and correctly point out that it's stacked with some veteran talents — I saw Jim Gaffigan and Marc Maron in one night's showcase. But it also was a great way for the industry to see the eccentric capabilities of could-be, should-be stars such as Will Franken and Josh Fadem. They might not have gotten the same buzzy bounce from New Faces, even though both shows performed on the same stage. 

6. Which, also, well, New Faces suffered a bit being in the Cabaret Juste Pour Rire, don't you think? It may have been easier to get to for everyone than Kola Note, and smaller was more intimate. It also lacked the raucous energy of a big, packed comedy club that forces performers to bring their A-games. What do you think is the best venue for New Faces, both in terms of bringing out the best in them, and in terms of giving viewers the best forum to judge their potential?

7. I mentioned already that Andy Kindler didn't seem quite as enthused this year about taking on the State of the Industry. I wished I had asked him about that to see if my perception matched his reality, or if I was merely reading too much into nothing. I did ask Marc Maron afterward, however, if he'd ever want to do a full State of the Industry takedown (Maron introduced Kindler this year), and though Maron would certainly do a great job of it, he said he couldn't imagine doing it himself. How would you like to see the State of the Industry done next year?

8. Two of the four sketch groups in the sketch showcase had essential bits about Waldo? Neither group really wanted to give in, either. How was that allowed to happen? And why Waldo now in 2009?

9. Reggie Watts is so amazing and gifted as a musician and comedian, that having him host the AMP'd musical comedy showcase was great. But. It also made it that much harder for everyone else in the showcase, particularly the artists in the second half of the lineup, who had to follow Watts. Couldn't we just get a one-man show for Watts?

10. Having the UCB's comedy players in Montreal added a lively spark to the proceedings. Heck, just having Andrew Daly in Montreal added a great jolt to every single thing he was a part of this weekend. Among them, his line-readings as Spencer Pratt in a re-enactment of "The Hills," his performance as everyman stand-up Jerry O'Hearn in the Alternative show, and his gut-busting contributions to the UCB panel discussion. If he is not in the next season of HBO's Eastbound and Down, then Daly needs to be in someone's sitcom so we can watch more of him in 2009 and beyond. Who's with me?

11. Oh, right, there was a Comedy Conference. Did I attend the wrong sessions, or is it just a matter of needing the right moderators at some of these panels to help bring out the vital matters that the comedy community (from industry execs to aspiring performers) need to know and discuss?

12. Was there a bigger contrast between two stand-ups in one show than the Britcom Gala, which leapt from Ross Noble riffing and jumping about for 10 minutes of ad-libbed lunacy, followed by the stationary, straightforward-yet-absurdly-dark one-liners of Jimmy Carr?

13. I can see why the "New Faces" are kept secret from the media and industry until they arrive in Montreal, because the festival wants to ensure that we all "discover" these up-and-comers at the fest and not just rush out to see them in New York, Los Angeles or wherever they live. But why are the stand-ups chosen to be "Masters" also kept secret?

14. The big festival party this year was called "The Russell Peters Afterparty," as the DJ said time and time (and time) again on Friday night. If you're going to do that and want me to like Russell Peters (who played to an arena this year), then you're going to have to play more than 30 seconds of every single song, and also not shut it down so early. Thank goodness we had the French afterafterparty. Did you make it over there? Some people did and got scared off (I won't name names!), but it was a good (if necessarily Francophone) time. The exact opposite of the old "Goldberg Mansion" afterhours in Aspen?

15. I didn't see Doug Stanhope's second annual "Just For Spite" shows he ran in the city amid the festival this year, though just as in 2008, I did see Stanhope make a final-night appearance in the Hyatt lobby. And this time, he greeted me with a kiss on the lips. Does that mean I win a prize?

16. Open Forum time! What else would you like me to talk about and/or reveal from my 2009 Montreal Just For Laughs experience? Please email me or comment right here about specific shows and performers, and I'll do my best to follow up later today or Tuesday with my thoughts!

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

View all posts by Sean L. McCarthy →

8 thoughts on “16 Talking Points From Montreal’s Just For Laughs Fest, 2009

  1. Did you get the sense that any industry types actually came away from the festival with a “discovery”? Someone they weren’t previously aware of who might have gotten something from appearing there?

  2. enough about louis ck. dude is already famous, and anyone who’s reading your blog knows all about him. there’s nothing new to share on that front.
    who got something out of the fest? it’s nice that you want us to think about new faces as a debutante ball, but whose dance card was full? you haven’t told us anything interesting. you seem to think it’s unfair to judge comics in that venue, but they’ve offered themselves up for it. that’s what new faces is for. why did you go if you aren’t going to say anything substantive?

  3. let down,
    I’ll pass along your note to Louis CK that he is “already famous” and that “there’s nothing new to share” about a guy who has developed another funny headlining set before you’ve even been able to buy his “new” hour-plus CD/DVD! He might as well not even have shown up to Montreal, eh?
    Anyhow. Perhaps you skipped right past the first paragraph, where I point out my long day and night of travel snafus, or, ahem, the fact that I had been up all night and posted something at 4:40 a.m., and wanted to make sure I at least put down some initial thoughts to think about and talk about.
    This was just a tease, silly.
    I’ll try to come up with something interesting or substantive for you soon enough! Although if you read this post closely, then you would have noticed that I did have some strong opinions snuck in there.

  4. What sessions did you attend at the Conference that had you feeling let down?

  5. In defense of the difficulty of assessing the New Faces… I found it hard too, because exactly WHAT are we measuring? Are we trying to figure out who is going to get Letterman first? Is this a very long-term guessing game where we predict who will be the next big thing?
    I don’t think future success can be figured out by watching a 7 minute set, and those shopping for talent know that too. We can sort of gauge voice, originality, writing skills… but proclaiming “whose dance card was full” isn’t as easy at it was a decade ago when you either left Montreal with a development deal or you didn’t.

  6. New Faces suffered from being in zoofest. My (strong) instinct is that this program did nothing but dilute energy and confuse audiences. Had it been at Kola Note, it would have been 50% less packed/raucous. The people just weren’t there.

  7. I’m so glad we made it to NYC and am impressed at how many thoughts you were able to put down after the day & night you had.
    #6 – I liked the vibe of the venue & know lots of performers who dug it, but I kept thinking it wasn’t quite right for New Faces. You articulated what I wasn’t able to put my finger on…I needed to see them in a club setting. But that’s me and what I need to see. Not sure that’s true for the other types of industry folks not affiliated with clubs.
    Back to the venue…I saw more than New Faces there and upstairs has some really poor sight lines on the sides. Also, when comics were given the red light, it reflected off every surface. Rather awkward when comics went over. Eek.
    #11 – Moderators make all the difference. I’ve seen TONS of talk backs at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria with the most amazing actors, writers, & directors and the same dude moderates and makes it awkward every single time. I can set an egg timer to it and the most delicious moments are when the interviewee can’t help but point out how awful the moderator is. It feels better than going down the first hill on a roller coaster.
    #13 – Good question. I have no idea other than it’s not really a secret but that the festival is really slow on updating its site. I really think that might be all there is to it.
    I, like you, am on fumes having just made it home. I went straight to Comix from the airport wearing the same clothes you last saw me in the day before. Ick.
    Sorry if I’ve added nothing substantive. Looking forward to your more fleshed out, rested thoughts.

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