Reflecting on this yearÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s edition of the worldÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s biggest comedy festival
By the time my parents caught Bill Cosby: Himself on HBO and committed one of its showings to videotape, I was nine years old. I had never before seen a television program where one man stands Ã¢â‚¬â€œ or, in this case, mostly sits Ã¢â‚¬â€œ on stage and talks to a crowd for nearly two hours. Truly, it wasnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t a formula for entertaining kidsÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ programming.
I remember thinking that his suit was ugly, a terrible flat brown thing. I also thought the stage was too dark. Every now and again lights would hit the back wall based on his inflection or to signal transitions or story segues. I definitely couldÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve done with more lights.
He talked a lot about his relationship with his family, about his wife giving birth, about then dealing with his many offspring. I couldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t relate to any of these topics. And maybe I took literally a lot of the exaggerations he used to make the crowd chuckle. In other words, I wasnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t part of the target audience.
Regardless, I watched the video constantly and laughed every time. I had no idea that this was an art form, that it had a name Ã¢â‚¬â€œ stand-up comedy Ã¢â‚¬â€œ or that this wasnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t just a one-time thing. I did know that it was funny.
A few weeks ago in Montreal, as part of the 24th edition of the Just For Laughs international comedy festival, I was in a large theater (Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier) with nearly three thousand people; Cosby was on stage sitting on a chair. He was an hour and forty-five minutes into his performance when he began talking about his experiences with the dentist. He first told me about the dentist 20 years ago. This was a bit I watched countless number of times at home, in my parentÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s living room as a child, as a pre-teen, as a teen; in my dorm room as a college student, as an adult with a real job.
It was a bit that was just as funny and just as relevant as the day I first watched it on video. A chill ran up my spine. As I listened to the familiar story, I realized that my experience with comedy had come full circle.
It became obvious as well, that I had started to form new circles with other comics throughout the years and even throughout the previous few nights as I watched comedians showcasing their wares at much smaller venues at Just For Laughs. ThatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s part of the beauty of this festival: The organizers seem to have the wherewithal to book some of the worldÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s funniest up-and-coming comics and keep the legends and future legends coming back. It makes for an amazing comedy experience.
These days, there are a lot of comedy festivals, especially in North America. ThereÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Aspen, Las Vegas, Washington DC, New York City, Boston and more. The thing about Just For Laughs,Jason Alexandar however, is this: It really does take over the entire city. For an entire month (the second half of the fest presents most of the English speaking acts) 700 performers invade the city.
The first shows of the night generally started at 7 p.m.; the last ones started at midnight. So there was a lot of opportunity to see big names and new names. Along with Cosby, Margaret Cho hit the Place des Arts at Theatre Maisonneuve. John Pinette also returned to the fest after selling out 10 shows at 2004Ã¢â‚¬â„¢s Just For Laughs.
The likes of Jason Alexander, John Cleese and Craig Ferguson hosted some of the festÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s six galasÃ¢â‚¬â€ shows that highlighted performances by, among many others, Drew Carey, Jimmy Carr, and Cory Kahaney. As part of the new Flying Solo series, up-and-coming comics like Demetri Martin, Stewart Lee and Tim Minchin were given full-length sets to air out their unique brand of comedy.
By the way, the festivalÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s headquarters is housed at downtownÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Delta Montreal hotel on President Kennedy. If you consider yourself even a moderate comedy fan, someone who could recognize a professional comedian in a lineup, this is where you should be. This place is like staying at a fantasy baseball campÃ¢â‚¬â€ except replace second and third-rate has been athletes with well-known comedians. At all hours of the day you could run into half a dozen comics youÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve seen on Comedy Central or late night television.
TheyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re hanging at the bar, lounging in the lobby, running out to their nightÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s performances, chatting with their managers.
Geographically speaking, itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s a good place as well as you are within walking distance of most of the theaters and clubs. (Keep in mind what Steven Wright once said: Ã¢â‚¬Å“Everything is within walking distance as long as you have the time.Ã¢â‚¬Â) A quick walk from the Delta will bring you to MontrealÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s bustling St Catherine, a turn downhill to the left will bring you closer to the Place de Arts (where some of the bigger shows happen) and to the street festival, where one can experience a barrage of bizarre stimuli.
An enormous stretch of road is completely taken over Ã¢â‚¬â€œ side streets included Ã¢â‚¬â€œ by throngs of onlookers. Families, couples, teens out for a good time, seniors, everyone is represented. Some are dazzled by street performers: One musician plays a violin as a disembodied hand creeps through the surface of a table and dances to the music. Anthropomorphic lobsters on stilts roam the streets hugging bystanders. A contortionist contorts on a stage. A live funk band plays on the street. A trio of odd foam rubber creatures with giant genitals prance around.
This is something Willy Wonka wouldÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve dreamed up had he not been so preoccupied with candy. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s also the type of thing that you could spend hours at doing nothing and still find great amusement.
ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s not exactly stand-up comedy, but it was entertaining. Again, I wasnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t sure if I was the target audience for such a thing. Though, I figured what did it matter. I laughed at Cosby when I was nine. I laughed at him again a few weeks ago. And IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m sure IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll find some laughs at whatever Just For Laughs is planning for next yearÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s edition.
Ã¢â‚¬â€ Dylan P. Gadino