Wayne Brady gala

Note: This review is from 2004

Review by Steve Bennett

At the top of Montreal’s comedy tree are the showcase gala performances - held in the vast St Denis Theatre, hosted by an audience-pulling headliner and giving half a dozen or so of the festival acts the chance to shine – just as long as they can do it in seven minutes.

These are the shows you see on TV, fleeting moments of before-they-were famous stars reeling out their stand-up sets. As the voiceover before curtain up ominously tells us: "These are the shows that will never die." There’s no such guarantee about the acts.

The name above the door tonight is Wayne Brady, a Whose Line Is It Anyway? regular who wastes little time getting everyone on their feet clapping and whooping along to a rap – the textbook high-energy opening for almost every black act in the States, it seems.

He might have filled the room, but truth is he doesn’t appear to be all that accomplished as an improviser – certainly not in compared as the Improv All-Stars who were here earlier in the week, and there were six of them to share the load.

The games that top and tail the show give him an easy ride, too. Film and theatre styles only ever draws from a limited number of genres, and even when the audience do throw in something a little more challenging like ‘Charlie Chaplin’ it is dumbed down to the more generic ‘silent movies’. And their idea of Shakespearean would have the Bard spinning in his grave. Verily.

Other games are similarly stacked in the performers’ favour, but with equally disappointing responses – even though much of the audience seems happy enough to be suckered.

First of the guest acts, Gerry Dee, announced: "I grew up in an Italian neighbourhood." Then stops dead. A beat or so later the audience applaud, a Pavlovian response to what, I’m not exactly sure. You surely can’t except to take the credit for the ethnic bacground of your neighbours, can you? But they do things different this side of the pond.

The line proves to be an appetiser for some borderline racist stuff about the Italians and their car-razy accents, which he naturally adopts with far-from hilarious consequences.

Elsewhere we get the formulaic ‘what if kindergarten kids’ took dope’ riffs and some more promising anecdotes about his Scottish parents’ fears about crossing the customs posts on the America-Canada border that doesn’t ultimately deliver.

If Dee grew up alongside American Italians, Frank Spadone is the real deal. Not that a fact like that would stop him plying the same Soprano stereotype, mind. Again, he gets applause whenever the audience feel its expected of them – more an act of reflex than appreciation.

There’s not a lot of subtlety or brains in his act – witness the routine about an effeminate Mexican that in his sub-John Inman way manages to be thoughtlessly offensive to two minorities at once. "And what if Forrest Gump had been a gay Mexican?" he asks. How funny would that be? I think we all know.

Nina Conti changed the pace, starting slow as the audience tried to make their mind up about what appeared to be an old-style ventriloquist act. But once the monkey started with his disgruntled backchat, they were suddenly a lot more attentive.

Far more fluid than her performance at the Britcom showcase earlier in the week, Conti eschewed her familiar pint glass routine for more anecdotal material until, taking the ultimate leap of faith, she abandoned the puppet-shaped security blanket completely. As she rightly says, the monkey’s voice coming out of her own mouth is ‘bloody sinister’.

Conti’s great strength is to react just so utterly convincingly with her simian alter-ego. No matter how many times she’s run through the same conversations with herself, it always seems fresh and spontaneous. There were a couple of stumbles – she seemed especially reluctant to have the monkey say the phrase ‘come on your face’, perhaps in light of warnings from festival organisers to keep things clean.

Not that veteran Dom Irrera took any heed of such niceties as he ripped apart the laddish ‘all she needs is a good seeing-to’ attitude – relentlessly pounding away at the phrase and its literal implications until its inherent stupidity laid bare and bleeding. And, yes, he did do the same with the expression ‘I don’t mean that in a bad way...’; giving another airing to the barnstorming routine that is his enduring trademark.

When it comes to delivery, there’s no one to top this punchy Italian New Yorker – the rhythms, timing and emphasis are so perfect he can even make a routine about the stupid questions at airport security zing. It truly is the way he tells them.

Simon Evans, too, found his form tonight. Like Conti he’d struggled in front of Britcom’s comedy club audience, but here, where it matters, his strike rate was without fault.

His aloof superiority makes no concessions to likeability; instead leaving the brilliantly sarcastic lines to win over the audience. The cold persona he adopts certainly fulfils the North American stereotype of Brits as emotionally impotent, and as the pettiness and inadequacies behind his arrogance slowly emerge, the jokes work even better. A hit, it’s safe to say.

An inventive theatrical interlude varied the mood, as we took a baby’s-eye view of the waist-down down world. As the cartoony infant played with balls of yarn, they begin to take their revenge, like the guardians from The Prisoner. Very French.

Next up was Mike Wilmot, the third time I’d seen him in four nights, thanks to the vagaries of festival programming. But he’s such an efficient gag-machine that his pacey routine works as well as it did first time around.

He’s obsessed by the human body, it’s fair to say, with his routines about nasal hairs, haemorrhoids and eyeball surgery eliciting disgusted cringes alongside the laughs, but teasing audience’s reaction to his icky topics is all part of the fun.

Closing the showcase, and apparently afforded more than the seven minutes allotted to other acts, Bill Burr set out his stall from the start: "I’m a loser," he said. "I’m 36 and single." Which hardly distinguishes him from other comics.

Neither did some of his routines, the usual stuff about relationships, dates and what a fuckwit George Bush is, just to tick the boxes that seem to be required of American comics.

An anti-feminist rant about why men deserve to be paid $1 more an hour was more inspired, even if he did stretch his neat premise until it was paper-thin, while his idea to make a mockery of the relationship self-help books was, rightly, a triumph.

But it was one of few on the night. Apart from a sense of occasion, there was little in the gala that couldn’t be seen better – and at closer range – in one of the club venues around the city. You wouldn’t get Wayne Brady, mind you. And that’s another plus.

Review date: 1 Jan 2004
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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