Comedy Showdown

Note: This review is from 2006

Review by Steve Bennett

Take a really ill-judged idea for a show – a kind of comedy penalty shoot-out – then stage it without much thought to how, exactly, it would work. Then you end up with the first, and quite possibly last, Just For Laughs Comedy Showdown.

In fact, the only compensation is that in this particular penalty shoot-out the English came out rather well.

Somebody somewhere obviously decided that the lean seven-minute sets that are standard at this festival are far too long for some of the world’s best circuit stand-ups. So, let’s cut that down to three, or even less.

Oh, and just in case this is still too long, the comics must somehow manipulate their material to fit some absurdly esoteric topic – ‘cloud animals’, say - just to stop them ‘cheating’ and using their best few minutes.

The idea, host Steve Patterson told us at the start, was inspired by hip-hop’s rap-offs, a la Eight Mile, in which two comics would face each other down until we were left with just one man standing. To add to the music parallels, a DJ was placed on stage. That the DJ then did virtually nothing to do all night might be taken as one indication of the lack of rigorous preparation applied to the concept.

So, two-by-two, the acts would take to the stage, starting with American Andrew Kennedy and Canadian Jon Dor. In round one, they could perform three minutes of material, from which a winner would be chosen by the panel of experts.

It was these judges who made the show. Andy Kindler and Dom Irerra and Jimmy Carr all known for their sharp tongues, pulled no punches in relentlessly mocking the show, themselves and the MC. In fact, the comics who’d recklessly agreed to subject themselves to this ordeal were the ones who got off most lightly.

Mind you, for all the judge’s insight, it wouldn’t have taken an embittered comic grouch to tell you that compere Patterson’s opening gambit – a half-arsed rap he so hilariously dubbed ‘hop-hip’ – was weak, embarrassing and dated. But the fact the trio piled on the shame so remorselessly, causing Patterson to visibly squirm, was a guilty pleasure.

And so the comics came out: Britain’s Russell Howard and Andy Parsons, Ireland’s Ian Coppinger and America’s Mike Britt, Jay Oakerson and James Cunningham, to be judged. The American Idol concept might have worked had we been treated to a parade of inexperienced open spots, who might happily have become roadkill for the judges’ savage critiques. But the fact it was comics judging fellow professionals – and people they might have to share a stage with later in the week – meant the gloves stayed firmly on.

As each comic was voted off, they were banished to another corner of the venue, where they were told they, too, could comment on the remaining acts. Although more procedural business to clutter up the comedy was the last thing this show needed, and the idea was thankfully abandoned before it happened.

Round two had the ridiculous conceit of supposedly being ‘about’ the obscure audience-suggested themes, though in reality it was more about who best could conspire to shoehorn their existing material to fit the idea.

Given the topic of ‘flapjacks’, Russell Howard cunningly answered with: ‘My dog’s name is Flapjack…’ and so on to the canine chunk he had prepared earlier. It was enough to get him into the all-England final with Parsons, whose stint with the Comedy Store’s Cutting Edge show has trained him well in the art of manipulating prepared material to fit a phoney format. It was enough to secure him victory – for what it was worth.

The real loser tonight was comedy, Howard pointed out in a from-the-heart diatribe in the closing minutes. As a show, it narrowly avoided catastrophe, thanks to the relentless mockery of the format itself – but it just didn’t feel like this was the genesis of a wonderful new concept.

Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Montreal, July 2006

Review date: 1 Jan 2006
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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