Review: The Muppets gala at Just For Laughs

From Steve Bennett in Montreal

It has to be one of the best opening sequences in TV… and as the drumroll heralds the start of the Muppet Show theme, it brings a lump of to the throat and a palpable frisson of anticipation to the room. It’s an overwhelming wave of emotion that goes beyond affectionate nostalgia and into the realms of genuine love.

And all for a collection of cheesy jokes, duff sketches and saccharine-coated songs delivered by foam. But it’s foam with such adorable, big personalities brought to life by immensely talented puppeteers – here visible to the audience, if you could tear your eyes away from Kermie and chums.

They kicked off this televised gala with a witty anthem in tribute to Canada, a small town in New Hampshire. Ill-informed lyrics like this satirise typical American ignorance of their northerly neighbour, and make for charmingly silly lyrics.

The gang is all here and cracking jokes about the host city. Swedish Chef makes the local cholesterol-packed fries-gravy-and-cheese ‘delicacy’ poutine – of course – the hapless lab assistant Beaker gets transmogrified into a Montreal ice-hockey mascot and Gonzo tries to recreate Cirque Du Soleil on a budget, in a skit that doesn’t really work… but who cares? It’s the goddam Muppets and their supercharged charm enchants the room.

Statler and Waldorf grumble from their box, Fozzie delivers the most appalling routine (starting, cliché-lovers note, with ‘I know what you’re thinking…’) Miss Piggy emulates local diva Celine Dion, and Animal – looking almost the doppleganger of wrestler Mick Foley, who’s in the audience tonight – goes nuts. All exactly what you expect and heartwarming for it. They are, indeed, sensational, inspirational, celebrational, Muppet-ational…

Everyone came to see these modern icons, but they were only the hosts for a normal stand-up gala. It makes sense – a full show might have shown up the weaknesses in the material that don’t matter in isolation – but rather a gear change to see childhood favourites introduce a string of adult comedians.

There was something of a saminess to the acts chosen, too, all chatting away about their partners and their children – the narrow focus of the mainstream. The notable exception was Adam Hills, who followed the Swedish chef, and couldn’t disguise his glee at sharing the stage with such heroes of his childhood in Australia.

Compared to the North American acts who merely acknowledged the occasion and then reeled off their carefully-honed seven minutes, not deviating from their script or timing, Hills was relaxed and enthusiastic. He had material on the Muppets, which was funny and pertinent, but mostly he captured the celebratory spirit of the night.

The first of the human comics, John Heffron, was more typical, chatting about his relationship and his 16-year-old stepdaughter, relatively amusingly and with the occasional strong punchline, but ultimately rather forgettable. Tony Johnagin started pretty much the same way, about living with his girlfriend and more about how women are different from men – though as his set progressed it appeared he was probably a better comic than that, as he has an appealing arrogance and creates some vivid comic images.

Hometown girl Caroline Rhea didn’t break the theme, speaking about her three-and-a-half year-old daughter with a sort of cheery sarcasm and a winning gossipy bonhomie; while fellow Canuk Pete Zedlacher, a scruff in lumberjack shirt and baseball cap, was dull but with good technique: apparently wine-tasting can be pretentious and the German accent can sound a bit sinister. Who would have thought?

Tom Papa is certainly a touch of class, and although he based much of his routine in the domestic too, he projected that into wider observations about how we as a society treat out children and how parenting has changed through the years – showing more insight and wit than just complaining about the compromises of relationship. It’s astute observational comedy underpinned by a no-nonsense point of view that proves very appealing.

But will even the strongest stand-up be remembered decades hence with the same adoration as the Muppets are? To see them ‘live’ on stage is an absolute treat; a unique experience that can only be summed up in the wise words of a great philosopher: Wocka! Wocka!

Published: 27 Jul 2012

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