Just for Laughs: Britcom 2007

Note: This review is from 2007

Review by Steve Bennett

Frank Skinner has chosen Montreal for his first major stand-up gigs in a decade – but his disappointing headlining set at the Britcom showcase last night brutally demonstrated that he’s far from being fully gig-fit yet. Which much be something of a worry given his solo show – which also debuts at Just For Laughs – is just two weeks from Edinburgh and a subsequent high-profile UK tour.

He wasn’t the only comic on the bill to struggle. Most did all right - no better, no worse - but as a showcase of all that’s exciting in British comedy, much of that the night lacked va-va-voom, as the French-speakers here almost certainly don’t say.

Even the reliable Stephen K Amos struggled to get much of an atmosphere going with his first bit of compering. That’s possibly because of his unfortunate choice of a particularly vacant front-row punter with whom to banter, or possibly because the story of his exchange with a racist heckler in London’s East End was a little parochial for an opening gambit, especially as it required the Canadian audience to realise that in the context of the story, Amos isn’t from overseas – even though, to them, he is.

But there’s no audience Amos can’t win over with his charm, and by a couple of acts in, he was everybody’s cheeky friend, bringing some much-needed energy to a first half that might otherwise have been very low key.

First act up, John Moloney, certainly isn’t known for his exuberance and delivered his dry one-liners in characteristically morose style. Some good, some decidedly tired, they got a respectful rather than rapturous response - his nicely laconic impression of being pulled over when stoned eliciting the most titters.

He broke out of his usual careworn persona with a musical finale, when he was joined by fellow circuit veteran Mickey Hutton on guitar for a ditty about ginger people. New comedy ground was hardly broken here, but his attempts at singing in cod-French entertained, as did his aggressively gutteral German version. And everyone likes a good sing-song.

Newcomer Wes Packer – here because he won So You Think You’re Funny? last year – was far too slow for North American sensibilities, where punchines are separated by seconds, not minutes. Ninety-five per cent of this Welshman’s act is set-up, the joke being that he so slowly and painstakingly builds up an atmosphere only to puncture it with a big anticlimax. But it means frustratingly few gags.

He’s got an impressive delivery, however, and easily held the large room in the palm of his hand, even if he didn’t make it laugh much. It’s odd to hear someone playing mostly to silence, but not an uncomfortable one, as the audience are clearly in rapt attention.

Richard Herring struggled to engage the audience at first, too. His pointless pedantry and clever material inspired by the riddle of the Sphinx perhaps proving too esoteric for a club setting. But he won them over by taking his material towards the sexual. The turning point can almost be pinpointed to his deft use of the phrase ‘whoring it up’. From there he was on the home straight, with his graphic deconstruction of the childish ways of signalling people were gay proving a highlight.

Opening the second half, deadpan Sean Meo has the sort of clinical, polished gags the Canadians go for, carefully paced but always precise. About half of his material, however, seems old hat, such as reading the Koran to get a seat on the train, or jokes about the death of Steve Irwin, one of which is uncomfortably close to one Adam Hills is also doing at the same festival.

But when he finds more distinctive inspiration – which more often than not comes from slightly obscure news stories – the sharpness of his writing comes into his own. A line about a hand transplant patient, particularly, is exquisite.

So far, a certain dryness had permeated the atmosphere, thanks to a bill on which most the acts, save for Amos, were detached and distant, delivering jokes at the audience rather than engaging with them.

Michael McIntyre wasted no time in blowing that fustiness away. Bundling on to the stage with excitable passion, his enthusiasm provided much-needed refreshment. He immediately started playing with the audience, especially those in the oddly-designed balcony, before launching into a barnstorming routine about Montreal and its strange ways.

Such freshly baked material and a faultless, seemingly effortless, performance won him lots of fans, before he relaxed slightly into a brilliantly observed routine about the various walks we all affect. Stylish, funny and expertly told, this robust routine gathered huge laughs of recognition. It’s fair to say he stormed it.

Which means he proved something of a hard act to follow. Even for Frank Skinner.

He didn’t help things by making some fairly rudimentary mistakes. Coming on and boasting about how he’s a huge star in the UK made him few friends. He immediately backtracked and said it was a lie. But then flip-flopped again, starting a routine about how he used his millionaire status to attract girls, dropping mentions of his wealth at every opportunity.

This isn’t good, especially when you’re Frank Skinner, a working-class everyman comic. We know his life isn’t like that any more, but the arrogance didn’t endear him.

Other routines died uncomfortable deaths, too, not least of which was when this 50-year-old comic told of how he went out with a 17-year-old. ‘It’s illegal here,’ came one heckle which Skinner probably didn’t hear. What grated was the matter-of-fact approach, not acknowledging that the situation was that unusual. Though the gags were self-deprecating, Skinner showed little embarrassment about the affair – nor did he make it boastful jokes about it, which could have worked in a bad-taste way. By presenting it as fairly normal, he again proved himself fatally out of step with the audience.

That said, he did produce a few corking gags, usually observations about topical events. His Paris Hilton line was a beauty, all the more so for completely sidestepping all the obvious gags about her wanton behaviour.

But he needs to find a lot more like it for his solo show to be a success, and time’s not on his side. A comic of Skinner’s standing shouldn’t be skulking off stage apologising for his set at one of the most high-profile comedy festivals in the world So Close to his much-vaunted comeback tour.

Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Montreal, July 18, 2007

Review date: 18 Jul 2007
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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