Twenty-Fifth Anniversary All-Star Gala

Note: This review is from 2007

Review by Steve Bennett

What better way to start a gala celebrating 25 years of one of the world’s most prestigious comedy festivals than a DJ? Here’s an idea: some comedy, maybe?

Skilful though Kid Koala is, a youngster scratching a record backwards and forwards isn’t exactly a gripping spectacle for the 2,000 or so people packed into Montreal’s Theatre St Denis. There’s a reason why raves aren’t generally all-seated affairs.

As for the stand-up, Lewis Black got that under way with his angry liberal take on US policies. Disappointingly, most of this got no further than George Bush’s stupidity, thought his description of the flawed plans for an anti-immigration wall along the Mexican border provided some decent laughs. Often, though, the real news from Capitol Hill is often so unbelievably daft, he only has to repeat it with an indignant splutter to get results.

‘Thank you Montreal, goodnight,’ he concluded emphatically. Then after the valedictory applause died down, have to walked six metres to his right and introduce the next act, as if his farewell hadn’t just happened. Well, that’s what’s going to happen with every act when you don’t have a compere.

Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Susie Essman, fresh from a disappointing appearance at the Newbury Comedy Festival, again struggled to adapt her ribald club act for a restrained theatre crowd. With the festival’s strict time constraints, she was focussed on her material over banter, and restrained her language, even if filth was still, essentially, the order of the day. She has a couple of nice lines in the sexual advice she wants to give to her teenage stepchildren, but mostly it’s the shallow comedy of talking dirty, rather than much in the way of wit.

She also had the task of introducing a video tribute to Richard Jeni, who committed suicide this year, featuring some of his best clips from previous festivals. Jeni’s brother also paid his respects to this much-missed comic.

Master improvisers Colin Mochrie and Brad Sherwood stepped up the energy, thanks to a couple of reluctant volunteers they teasingly embarrassed. Finding they were called Heather and Paul provided an instant McCartney-related gag to prove the quick-thinking abilities of the Whose Line Is It Anyway alumni.

The victims’ job was to provide sound effects for a spontaneous scene – in this case two basket-weavers on a crocodile hunt – which became an increasingly tall order. Early gags weren’t specific to this scenario, suggesting some of it might not be entirely off-the-cuff, but the energy and freshness the duo brought to the stage livened up the show.

Dom Irrera has been coming to Just For Laughs for longer than anyone would care to remember, and the early clips of a slimline performer delivering an atypical set – basically a list of euphemisms for various biological functions – was an eye-opener. 'I don’t talk that way, do you?’ was his catchphrase, back in the day. As a festival stalwart, he was given the awkward task of combining his own set with three video clips of past festival highlights, which he managed well.

Interestingly, all three clips were of British acts: the late Malcolm Hardee in the Greatest Show On Legs balloon dance (which was, bizarrely nominated for a Canadan TV award at the time – up against Celine Dion); Chris Lynham with a Roman candle up his backside; and Jerry Sadowitz being attacked on stage. And it was fascinating to see footage of one of the most talked-about incidents in stand-up. For the record, Sadowitz was slating Quebec’s French speakers (this was a while after he said ‘hello, moose-fuckers’ which urban legend has as the provocation), when a man walked calmly in from the side of the stage; punched him a couple of times in the head; then drove him head-first into the solid backdrop like a battering ram.

Andre Philippe Gagnon is a Vegas star, and looks every bit the part – coiffured hair, permatan and dazzling white teeth. He tells us he’s going to perform a mini-musical, and the scorchingly topical subject he’s chosen? Bill Clinton getting his end away. But before you can say ‘hack’, he’s launched into this one-man song-and-dance spectacular. While the comedy is utterly lame – he’s marginally changed the lyrics of a few hits to fit the occasion – it’s hard not to be blown away by his voice. Everyone from Tears For Fears to Otis Redding is impersonated faultlessly, and the force of the performance is irresistible. It’s unadulterated entertainment, if not particularly funny. You see why Vegas loved him.

One of the few stand-ups to match a delivery of that power is Tommy Tiernan. This theatre is intimidating, vast and soulless, and has proved a graveyard for many a fine comedian. Tiernan’s the only stand-up I’ve seen not only succeed, but absolutely tear the room apart, with a performance a few years back so breathtaking he left a palpable vacuum when he left the stage. And blow me if he doesn’t damn near do it again tonight.

The vigour he puts into the performance is astonishing. Whereas most comics stay pretty much rooted to the spot, delivering their lines carefully, Tiernan rants and raves, racing across every inch of the stage, arms flailing demonstratively. He shouts himself hoarse and gasps for breath after draining his heart and soul of every last joule of energy.

With conviction and passion somewhere between a televangelist and a drunk shouting at the bins, he tears into creationists with a fierce wit and an unflagging ability to act out any scenario that’s called for. It’s another tour-de-force performance from a class act who always makes a mark.

Headliner Russell Peters could only suffer in comparison. He’s one of Canada’s biggest stand-up stars, thanks to his accessible, unchallenging brand of observational comedy. Here, he served up extracts from the full-length show he brought to the festival, focussing very much on the hairiness and penis size of his fellow Indians. His material generally strike a chord, and is always expertly delivered with an easy charm, but it tends to be solid and professional, rather than thrilling. That, however, is what people want, and what Just For Laughs for the large part provides.

It’s why it’s existed for 25 years. That and the ability to both attract superstar names and break new talent. Here’s to another 25 years of that.

Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Montreal, July 23, 2007

Review date: 23 Jul 2007
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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