Craig Ferguson Gala

Note: This review is from 2008

Review by Steve Bennett

Craig Ferguson’s come a long way from his Bing Hitler days on the UK comedy circuit, now hosting The Late Late Show on America’s CBS network. And he says he owes it all to Just For Laughs, where he made his debut a staggering 21 years ago.

Still, this is only his fourth appearance at the Montreal festival – but he made it count. Whereas many star hosts of the high-profile galas creakily deliver clunky scripts, Ferguson showed that if you want the job doing well, ask a stand-up.

He made his opening monologue look effortless, with a masterclass in how to take a subject apart. Tom Cruise was his deserving victim, and he was merciless in the mocking, gradually ramping up the savagery and bringing the audience’s energy levels up with it. Ferguson has a fire in his belly, which invigorates his convincing performance, and knows how to work a room.

As a mainstream comic, some of the later subject matter proved more pedestrian, such as his straightforward take on the stupidity of yoga or the tediously well-worn topic of Sean Connery’s never-changing accent, but by then he had won us over. More importantly, his relaxed, reactive approach, ready to abandon the teleprompter whenever a funny thought struck him, engendered a confidence that the next two hours would be in very safe hands.

Steve Byrne is as slick as an oil spill, but utterly unambitious in his writing. He goes through the motions of the obligatory ethnic parents shtick, milking stale stereotypes about both his Korean and Irish backgrounds. This was followed by by-the-numbers routines about how unrealistic video games are and how bad he is at sex, which is at least enlivened by a silly demonstration. But overall, too safe by far.

Craig Hill burst onto the stage with the energy of an H-bomb – that’s H for homo, by the way. Gyrating around to a pumping Madonna soundtrack, he got the crowd into the swing of things before unleashing his arsenal or archly-bitchy putdowns towards anyone in the front rows whose personal style didn’t meet his exacting standards. He purloined the urban myth about American tourists asking why Windsor Castle was built under the Heathrow flightpath, but shifting it to his native Edinburgh, and shared with the audience an old Belfast saying about the Titanic. But no one seemed have heard these before, and he his flamboyant personality ensured the set hit home hard.

Glenn Foster bills himself as ‘That Canadian Guy’, which suggests a struggle to define your comedy beyond the fact he’s one of 33million people living north of the US. Indeed, much of his routine proved bland and predictable, waffling on about relationships and asking: ‘Have you ever called customer service? There’s no service!’ A few topics were nicely done, such as his take on the eternal question, ‘why am I here?’ but that was certainly the exception rather than the rule. However, he’s got some tricks of rhythm, such as building up a pace then suddenly stopping to get a laugh, and the home crowd seemed entertained by him.

The next act, Bob Arno, steals material. Ties, belts, watches, cellphones and wallets, mainly – as he’s an expert pickpocket. He romps through his act with verve and speed, rattling through some polished, witty banter as he displays his amazing talent. The biggest thing this lively, compelling performer stole, however, was the show.

Elvira Kurt used her time to replay a recurring argument she has with her partner, about the frustration of living with someone disorganised and the long, silent car journeys that follow the angry words. It seemed a rather straightforward description of events, with little added spice to make it funny, but recognition alone struck a cord with the audience. Jokes would only have been spoiling them. She was stronger on her miserable East European heritage and going to therapy, but still nothing special.

Bruce Bruce has been observing humanity, and after years of close study has concluded that black people and white people, they is different. And apparently black people are complicit in crime and bounce cheques. What even Barack Obama? Hey, but why let a positive message get in the way of a lazy generalisation? This was just another rotten plank in his cheap act, which included mocking people with stutters for… well, having stutters… and making dumb jokes about his own size. ‘You gotta watch what you eat. I’m always looking at what I’m eating!’ A segment about a prostate examination was the only vaguely worthwhile bit, and only then for the extremes of his reaction rather than any skill or subtlety in the writing.

In a bizarre bit of scheduling, Bruce was followed by Mike Birbiglia with his routine about… a prostate examination. Fingers up arses are clearly the festival theme this year. But where Bruce relied on bluster, Birbiglia proved himself an elegant, compelling storyteller. He has a lovely way of phrasing things, and a softly-softly delivery that draws the audience to him. Nice stuff.

Musical comic Craig Robinson was the final act, with one of the best opening routines you’ll find. But he didn’t choose his material wisely for the brisk eight minutes that gala acts must perform, with a parody of seductive soul songs that took too much set-up in the limited time. He has some much better material than this, which we only got a glimpse of. Still, he’s got style, even if we missed most the content tonight.

All that remained was the cheesy finale; and for Ferguson they rolled out ever tourist-board stereotypical image of Scotland you could imagine for a not-particularly-funny song-parody montage: kilts, haggis, the Loch Ness Monster, golf and heavy drinking were all combined in what looked like an explosion in an Edinburgh souvenir factory. But if you’re going to do cheesy, do it big, and at least Just For Laughs had the budget to make this a spectacular – if borderline racist – showstopper.

Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Montreal, July 2008

Review date: 1 Jan 2008
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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