Britcom Montreal gala 2009

Note: This review is from 2009

Review by Steve Bennett

Talk about souring the mood. Telling 2,000-plus comedy fans that the legend they had just paid up to £100 to see was ill and unable to perform is not exactly the jolliest start to an evening of fun and laughter.

Yet in the end, John Cleese’s absence didn’t seem to matter much. Just For Laughs quickly sorted out a replacement gig later in the week to assuage any anger; last-minute stand-in Lewis Black judged the mood perfectly, stamping his mark on the gala without alienating a potentially peed-off audience; and last, but by no means least, a top-notch line-up of British talent offered up one of the consistently strong bills to have graced this mammoth stage.

Apparently qualifying as an honorary Brit because he’d just returned from London, self-confessed ‘miserable Jewish prick’ Black joked with appropriate humility about his inadequacy as a replacement, before riffing on the credit crunch. He summed up the bankers’ glaringly obvious stupidity with a combination of pithy observations and righteous indignation, spluttering with seething anger, as he tends. But if there’s one guaranteed topic to get an audience on side it’s greedy bankers, and they stood united in their determination to enjoy the night, Cleese or no Cleese.

Mark Watson had the unenviable task of going on first, but charmed the room by bonding over the shared British and Canadian outlook on life: ‘It’s probably going to be shit, but let’s home for the best’, as well his winning air of spontaneity. At a festival used to comics delivering seven minutes of material they have relentlessly honed over the month, it came as a breath of fresh air to hear a routine he seemed to have written in the last few days, with jokes about the local tax system and even street names. Gags about airport customs dodged almost all the clichés; a killer line about watching TV on his phone was one of the best of the night; while even a cock joke proved classy, thanks to what he left unsaid. A cracking start to proceedings.

For the next link, Black had to scuttle into the wings to check the pronunciation of Gina Yashere’s surname – but once successfully introduced she too delivered a sterling set of all her hits. She leans a little to easily on a comedy Nigerian accent, but sharp gags about being pulled over by the Los Angeles police and her ill-advised return to Africa to find her roots defined her personality quickly, before she moved on to mock the Frenchwoman who had the world’s first face transplant with the same savagery as the dog who mauled her in the first place. Slightly dated as a reference point, perhaps, but still very funny.

Sketch groups on stand-up bills don’t always work, but Idiots Of Ants pulled it off. The opening skit about there Where’s Wally? books - adapted as Where’s Waldo for the North Americans, naturally – is a one-joke affair, but it’s quick and broke the ice. A nicely-played office-based sketch teasingly played on British politeness and need to conform, while simultaneously giving he audience something to get mock-shocked at; while the playful serenade that ended their brief appearance was perfectly timed, even though it’s intimidating undertones are probably better suited to intimate settings than this cavernous space.

Next up, the wild card – and we mean that almost literally. Ross Noble completely blew apart any expectations of a tightly-formed set, as is his wont, ad-libbing frantically. His febrile mind, sparked by little more than a whoop from the audience, span off into typically surreal territory, all delivered with the energy of a small hydroelectric plant. He laid into the ailing John Cleese – imagining the hospital turning down his corpse because he was ‘not dead, he’s resting’ – then challenging those who seemed shocked by the idea.

The audience were as intrigued by this apparent madman as they were entertained, especially when he clambered over the bizarre set like a chimp exploring his enclosure at the zoo. Such spontaneous burst of passion and imagination filled this cavernous space in a way few other comics can; and he surely won a small army of new Canadian fans on the back of this. At least among those who weren’t completely bemused by his freestyle antics. ‘Oh shit! Jokes!’ he reprimands himself for forgetting to do any material. But hes never really needed any.

Jimmy Carr, of course, is all material; and he belted out a selection with typical efficiency; some surprisingly cute, many more flirting with the offensive. All are delivered without many whistles and bells – a very deliberate, slightly awkward mime to spell out one or two punchlines is about as animated as he gets. But that’s probably the only way to follow Noble, and allowed Carr to reinforce his reputation as a gag-writer par excellence.

Finally, festival favourite Danny Bhoy. Often unfairly looked down on for his pretty-boy looks and unapologetically mainstream approach to observational humour, he is nonetheless a very skilful exponent of the style he’s chosen, with an easy charm, a mastery of timing and a keen eye for the ways of the world. There is a degree of artificiality in the way he recounts his stories, with every pause carefully planned – but they are planned for a reason; to extract the biggest laughs. And yes, his routines can trade on stereotypes – but they love that here. It’s a wonder why he’s not yet a bigger star than he is.

A strong close to a strong bill; with the absence of its famous headliner almost forgotten. You could almost be forgiven for asking: ‘John who?’

Review date: 23 Jul 2009
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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