Variety's Comics To Watch showcase | Gig review by Steve Bennett at Just For Laughs, Montreal

Variety's Comics To Watch showcase

Gig review by Steve Bennett at Just For Laughs, Montreal

‘We’ve learned the lessons from last year,’ host Kurt Braunohler assured the audience for the annual showcase of stand-ups who made Variety magazine's influential 10 Comics To Watch list. ‘This year we’ve only got racist YouTubers with no act.’

For a year ago, this prestigious Just For Laughs gig hit the headliners for all the wrong reasons when Darren Knight, who’d found social media star for his Southern Momma character, ranted about comedy being overrun by people talking about their race and sexuality, after bombing hard with his terrible shit-based set. 

You would hope the organisers hadn’t listened to him, but it turned out there was much less identity-based material on this year’s bill, perhaps indicating a natural swing away from that style of stand-up. And it made for a line-up that put a different kind of diversity at its core – a diversity of comedy styles – and to great effect, too.

Opener Fahim Anwar, for example, didn’t put too much store on his background. Instead, this slick and animated comic spoke vividly about everyday experiences, primarily ordering Uber Eats, with perfectly observed details and sardonic but upbeat attitude. We’ve all been there, and his description zinged with wit.

Zainab Johnson was a cooler, more collected personality, who did put more of her experiences as a black Muslim woman into her material. It was a warm and considered performance, if perhaps overshadowed by some of the more dynamic performers on the bill. Talking of which….

Chris Fleming was an utter force of nature, using every sinew of his wiry body and his theatre school education to bring his set to kinetic life. He’s a real oddball, protesting at the appropriation of the word ‘freak’ by calculating artsy types when he’s known the real deal. He sometimes needs a better punchlines – though there are some exquisite turns of phrase here – but you can’t take your eyes off this unpredictable, exciting performer.

It felt like we might be having another headline-making moment when Patti Harrison opened with a nervy, heartfelt speech about how she was feeling acute anxiety about the state of the world, from climate change to how she’s treated as a trans woman, and wanted to take this opportunity to speak with sincerity.  The room drained of energy as everyone shuffled uncomfortably in their seats.

Thankfully this turned out to be misdirection, though so convincing and committed was she that it took a while for the penny to drop after she launched into her first song. Intentionally dreadful, she belts out the absurd lyrics in full-throated mimicry of Joanna Newsom and Charli XCX, a diverse couple of voices. It’s an outlandish and unique act, leaving you with a mental image of Steve Bannon it’s hard to scrub.

Nashville’s Dusty Slay, pictured, is a former pesticide and fertiliser salesman who could give blue-collar comedy a good name again. He’s a proud working-class man, speaking engagingly about his past living in a trailer park and his present, struggling to afford the power bill. But he is an absurdist as much as an observationalist, with a unique eye for detail. 

For example, one of his best bits revolves around staying in hotel rooms. Even though so much of every comics’ life is spent that way, he finds fresh things to talk about, and a uniquely off-kilter way of describing them.  Also, you’ve got to love his ‘we’re having fun’ catchphrase, which is perfectly established and skilfully deployed.

Finally, Ms. Pat, a brash comedian with a big personality who promised – or is that threatened – to take the audience on a ‘negro field trip’.

Her opening wasn’t especially edifying, all filth and swagger, steamrollering blunt, below-the-belt lines like ‘dye my booty hole? Is it going to glow in the dark?’ through the sheer force of her considerable personality. 

But once this in-your-face blast receded, she showed herself to be a far more engaging storyteller, with quite the life to draw on. Some of the subject matter is bleak and shocking, but she delivers with an honesty and  good humour as she takes ownership of the extreme situations she found herself in. And a quick Google reveals she has plenty more anecdotal diamonds in her autobiographical mine, forged by the pressures of a very tough upbringing. 

Even if some of the acts on Variety’s prestigious list couldn’t make it tonight - including Britain’s Piff The Magic Dragon, who was tied up with his Vegas residency – few could argue that the comics they chose are all ones to watch.

Review date: 27 Jul 2019
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