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culture

Not Just For Laughs Anymore

After a one-year hiatus, the Toronto incarnation of the Montreal-based comedy festival brings us a week of funny (and not-so-funny) shows.

Comedian Louis CK. Photo courtesy of Just For Laughs

Just For Laughs 42
Various venues
September 21 to 28
$99–$149

It’s always been hard for Toronto to shake the feeling that its Just For Laughs Festival is little more than an afterthought to organizers, who are focused on the main event in Montreal. That sense became even more pervasive when JFL snubbed Toronto altogether in 2011. This year, it’s encouraging to see such a rich and diverse assembly of talent in the 42 acts scheduled to appear here during the fest’s 42nd edition next week. With plenty of big names and hidden gems, JFL Toronto is not to be missed in 2012.

The JFL’s one oddity this time around is its insistence on selling festival passes rather than tickets to individual shows. With a base model priced at $99 and a deluxe model available at a cost of $149, the passes will provide buyers with four and eight “credits,” respectively. These can then be used to reserve spots at shows. It’s a bold strategy designed to encourage people to attend more events. It will be interesting to see if it yields the desired dividends, or if it results in more than a few empty seats.

Any good comedy festival needs a headliner, and four nights of performance by the current King of Comedy should suffice. After years of honing his act in clubs and developing a reputation for churning out new material, Louis CK is now riding high. His FX show Louie is currently airing its third season—one that posits a hilarious fictional scenario in which the comedian is being groomed by David Lynch to be heir to David Letterman’s chair at CBS.

The festival boasts a few names that could be regarded as co-headliners. Having already established himself in the comedy community, Patton Oswalt seamlessly transitioned into a career as an actor and author, appearing in movies like Jason Reitman’s Young Adult and writing the well-received book Zombie Spaceship Wasteland. Amy Schumer has enjoyed a steady rise in prominence lately, especially as a regular on Comedy Central roasts with Jeff Ross. Not necessarily a comedian in the strictest sense, Reggie Watts is an offbeat musician with a giant head of hair and undeniable gift for an oddly compelling (and amusing) melody.

Many making appearances here have used podcasts, a relatively new format, to increase their notoriety. Ari Shaffir has noted how crowds at his shows have grown because of regular appearances on the popular Joe Rogan Experience podcast. He has also developed his own, Ari Shaffir’s Skeptic Tank. Pete Holmes admitted to borrowing the confessional style of Marc Maron’s front-runner WTF podcast when creating You Made It Weird, which helped lead to a recent talk-show pilot for Conan O’Brien. Neal Brennan—co-creator of Chappelle’s Show—has the minority-centric Champs with fellow festival performer Moshe Kasher. Meanwhile, James Adomian often opts to make appearances on podcasts as other people, with his impressions of Jesse Ventura and Paul Giamatti frequently welcomed on the wacky Comedy Bang Bang (now a TV show on IFC). More evidence of the impact of the medium: a taping of the Nerdist podcast will be held at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre as part of the festival.

Not to neglect homegrown talent, there will be performances by Dave Merheje, Deanne Smith, and Picnicface‘s Mark Little. Those shows should remind folks why we are considered one of the world’s funniest countries. Also hidden among the overwhelming amount of comedy are shows at The Second City, Yuk Yuk’s, and the ALTdot Comedy Lounge (at the Rivoli), featuring names like Ryan Belleville, Mark Forward, and Sean Cullen. All three of those guys have been making regular appearances on Toronto stages for years.

There are even shows that aren’t exactly comedy. One would hardly expect an appearance by David Suzuki to be gut-busting, or even George Stroumboulopoulos for that matter. Visual art will be given a forum as well, with Skin Jackin’ using the human body as a canvas. Elsewhere, cartoonist Kate Beaton will be bringing the illustration skills that helped make her web comic, Hark! A Vagrant, such a success. Theatre admirers will appreciate the inclusion of Fringe Festival entry pomme is french for apple on the schedule and, further stretching the festival parameters, the Toronto Poetry Slam.

It could be argued that in order to get back in our good graces, Just For Laughs has offered us the gift of not only comedy, but so much more. Randall’s Honey Badger, anyone?

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