We count down the highlights of this year's JFL42 comedy festival, which included a mix of big names, rising stars, and local talent.
As we get used to the unorthodox pass-and-credit system used by the JFL42 comedy festival, we’re realizing more and more how clever it is, and how the festival has grown into Toronto’s premiere comedy experience—with opportunities for local comedy fans to enjoy top-shelf, internationally recognized talent, discover up-and-coming acts, and get to know their local scene as well. Used properly, the credit system makes it easy to see multiple shows for no extra charge, night after night, and we used ours to see over 50 individual acts over the course of the festival.
Here are the acts, shows, and experiences that most impressed us at this year’s JFL42 festival.
10: Ian Karmel’s Toronto Boosterism
Plenty of visiting comics spend time getting to know Toronto between their late-night sets during JFL42. Cameron Esposito had an unpleasant encounter while walking along Spadina, but assured us she enjoyed the rest of her visit. And, of course, lots of comics hung out at the clubs before and after their own sets, enjoying craft brews and getting to know their Canadian counterparts. But L.A. (by way of Portland)’s Ian Karmel was JFL42’S most enthusiastic tourist. On Twitter (and on stage), he raved about the sandwiches at Banh Mi Boys and the burger at Parts & Labour. He referenced Canuck media personalities Jian Ghomeshi and Nardwuar. He even wandered into the swearing-in ceremonies for new Ontario Lieutenant-Governor Elizabeth Dowdeswell. Karmel showed Toronto and its comics a lot of love while here, and comedy fans reciprocated: all of his shows sold out (and that led to more shows, plus some late-night guest appearances). We don’t doubt that he’ll be back again soon—and that he’ll be greeted by an even larger Toronto fan contingent.
9: The Alternative Show, With Andy Kindler’s Stacked Wednesday-Night Line-Up
While all four of Andy Kindler‘s Alternative Shows at Comedy Bar featured some impressive guests, Wednesday night’s line-up featured especially incredible local and out-of-town comics. Kindler kicked off the night in typically acerbic form by continually insisting that he was much better the previous night and throwing some shade at Jimmy Fallon (“everything that isn’t entertainment is what he does”). He first welcomed Tig Notaro to the stage—she piqued interest with the opening line, “I’d like to tell you a story about the time I should have been molested,” before proceeding to weave an unexpectedly wholesome tale about watching Little House On The Prairie at a neighbour’s house.
Jon Dore then brilliantly used a few wigs to enact a love triangle that involved a roommate, Paul F. Tompkins riffed for ten glorious minutes about how a dirt bike could theoretically earn enough respect to be pictured on currency, and Pete Holmes arrived ahead of his two nights of shows to relay his life goal of—not learning how to play the trumpet—but simply understanding how it can possibly play all the notes. And yet Mark Forward somehow still managed to steal the show with a steamrolling piece of physical comedy about a convenience store selling “fancy hats”—he prefaced this by screaming at the audience about how it had already won the David Baxter Memorial Award for best joke of the festival. It was a shame, though, that Brody Stevens, who’s known for feeding off the energy of the room, hit the stage last, when everyone was already drained after two hours of comedy. “It’s late,” a man explained when Stevens came into the audience to try to do some crowd work—though it was still fairly enjoyable to then watch a frustrated Stevens try to kick a disco ball that was attached to the ceiling. (He failed.)
8: Tony Ho’s Pitch-Black Premises
For the first of Tony Ho‘s two sold-out nights, the crowd was for the most part packed with people who seemed familiar with the dark humour that’s their trademark. But clearly not everyone was: the friends in front of us frequently exchanged wide-eyed looks when Roger Bainbridge, Adam Niebergall, and Miguel Rivas referred to cannibalism, murder, betrayal, and other unsavoury things. A reunion became awkward when a lost man (Bainbridge) displayed an uncanny knowledge of what his partner (guest Mikaela Dyke) and friends were up to while he was gone; a father-and-son meeting was marred by untimely complications (that sketch, Time, featuring guest Rob Baker, is online). The sketches were interspersed with performances from guest act Dan Bierne (the narrator of Tony Ho’s short Japan) as an absurdist lounge singer, who offered ditties that doubled as offbeat comedic palate cleansers. Like the Kids in the Hall before them, Tony Ho has built a reputation for taking it further than the audience expects—though they’re fast approaching the point when the most unexpected spike to their sketches would involve a sudden swerve to the lighthearted.
7: The You Made It Weird and Doug Loves Movies Podcast Tapings
With podcasts becoming more of a valuable outlet for comedians to showcase their talents, Just For Laughs gave us recordings of two live ones that could not be more different in their style and execution. On You Made It Weird with Pete Holmes, the host of the now-defunct Pete Holmes Show on TBS conducted revealing interviews with four comics in his usual playful and infectious manner. An initial chat with Joe DeRosa, who wrote for the TBS show and opened for Holmes earlier that evening, offered a glimpse into their friendship and what it would sound like if Al Pacino had dinner with Al Pacino. The loss of virginity came up on a couple of occasions, as DeAnne Smith told about how she lost hers in a cemetery, and Brody Stevens detailed a youthful experience in which two women used a pair of scissors to coerce him into sex. Johnny Pemberton had no trouble discussing how often he’s literally shit the bed, which led to a relatively split decision in an audience poll about which people would rather never have to do again—pee or poop.
In what was perhaps the perfect opening to notorious pothead Doug Benson‘s Doug Loves Movies podcast, he first asked the audience if anyone happened to have a vaporizer pen on them and quickly found not one but two people offering their help in the front row. It was nice to then see Benson introduce a largely Canadian panel, including Jon Dore, Spun Out‘s JP Manoux and first-time guest Mark Forward: Brody Stevens was the only American. None of them were particularly good at Benson’s movie-related games—not one of the three locals was able even to name one movie that started with a particular letter—but there were still laughs throughout. Forward and Dore made for an especially good duo—the former got a lot of comedic mileage out of wearing a tight $49 mocha headband and the latter out of crowing about an $80 remote-controlled car he purchased as a prize.
6: Local Comics Anchoring Andy Kindler’s Alternative Shows
Once again this year, the hottest late-night club ticket was for The Alternative Show with Andy Kindler; as we noted above, the show is a entertaining blend of headlining acts (and stars such as Wanda Sykes and, last year, Louis C.K. making late drop-ins) and local talent. What particularly struck us after successive nights, however, is how Kindler has come to rely on comics from Toronto’s Laugh Sabbath collective to anchor the show. Founding member Chris Locke appeared on multiple nights, showcasing strong new material, such as an embarrassing story about watching Dracula as a teen. Frequent Laugh Sabbath guest Mark Little also appeared often on Kindler’s show (and cabaret show Midnight), entertaining with a song lyrics bit that riffed on Van Morrison’s scatting. And on Friday night, the best bit of the night came from Tom Henry, who in typically deadpan style delivered a howlingly funny description of his hangover. These days, Laugh Sabbath alumni like Nathan Fielder (Comedy Central’s Nathan For You) are mainstream comedy successes, and the show we once profiled as alternative is, if not mainstream, certainly now established in the eyes of tastemakers like Kindler.
5: Dave Attell’s Crowd Work
Dave Attell kicked the festival off with bang as one of its first performers, charging through a set of raunchy one-liners with such unparalleled command that it sometimes seemed as if you’d been laughing for ten minutes straight. On the few occasions that he insisted he was sick of his act, though, he had no reservations about looking to the audience for material, finding a young entrepreneur from New York up front and using the opportunity to skewer Just For Laughs’ pass and credits system (“Even if you’re not enjoying the show, you’re still accruing points to see Gordon Lightfoot”). But it was when he spotted a mother wandering the aisle looking for her daughter that he was presented with a chance he could not pass up. After helping her find her teenage daughter and spending the rest of his set voicing concerns that his act might be too filthy for anyone’s daughter, he eventually decided to bring them both on stage. When the daughter turned out to be a aspiring comedian, it was unclear whether she was more thrilled to be standing there with Attell or mortified that he kept telling her how hot he thought her mom was.
4: Mike Birbiglia’s “Hooker” Heckler Handling
As a storyteller, Mike Birbiglia might be one of the strongest acts who appeared at the festival. Besides his stand-up, he’s become known for his candid and insightful stories on programs such as This American Life. But he demonstrated a full skill set as a stand-up comic when one drunk audience member, who obviously hadn’t been paying attention to his act, began to heckle at a punchline that referenced “hookers.” Birbiglia patiently called her out before proceeding to explain she’d missed the entire point of the story, and demolished her inappropriate interruption to the roaring approval of the entire theatre. The woman was apparently escorted out, but no one in the theatre noticed; Birbiglia had attention firmly focused on his show for the rest of the set.
3: Paul F. Tompkin’s Magical Storytelling
For those who know Paul F. Tompkins only as a master improviser capable of effortlessly disappearing into characters, it was quite a revelation to see the comedian regaling an audience about his own life. Opening up about a painful unrequited love and the need to seek therapy despite those from his working-class background frowning upon the idea (“You’d say, ‘Maybe there’s something wrong with me?’ and they’d say ‘I think there’s something wrong with you.'”), he then talked in great and endearing detail about how he met and fell in love with his wife—and a boozy night out they had at the Magic Castle in Los Angeles. Still, his best story may have been about learning how to drive at 41 after moving to L.A. and having to answer a question about whether his parents would be in attendance at his final exam. When asked by his instructor about what mistakes he might have made while on the road, he responded, “What did I do wrong? I’m 41 years old and have a learner’s permit. How far back do you want me to go?”
2: Amy Schumer’s Crowd-Sourced Sex Terms
Fans of Amy Schumer‘s envelope-pushing Comedy Central show Inside Amy Schumer weren’t disappointed by her delightfully raunchy hour-long headlining set. Schumer, who feigned confusion early in the set about the fact that she’s referred to as a “sex” comic, proceeded to embrace (reclaim?) the label with her mostly new material, and even better, with an extended survey of the audience of slang for sex acts she (and no doubt most of us) had never heard of. She seemed genuinely delighted by one woman’s suggestion of “Crimson Pollock” (splattered body art using a feminine sanitary product) and offered variations on others she heard. Schumer landed her show based on the strength of her fearless stand-up, and it was gratifying to see that the long hours she’s put into it haven’t had a detrimental effect on her live performance.
1: Nick Offerman’s Musical Side
Nick Offerman is not Ron Swanson, the popular character he portrays on NBC’s Parks & Recreation, but the two certainly do have their similarities. In Offerman’s headlining show, The Full Bush, he displayed the same predilection for working with his hands—discussing the wood shop he operates in L.A.—and revealed the same amusing fear of technology (“Stop playing Draw Something and fucking draw something”). But while Swanson likes to keep the smooth jazz stylings of his saxophonist alter ego Duke Silver something of a secret, Offerman shares his musical gifts with the world. Playing a ukulele he crafted himself, Offerman performed the delightfully dirty “The Ukulele Song,” written for wife Megan Mullally’s birthday. Transitioning to guitar, he unleashed a woodworking-themed parody of “Ring of Fire,” before announcing plans for an entire album of Johnny Cash covers about carpentry. Clearly saving the best for last, though, he sent everyone out with big, goofy grins when he strummed “5000 Candles in the Wind,” the Parks & Recreation song that pays tribute to everyone’s favourite miniature horse, Li’l Sebastian.