NXNE kicks off its comedy fest, replete with the medium's "edgy" trappings.
NXNE Comedy officially kicked off Thursday night at the NXNE Hub (170 Spadina Avenue), a sleek, just-for-the-fest venue located atop the former Blockbuster. Climbing the graffitied staircase and entering the expansive, curved room, the first thing you notice is the list of sponsors: Samsung TVs line the stage, and a whole corner of the room is dedicated to showcasing various strains of medical cannabis (no samples), while a Jameson whiskey sign provides most of the ambient light in the room. In the green room, a curtained-off area behind the soundboard, comedians gather and chat as the audience finds their seats.
Nick Thune, the headliner known for his late-show hopping and appearance on ABC’s comedy Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23, and his friend Ben Kronberg, the Brooklyn-based stand-up, catch up with each other. There are five Vitamin Water bottles dripping with condensation on the table. The atmosphere is fun, relaxed, but still humming with anticipation: the festival officially started on Wednesday, but gets into full swing after a couple days. Just before the show started, the performers were greeted by two Fleshlight representatives and given their very own sex toy, wrapped carefully in a gift bag with festive, curlicue ribbons. For those unfamiliar with the very popular device, it is a hand-held silicone vagina marketed primarily at heterosexual men.
Toronto comic Julia Hladkowicz holds the box with a quizzical look on her face. “What am I supposed to do with this?” she asks. Kronberg keeps his bag sealed. “I don’t want anyone to see it but me. That’s for my eyes only,” he says, laughing.
In addition to Kronberg and Thune, audiences were treated to two established Toronto comedians. Julia Hladkowicz, fresh off a JFL Homegrown nomination, and Mark Little, Picnicface-alumni, opened the show with some new material. “It was such a great crowd. It was a great venue, and it was such a silly set and I had a really great time. No regrets,” said Hladkowicz after the show. Little took the show as an opportunity to showcase some new prop comedy, including an eight-minute Bruce Springsteen parody featuring the comedian dressed in a Canadian –sorry, American- tuxedo growling into the microphone like The Boss himself.
The comedians, now equipped with their very own silicone genitals, discuss who’s going to bring the acts onstage. It’s settled that Lisa Ann, a buxom porn star and Fleshlight “mould/model” would be the host. She hoists herself on stage and proclaims the audience can now have sex with her. No one gets it.
Without much of an intro, Hladkowicz took the stage and immediately broke the tension by musing on the suggestion that she was going to “scissor” Lisa Ann.
“It was fun to be introduced by a porn star who immediately said we were going to scissor. I’ve been a part of NXNE before –this is my fourth year- but I’ve never been introduced by a Fleshlight model,” she said after the show. Despite the somewhat forced start, the show got going and the audience warmed up.
“I think this is like muses becoming sponsors, really. Weed has always been a muse for comedy, be it topical or smoked. Sex too. I don’t think Fleshlight takes themselves too seriously. They’re actually cool,” noted Kronberg.
The opening acts having done their duty, Thune took the stage, launching right into a story about how his dog ate a weed brownie “about the size of a VHS tape.” His material is distinctly different from some of his older bits: gone is the faux-serious demeanor, along with the heavy reliance on his guitar, something that defined him earlier in his career.
“My new set has no guitar, but yesterday I did a show and I did some of my old jokes and brought out the guitar and was like, ‘man, this is easier.’ It’s easy to hide behind something and I never really exposed who I was when I was playing a guitar on stage. Now I’m focusing on being myself and actually talking about my real life experiences and how I’ve grown and learned. With the guitar, it was all a front for a character I was creating.”
Thune, a new father, has found his perspective and, as a result, his comedic styles have changed. “When I had a kid, it actually took me awhile to do comedy again because I didn’t see why I cared anymore. Because your whole perspective changes. That’s part of my whole thing right now: this guy who can’t be selfish anymore and is trying to figure that out.”
His recent material reflects this: he tells stories of responsibility (having to take his very stoned French Bulldog to the vet at midnight, for one) and, for an older, savvier audience, this went over well. The room was receptive and intellectually-geared: while they were skeptical of the bawdy introduction, the audience enjoyed the material that had its finger on the pulse of how we as a society conduct ourselves.
Playing music and arts festivals is tricky for comedians: often they have to contend with huge musical acts for attention and make sure a very diverse audience stays captivated.
“The audiences can vary [at festivals]. When you’re doing a show at a comedy club, people are specifically coming for comedy,” Thune muses before the show. “When you’re at a festival like Bonnaroo, so many people are high on something and audiences are full of music people that don’t always see comedy, which is a different experience so that can be a little odd- like you’re playing in a tent in the middle of a farm and sometimes you just think they’re coming inside for the shade.” Kronberg shared a similar sentiment, saying that those complications are combated by the fact that
Toronto audiences are savvier than your typical festival goers. “People are smarter here, more liberal,” says Hune. “I’ve done SXSW, [NXNE’s] sister festival to the south a couple times. It’s really rowdy, even during the film interactive part.”
For those curious but who missed Thursday’s show, Saturday night will bring a new slate of comedians, including Toronto comics Matt O’Brien and James Hartnett, Twitter jokester Ashley Barnhill and headliner Eric Andre, best known for his madcap Adult Swim series The Eric Andre Show. Tickets are $20 or free for platinum badge holders. More info can be found here.