The festival may be called JFL42, but there was considerably more than 42 acts who took part in the 10 days of comedy across the city, from The Sony Centre in St. Lawrence Market to the Queen Elizabeth Theatre at Exhibition Place, from The Rivoli on Queen Street up to Absolute Comedy at Yonge and Eglinton. We saw over 60 acts in total over those 10 days, ranging from superstars about to take the reins of the most popular comedy show on the planet, to emerging local comics.
Did we love everything we saw? No; but we didn’t see anything we hated, and the shows we liked, we REALLY liked. Still, there’s always room for improvement, and we’ve tried to note some ways the festival could, in talking about our highlights of the year. With the Montreal-based Just For Laughs brand expanding to Vancouver in 2016 for JFL42 Northwest, and the talent pool being shared between annual festivals at three Canadian cities, the success of these festivals rests on the producers continuing to balance a potent mix of local and international talent. We have some ideas on that, for Toronto, at least.
10. John Hodgman’s “Privileged” Storytelling
Fans of This American Life know that John Hodgman can spin a good yarn. He’s published a few books where he does just that, bending (and outright breaking) the truth for the sake of a good story. But for his new live show, Vacationland, he gets very personal, talking about his slow descent into middle age and the middle class, focusing on his experiences as a summer home owner, first in Massachusetts and more recently, Maine. He’s keenly aware of the fact that owning summer homes (plural) and becoming the owner of a boat place him perhaps not in the one per cent, but certainly among an economically-secure minority. In fact, Hodgman addresses this directly in the show. By checking his privilege, and being truthful about the advantages his background and career success have afforded him, he was able to make a crowd of younger hipsters (most of whom won’t be owning property any time soon) empathize and enjoy his challenges at integrating into Maine’s vacationing class.
9. The Podcast Boom
We wrote last year about attending JFL42 podcast tapings of Doug Loves Movies with Doug Benson and You Made It Weird with Pete Holmes, but this year’s edition saw so many comedians recording podcasts that it seemed only fitting that International Podcast Day was celebrated during the festival on September 30th. Aside from the return of both Holmes and Benson’s podcasts, we also got ones this year from the likes of Moshe Kasher, T.J. Miller, Ari Shaffir and Mike Ward.
While each podcast had its own individual focus, they all capitalized on the opportunity to cherry-pick guests from the array of talented comics who were in town and offered a chance to see some of your favourites perform in a looser setting without having to hear them run through their act again. Perhaps the greatest thing about having podcasts at JFL42, however, is it allows those who were unable to attend in person to have their own home version of the festival that can be listened to at their own leisure.
8. Great Sketch and Improv Comedy
Early concerns that JFL42 this year would be a sausage fest, with only one woman (Rachel Ballinger, as her over the top character Miranda Sings) listed among the headliners, and only two in the next dozen listed acts, were muted somewhat as the festival’s roster was fully revealed: rising female comics like Aparna Nancherla and Fortune Feimster were added, and local content like LadyStache and The Crimson Wave. Still, the festival has some work to do going forward when it comes to gender parity, and ensuring diversity on its bill; something that also applies to the content in the festival, not just the performers. It’s fine for JFL42 to be primarily a stand-up comedy festival; after all, Toronto already has a sketch festival, and an improv festival. But the sketch and improv acts at JFL42 could be counted on one hand this year.
After seeing dozens of solo stand-up acts, it was truly refreshing to see sketch troupe Get Some delight a sold out crowd with clever new sketches (they resume their weekly Wednesday shows at Bad Dog Theatre tomorrow” target=”_blank”), and watch Lindsay Mullan and Jamie Northan take personal risks, or interact with brave volunteers, in their improv show Truth or Dare.
Diversity on a large festival bill isn’t simply a checklist: having acts with different backgrounds when it comes to ethnicity, sexual orientation, performance styles and more simply makes for a better festival experience. With that in mind, booking a few more sketch and improv acts (perhaps even from out of town?) would be a plus for next year.
7. The Headlining Duo of Joe Mande & John Mulaney
Arriving as the self-described “Drake of Comedy,” comedian and Parks & Recreation writer Joe Mande dazzled at many of his own shows at smaller venues throughout the festival, but his considerable talents seemed best suited for the larger crowd at the Sony Centre where he opened for headliner John Mulaney. Overcoming the distracting sound of bells that rang out throughout the theatre as he attempted to begin his set (“Is that a cell phone or are we in an actual church?”), Mande then left the crowd wanting more as he regaled with stories of attending a terrifying dabs party, experiencing irritable bowel syndrome at summer camp and how his dad’s happiest memory is predicated on a lie. So what if he then forgot to actually introduce the headliner?
Mulaney began by announcing that it had been almost exactly two years since he was in Toronto and then proceeded to perform a set that disappointingly rehashed about half of the same material as that last appearance at JFL42, even including a recycled bit of local humour on how our city appears to be paying homage to the feared monster Bloor. In spite of his familiar act (perhaps the excusable byproduct of spending the last few years working on his now-cancelled sitcom), he still managed to keep everyone in stitches. He especially scored on an improvised bit where he flummoxed a poor woman in the front row who returned from using the washroom only to find that everyone had been coached to respond in unison to his cue of, “And you know what they say about Toronto…?” with a hearty cry of “We want pancakes!”
6. The Alternative Show’s Sampling
This year, Andy Kindler’s Alternative Show moved to a different location (the stately Royal Cinema), and to a later time, kicking off at midnight. Our question for JFL42: why is this show one of the only variety shows in their programming? Audiences at the Alternative Shows not only got to see Kindler four nights in a row, they also got the best sampling of the festival’s talent, with short sets from a number of festival highlights, including Michelle Wolf, Kate Berlant, Chris Gethard, and more. We changed our carefully-planned schedule several times after seeing Alternative Show sets. Why was it one of the only shows in the festival to give audiences a taste of comics they could see more of at the festival, and why was it on the last four nights? Surely audiences would appreciate getting to sample comics earlier in the festival – and also, perhaps earlier in the evening. That’s not to say that the Alternative Show needs to change anything, but similar cabaret style programming earlier in the festival (and earlier time) might help guests discover acts they want to add to their schedule.
5. The Cultural Targets of 2015
As JFL42 rolls into town each year, the jokes often serve as a time capsule of what’s happening in the world at any given moment. This time around there was one obvious figure that couldn’t help but end up in the crosshairs: American presidential candidate Donald Trump. John Mulaney started the trend by observing how Trump resembles what a homeless person imagines a rich person to look like, and it didn’t end there. “I’ve only regretted leaving late-night one time, and that was the day Donald Trump announced that he was running for President,” former CBS talk-show host Craig Ferguson lamented about the gift he missed out on.
It wasn’t only current politicians who were skewered either. Future presidential candidate Kanye West’s megalomania earned the ire of headliner Bill Burr, who suggested, “Close your eyes and listen to him. That guy’s got a World War in him.”
Local comedian Mark Forward directed his outrage at an issue closer to home in his short set opening for Ferguson: the lack of recognition for homegrown comedy. In between masterful jokes that deftly handled such dark material as euthanizing seniors at the age of 100, Forward pointedly chided those waiting for Ferguson, “I’ve been doing comedy in this country for 15 years and you all think my name is ‘fucking Daniel’.”
4. Hannibal Buress’ Assured Hand
From the moment Hannibal Buress took the stage at the Sony Centre, he was in control of it. The audience hung on his every word, and Buress made sure the show was the experience he wanted the audience to have. When a drunk and obnoxious heckler tried to interrupt the show, Buress put him in his place several times, without it seeming to disturb his equilibrium in the slightest; when he ultimately called for security to remove the man, who was walked out to a resounding chorus of boos, Buress made it a highlight of the show, not the interruption it could have been. By the end of the night, when back-up dancers appeared for Buress’ gibberish rap closer, we’d all forgotten about the heckler who missed out on the hilarious climax due to his big mouth.
3. The Impressive Repertoire of Patton Oswalt
There are many comedians who have spent their careers honing a particular style of comedy to best appeal to a niche audience, but it’s increasingly rare to find one like Patton Oswalt who can seemingly leap so effortlessly from one style to another. Not long into his headlining set, for instance, Oswalt told a hilarious but rather disgusting story about having to perform what he calls his worst gig ever while in the midst of battling a nasty stomach flu (spoiler: it didn’t end well). He then transitioned out of this scatological material into a well-reasoned (and yet still amusing) argument on why people are getting far too hung up on matters of terminology these days when discussing pressing issues of gender and same-sex marriage.
Not content to rest on the laurels of his act alone though, Oswalt decided about halfway through his set to do some crowd work and showcased just how quick on his feet he is in the process. When he was told by a Kitchener woman in the crowd that she worked as an environmental analyst for Blackberry, Oswalt didn’t miss a beat. “Isn’t that like saying you work for CB radio?” he joked, about being employed by the declining telecommunications company. Oswalt was also skeptical of her potential environmental duties within the organization, asking “Are they dumping porn into the rivers?” He then finished off the evening by displaying surprising maturity and wisdom in observing the pronounced differences between men and women and how it relates to raising his own young daughter.
2. Toronto Talent’s “A Game”
We see comics like Arthur Simeon, Dawn Whitwell, and Faisal Butt at club shows and open mics so often, it can be easy to take them for granted. Often, they’ll be trying out new material, and holding their best in reserve. But seeing them do terrific headlining shows at JFL42 (full sets of their best material, carefully arranged for maximum impact) reminded us that this city has some of the best comedic talent on the continent.
At the Alternative Show, many of the visiting comics did samples of their full sets (some of which we’d seen already). But hometown heroes like DeAnne Smith and Pat Thornton took risks with their time, performing off the cuff, and delivered some of the most exciting sets as a result. (Thornton kept the audience in stitches for nearly his entire time, riffing on just one joke about “cookie chips”.) That our city’s best were among the best at the festival should be more than just a source of pride for Toronto’s comedy fans; it should be an incentive to get out and see Toronto talent year round. (Whitwell hosts Dawn Patrol every Monday night at Comedy Bar; Smith has just begun a monthly at Bad Dog Theatre, Kick It, with fellow comic Jess Salomon.)
1: The Deserved Buzz Surrounding Trevor Noah
If JFL42 tapped anyone to be the festival’s breakout star this year, it would have to be Trevor Noah. Performing just two days prior to filling the estimable chair of Jon Stewart as new host of The Daily Show, Noah had every reason to be nervous in advance of the prestigious gig and yet, he came across as nothing but calm, cool and collected as he took to the headlining stage at the Sony Centre. Granted, it started off a little shaky for the dashing South African, as he struggled through a tired bit about how hanging up a cell phone just isn’t as fulfilling as slamming down a hand receiver used to be, but he quickly found his footing in the kind of social and political material that would appear destined to become his bread and butter over at Comedy Central.
Riffing on the recent Ebola scare, Noah admitted to having mixed feelings about how authorities looked at his lighter skin and automatically viewed him as less of a threat while flying into America (“I don’t want anyone to think I have Ebola but I don’t want anyone to think I can’t have Ebola”) and pointed out the irony of being under such scrutiny at all considering there were more verified cases of Ebola in America than South Africa. He touched on the epidemic of black men being killed by police in the US, why he feels safer from terrorism by flying on Middle Eastern airlines and how he had his first encounter with “charming racism” while visiting Lexington, Kentucky. It may still be too early to judge how he’s doing at his new job, but there was every indication here that he’ll do just fine.