Comedy

Just for Laughs Brings the Funny to Toronto

Five comics talk about yelling at hecklers, drowning in debt, and avoiding Hitler as the 10-day comedy festival approaches.

Tig Notaro. Photo courtesy of JFL42.

  • Multiple venues
  • September 18–27
  • $49–129

It’s the time of year when everyone could probably use a good laugh—the recent drop in temperatures is making it increasingly hard to stay in denial about the end of summer, and Toronto voters are still scratching their heads trying to figure out which Ford is running for what in the impending mayoral election. Fortunately, Just for Laughs is arriving in town with 42 flavours of comedy to help you focus on the lighter side of life. In a year that’s already seen the deaths of a couple of great stand-up comedians in Robin Williams and Joan Rivers, it seems an ideal time to appreciate the importance of the art form by sharing a communal laugh with others at a live comedy extravaganza.

This year, the festival has upped the ante with six headliners: Lena Dunham, Seth Meyers, Joe Rogan, Wanda Sykes, Nick Offerman, and Amy Schumer. There are a variety of passes available to see any, all, or none of these headliners—most passes come with credits that get you into the other 42 events, and since each credit is returned to you when you check in at a show on your smartphone, it’s possible to make the most of your purchase if you’re willing to log a lot of late nights. Those who are will be rewarded with a deep lineup that balances talent from south of the border such as Pete Holmes and Doug Benson with homegrown comics such as Mark Forward and Jon Dore. We’re still a little bummed that Chelsea Peretti and Kumail Nanjiani had to cancel their performances, but it’s somewhat consoling to know that they’re busy making great shows (Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Silicon Valley, respectively) and that there are plenty of other funny people worth seeing.

We spoke to five performers in advance of their Just For Laughs appearances and asked them five questions each for our official JFL42 questionnaire…


Tig Notaro

Tig Notaro turned tragedy into triumph in 2012 when she dealt with a series of personal setbacks—including a breast cancer diagnosis and the death of her mother—by taking to the stage. A powerful performance at Largo in Los Angeles was later released online as the album Live; it received universal praise as much for its bracing honesty as its understated wit. Notaro, now healthy, has also written for the Emmy-nominated Inside Amy Schumer. She can be heard regularly on the podcast Professor Blastoff with David Huntsberger and her frequent writing partner Kyle Dunnigan, and is now more than ever a vital voice in the comedy community.

What’s your routine when it comes to preparing for a performance?

Nothing exciting. I typically have my notes, which consist of bullet points of what I want to touch on. And that is about it. The one preparation that is a constant for me is I always check my hair before going on stage. To be honest, it is probably the only time I check my hair.

What’s the most memorable experience you’ve had with a heckler or someone disrupting a show?

I would say my memories are more of some of the tougher shows, than any one particular instance with a specific heckler. Nowadays, the audience and “crowd work” is part of what I do on stage, but those for the most part always have a fun and light-hearted feel to them. There are not too many memories where I really go at it with a heckler.

What’s the biggest lesson you’ve had to learn in pursuing a career in comedy?

One of the biggest lessons in pursuing this is that you need to push yourself along on your own, before others can get behind you. Early on, I felt pressure as it relates to getting a good booking agent and manager, and moving things along on the business side, etc. And the biggest lesson was to just focus first and foremost on getting better at my craft through a great deal of hard work, and letting those other elements just take care of themselves organically, as opposed to force them.

If you were programming your own comedy festival and could choose any comedian living or dead to headline, who would you choose and why?

I do program and curate my own comedy festival in DC. It is called The Bentzen Ball. This will be our third year running. Previous years we have had everyone from Sarah Silverman to Ira Glass to Patton Oswalt to Reggie Watts. This year will be Jeff Garlin, Rosie O’Donnell and many, many more to be announced. If I could headline a comedian no longer around, I’d go with Richard Pryor, Greg Giraldo, Bill Hicks, Phyllis Diller—those types.

What scares you more than anything?

Sharks and living with regrets.


Andy Kindler
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Photo courtesy of JFL42.

The quintessential comic’s comic, Andy Kindler will be hosting four nights of The Alternative Show at Comedy Bar, September 23–26 at 11 p.m. It should be the ideal way to end an evening that might also feature some surprise guests. Kindler, with his unmistakable sardonic and self-deprecating demeanour, has appeared in everything from Everybody Loves Raymond to the Disney Channel’s Wizards of Waverly Place, and has been a regular guest on Late Show With David Letterman.

What’s your routine when it comes to preparing for a performance?

I look over my material, and laugh at my own jokes like a hyena. I just got cast to play a hyena, so I also consider this preparing for the role. I meditate about what could go wrong with the show. I try to have a nice meal, or a free meal, if the club offers it. I have low blood sugar and often collapse during the setup of a joke, so I need to be careful. Before the show, I peer out at the crowd, and judge them.

What’s the most memorable experience you’ve had with a heckler or someone disrupting a show?

Once a guy stood up during a show and said how funny I was in a loud voice. He was being sarcastic and wouldn’t let up. When I asked what his problem was, he said, “I don’t have a problem because you’re so hilarious.” My most memorable memory from this is not being stabbed by him.

What’s the biggest lesson you’ve had to learn in pursuing a career in comedy?

That you can be a working comedian for almost 30 years, and still be drowning in debt. I assumed, when I started, that after 20 years I would get some kind of a golden parachute or a gold watch at least. Or a feeling of satisfaction.

If you were programming your own comedy festival and could choose any comedian living or dead to headline, who would you choose and why?

I would choose Richard Pryor, because he was the greatest comedian ever. I never got to see him live, or brought anyone back from the dead, so that part would be really exciting. If I can’t get him, I would choose James Adomian because that guy cracks me up, and he’s often available.

What scares you more than anything?

It’s still Hitler. That evildoer’s ability to inspire fear has true staying power. I’m still not convinced that he’s dead, which is why I have a Hitler Google Alert. He’s not getting the jump on me next time.


Mark Forward

Photo by Dwayne Larson.

Veteran comic, writer, and actor Mark Forward has had what most people would consider a busy summer, appearing once again at the Just for Laughs Festival in Montreal, and making a second appearance on Craig Ferguson’s Late Late Show: “I toured with him when he came up to Canada, and he asked me, ‘Why don’t you come and do another [set] before we close the show?” But festival appearances and national late-night appearances aside, Forward says he’s been taking it easy in the weeks leading up to six hour-long performances at JFL42. “I’d spent the last three summers in Halifax working on Mr. D“—he wrote for the show and played oddball librarian Wayne Leung—”so it was nice to enjoy my backyard [in Toronto] this August.” Forward performs Sept. 18, 20, and 22 at Comedy Bar, and Sept. 21 and 24-26 at The Rivoli.

What’s your routine when it comes to preparing for a performance?

Worry, doubt, fear—no, that’s actually all true. I always worry I don’t have enough new material, and everyone will know what I’m going to say, which will make me a huge failure. I have about a two-week insomnia period before something like JFL42. And then you hit the stage, and everything’s fine.

And I’m lugging a guitar, or a ukulele, and props now… so hack! Sometimes I’ll use the guitar for less than 30 seconds in a set. And Air Canada charges you $25 to fly with one, there and back. That’s why I brought the ukulele to the Ferguson taping—I can put that in my carry-on.

What’s the most memorable experience you’ve had with a heckler or someone disrupting a show?

There was a woman who became very angry with me at a Christmastime show, and she was sitting with her boyfriend in the front row. She kept telling him how angry she was, and telling me how angry she was, during my set. She left to go to the washroom, and while she was gone, I started talking to her boyfriend, asking him why he was with her. And I put the Christmas tree that was on stage in her chair, and when she came back, I told her, “Now he has a better girlfriend than you.”

She lost her mind. She started screaming at me and the audience, the cops were called, and she was taken out of the club (this was at Yuk Yuk’s in Mississauga). And while she was out front, before the cops showed up, she started throwing rocks at the windows of cars in the parking lot, because she figured at least some of them had to belong to audience members who’d been laughing at her.

That’s probably the craziest.

What’s the biggest lesson you’ve had to learn in pursuing a career in comedy?

Probably unlearning the bad habit you learn growing up, of worrying what everyone else is doing, and what they’re getting, and letting it affect how hard you’re working. Comics can get—and this surely happens in every profession—we can get really worn down watching others advance when we don’t. Media coverage, attention—there’s always a flavour of the year, someone who’s popping.

My first year doing comedy, I was doing shows with amazing comics like Jason Rouse, Nikki Payne, Ryan Belleville, and they all took off. And I was asking myself, “What am I doing wrong, am I terrible?” But I was just a slower burn, to develop into the comic I am now. You have to learn not to worry about what anyone else is getting, because comics can get really negative about themselves. You have to just focus on what you do, and not get bitter that someone else has gotten what you want to attain.

Comedy, more so than other performance art, seems to be a marathon, rather than a sprint.

Definitely. And when you’re at a high point, say, a year later, it can be tough to remember why you were so down on yourself. You just have to continue doing the work. And you can get the biggest things—like appearing on Ferguson—and a week later, you’re still struggling with everyone else on the lineup in some shitty pub. The highs and lows can make you insane. Keeping that in check is the biggest lesson.

If you were programming your own comedy festival and could choose any comedian living or dead to headline, who would you choose and why?

Can I pick two? It can be a two-night festival? I’d go with Mitch Hedberg and Zach Galifianakis.

Because those are the two you’d want to see most yourself?

Yeah. Although, Paul F. Tompkins… every time I see him, it makes me angry, how easy he makes it look. I saw him do 20 minutes riffing on the sign behind him at JFL in Montreal, and it had a beginning, a middle, and an end, and there was no way he could have prepped it beforehand. It was a bit that was better than what someone else might have spent months and months writing. So I’d need three nights, for three headliners.

What scares you more than anything?

In life? Probably death, number one. Then stairs without backing, where you can see through them. In comedy… I have this recurring nightmare where the audience is constantly moving, and I have to follow them from room to room, doing my bit, while I chase them. I haven’t quite figured out what it means, but the repetition in the dream is tiring.


Paul F. Tompkins
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Photo by Lisa Whiteman.

Certain to be clad in characteristically dapper attire, Paul F. Tompkins returns once again to the city that launched Facebook groups everywhere in 2010 when local comedian Bob Kerr made good on his Twitter promise to get 300 people to see Tompkins in Toronto. Aside from making memorable appearances on myriad podcasts, Tompkins wrote for and performed on the influential sketch program Mr. Show in the late ’90s, voiced characters in animated programs such as Bob’s Burgers and Netflix’s new series BoJack Horseman, and even had small roles in the Paul Thomas Anderson films Magnolia and There Will Be Blood.

What’s your routine when it comes to preparing for a performance?

It depends on the type of performance. If I’m doing improv or sketch or guesting on a live podcast, I just show up and do it. If I’m doing solo stand-up or my variety show at Largo here in Los Angeles, I have one ritual: about two to three hours before the show begins, I get anxious just to the point of irritability. It never fails to have no impact on anything!

What’s the most memorable experience you’ve had with a heckler or someone disrupting a show?

In London last year, a guy groaned in the middle of the story I was telling. I thought it was an expression of disapproval, but thank god, he was just having a heart attack. The show was stopped and paramedics came and took him away, and after 20 minutes the audience came back into the theatre and I finished my set. After laughter and applause, “heart attack” is the third acceptable type of audience response.

What’s the biggest lesson you’ve had to learn in pursuing a career in comedy?

Comedy is subjective.

If you were programming your own comedy festival and could choose any comedian living or dead to headline, who would you choose and why?

Bob Newhart. His albums from the ’60s hold up amazingly well today. And he seems like he’d be nice. Is he demanding? Have you heard bad stuff about him? I am actually starting a festival and I’ve called him four times already, and nothing. Should I go with a dead person?

What scares you more than anything?

Being tricked into creating content for a website under the guise of an interview.


Ron Funches

A big teddy bear of a man with a soft-spoken voice and high-pitched laugh, Ron Funches can’t help but stand out from the pack. You may have seen him perform on Kroll Show—the Comedy Central sketch show for which he also writes—or deliver a set at one of the Just For Laughs preview performances the festival organized in July.

What’s your routine when it comes to preparing for a performance?

Listen to Bobby Darin, eat a small meal, Cherry Coke, and water. Remind myself what my job is and that I’m lucky.

What’s the most memorable experience you’ve had with a heckler or someone disrupting a show?

I once yelled at a heckler at an outdoor festival and, as I finished, “Iron Man” from Black Sabbath started playing and I never felt so cool in my life.

What’s the biggest lesson you’ve had to learn in pursuing a career in comedy?

To relax and enjoy the whole process and that, no matter what, this is my life.

If you were programming your own comedy festival and could choose any comedian living or dead to headline, who would you choose and why?

Lucille Ball and the entire cast of I Love Lucy would do a live episode, because how awesome would that be?

What scares you more than anything?

The idea that I may just be a mental patient in a facility dreaming my whole life right now, and scorpions.

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