Galas are the Crown Jewel of the Just for Laughs festival held at Salle Wilfrid Pelletier a massive theatre with luscious red interior plush seats and white marble with gold detail as far as the eye can see. It feels like a big deal and it is. My first two festivals I never even got close to a Gala last year I was in the nosebleeds.
This year I was going to be spending my final night at the festival taking in two of them.
It’s so special to see comedy performed in Grand Spaces like this because it is an art form that is created and forged on stages that are anything but. This effect is extra warm and rich when the comedy being preformed is dark. I knew that Gala I had chosen would serve this effect in Qubec sized portions. I had chosen the Gala hosted by the most main stream dark comedian working today– Anthony Jeselnik.
ANTHONY JESELNIK GALA: Andrew Schulz, Louie Anderson, Michael Rapaport, Nick Beaton, K Trevor Wilson
Just for Laughs Galas are also TV tapings which means they include elements like a man doing an inexplicable dancing shirtless striptease to Dancing with Myself to hype up the crowd. Intros stop and start again.”nd possibly the most awkward moment- after Jeselnik was introduced he was directed to slow down to allow latecomers to be seated. Jeselnik’s reaction to this was precisely on-brand for him he stood an absolute silence and let the people get seats while saying please take your time nothing is better for comedy then killing momentum while waiting for people to sit in seats they frankly don’t deserve.”
Every year At Just for Laughs I find out about a comic that makes me feel as if I know nothing about comedy for not knowing about them sooner. That comic this year is Andrew Schulz. The 35-year-old is as charming as he is controversial. His respect for the craft is evident. He understands the complexities and weaponry of the sort of comedy he creates. He went bullet on this Gala and I was interested to see how his televised material would differ from his performance on the Nasty show earlier this week– by no means a clean set but possibly cleaned up? My answer came in the form of 7 minutes of boundary-pushing, risky, topical material. He had less room for set up than he does in his club act and hit just as hard. The delivery was so focused and tapped into the visceral reaction of laughter that the audience did not have time to think about whether they should laugh or not. He told jokes about pedophiles and abortion off the top of the gala in front 3,000 people and got a standing ovation from the first 10 rows.
Louie Anderson went next and did a charming 7 minutes about being big, getting older and how he’s over kale. Baskets He’s a legend it was great to watch. Michael Rapaport did a thoroughly enjoyable set overflowing with heart, humanity and grit that seems to be expanding over the years. He is an actor as well as a stand-up, and that translated into effective use of tone in his telling of a story about a vasectomy performed by “Dr Sacs.” Canada’s own Nick Beaton is a stand up I have watched many times. When he is ‘on’, he is a very hard hitting stand-up with a great direction of energy and he was for sure ‘on’ tonight. Beaton had a very polished set about some topical Canadian issues and had an ease in front of 3,000 that only comes from killing in front of 30. The Toronto stand up scene was well represented by Beaton that night.
K Trevor Wilson closed out the gala and had one heck of a festival. Not only did he perform his hour at Salle Claude Leveillee– a intimate prestigious 122 seat venue. He also beat the notoriously scathing brit Jimmy Carr to win the Roastmasters Invitational. He ended the gala with an inquisitive and wise account of being a rabbit owner and had a clever retort for those judging his life choices. From suburbia K Trevor is a big man with an even bigger stage presence and he is not afraid to take his time to get places in his comedy a raconteur, a humorist, A Canadian National Treasure.
MICHAEL CHE GALA: Pete Holmes, Jessica Kirson, Sam Jay, Matt O’Brien, Jay Pharoah
After the first Gala ended, I thought I would just take in some of the French language street performances that take place outside. That was of course before I realized my ticket for the Michael Che gala was on the counter of my hotel room. In my gold sequined dress and my hair piled high, I took off in a full-on run, a mad dash fueled by ambition, adrenaline, and burning off the fumes of the highs and lows and reality of everything I had experienced since arriving. I dodged people, I smiled, I panted, ran my stockings and laughed my head off till the ticket was in my hand. There was just enough time to make myself look like I hadn’t run a 2-mile glitter race, took a breath looked myself dead in the eye and smiled as a tear rolled down my cheek. Uber and just in the nick of time, and I made it to my seat beside my best friend in comedy sketch comedian Jon Blair who had performed his hour at OFF-JFL earlier this week. This was the perfect way to celebrate everything we had accomplished. Just for Laughs Galas are an institution in Canada and some of the first memories I ever have of stand up on TV.
In January. Michael Che said he was going to make his own Festival that would take place exactly the same time as JFL. Tonight, instead, he was hosting the Saturday night gala. Che approached the task with cool and smooth wit. He dubbed Montrealers “white Haitians” to massive laughs, and his candor and swag took aim at the usual suspects– basically anyone who takes anything too seriously. Pete Holmes did the same material he had done off the top while hosting the New Faces showcases earlier in the week. Hosting both new faces showcases over multiple nights is a large task and he seemed tired from the job. Jokes about parenting are always a safe bet. Admittedly the appeal of the squeaky clean persona of Holmes is something that has always evaded me.I was beyond stoked to see Fred Armisen– he was part of SNL at a time I watched it most. I was beyond stoked to see he was going to play the guitar. He performed two micro sketches about music: one I found clever and subdued, the other was clearly part of a much longer bit. I felt as if he was satirizing the audience for TV the way group mentality is so often skewered in Portlandia. I made eye contact with my friend and we silently debated if the emperor had clothes on.
Jessica Kirson is an undeniable comedic talent. In Canada we have a delay of a few weeks on the show This Week at the Comedy Cellar (where she is one of my favorites). As a result some of the jokes loose their topicality but never with Kirson. Comedy needs a delegation of brazen Jewish female truth-tellers and right now Kirson is at the forefornt of this style of comedy. She began her gala set with a beat of silence that asserted dominance of the audience. She incorporated self-talk and neurotic magnetism that was masterfully packed in such a short set. I resolved to make the pilgrimage to see Kirson do an hour in her natural habitat of New York. Her performance of being uncomfortable was brilliantly controlled. It was clear the stage is her home even if Montreal is far from it.
Sam Jay who is a writer on SNL and a emerging star in stand up performed a cool, confessional, conversational and focused set about queer identity and gender roles in relationships. It was a nice progression to watch a comic have such a come up over the past three years. Canadian expat Matt O’Brien performed some high energy straight-up good stand-up despite pivoting to more character based digital comedy since making the move to L.A Matt’s performance respected the tradition of performing on a Gala. He grew up watching them and he knows what it takes to kill on one. Jay Pharoah closed out the show. I was so glad I got to see him– his stand-up seamlessly integrated with his characters and impressions. He was an Entertainer totally in his element. His impressions are truly remarkable to see live. The rapid speed at which he can switch is not something I ever properly processed before. Pharaoh got massive laughs and was everything you wanted in the closing act on a Gala.
With one last midnight show to take in I thought about what I hadn’t done yet what would complete my festival experience that in a few hours was coming to an end and I had no choice in the matter. I picked my final show not by performer but by venue. I craved a gritty space in contrast to the fancy theatre. I had not seen a single show at the Katacombs a small multi-level punk bar that Toronto comics had started to affectionately refer to as “the bone house” because of the decorative pillar of skulls right in the middle of the room. It was bittersweet to walk through the closed down streets of the festival saying my casual goodbyes to people I passed.
When I arrived it must have been something subconscious that drew me to the Katacombs because it happened to be Unsafe Sets (essentially a midnight version of the Nasty Show) hosted by Andrew Schulz who I had now dubbed “The summer camp killer” after an Instagram post from the Comedy Central party. Now keep in mind at this point Schulz had been at the festival for 11 days, just killed in front of 3,000 people and now was hosting as if he had a full night’s sleep. If JFL was Fashion Week I would have certainly purchased a pair of Andrew Schulz pants.
As I was arriving New York veteran Rich Vos was leaving. He looked at my gold outfit and huge hair and said, “nice outfit sweetheart.” I think no matter how many Just for Laughs I attend I will still experience a split second of surrealness when someone I’ve only seen on television addresses me directly. I didn’t have time to retort; he was already gone. I found a place at the bar it was a hot crowd. Someone brought Mcdonalds in the front row and noone was letting them live it down. The show highlight for me was getting to see Jessiemae Peluso one final time. I was significantly closer than I had been at the Nasty Show and it was great to witness the subtlety in such an infectious performer. Jessiemae Peluso has a fearlessness on stage that has come from conquering real fears in life. She performed a set that was not simply nasty but difficult a subject to breach the realities of her father’s Alzheimer’s Jessiemae Peluso is never visibly phased by any negative reaction the crowd has to her that was a lesson I will take back to my female friends in comedy and I will be an avid watcher of Peluso’s career from here on out.
I walked up the street to catch the end of What’s Your Fucking Deal. I promised Christine Evans to stop by earlier in the day and hoped that I’d make it on time. As I slinked into the back of the venue I was warmly greeted by one of the warmest people in comedy the incomparable Big Jay Oakerson. We chatted about Skankfest and how I admire and take cues from Christine about how to exist in the industry. I began looking for my seat. But before I could find one I heard from the stage hold the f****** up Diana Ross’s sister just walked in. I had unknowingly walked into the middle of Rich Vos and Jessica Kirson’s crowd work set and my gold dress and huge hair we’re about to be roasted by a master. I smiled and laughed and took it like the honor it was and a few moments later even got a call back “where is wrapping paper- she’s hot.” Some true fans bought me drinks as if to celebrate what went down. I felt like an episode of The Nanny! what a way to close out the festival and then I realized I was at Cafe Cleopatra the venue where it had all started for me on Tuesday night. Like the 10 tickets thrill ride Just for Laughs was winding down exactly where it had started.