Notes From a Comedy Junkie: Just For Laughs Comedy Festival Turns 35 I Was There to Help Celebrate

Sara Dahms is a comedy superfan who even goes so far as to call herself a comedy nerd. Raised on National Lampoon, John Hughes, Gene Wilder, and Fairy Tale Theatre, her life changed after her older sister showed her Eddie Murphy’s Raw in 1988. Soon after, she found  and became a stand-up junkie for life. Eighteen months ago, she took her first comedycation to see Jeff Ross play in Miami on her birthday.  Since then, she’s been traveling all over the country checking out the best comedy everywhere, a confirmed comedy addict, and now she’s agreed to share her travels with us. This is her column. In this edition, Sara heads to Montreal for the Just for Laughs Comedy Festival

Read Notes From a Comedy Junkie Vol 1 here, check out Volume 2 here, and read more about her travels with Volume 3 (Chicago), Volume 4 (St. Louis), Volume 5 (Moontower),  Volume 6  Colossal Clusterfest and The Comedy Store and Volume 7: Skankfest.

Notes From a Comedy Junkie: Happy Birthday to You!!! Just For Laughs Comedy Festival Turns 35, I Was There to Help Celebrate

Comedy brings people together and Just For Laughs is an experience unlike any other. There is no place else on Earth where you can find network executives, the biggest stars of the stage & screen and their fans, all enjoying comedy together. The streets fill up, the venues sell out and the parties go all night. After five days and 18 shows, here are just a few of my highlights from this year’s festival.

At the Funny Or Die after-party wearing my favorite vintage dress. It’s the one Lisa wore to the house party in the movie “Weird Science” for all of my fellow comedy-nerds out there!

Show I am Most Looking Forward to Seeing Again:

“Comedy 101 With Ron and Gail Bennington”

Comedy 101” is a show that gives open micers the opportunity to perform their strongest material in front of a panel of established comedians. This particular installment featured Jim Norton, Dan Soder, Jimmy Shubert and Tommy Johnagin. These veterans acted as judges and “mentors” (not really) for the young up-and-comers, in an extremely hilarious fashion. Each judge had a bell in front of them and was able to stop the act to relay their “feedback” (it’s not really feedback) and/or new and improved punched up material at any time by hitting the bell. I really love the fact that the Benningtons have the panel buzz in and interject AS the open micers perform their acts. This allows the audience to appreciate just how quickly the veterans’ wit really works while keeping the funny flowing in a fast paced manner throughout the entire show. “Comedy 101” is a mash-up of improv, stand-up, roasting and live joke writing all in one tight little package. I loved the spontaneity of watching the open micers set up premises while some of the greatest minds in the business came up with killer punchlines right there, in the moment. Here is a small snapshot of what this show delivers.

A comedian by the name “Paper Face” closed the show and as his name would lead you to believe, he wore a paper bag over his head. Jim Norton was quick to ring the bell and say, “You look like every woman I’ve ever fucked.” Within moments of Paper Face’s slow moving material, the bell rang again and one of the judges chimed in with, “I’m beginning to wish that paper bag was plastic!” The place went wild!!! Ron Bennington gave Paper Face the final piece of “advice” of the evening. It was, “You can take the bag off now. We all know you killed Nicole.” Bravo!

I completely understand why they named the show “Comedy 101.” The all-star panel of judges completely schooled these youngsters through their feedback and example. This fast-paced show is my kind of comedy to a tee and I am looking forward to seeing it again!

Most Memorable Moments:

The “Awards Show” and all things Jim Carrey

All of the recipients and most of the presenters pose for the photographers… I got close enough to snap a photo of my own!

The Awards Show is an annual tradition that recognizes outstanding artists in their field. Being there in the presence of comedy legends, in the intimate setting of a room that holds about 500 people, made for plenty of “once in a lifetime” moments that could only occur at Just For Laughs.

Jimmy Carr presented Mike Birbiglia with the Stand-Up Comedian of the Year Award and had the funniest joke of the night. He took the podium and said, “One must ask oneself, ‘What is the best place to have an award show?’ Is it in a room in the basement of a Hyatt? Is it in a shopping mall? Why compromise!?” The truth is sometimes the funniest punchline a comedian can write and Jimmy Carr nailed it with this one.

Alonzo Bodden hosted this star studded event and had an ongoing shtick where he found a way to ask each award recipient and a few of the presenters to either hire him or explain themselves for not giving him work as either a cop, bailiff, or bouncer in their productions. Trevor Noah received the Comedy Person of the Year Award and when he gave his gracious, heartfelt acceptance speech he revealed that his father had actually been murdered by a security guard and then with perfect comedic timing, turned and looked at Alonzo. It was hilarious! I thought that Trevor had the last laugh with that one, but I was wrong. Alonzo Bodden took the podium one last time to close the show, but before he said goodnight he turned to Noah and said, “Trevor, if they ever make a biopic about your life….” Bodden managed to find the funny and keep us laughing all the way to the end!

Jim Carrey was presented with the Generation Award by Judd Apatow and in his introduction speech Judd made the declarative statement, “Jim is the best. No one comes close.” He said it a few times to really let the significance of his words sink in. He wasn’t making a joke. He was stating a fact. Jim may be “the best”, but nobody recognizes and appreciates funny or has more credibility than Apatow. For Judd to go on the record and make such a bold statement is a true testament to the depth of Carrey’s abilities. Jim Carrey received his award and gave his acceptance speech. He was funny, charming and sentimental. It was completely surreal to bare witness to his undeniable genius. It’s the exact type of experience my comedy-nerd dreams are made of. Jim also found a way to weave some of his existential philosophies into his speech in much the same way he had during his “I’m Dying Up Here” panel the night before. I may have only minored in philosophy when I was an undergrad, but I can recognize a wise soul when I see one and I appreciate and admire his complexity and spirit. Jim shared his belief that everything in the universe is connected and through this connection we are in fact all things. His words were thought provoking and beautifully humble at their core.

At the end of his “I’m Dying Up Here” panel, Jim went to the edge of the stage and shook as many hands as he could, graciously posing for selfies with any of his fans who asked. I was there, but not fast enough to get in on that action, so as soon as I saw him shaking hands again after the award show wrapped, I got right over to the front of the stage, phone in hand, ready for my selfie with the great, Jim Carrey. As Jim moved closer and closer to me, I heard him say to his adoring fans, “I don’t really want to take pictures, but I will. I just want to meet as many of you as I can.” His words had a Buddha like quality to them and with that, I made the decision to put my phone away and respect his humble request. Instead of asking for a picture, I simply shook his hand, looked him in the eyes and said, “You are everything!” I may not have a picture to post on Facebook of this encounter, but the memory will remain with me forever in my heart.

Jim Carrey shaking as many hands as he can after the “I’m Dying Up Here” panel

JFL Individual Standouts:

Jeff Ross– Thank you for bringing more hilarious, original comedy to Just for Laughs. “Jeff Ross & Dave Attell: Bumping Mics” and “Jeff Ross Presents: Stand-Up On The Spot With Jeremiah Watkins” were outstanding and I cannot wait until “Jeff Ross Live From the Border Fence” comes out. This man is one of the very few comedians that possess the skill set to make me both laugh and cry with his words, depth and ground breaking specials about subjects that really matter. He may have a reserved front row seat and a ringing endorsement from Jim Carrey, but Jeff Ross doesn’t let his A-list friendships and successful career ever stop him from connecting with his fans or supporting the passion and talent of the industry’s up-and-comers. He is truly a man of the people. Thank you for the funny!

Jeff Ross and I at the Funny or Die Midnight Party

“What’s Your F@%king Deal” with Big Jay Oakerson & Jessica Kirson

My sense of humor definitely leans towards a natural, Mort Sahl approach to comedy. I connect best to comedy and comedians that at least give off the impression of being off the cuff, fresh and unrehearsed, so it only makes sense that Big Jay Oakerson would be one of my favorite comedians. This particular installment of “WYFD” featured Jessica Kirson on the audience microphone. Jay and all of his featured acts were hilarious, particularly Aaron Berg, but Kirson stole the show. Her physical comedy, quick wit, and ability to read people’s energy on a dime were outstanding. She also spoke up and kept the show moving when one of the show’s comedians would ask her to talk to someone in the crowd that had already been spoken to by previous comedians. This is one of the most critical aspects of holding that microphone and can make or break a show. Big Jay and Jessica had terrific chemistry and riffed off of each other exceptionally well. I hope these two have the opportunity to collaborate again soon because their “Martin and Lewis” vibe definitely needs to be explored further.

Big Jay Oakerson says goodnight to the crowd at this year’s final “What’s Your F@%king Deal”

Judd Apatow– From booking clubs, to writing/directing movies and everything in between, Apatow has worked in every facet of comedy that you can think of. I was first introduced to his stand-up when I saw him perform at Just For Laughs last year and that’s when I truly began to appreciate just how talented this man really is… and I wasn’t the only one! Judd Apatow is one of the elite comedians to have received a deal to record an hour special for Netflix and he decided to film his first ever, hour special right here at The Just For Laughs Comedy Festival in Montreal! His jokes were definitely hilarious and well written, but what I really loved were his stories because they were completely unique to him and his amazing life experiences. They drew the crowd in and really helped us to connect to the man, husband and father behind the impressive IMDB resume. Whether he was telling a story about meeting Obama or struggling to gain the respect and admiration of his teenage daughters he always found a way to make the stories relatable. I loved it! Judd Apatow is stand-up comedy’s “Prodigal Son” and I am so glad he’s returned home.

Godfrey– This man is a natural performer and is always a crowd favorite. He received some of the biggest laughs of the night at “The Nasty Show” and as I walked out of the venue, I couldn’t help but overhear a number of different groups all talking about how much they loved him. I ran into Godfrey on my way to “The David Spade Gala” and had an opportunity to share my appreciation for his comedy with him personally. It turned out that he was going to be one of the featured performers on Spade’s show. I was definitely interested to see how his “Nasty Show” material would translate to an audience at a gala…. It turns out Godfrey has so much quality material, he barely repeated a joke from the set I saw at “The Nasty Show” and was the ONLY comedian to receive a STANDING OVATION the of entire night!!!! He has definitely won over the masses. It’s about time the industry (Netflix, HBO, Showtime) take notice as well!

David Baddiel– Besides bringing his one man show, “David Baddiel My Family: Not the Sitcom” to JFL, he was also one of the featured acts to perform during the “Michael Che & Colin Jost Gala” and that is where I had the pleasure of seeing him. He presented about 10 minutes from his show and completely blew my mind with his artifacts and stories about his mother’s obsession and 20 year affair with golf pro, David White. Think “Bridges of Madison County” only with much bigger laughs and a lot more sex. As David was telling his stories, all I kept thinking was, “This is perfect for Ari” who has a story telling show currently named, “Ari Shaffir’s Renamed Storytelling Show.” As luck would have it, I ran into Baddiel at the closing night party. I told him how much I loved his act and asked if he knew Shaffir. He said, “No.” I had seen Ari a few moments earlier so I brought David over and introduced them to each other. They seemed to hit it off, so I slipped away and allowed nature to take its course. When I walked through their general area about 10 minutes later, they were still talking, so fingers crossed there will be some sort of collaboration in their future!

Jeremiah Watkins– I went to see “Jeff Ross Presents Stand-Up on The Spot” and being a native of Chicago, I’d like to think that I know quality improv when I see it. The show began and Jeremiah asked for audience suggestions. I yelled out, “deleted scenes from the movie ‘Stand By Me’!” He took the suggestion and went with it by acting out how the kid actually got hit by the train…. He saw a porno magazine on the tracks and was mesmerized by it… It was sooooo funny! Whether it be running his set at The Comedy Store, performing in “Stand-up On The Spot,” “Roast Battle,” or “The Goddamn Comedy Jam,” when Jeremiah Watkins is involved the energy is going to be up and it will always be a good time.


JFL Chance Encounters:

Barbara Romen– Paul Provenza introduced me to his long time confidant and production partner, Barbara Roman. I asked her how she first got into comedy and when she told me that she was given the choice between working at one of the biggest talent agencies in Hollywood OR going to work for Mitzi Shore and she chose “The Store,” fireworks went off in my heart! She’s been in the industry for decades and I completely respect and admire her unending passion for this art form. All of her stories were truly compelling and completely surreal to listen to. Barbara Romen is an absolute gem and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to meet her.

Cathy Carlson– Cathy is the creator and director of the hilarious documentary, “Everybody Has an Andy Dick Story.” The concept of her movie is hilarious and true… Even I have an Andy Dick story! I had the opportunity to meet and hang out with this incredibly kind, creative and open-hearted woman a couple of times throughout the week. The second night we ran into each other, Carlson nudged me and said, “look who it is” and pointed to the table next to us. It was Kevin Hart and a group of his peers making themselves at home no more then 10 feet away! Only at JFLMTL!

Donnell Rawlings– I first met Donnell at a show about a year ago so I was pleasantly surprised to run into him here at the festival. He’s completely down to Earth and an extremely cool guy. Fans would approach him asking for pictures or requesting he deliver his famous line from “Chappelle’s Show“, “I’m rich biatch!!!” and he’d oblige them. As we made our way to the bar, one fan shook his hand and Donnell turned to me and said “Holy shit that guy had sweaty hands! I have to go to the bathroom and wash my hand off!” Just then one of Donnell’s friends appeared and shook his sweat covered hand then asked, “You good?” to which Donnell replied, “I am now!” His friend walked away and Donnell and I lost our shit laughing! He had just wiped the sweat off his hand and onto his buddy and the dude was probably thinking, “Damn, Donnell has some sweaty-ass hands!” LOL! We got our drinks, sat down and Donnell preceded to share hilarious, true stories with me about his life and career… It was the perfect ending to a perfect week!

Hanging out on the patio with Donnell Rawlings

They say that,”Hearts hold truths that words can only hint at.” Just For Laughs has my heart. These stories are my truths. Words, don’t fail me now! See you next year, Montreal!

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Sara Dahms

Sarah Dahms is a comedy superfan hails from Chicago and travels all over the country checking out the best comedy everywhere.
Sara Dahms
Sara Dahms
Sarah Dahms is a comedy superfan hails from Chicago and travels all over the country checking out the best comedy everywhere.