Written by Debra Kessler and Justin Heritage
The Toronto JFL42 Comedy Festival just wrapped after ten pretty spectacular days. There were over 100 shows to see and we made sure to check out as many as we could. Our own Justin Heritage and Debra Kessler checked out the festival, watching big international headliners and tons of local Toronto talent. They visited the clubs, and enjoyed the city. There was too much to try to explain everything we saw, so here are our top thirteen JFL42 moments that you missed if you weren’t there. Thank you to the Toronto comedy community for the warm welcome, we will definitely be back next year. And special thanks to SiriusXM’s Ben Miner and Comedy Records’ Barry Taylor for hooking us up with all the best people and places.
Forget the suspense and the backwards countdown, we want to put the most epic moment of the festival right up top, and that was Sinbad’s crazy appearance on Big Jay Oakerson‘s Whats Your Fucking Deal show at Comedy Bar. As most of you know, it’s a crowd work show. Jay hosts, with another comedian in the audience who holds a mic and it’s a teamwork thing. When Jay’s not on stage, there’s a great lineup on stage working with the audience mic, and together the comics riff with the crowd, talking to everyone and it always gets weird. Most of the comics on the line up do about 10, maybe 15 minutes. Big Jay had 3 shows on the festival schedule- the first one last Sunday night with Joe DeRosa on the audience mic, and a killer line up that included DeAnne Smith, Rob Mailloux, and Sabrina Jalees. The final guest was a huge announcement, the legendary Sinbad— yes that Sinbad- comedy, TV, and movies Sinbad– took the stage. You knew immediately it was going to be unforgettable, because Sinbad was dressed to the nines with tinted sunglasses, a sharp fedora and clothes that you can’t help but call “threads.” Sinbad was so cool, he brought out his own second mic with him, comedian Chase Anthony. Sinbad said Chase was there to be his “Millennial Whisperer” to help him talk to the young people.
It got weird fast, evolving from some light crowd work to Sinbad giving advice, to Sinbad talking about his buddy Cosby, and otherwise laying down knowledge on the audience, eventually turning the format on its ass with Sinbad doing Q&A with the audience. Ten minutes went by, twenty, after thirty minutes, it became apparent that Sinbad had settled in and wasn’t going anywhere. It was a comedy filibuster, before it ended 90 minutes went by- more than most headliners stay on stage. By 1am, some of the audience started to leave — it was after all a Sunday night, and nobody had planned to attend an all night comedy show– but for those who could stay and most of the crowd did, it was one of those nights where you can’t believe what you’re hearing, seeing, and don’t know exactly what to make of it all. At some point, a discussion about whether Joe DeRosa would give or receive if he had a sexual encounter with Donald Trump was the topic. At another point, Sinbad seemed to be sticking up for his former co-star Bill Cosby, but then he mentioned that he was looking forward to the justice system finding some answers. Big props to Big Jay Oakerson- the consummate host who did the only thing that makes any sense at all, he stood in the back taking it all in, and let the show go on, and also to Joe DeRosa who hung in there for two hours until finally handing the audience mic over to someone in the audience and heading back to the green room after 1am. Sinbad, by the way, did not notice. Finally around 1:30 am, Sinbad decided to wrap and let Big Jay bring the show to a close, but he wasn’t done because he and Chase stuck around outside on the steps with the smokers for another hour. Dazed audience members filed out into the evening after a 90 minute hang with Sinbad muttering things like, what just happened? And was that real? And sharing details on social media.
Big Jay did two other WYFD shows at JFL each epic in its own way, with a mix of Toronto and visiting comics on the stage. The Toronto crowd did not disappoint. The audiences were drunker and crazier than even the New York audiences, giving Jay and the other comics plenty to work with. Nate Bargatze and Andy Kindler joined Big Jay as audience mic’s for the remaining two shows and just crushed- hilarious seeing two of the country’s finest being funny in totally different ways than you’re used to. You never know where the show is going to go and it’s always a blast.
Jim Jefferies absolutely crushed the city of Toronto for JFL. He performed at the Sony Center in front of giant, eager, and appreciative crowds. I’ve never heard a crowd more “with” a comic than this Toronto Crowd with Jim Jefferies. And the show was brilliant. But my favorite Jim Jefferies moment came during a more intimate show at Second City. As part of JFL42’s new ComedyCon shows, Jefferies was In Conversation with podcaster and movie reviewer Richard Crouse, when he schooled Crouse on what became a lesson in the importance of precision in joke writing. Crouse and Jefferies were talking about the now infamous incident where Jefferies was punched in the face on stage by a heckler, when Crouse quoted one of Jefferies lines to him. “You fucked that joke up,” Jefferies said proceeding to explain that “I’m” is not the same as “I’ll be” and why it changes the joke. For anyone who has enjoyed Jefferies street style, and mistook it for casualness, lesson learned. Jefferies is one of the best comedy writers and performers on stage today, period. The hour was terrific, he talked about growing up, going to school in the same elementary school where his mom was an unpopular teacher, giving up on a budding career as a singer and starting to pursue comedy, and the strange trend of comedians writing memoir books, particularly when they’re young. He also shared some very personal experiences that have led to some of Jefferies’ best stage material. Jim Jefferies confirmed in every way possible that he has earned his place at the very top of the comedy food chain.
Gary Gulman was one of the hardest tickets to get at JFL42 and with good reason. He’s absolutely brilliant. After getting shut out of his first few shows at The Garrison and The Rivoli, we checked out Gulman’s packed to the rafters show at Toronto’s home headliner club, Yuk Yuk’s. Every table was packed, so packed that some of our team just sat in chairs that appeared to be for comics who drop in, because they weren’t at tables and didn’t have waitress service. But it didn’t matter, you just wanted to be in that room to hear Gulman on stage. Gulman just released a pretty phenomenal hour this past summer, so we were all expecting to hear some of that material- but every word was new, and it’s astonishing how polished, how well constructed and how absolutely hilarious Gulman’s new material already is. The crowd was in the palm of Gary’s hand as he talked about anxiety, various forms of discomfort and other mundane things that Gulman masterfully elevates to high art.
Kumail Nanjiani of HBO’s Silicon Valley had a great set and when he went into crowd work, he discovered the next great Pakistani-Canadian sensation. A 14-year-old boy who is a total fan boy of Kumail’s, the kid quickly became a fan favorite as he clearly had the gift of the gab. The two played very well off each other and I can’t help but feel like this experience has doomed this kid to a life of stand up. I’d wish the kid the best of luck, but he clearly already has some skills.
First let’s get this out of the way: Second City’s Mainstage Show in Toronto is must see. The entire cast is brilliant, and any one of the performers could transition to television, film, Broadway, or anywhere they want to go. Lindsay Mullen should be on Saturday Night Live right now, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen live physical comedy funnier than seeing Kyle Dooley playing an alien who just landed on Earth and has an urgent need to use the bathroom, if only he could figure out whether to visit the men’s bathroom or the women’s bathroom. But the holy shit moment of the night was the sketch narrating about a bomb hidden under the main stage at Toronto’s second city, with the storyteller on stage progressively making the audience more and more uncomfortable, talking about the doors locking, and building tension. I don’t know if this would have worked in the States, and I don’t even know if it worked here, but it was an unforgettable moment and a reminder that taking risks is an integral part of great comedy.
Anthony Jeselnik brought two very memorable moments. The first was at his show at the Sony Centre. He opened the floor to questions, and of course he was asked how Amy Schumer was in bed. To which he responded “Good enough to date for a few years” in only a way he could say. He then told the guy “not to worry because we will all get to bang her someday.” The other moment worth mentioning is the fact he showed up at Andy Kindler’s show and helped close out the show alongside his friend Nate Bargatze. Jeselnik came out and roasted pretty much everyone including Nate, but the two played really well off each other in a Meta vs Alpha kind of way
Over the week, we saw so many great local comics and Canadian comics from faraway parts of the country, but none stood out as strongly as K Trevor Wilson. We interviewed K Trevor before he broke out on Comedy Central at this summer’s Comedy Central Roast Battle, and became instant fans seeing him on the show and we suspected that Wilson had a big future ahead of him. Now having the chance to see Wilson do a full hour at The Garrison– a very cool music venue- and mesmerize the room, we know he’s going to be a gigantic comedy star. If you get the chance to see K Trevor perform in a club, cancel all your other plans and go because it won’t be long before you will only be able to see him from the back of a giant theater.
Nick Thune’s show was going great then, he stopped and admitted to being sick. He joked that he had taken cocaine to counter the cold and now needed some weed to level him out. Then without hesitation, a crowd member ran up to the stage, lit a joint and handed it to Nick. Nick laughed, took a huge hit, put it out and then thanked the man. The crowd went wild; you can always count on a Canadian crowd to get you stoned.
New Faces at JFL42 is very different from New Faces at the Montreal Just for Laughs Comedy Festival. All the JFL42 New Faces are Canadian, and the showcase show is decidedly more low key, in the smaller Cabaret Room at Comedy Bar which is a shame because the level of talent was amazing. Nigel Grinstead hosted and we got to see several of the SiriusXM Top Comic finalists perform including winner Chris Robinson who was great. We instantly fell in love with Jackie Pirico whose odd set and unique delivery makes her a true original- particularly her bit about baby talking during sex that goes to places you would never expect. It could have been the highlight of most nights… but then there was Mayce Galoni who had a flawlessly written set and is going to be a big player in comedy. But the highlight of night went to Vancouver’s Sophie Buddle who took the stage in a camo jacket, with all the confidence of a seasoned pro, and had great delivery, great jokes wrapped in a storytelling style, but not telling stories. She is the kind of comic you’re excited to discover and can’t wait to see her develop. It’s tempting to share some of her material, but we won’t rob anyone of the chance to discover Sophie for themselves.
It would be remiss not to mention how important Comedy Bar was to our overall experience at JFL42. Every night we ended up there for the closing show, and every night planned to leave as the show closed. But every night we stayed, hanging out inside, or out on the steps smoking, watching comedians from all over the city come in to hang out late at night. Comedy Bar has two rooms, and while neither of them are perfect if you compared them to a checklist of the best way to build a room for comedy, there is obviously something else great happening there because you quickly forget that the dimensions of the room are long rather than wide, and the sightlines aren’t perfect. Every show at Comedy Bar was a blast, and it’s definitely a ground zero of sorts for the late night crowd.
I don’t know what I saw. I don’t know exactly what happened or what was said. Thompson breezed in like a windy November and turned into a full force hurricane of comedy. His stream of consciousness made me dizzy in the best way possible. Four thumbs up for the Scott Thompson experience, and don’t bring up that I only have two thumbs. Got to give big love also to ALTdotComedy for not only a phenomenal show at the Rivoli, but also just a great overall vibe. Matt O’Brien, Julia Hladkowicz, Mark Little, Mark DeBonis, Derek Edwards all had great sets, with special mention for Sandra Battaglini who was an absolute jackhammer. No wonder Toronto has so much comedy talent- there are great venues, great producers and audiences that appreciate comedy.
There’s a few other moments from Andy Kindler’s show that are worth mentioning. 1. Andy Kindler came out dancing to London Calling, this is something everyone in the world should see. I truly believe that dance could stop war. 2. Natasha Leggero did a bit about public masturbators and asked the crowd for their stories. One woman had a horrific story of seeing a guy doing it on an escalator when she was ten years old. Emo Philips came on after Natasha and immediately apologized to that woman for being that guy on the escalator, that moment got a huge laugh.
The final moment has to be from the SiriusXM Top Comic Competition, when Chris Robinson won. I have seen this guy open for headliners all week. I couldn’t help, but root for him after finding out he’s got a newborn baby at home. Not to mention anyone who can do a Canadian hick accent like he can, deserves to be famous. The genuine look of astonishment on his face when he won the competition was really cool to see. Seeing someone’s dreams come true can be really inspiring, that being said I wish him the best of luck. To my friends from south of the border, keep your ear to the ground. This guy is coming in hot.
And finally, have to give a shout out to the city itself. Toronto is a great city for walking, especially this time of year, which is a good thing because its also a great city for eating. If you are not a local and get the chance to go, here’s a few things that should be on your list. The ever present CN Tower presides over the city (and it feels more than a little bit ‘Big Brother’) and makes for some beautiful photo ops. Make sure to walk along Queen West where you can get anything from a tattoo to old lunchboxes, to beautiful retro modern furniture, organic meats and dairy, vintage clothes- there’s something for everyone. Elsewhere in the city, check out the dispensaries, and visit one of the city’s vape comedy clubs. Fans of street art will love Toronto, and make sure you don’t miss the Alec Monopoly mural near King and Portland.
Spend a Sunday morning (or any morning, afternoon or evening) at the Kensington Market, more of a small neighborhood than a market. Kensington is a real hodgepodge of cultures and great bars, restaurants, coffee places and shops. You’ll see chefs manning smokers on the sidewalk, old school corner bars and some great photo ops for tourists. Across town, make sure you get to the St. Lawrence Market early, where you’ll want to have a Peameal Bacon Sandwich at the Carousel Bakery before you do anything else. Every famous traveling chef has given love to this sandwich and it’s great with egg and cheese, but we’re recommending the straight bacon sandwich, paired with the perfect roll. Then try the roasted bacon freshly carved at Witteveen, that’s so good it’s almost too good to be bacon. Better than the bacon you already know! Wait in line to get the fish and chips at Buster’s Sea Cove, and make sure you get downstairs to the Stonemill Bakery and have the Parmesan Leek Bistro Sandwich which is actually more of a filled croissant. One of the best things we’ve ever eaten. If you’re tooth is more sweets inclined, the double chocolate croissant is out of this world. Walk along Front street, get some Cuban cigars downtown, and stroll past the original Second City location- a firehouse that now houses a school of make-up art and design on Lombard Street and you’ve got a perfect weekend. Skip the hotels if you want to stay downtown, they’re pricier than Times Square at Christmas. Opt instead for an Airbnb in the Kings West neighborhood. You’ll be close to everything you’ll need.