Montreal is already a gorgeous city. It’s got a mountain that overlooks the entire city, some of the best restaurants in the world, and a pretty neat pinball bar called North Star Pinball that those French-Canadians better start appreciating before it goes out of business. It’s basically unfair that this already amazing city also gets to brag about having maybe the best comedy festival in the world.
Just For Laughs pumps an almost criminal amount of amazing comedy into the city for most of July, with the action really picking up the last week of the month. There are dozens of shows every night that week, featuring some of the most famous comedians of the day, some of the most promising newcomers to the industry, and every possible level of comedian in-between. As a writer committed to seeing as much comedy as possible, it can be overwhelming, but in the best possible way. I was in Montreal for six days last week, catching as much as I could squeeze in, with my amazing wife in tow, and of the dozens of comedians we saw perform, here are the ten best, in alphabetical order.
I’m old. I remember Apatow’s stand-up from the late ‘80s and ‘90s, before he started focusing full-time on writing, directing and producing, and they aren’t the best memories. I definitely assumed he was one of the many funny people who were better at writing than stand-up. So I was surprised at how good he was at his late night show at the Mainline Theater. His set was pretty evenly split between two types of material: middle-aged family and relationship stuff that would feel familiar to anybody who saw This is 40, and embarrassing stories about the famous people he’s met over the last 15 years or so, including Kanye West, Mark Ruffalo and President Obama. The bits about Kanye getting angry over the wardrobe for his Anchorman 2 cameo and Obama wanting to stretch out what was supposed to be a 30 second meet and greet so they could talk about comedy were the highlights, but even his more familiar stuff killed in a small room at one in the morning. (Perhaps it helped that Seth Rogen was incredibly conspicuous in the audience, sitting almost dead center and loudly laughing that unmistakable laugh of his.) If, like me, you like Apatow but didn’t have time for his stand-up, you should give him a shot if he comes to your town or releases a new special.
We missed Maria Bamford’s solo show, unfortunately, but the Lady Dynamite star performed at the gala hosted by David Cross, and was one of the best parts of a stacked show. She did a hilarious recreation of her marriage counseling in the form of a song that she and her husband supposedly wrote, with long, run-on verses about their problems and the at times understanding and stand-offish response of their therapist. I am sure there are still some people who can’t handle Bamford’s idiosyncratic style, with her multitude of voices and almost stream-of-consciousness approach to storytelling, but she has mastered it over the last couple of decades, and is one of the funniest, most memorable and most touching comedians working today.
My wife and I figured Barry would target us. He did one of his crowd work shows, where he skips his prepared material and spends the full set making fun of specific audience members. My wife has a bright red shock of hair that sticks straight up, so obviously she was going to stand out to Barry, and she has a pronounced Southern accent and combative nature, so she’d be able to keep him talking once he singled her out. It doesn’t even matter that he ridiculed first my wife and then me: Barry’s sharp wit and equally sharp deadpan delivery makes almost everything he says funny, even if you’re the butt of the joke. We also saw him do traditional stand-up at the David Cross Gala, and his written material is as strong as his ad-libbed insults.
Buress’s solo show might have been the highlight of the whole festival. He’s at the point where much of his material is about how successful he’s become, with jokes about his movie career and how much money he gets paid for comedy shows, and he reacts to his new thriving career with the same stoic bemusement that has always been his stock in trade. Buress is still a master of straight-forward, tersely worded observations, but maybe the best thing about his show was its multimedia component. At different points Buress would analyze rap lyrics as his DJ played them over the PA, or shout out random words over his old jokes in a parody of Riff Raff’s lackadaisical live shows. He interacted with himself in a couple of videos and at the end led the crowd in a singalong of an intentionally horrible rap song. It was a stronger show, overall, than his Netflix special that was released in February, and probably the best thing I saw at Just For Laughs.
I saw Canadian comic Mark Forward on one of Andy Kindler’s Alternative Shows in 2015, and he was so good he almost made my list that year. The bulk of his show was an absurd setpiece about a rundown convenience store with a rack of fancy hats and the messy interpersonal drama that tore apart the family that ran it, with Forward playing three characters and using a crucial musical cue that mocked the emotional manipulations of a television show. He did the same act this year, but on a huge gala stage in front of thousands of people, as opposed to the 80 or so that crammed into the tiny Katacombes club last year. The bigger stage actually made the bit stronger. I’ve noticed that gala audiences don’t always respond to less traditional comics as well as smaller crowds, but this one was with Forward every step of the way.
I had to cut out of Mulaney and Nick Kroll’s Oh, Hello stage show early in order to make it to Judd Apatow’s show on time. Turns out Mulaney and Kroll followed me: they both showed up for unannounced drop-ins after Apatow’s set. Mulaney did maybe 20 minutes of confident, sure-handed stand-up that didn’t even start until like 2 AM, culminating in a long, hilarious story about some life-changing advice he received from murder suspect (and football player) Ray Lewis on the set of a Madden commercial. Mulaney’s last special isn’t even a year old, but he’s already well on his way to his next hour of great material.
Former SNL writer and cast member O’Brien hosted one of the showcases we went to, meaning he opened with a short set of his own and then would do a minute or two between comics before introducing the next act. As expected from a guy who’s more of a sketch performer than a stand-up, his bit was conceptual, with him visibly struggling through a few gross and misogynistic jokes before realizing he had picked up another comedian’s note cards. It wasn’t just the situation and his performative awkwardness that made the bit land—O’Brien’s parody of dick and sex-centric bro comedy showed off how great he is at using language, with jokes about “jack offs” and “sexing” that would’ve sounded like Google translations if they weren’t so precisely crafted.
Smoove didn’t just steal his show from the seven other comedians on the bill: for twenty or so minutes we completely forgot that there were other comics on the bill. (And two of them made this dumb list, so it’s not like they were bad, or anything.) Smoove completely took over a showcase about halfway through with a long, hilarious story about what married couples have to do to keep sex interesting. His trademark speech patterns and vocal inflections were bolstered with some highly physical stagework, including a pantomime of two different men on side-by-side treadmills that required Smoove to completely and effortlessly switch his body language as he was jogging in place. Smoove’s material is strong and his confidence is overpowering.
I’ve used some version of the word “confident” a couple of times already in this piece, and yeah, the fact that I want to use it again probably means I’m a bad writer. But few words better describe Beth Stelling, who seems as comfortable telling jokes about her mom’s struggles with technology as she does with the rape and abuse she revealed around the start of the year. She took the worst thing that could happen to a person and found some great, shocking, and incredibly dark jokes, and the fact that they weren’t even close to being the best part of her hourlong set is a sign of how tremendous a comedian she is. (That would be the stuff about her dad and his business.)
I caught the newest contributor to The Daily Show twice at Just For Laughs, once at an hourlong solo show and again about two hours later on a showcase with a handful of other comics. The week was full of jokes about Trump, Clinton and the election, and Wolf had the best of them all, without ever feeling didactic or strident. She cut through the inherent absurdity of this most unthinkable of elections, making universal observations in her own unique voice. Wolf has the ability to cover overly familiar comedic ground—the election, menstruation, cultural and societal struggles between men and women—without ever feeling trite or hackneyed, which is the sign of a great comedian.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.