Just For Laughs is overwhelming. The huge comedy festival in Montreal hosts hundreds of comics from around the world throughout July, with most of those shows being packed into the final week of the month. Imagine going to two or three comedy shows a night for six days, seeing dozens of comics at clubs strewn throughout the city. It can be hard to keep everything straight, which is why, if you’re a professional, you take notes. At least, you try to take notes—you can’t really have your phone out at a comedy show without looking like a jerk, and it can be hard to jot your thoughts down in a notepad when you’re sitting in what is normally a strip club and the only lights are the purple stage lights shining down on the Lucas Bros. You have to use your brain, is what we’re saying. Paste saw close to fifty comedians over six nights in Montreal this year, and here are the best that we saw, as far as our brains are capable of remembering. And I’m using the plural here because, despite the byline above, I was not alone; my wife came with me and had full input into this here list. She has good taste. You’d like her.
We’re doing this ALPHABETICALLY, by the way, so don’t read anything into the order. And clearly none of the videos we embedded are from Just For Laughs; we just wanted to give you an idea of what they’re all about.
A lot of people probably wouldn’t view Berlant’s stand-up as stand-up, per se. She basically constructs a character called Kate Berlant who’s a flighty, free-associating, semi-pretentious performance artist (and amateur psychic). She’s equal parts Robin Williams and the artist character from her episode of Netflix’s The Characters, only not nearly as tiresome as that might sound. Her hour of constant patter and audience work was, from a performance standpoint, easily the most impressive thing we saw during Just For Laughs, an extremely confident show from a comedian in complete control of her powers.
Here she is with John Early on The Tonight Show earlier this year:
Mark Forward’s been a stand-out of Just For Laughs every year I’ve been. In both 2015 and 2016 I caught his “fancy hats” routine, an elaborate multimedia one-man play where he portrays multiple characters and interacts with a crucial musical cue. He didn’t include this vignette in his show Mark Forward Wins All the Awards, but the hour-long set was just as inspired and absurd. Forward has a Kaufman-esque streak, oscillating between both silliness and more pointed material, but he doesn’t get as antagonistic as Kaufman could. Imagine if Zach Galifianakis’s stand-up was less focused on surreal one-liners and more on ridiculous scenarios and characters, such as the show-opening set piece about how he was too busy making sandwiches for his child to write any jokes, an anecdote he tells while buttering every slice of a loaf of bread. Forward pulls off being weird without ever feeling like he’s trying too hard to be weird, which is hard to do.
Paste favorite Ron Funches wrapped up his Funch-a-Mania tour with a slate of shows at Just For Laughs, where he showed off a fresh hour of stories about his life and his son Malcolm. If you haven’t seen him lately, Funches has shed a considerable amount of weight, and the newfound confidence that comes with that made up some of the best parts of his show. Much like on his 2015 album The Funches of Us, the heart of his set detailed his ever-evolving relationship with his son, who’s now a teenager, and not overly impressed by his dad’s thriving career in comedy and TV. Funches gets bonus points for his wrestling fandom—he was wearing a Los Ingobernables de Japon shirt when we saw him (RIP Daryl) and was escorted out by 1980s WWF mainstay Virgil, complete with the diamond-encrusted Million Dollar Championship belt.
The tough but vulnerable Sam Jay lead off her short set at Andy Kindler’s Alternative Show with an unexpected bit lamenting the current state of the white man, feeling sorry for them because nobody really cares about what they think or feel anymore. Her tone really made it work—it’s not like she was asking for things to go back to the way they were, or operating under any delusions about white men not still running the world, and she fit in some sharp criticisms of the most easily critiqued bunch of folks around (uh, you know, white men). It’s just that, as a fellow human, she feels a little bad about literally nobody else ever caring about a white man’s bullshit anymore. It was a smart and original way to basically remind us all how horrible white men can be. The rest of her set was about the pressures of having to be fun if you’re a larger girl, which really resonated with the audience.
Kasher has long mined his upbringing for comedy, and during the set we saw he told the story of going to a sex shop with his mom when he was a teenager so she could make sure he was buying sex-positive porn and not just whatever he could get his hands on. Of course that porn would up being volumes of lesbian erotica and not the more visual work most teens in the pre-internet era had a hard time tracking down. Some might find Kasher’s high-speed delivery to be a little too manic, but it fit his story perfectly this night, accentuating the ridiculousness of the whole ordeal.
The co-star and co-creator of Another Period wasn’t performing any full shows at Just For Laughs, but like most comedians who play the fest, she made multiple appearances at different shows throughout the week. We caught her at one of Andy Kindler’s Alternative Shows, where she largely talked about how fucking weird men can be about masturbation. From the well-known phenomenon of Google always autosuggesting feet photos whenever you enter a woman celebrity’s name, to how every woman has seen at least one man masturbating in public before, Leggero was laser-focused on men’s love of self-love.
We got to see the Lucas Bros. perform twice, once in an hourlong showcase and again in a ten minute slot on one of the big Just For Laughs galas. It was fascinating to watch them do the same material two nights in a row and see how much their cooperative delivery, which always feels off-the-cuff and conversational, changes from night to night. Their overall flow largely remains the same, but the little interjections they use to make it sound less scripted can change. And don’t hold me to this, as we were far from the gala stage the second night, but it looks like they sometimes trade off who says what part of a joke from night to night. One brother might start off a joke one night, the other might do it the next. Their sets weren’t quite as political as their excellent recent Netflix special (although the Bernie Sanders stuff is fantastic), but they were just as strong.
Mulaney’s Kid Gorgeous show was just as strong as his last Netflix special. We saw him do a short unannounced set at last year’s Just For Laughs, and the highlight of that show, a lengthy story about his failed sitcom and writing a Madden commercial featuring Ray Lewis and Paul Rudd, reappeared as the capper to this hour-plus set, and it killed even more in a large hall than it did in a small theater last year. Mulaney’s able to come off as modest and self-deprecating despite his obvious confidence, and despite being a little condescending during some crowd work, and that combination of humility and hubris adds a powerful tension to his work.
Correction: We originally said this show featured material from Mulaney’s last special. It didn’t. Sorry!
Ramon Rivas II is another comic we were able to see twice, first opening for Funches, and then performing at one of the Lil Rel and Friends shows that ran throughout the week. The Funches slot made a lot of sense—Rivas is as immediately likable as Funches, and shares a similar outlook on life. He has the kind of delivery that makes almost everything he says funny—it’s laidback and largely unemotional, but finds the right pitch to emphasize his specific beats. It’s less monotone than microtonal. He’s funny. He is, as some have said on Twitter, a comedy pro. (He’s also curating the Accidental Comedy Fest in his hometown of Cleveland from Aug. 30 to Sept. 4.)
One of this year’s New Faces of Comedy, what stood out most about Ramy Youssef was his sheer infectious charisma, which made even his weaker material land. He touched on his Muslim faith during his short set at Lil Rel Howery’s multi-comic review, but most of his jokes could’ve come from any twentysomething grappling with adulthood, with anxiety about sex and relationships driving his best work.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy, games and wrestling sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.