I’m naïve. I didn’t expect Montreal to be so French. I was there for Just For Laughs, the largest comedy festival in the world, which happens every July, and I felt like I was in full ugly American mode the entire week. I fear that I personally disappointed every waiter and cashier every time I answered their “bonjours” with an embarrassed “hello.” Montreal is a gorgeous city, with some of the nicest strangers I’ve ever met in my life, and I’m mortified that I let it down so thoroughly and consistently.
Of course I wasn’t there to make a good impression. I was there to watch comedy, and I saw a ton of it. I was able to catch multiple shows a night, from the big-time Galas the festival holds in a large opera house with big-name hosts, to a Big Lebowski live-read featuring some of Hollywood’s biggest names. I saw the biggest names in comedy and young people I’d never heard of before, and so much of it was great. Here are the highlights, though, the ten best performances I saw at Just For Laughs, listed in alphabetical order.
I only saw a few minutes of Eric Andre, who was one of many comics who did short sets at a Talk of the Fest TV taping I attended. His stand-up wasn’t as manic or violent as his Adult Swim show, but it shared a desire to break down the expectations of the medium. There’s a healthy dose of performance art in Andre’s stand-up, and it was as hilariously skewed as his infamous TV show.
Carmichael was the host of that Talk of the Fest show, which means he basically emceed a television taping featuring a number of comics. Instead of delivering a full set he would do a few minutes of material before introducing the next comic, and then return seven or eight minutes later to do a little bit more. His soothing, low-key delivery and charming personality are crucial to Carmichael’s success—they’re the kind of distinctive traits that can make you laugh at even mediocre material. It probably wasn’t the best context in which to see him, but he was still really funny, and the best performer of the night. Plus one of the best parts of his performance were repeated bits of crowd work, which felt less like a regular part of his act than an extension of the show’s segmented format. A full, unbroken hour of Carmichael might be better, but it was still a treat to see him host this show.
The story about Jon Stewart telling Wyatt Cenac to “fuck off” while working at The Daily Show broke the day before I saw Cenac at Café Cleopatra. He didn’t acknowledge the controversy, though. Instead he just delivered a smart, hilarious, relaxed hour of comedy that built up to an extended piece on racial issues in America, from the Confederate flag to African-Americans killed by police. It was dark and sad but Cenac still wrung great humor from it through his own personal anxieties. It made me painfully aware again of the sad legacy I inherited as a white guy from the South, and feeling that way in a strip club in Montreal was just really weird.
Dr. Katz Live was a treat for long-time fans of the old Comedy Central classic, even if some of the newer comedians who sat in for a therapy session didn’t have the best chemistry with Katz. The best conversations came with comedians whose relationship with Katz stretches back to the show and beyond. As good as Andy Kindler’s opening chat was, the highlight was the Catskills duel between Katz and Gilbert Gottfried, where they tried to one-up each other by sharing anecdotes that invariably turned into hoary (but hilarious) Borscht Belt jokes. It was two pros and old friends sharing their lifelong love of comedy, and fortunately we got to eavesdrop.
I saw Kinane twice that week, first at the Sir Patrick Stewart Gala and then doing his own hour-long set at the Café Cleopatra the next night. Although he seemed a little out of his element at the gala—he’s not the kind of loud, high energy, punchline-driven performer you expect at a show that glitzy and traditional—he was great both nights, with new stories reinforcing his slightly seedy everyman persona. It was the first time I’d ever seen a comedian on back to back nights, and it was interesting to see how his delivery changed to fit the room. Also some of the jokes themselves were notably altered, with some punchlines being left out the second night and others having slightly different setups. If the brief Gala set was a shot, the Cleopatra hour was the two beers you chugged through afterward.
Kirkman’s Saturday night set at the Wiggle Room reinforced why her special I’m Gonna Die Alone (And I Feel Fine) is our favorite of the year so far. Her honesty and conversational tone make you feel like you know her, and her enthusiastic embrace of being newly single as she enters her forties is charming and maybe even a bit inspiring. She’s become one of the best comedians in the world because she’s grown fully comfortable with a voice and point of view that’s entirely her own.
Norm MacDonald hosted a Gala my last night in town, and was better than any of the comedians he introduced. Of course he’s another one of those comedians whose delivery and persona is as important as his material, and sometimes he can make me laugh when he’s maybe not even trying. What’s notable is that he was the only comedian I saw all week who really dug into the Bill Cosby situation, which is weird since it was a huge story again that week. MacDonald ripped Cosby apart with his perfect timing and distinctive delivery, saving an otherwise lukewarm Gala.
The live taping of Pepitone’s podcast Pep Talks was one of the funniest and most honest performances I saw all week. From his relationship with his parents to the vital but draining nature of social media, Pepitone delivered a stage-worthy sermon while seated in a comfortable chair alongside his guest, comedian Kate Berlant. I was in a room full of people but it felt like I was having a one-on-one conversation with Pepitone, one where he was so interesting that I didn’t even care that I never got to say a word.
The first time I had ever even heard of Sam Simmons was when he was introduced at like 1:30 in the morning near the end of Andy Kindler’s Alternative Show at a heavy metal bar called Katacombes. I was sitting front center after a long day of drinking and was promptly blown away by Simmons’ absurd performance piece. He didn’t tell jokes or stories but performed alongside a prerecorded audio track listing things that annoy and confuse him, like commercials that make no sense or the first time he ate an olive as a kid. I’ve since seen him described as a prop comic, and although he did have some physical props on stage with him, his best prop was sound. His use of music in the piece was great and made it stand out even more from everything else I saw in Montreal. Between the absurd conceptual piece, the importance of music and the impersonal nature of Simmons’ commitment, it felt like something Andy Kaufman could’ve done. I saw Simmons perform the same piece the next night, at the Norm MacDonald Gala, and although it was still very funny it definitely felt out of place at a well-lit TV shoot in front of thousands of people.
Julio Torres was probably my biggest surprise of the show. I’d never heard of him before, and after seeing him at the same Katacombes show as Simmons I couldn’t believe that neither of them were better known. Torres resembles somebody like Mitch Hedberg, not in appearance or delivery but in his cultivation of a strong persona and his ability to squeeze absurd concepts into short, hilarious comments. I have no idea how old he is, but I’m sure writers will have a hard time avoiding the word “millennial” when they write about him, as he rips on hipster stereotypes, youth-skewing pop culture and our dependence on technology in inspired and unexpected ways.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games and comedy sections. Find him on Twitter @grmartin.