Archive for April, 2006
Last night at The Laugh Resort was fantastic. We had two packed shows filled with enthusiastic fans. Fraser Young headlined and was his usual hilarious self. I did my regular audience bantering to open the shows. I had one of those moments where I was able to salvage what might have been a disaster. I’m referring to a moment in conversation where something incredibly uncomfortable happens – something that threatens to suck all the fun out of the room. Those are the moments that truly test ad-libbing ability. I had one a few months ago. I did my usual “Who’s from out of town?” shtick. A woman raised her hand and when I asked what brought her to Toronto, she said she was here for an operation. A pall fell over the room as the discomfort washed over everyone. Suddenly, from comedy to sadness in an instant. Fortunately, I saved it by quipping, “Don’t be ridiculous; they’re big enough.” A huge laugh from everyone, including her and I was able to move on without any awkwardness. Last night’s was similar. Asking a woman what she does for a living, she told me she works with terminally ill children. A pause while the crowd went silent in discomfort. I told her I thought it sounded like hard work. Some audience members applauded her. I turned it around by pretending to get angry at them for clapping about children dying. I then apologized to the woman for their insensitivity. Again, everybody laughed, including her. Phew. Those are the moments when thinking quickly can truly save the show. It’s not the ability to think of something witty for a positive situation that mark a professional but the ability to wring laughter from a potential disaster that make us most valuable.
Are there rules in comedy? If you look at live stand-up, it’s got one rule. If it gets laughs, it’s comedy. It’s pass/fail because, unlike other art forms, there’s a specific and spontaneous physiological response to indicate the success of a joke. A song ends and people applaud but it’s a conditioned societal response not a physical reaction. But it’s a tricky switch to flick that laughter switch. I liken it to the inability to tickle onesself. If you know what’s coming, you put the safety on the laughter switch. A comedy act is like judo. The audience’s minds were going one way and you flipped them unexpectedly. The laughs come because the surprise flips the switch.
That’s why jokes change over time and so much that was funny in a context loses its laugh over time. Hearing routines from a burlesque show in the 1920s, one is rarely made to laugh. That is not so long ago in a historical context. Cultural shifts have completely changed the things we find amusing. Place is crucial too. It’s hard to imagine an act that would succeed in every venue. A lot of cruise ship acts would die at Spirits while a lot of New Yorkers can’t play Tennessee.
Sometimes a joke is a lack of a joke because that tricks an audience expecting a punchline. The classic “Why did the chicken cross the road?” riddle is already written for an audience of people used to hearing clever twists. A long time ago, the listener was already sophisticated enough in the ways of jokes that he was surprised by the non-joke, “To get to the other side.” If you think about it as the earliest non-joke, it’s clear why it’s still known since it would have been a groundbreaking concept.
That’s also why there’s always room for new comedy. Every humour convention that gets established sets up the switch on it for the audience that now expects that type of joke. Andy Kindler made fun of Jeff Foxworthy saying, “If you’re uncomfortable around minorities, you might be a redneck.” Hilarious and only possible because Foxworthy established the convention. Since comedy is all about the unexpected, it will always have to respond to whatever the world has established as convention.
Just home from the Winnipeg Comedy Festival. It is my favourite gig by far. All the people are nice. The festival is always full of old friends I don’t see enough of and someone I’ve heard of for a while and never seen or met and someone new I’ve never heard of who’s really funny. There’s a party every night in the hotel with fancy catering and a cash bar (with plenty of tickets provided for performers) so you feel special but it’s way more relaxed than the Just For Laughs (which provides next to nothing in the food/drink department.)
The shows themselves were a lot of fun. Even the gala, which I was dreading, turned out well. The bits, most of which were untried, went over well and it really helped to do a full runthrough at the rehearsal in front of Anton Leo. Anton is head of CBC TV comedy and a wonderful guy whom I’ve known for many years. One of the highlights of the festival for me is getting to hang out with Anton late into the night and laugh with fellow comics. I really trust him to tell me his honest opinion and we trimmed the fat together after hearing the stuff out loud. I used a teleprompter for the first time in my life and performed the routine by reading a series of bullet points. I still found the right wording for the bits in the moment but, with an untried routine, I wanted to be sure I wouldn’t get lost. Hilariously, the changes never made it to the computer due to some glitch. So a bullet came up for a bit I knew we’d cut. It was no big deal but shows that you can’t put all your faith in the machinery to do the work. You might be called upon to think at any time. The upshot is everybody enjoyed it and there’s enough good laughs to cobble together something good for TV.
I also did a show with my brother, celebrated writer David Rakoff. We did it at the Gas Station Theatre, a venue that holds 200 about 60% full. Nice crowd but more mature than my usual. I did 30. We had an intermission. David read a couple of essays from his first book, “Fraud”. After that we took questions from the audience. That part was a blast. We were really rolling and laughing.
I also took part in “Master Debaters”, a radio pilot for CBC in which comedians are assigned sides of a proposition and have to debate until the audience declares one the winner. I decided to play it like pro wrestling since the point is to get laughs and make a show as opposed to engage in serious advocacy. I went for boos. When I lost and the winner said the audience voted with their hearts, I said, “That’s what people without minds do.” Everybody was hilarious – Glen Foster, Irwin Barker, Trevor Boris, Brad Muise, Bruce Clark, Deborah Kimmett, Al Rae. Everybody was hilarious. The crowd was so into it. Irwin made a joke about Toronto needing the army to clear their snow. I said that it was necessary because, what the rest of Canada doesn’t understand, is that in Toronto we have place to go! The Winnipeg audience booed me like a pro wrestler. It was so much fun! I think it’s a great show for CBC and a perfect use of the talents of stand-ups.
All in all, the atmosphere Al Rae has created is so congenial that it’s more like a holiday than work. I hope I can go again sometime.
I’m going to the festival tomorrow. Gonna be a busy few days. 1st day I am doing a radio interview for CBC with my brother. We’ll be interviewed by a local host, Margaux Watts. My brother’s reputation as a humorous writer got him a gig reading at the fest. Although not a stand-up per se, he is a funny as anyone I know. The interviewer from a magazine asked me which of us is funnier and I answered that I’m the funniest guy in the world but my brother is the funniest in our family. We have never worked together before since our metiers rarely meet and our galas are on different nights but we are doing a special “Meet the Rakoffs” evening where I’ll open with some stand-up, he’ll read something and we’ll answer questions. I believe that last sentence is gramatically correct in spite of its length but I won’t bet on it.
Friday afternoon, I have a rehearsal for a new CBC radio pilot called “Master Debators” in which comedians comically debate assigned topics. We’ll do the show in front of an audience the next day at 2PM.
Friday night I perform my gala set at the Pantages for CBC television. In the meantime, I’ve been unable to effectively rehearse my gala set in front of an audience because it’s not written for a stand-up situation. When I talk it out, I can see it working but it’s too much like an essay on a topic than just a routine. I already feel like I’m colouring outside the lines of the assignment with the bits I’m doing now let alone integrating even more speciously connected material. The theatre soft seat setting add an element of patience you don’t get in the club. There’s an expectation in stand-up of economy of language to speed to the laugh. In a theatre setting, the audience is more likely to give some attention to what you have to say as long as the jokes are good when you get there. At least, that’s my hope. I promise to be straight with any readers of this as to how it went when it’s all over. At this point, however, I think it’s strong enough and on theme enough that it will be a successfully completed assignment and more importantly, get some laughs.
Saturday afternoon I do the radio pilot and then at 10:00 PM, I MC a best of the fest. That’s a nother name for a show that’s likely to be a blast with some of the best comics all having fun on stage.
My show schedule for the festival is as follows:
Meet the Rakoffs
Thursday, April 6th at 8:00 PM
Gas Station Theatre
Friday, April 7th at 7:30 PM
Pantages Playhouse Theatre
Saturday, April 8th at 2:00 PM
Gas Station Theatre
Best of the Fest
Saturday, April 8th at 10:00 PM
Gas Station Theatre
Wish me luck! I’ll update when I return.