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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Brent Butt, a pro's pro

I got my Butt fix last Saturday night. Wait. That doesn't sound right. Let me rephrase. I caught stand-up comedian Brent Butt again last week. It had been a while.

Gone are the good old days when I could see him two or three nights a week at a local watering hole. Now that he's a major star, I have to enjoy him with the masses at a theatre about once a year.

I remember the first time I saw him live. Being a comedy fan, of course I had heard of him. He was a well-respected name in Canadian stand-up circles. I saw him on TV and wasn't blown away. I thought he was decent. Nothing spectacular.

Then one night I headed down to the Urban Well downtown, where Butt hosted on Wednesday nights. It was a smaller show than the one in Kitsilano on Tuesday nights, which Butt also hosted. I sat and watched Butt perform in front of probably ten to twenty people. He was fantastic. Now I got what everyone was going on about.

Over the years, I probably saw him perform hundreds of times and I'm not exaggerating when I say he was fantastic every single time. I kid you not. And if you don't think that's rare, you haven't seen much stand-up. Think of all the factors that are involved: 1. The writing. 2. The delivery. 3. The ability to be in the moment and make changes on the fly. 4. Spritzing with the crowd. 5. Confidence not to bail on your material. 6. Adjusting to the whims of the crowd and noises from the room. And lots more I haven't even considered. Every single time he nailed it.

Butt has an exceptional talent. Not only is his material great the first time you hear it; it's great the hundredth time you hear it. I can recite many of his bits almost word for word, but I never tire of hearing him tell the jokes. Nothing he says sounds rehearsed; it's as if he's just thinking of it each and every time.

One thing I always admired about his act was his professionalism. Whether he was performing to six people or 600, he never tanked. He gave a show to the fans who showed up, not worrying about who didn't. He dressed for success, too, usually wearing a blazer, if not a tie, no matter how insignificant the gig. I don't think dressing up is all that important, but it illustrates how he treats all the shows equally.

I once asked him about playing to the sparse downtown Well crowds, who weren't exactly gregarious (maybe because I comprised a large percentage of the crowd – I'm not exactly a big laugher). A lot of comics get up there and if they don't get the reaction they expect, lose all confidence and start bailing. Some of them take it out on the crowd. Not Brent. He told me that even if people weren't laughing, he could sense they were enjoying the show. And he was right.

When he first told me about his idea for Corner Gas, I was... skeptical? Not because the show sounded lame, but because it was Canadian TV. We're just not used to seeing anything good on the tube. The Royal Canadian Air Farce has lowered the bar so much that a horrible show like This Hour Has 22 Minutes is considered a masterpiece. And forget about sitcoms. When was the last one we had? The King of Kensington? You can't count Mosquito Lake. I honestly can't remember.

But damned if he didn't pull it off. Season one of Corner Gas was as good as anything on TV, in my opinion. Great writing, good acting, impressive production quality. The second season was, again in my opinion, the dreaded sophomore jinx and the show was as bad as anything on TV. The actors all started trying to be funny instead of relying on the writing. They started "face acting". Ugh.

Since then, I like it more. Not nearly as well as the first season, but way better than the second. Regression to the mean, I guess it is. All things considered, it's still a pretty good show.

But for our international readers, or anyone who came to stand-up after Corner Gas hit the airwaves, you really don't know what you're missing. At some point along the way I came to the conclusion that there's no comedian out there funnier than Brent Butt. There are lots who are just as funny, with varying styles. But no one is funnier. And he's one of the few who gets the same respect from fellow comics as he does from the audience. Those two don't always go hand in hand. So many comics I've interviewed over the years bring up his name. Andy Kindler raved to me about Butt. So did Mike Macdonald. Ditto Mike Wilmot. One story goes that at the Winnipeg Comedy Festival, Butt was a little nervous having to share the stage with American satirist A. Whitney Brown. By the end of the show, the former Saturday Night Live cast member said Butt was the funniest comic he'd ever seen.

I hope one day Butt records a CD and DVD. Check out the web. A talent as great as he is and his standup act is next to non-existent. Where are his Comedy Now! specials? Where are his Just For Laughs spots? I have no doubt that if the rest of the world could see him and forward favourite clips on to each other, he could be a viral hit and sell out theatres in other countries the way he does in this one.

Butt claims his first love is stand-up, but it seems television and movies are a priority for him now. It's a shame. At least he's getting out on stage more since Corner Gas ended. His appearance at the Red Robinson Show Theatre on Saturday was vintage Butt. When I saw him at the River Rock Show Theatre last year, his timing seemed off. Maybe he was out of practice. Maybe he had other things on his mind. But his last show was as good as ever. Unlike a lot of comics, who give up after the first punchline or two, he just keeps coming with tag after tag after tag.

It's also a weird kind of fact, but many hilarious stand-up comics aren't so hilarious in real life. Butt is. He just thinks funny. It's not like he's obnoxiously "on" all the time, because he isn't. He's just naturally funny. His one visit to our studio remains one of my favourite shows. As I said, he's a pro through and through, so he's going to be as informative and funny on little old co-op radio as he is on a big-time commercial station. Here, for old time's sake, is our hour-long conversation from December of 2005.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

February 22: Damonde Tschritter

It's Oscar night! How exciting is that? Well, if you're me, it isn't. I lost all faith in the Oscars when Forrest Gump won for Best Picture and haven't watched since. But our guest tonight, Mr. Damonde Tschritter, will be watching so he can fill me in. And you, too, if you're listening. Damonde is a storytelling standup comic, actor, film maker and volunteer firefighter. I think. He's also the only Canadian ever to win the Seattle International Comedy Competition. It's his third time on the program, so we've got all the biographical information out of the way. Tonight we'll just rap about whatever. If that doesn't sell you on the show, I don't know what will. So tune in, won't you?

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Break Room Live with Maron & Seder

I was a big Marc Maron fan without ever having seen his stand-up act. For years I admired his intellect as a panel guest on Late Night with Conan O'Brien. It was sit-down comedy, I guess. And I loved him in animated form on my favourite animated show of all time, Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist. Then in 2003, I met his publicist at the Just For Laughs comedy festival in Montreal. She told me Marc would be playing the Chutzpah festival in Vancouver the following year. I couldn't wait.

When the time came, I arranged an interview. Needless to say, it was a good one. The guy is whip-smart and full of neuroses, always a great combination for a comic and an interview. When I finally got to see his act, I wasn't disappointed, even though he almost killed my baby. My wife was pregnant. Right after the show, she experienced some bleeding so she went to a clinic the next day and the doc told her she probably lost it. We figured Maron made her laugh so much she spontaneously aborted the fetus. Thankfully, it was a false alarm. All was forgiven.

A couple years later, Maron returned to the Vancouver comedy festival (not sure what it was called that year – it has a different name almost every year). I got to see a much rawer Maron experience than the more genteel (but not gentile) show at the Norman Rothstein Theatre.

Here's what I wrote in a festival wrap-up. I believe this section on Maron was edited out of the final story that ran in the Straight:
Marc Maron, former morning man on the Air America radio network and one of the prime movers in the so-called alternative comedy movement of the mid-1980s, was nothing short of brilliant all six times I saw him. His best set, oddly, was at Balthazar’s House of Comedy on Monday night. The restaurant/bar is not the perfect comedy room with its temporary stage and L-shaped layout. Throw in a party in an adjoining room, and you’d expect nothing good to come out of it. But Maron hit the stage with attitude and did 38 minutes of pure gold, talking about everything from religion (“I don’t mean to mock the myths that define some of you”) to drug testing (“It’s cheating. If you can’t tell I’m high just by looking at me, I win”) to politics (“George W. Bush is absolutely the right president to oversee the end of the world. I think he’ll do it quickly and efficiently”).

Unfortunately, the next night at Yuk Yuk’s, as good as he was, four fans sitting front and centre, ruined it for the rest of us by constantly interrupting, while Yuks security stood by the whole night doing nothing. In 15 more minutes than he got the previous night, he got to only half of the same material. But Maron handled it beautifully, eventually pointing at the overzealous quartet saying, “I’m the audience now. Bad show.”

And this brief graf was also lost in the editing, I do believe, the next time he came to town:
Marc Maron’s existential angst is always a treat. His wife left him this year, so his soul-baring was even more pronounced than usual. But as he says, he’s just as happy if someone comes away thinking he’s hilarious as he is if they just hope he’s okay.
The guy's a real mensch, too. I e-mailed him during his first comedy festival appearance here in 2006 to ask if he'd be in town on the Sunday night after the festival ended, and if so, would he want to do my little radio show. He wrote back and said he wouldn't be, but if I could get him an extra night at the hotel, he'd stick around and do it because he was just going to be driving to Seattle and didn't need to be there until mid-week anyway. Our show – hell, our station – has no budget, so I asked festival organizer Will Davis if he could keep Marc an extra night at the hotel. Bingo, he was in.

Marc was true to his word. A couple nights before the show, I saw him and he asked if he could bring his friend Janeane Garofalo with him to the show. Yes, that Janeane Garofalo. Can you imagine a better show than Marc Maron and Janeane Garofalo on co-op radio? I couldn't. So I said of course. The next night I got an e-mail from him, again asking about Janeane, saying that if I didn't want her there, that was fine. I responded that I'd be more than happy to have her on, but it's totally up to him if he wanted to share the hour with someone else. Finally, on the evening of the show, he called me at home, just to make sure I was okay with him bringing Janeane with him. You can hear the hour-long show right here.

All this just as a preamble to say I stumbled across a show Marc's doing now on Air America. Or it's somehow affiliated with Air America. I don't quite get it. It's a web show, I think, on video. He does it with Sam Seder, but this week he's all alone. It's a funny political show. I don't usually care for bloviating opinion jocks, but this show is fantastic.

I couldn't figure out how to embed this particular clip, so I'll just provide a link below. In this particular episode, one of his viewers IM'd him asking for his top five comics of all time. Throughout the 22 minutes, he keeps coming back to comedy, all the while giving a thoughtful and intelligent lesson on the art form. He's more articulate off the top of his head than most people are in print (read: me). When a woman IM's him asking how he could possibly like Sam Kinison, Maron says this:
The reason that good comics like Sam Kinison is that he pushed an envelope. He created a delivery system that was completely unique and his own. He also had a sort of energy of wrongness and transcended moral barriers. Obviously he was questionable in a lot of ways but there's a couple of bits of his, just because of the way he delivered, because he had the thrust of the preacher and he developed this device in himself. He was sort of the perfect angry clown and he was a complete original. No one had ever seen anything like him and no one has seen anything like him to this day. His bit on drugs, his bit on Charlie Manson were spectacular. His bits on Jesus were spectacular. The homosexual necrophilia bit was spectacular. The questionable bit about "move to where the food is", which is wrong politically but nonetheless a clever bit. His stuff on women and on AIDS was pretty insensitive, though a couple things on women and abuse, even though he was speaking from the point of view of a potential abuser, were true-to-life psychic nightmares of many people. So I think that's why. I can understand why women didn't like him. A certain type of woman. But believe me, he had no problem with the other type.
He also talks about old-timers like Shelley Berman, Buddy Hackett and Lord Buckley. And brings up the Robin Williams-Steven Pearl comparisons. And if you heard him on my show talking about Dane Cook, you'll know he doesn't hold back. Here he is on his biggest beef with comedy:
The thing that I find most disturbing, because the business has expanded so much, because people can find their own little demographics or sort of campaign to get people to like them, and because of Last Comic Standing you get people who are too green or unprofessional or unoriginal. I think unoriginal or hacky disturbs me more than anything else. And I think the other thing that disturbs me is, because there is a movement towards alternative comedy, that I can sit in the back of a comedy room and close my eyes and not be able to tell the difference between comics and how they deliver jokes and how they structure jokes and how they distance themselves from anything real and just manufacture little packages, little poetic packages that have turns of phrases at the end without taking any emotional risk to find out who they are up there or be something different or at least engage in something that is real life.
To watch the whole thing (and you really should), go here:

But for some reason, I'm able to embed this short clip from a show earlier this week. Here Marc has a brilliant take on Bristol Palin's interview with Greta Van Susteren, including the greatest description of the male member you'll ever hear:

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Misadventures in interviewing

I love interviewing celebrity comedians. They're mostly all really great and engaging. Don't get me wrong. I also have a blast interviewing non-celebrity comics, too, on my show. The ones I'm talking about here are conducted over the phone for print stories. But you can't beat lounging around your pad talking on the phone. Off the top of my head, only two have been less than engaging.

One was Patton Oswalt, who was pleasant enough, but it was a forced pleasantness and he offered absolutely nothing more than he had to. Most comics will treat an interview as it should be treated – as a conversation. But Oswalt took it literally. If there was no direct question, there'd be next to no answer. If there was a yes/no question, you can bet he'd answer with either a yes or a no with zero explanation. I guess he does a lot of interviews with idiots and went into it figuring I was an idiot, too. And maybe I was. But I was also no different than I am with anyone else. Here's the thing: over the years, I've found no correlation between great answer and great question. Sometimes a really original, well-researched question gets a fantastic answer and sometimes it gets nothing. Sometimes a really banal and boring question gets a fantastic answer and sometimes it gets nothing. It all depends on 1) what the interview subject wants to give, and 2) the connection between the subject and me.

I hung up from my interview with Oswalt thinking we didn't really connect and he wasn't all that giving, but I put most of the blame on myself. I always think I should be able to reach whoever I'm talking to – and I usually do. Oswalt certainly was polite enough, so it must have been me. Then, out of the blue, I got an e-mail from a colleague who I rarely see. He didn't know I had spoken to Oswalt. He just wrote me to tell me that he just had the worst interview of his life... and it was with Patton Oswalt. It was enough to turn him off interviewing comedians altogether. What I can't figure out is why someone who wants to promote a show would piss off the very person who can help promote the show. If you don't want to speak to the press, don't. Simple enough. But if you're going to talk, be a professional.

The only other comic I've interviewed who I couldn't reach was Steven Wright. I wrote about that in an earlier post. But with Wright, I figure, that's just the way he is. I can't blame him for that. He eventually warmed up in his own peculiar way but was incapable of really communicating with someone he doesn't know.

Jimmie Walker
was a tough nut to crack. He hates doing interviews and didn't want to do one. He's been screwed over by reporters in the past, who sweet-talk him to his face then turn around and bash him in print. That's not my style, but he had no way of knowing that. But I explained to his publicist that I respect him and I only write about comedy and was finally able to finagle one. I call him at the appointed time and he answers the phone quite strangely, I thought. It was like a sexy voice or something. I can't explain it. He was probably just being funny. But I tell him who I am and he immediately shuts down. The first few questions were like pulling teeth. But I persisted and as soon as I showed I knew something about his history outside of Good Times, he started to warm up and it turned out to be one of my favourite interviews.

Beyond that, I've had a couple of funny experiences while conducting phone interviews, both involving my son. These days, I can tell him I've got a phone interview to do and he'll leave me be. But back when he was two or three, it was more challenging.

One morning we got up around 9 and I checked my e-mail at 9:23. I remember the time because the message said Roseanne Barr was available for an interview at 9:25. So I quickly put on a video, explained to my not-quite-two-year-old that I needed to talk on the phone and he couldn't disturb me, then went in the other room to call Roseanne. Because of the situation, I wasn't as comfortable as I usually am. I was walking around talking to her when my son walks in carrying a big race track. I silently motioned "shhh" with my index finger to my lips while Barr was talking. I had forgotten that we hadn't eaten breakfast, which is no problem for me, but when a toddler is hungry, forget about it. That one little motion turned him from happily playing with his toys to bawling his eyes out. I was quietly trying to console him when Roseanne whined in her distinctive nasally voice, "What's wrong with that kid?"

I brushed it off, and got right back to the interview. We talked a bit more and my son started crying again. Roseanne, quite accusingly, I felt at the time, said, "Who's looking after that kid?" I told her I was and she said, "No, you're not. You're talking to some old broad." Then she told me to give him a cookie. It wasn't the smoothest interview I had done and I thought she was being harsh, but when I went back to listen to the tape, I realized she was actually being nice, in her own sweet way.

Fast forward a year and a bit and my son has just learned to poo on the toilet. So he's out of diapers but still needs help. I think you can see where this is leading. I'm expecting a call from Jay Leno's assistant one morning to arrange a time for later that day when I can interview Leno. I had set up a playdate for my kid so I could do the interview in peace. Everything would be fine.

So the boy is in the back yard playing in the dirt and the phone rings, as expected. Leno's assistant is on the line. She says, "I have Jay Leno on the line, can you take it?" Uh... My mind races. I can't say no. He's a busy guy. But I had no time to warn my son. So I stammered, "Sure," and headed to the office to record the call. On the way there, my cordless phone started beeping. It was running out of juice. So I had to pick up the corded phone, meaning I couldn't even walk around or see out to the back yard to check on my son.

So I'm talking to Leno and he's going on like a pro when my son walks in. He starts to talk and I gave him the shush sign again. Being just over three now, he wasn't reduced to tears. In fact, he stopped talking. And then he whispered those five little words I didn't want to hear: "I have to go poo."


Leno is still talking and I'm trying to figure out my options. I finally pulled my son's pants down around his ankles and pointed him in the direction of the toilet. It seemed to work. He waddled off towards the bathroom and I was home free, I thought, not realizing he had never once gone on his own before. So a minute passes and he waddles back to the office and whispers, "I don't have to go now." Fine with me. So I put the phone between my ear and shoulder and bend down to pull up my son's pants. Leno is still talking, oblivious, and I'm attempting to offer the appropriate responses. While I'm bending over, the phone squirts out and lands on the floor. I quickly finish the job, send my kid out of the room and pick up the phone. Leno's still talking. I figure I can pick it up on the recording, which I did. It didn't make for the smoothest interview, but he didn't seem to notice.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Comedy musings

What's So Funny? alumnus Chris Molineux has a new comedy blog called "standup stuff". Two entries so far and it's excellent (except for the annoying propensity to insert apostrophes into the possessive form of its, but I'm a bit of a grammar nerd). I have no idea where it'll evolve to, but the first two entries (and the next few) are about his recent, and first, experience doing stand-up in the U.K. Chris actually went to school in England but hadn't been back and had never performed there. He brings great insight into the British scene, from his admittedly brief time there a few weeks ago. Here's an example:
[T]he intros the comics are given involve no credits. In North America, credits are the backbone of an intro for every comic. Less so in larger centres such as L.A. or New York but in general you let the MC know all the most impressive (to the crowd) things you have done and he bundles them to together to form an intro. This serves to build up enthusiasm and expectation in the crowd. Americans in particular, are very impressed by any brush with celebrity you might have had and mentioning it in advance serves to legitimise you as a performer. I have said before that in America, crowds will laugh for you because they think they saw you on HBO, but in Canada crowds laugh at you because they think they saw you on CBC. While less inclined to worship at the altar of celebrity, Canadians still feel an act is legitimised by their credits. In the UK, not so. We discussed this before the show and I was told that credits are never listed off as it would seem arrogant and/or raise the expectation, which here was seen as a bad thing. This little fact also seem to run in line with what I had already witnessed; that the comic should appear as much as a friend as an entertainer.
Check out the whole thing here:

Speaking of British comedy, comedian Lee Hurst was in all the British papers yesterday. It seems he smashed an audience member's cell phone and has had to pay a fine. Now, I think it's ridiculous to see people in the crowd filming a set for a few reasons. One, they can't completely concentrate on the performance so they lose out on a level of enjoyment they might otherwise have experienced. Two, nobody wants to see shaky, grainy footage with bad sound of a comic. And by "nobody", of course, I mean me. I speak for everyone. Three, it's a bit disruptive, not only for the performer but for people near the camera-phoneman.

So for those reasons, I'm all for Hurst smashing the camera. But get a load of his reasoning. He says TV writers record his jokes, then turn around and sell the gags to TV shows:
"TV programmes have writers to write for performers and I have had gags stolen and sold to the BBC and ITV and then that material is gone," he said.

"You are then accused of stealing your own material from a comic on national television. There are thieves amongst the circuit and thieves amongst the writers. There is nobody to protect us, we have to protect ourselves."
Comedy thievery has always happened, long before cell phones. What's to stop them from scribbling down notes? Take away their pen and paper and they've got their memory. There's any number of ways to steal material. But if he's that worried that thieves lurk at all his shows, why does he even perform?

Here's my favourite personal story on temperamental artists and surreptitious chroniclers. Years ago, I saw a no-name jazz singer-pianist at a little restaurant in Victoria. The show was memorable for two reasons: 1. A family friend of hers climbed a little ladder to take a photo of her trio, lost his footing and fell backwards onto the drum set in the middle of a tune, stopping the show until the ambulance came. And 2. Another old guy was sitting at a table recording the show on his cassette player. Keep in mind she was a nobody. He was doing what I had done countless other times: making a recording for his own personal use. The recording quality would be so poor, anyway, that it would be of no monetary value whatsoever.

After the show, she was sitting at the guy's table demanding that he give her the tape. I thought, "Hmm, what a prima donna. Who does she think she is? Ella Fitzgerald? What possible difference would it make?" The guy, to his credit, refused to give up the tape. They compromised. He would keep the tape but had to promise it would only be for his personal use.

And who was that unknown chanteuse? Diana Krall. I guess she knew she'd be a somebody someday. I wonder if that old guy has tried to make any money off it. Maybe he could sell it to a British TV show.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

February 15: Riel Hahn

Hello, dear readers. Nice to see this blog starting to get the odd comment. Feel free to go hog wild. It's the only way I can tell anyone's actually reading.

I hope everyone had a good Valentine's Day. Or at the very least a neutral one.

Tonight we have the lovely Riel Hahn, gracing us with her second appearance on the program. And she's bringing along her guitar to serenade us in song. It'll mark the second time a guest has accompanied themselves on the instrument in our studio. The first was the irrepressible Barry Greenfeld, who managed, in a remarkable case of self-control, to keep his clothes on the entire show. We'll see if Riel can remain so composed.

During Riel's first appearance on our show, I never asked her about her experience on the Jerry Springer show, where she played the girlfriend of Vancouver comic Jy Harris, who himself was playing a guy who wanted to get into porn. It turns out the show's a fake. Can you believe that? Life is one disillusionment after another, I tell ya. Here's Riel and Jy on that very episode:

We'll be sure to talk about it tonight. Tune in, won't you?


What the hell is it with theatre gigs and annoying radio "personalities"? Why do commercial radiots (I just came up with that nifty portmanteau!) need to come out before every big show and announce who the audience is going to be seeing in thirty seconds? We know who's coming up. The name's right on the ticket. Secondly, who are you? Nobody listens to your shitty station. With the vast number of radio outlets available to us these days, either on our sets or computers or beaming down from outer space, your two-bit station might get 300 listeners tops.

This isn't petty jealousy because the co-op station that airs What's So Funny? gets maybe three listeners. Honest. I just think this practice is the most redundantest thing. Plus, I must admit, commercial radio people kinda give me the creeps. They stride to the stage all cocky, giving their names and affiliation, pausing slightly for the applause that never, ever comes, before carrying on with their well-modulated voices.

It also must be horribly humbling for them. Everyone on commercial radio thinks they're God's gift to humour, what with their slide whistles and dingers and raucous laughter from their sycophantic sidekicks. And then they find themselves on stage before real live comedians and they're not getting even a pity guffaw from an audience ready to laugh. This is just a lose-lose situation all around. It must be stopped.

At the River Rock once I was introduced to some radio woman on some big station I never listen to. She does lots of these types of intros. I was given her name so I greeted her with a respectful hello. Since I didn't appear to get all excited at the mere mention of her name, she jumped in with, "I'm the hag in the sky." Or some such thing. I said, "I don't know what that means." I immediately felt awful because you could tell she was wounded. I think she was expecting me to be a big fan. But she was doubly screwed because the only thing I hate more than radio personalities are traffic news reporters. Those people are the laziest buggers on the air, getting us to call them and supply them with all the info. Athough it works for me because when I'm running late and the traffic is bad, I just call in and say there's been an accident on my route. They report it and, presto!, the street opens right up. (Okay, I haven't done that, but I will someday, I promise.) Anyway, despite my non-responsive greeting this hag in the sky went out there on that stage like a trooper and announced who was coming up to the best of her a.m. ability.

Maybe these "personalities" don't even want to be there. Maybe their bosses think it would be a great way to plug the station. Like we're all sitting there thinking, "That horribly unfunny person who went up there at the beginning who told us what we already knew sure had a well-modulated voice. I think I'll start listening to his show."

I'm not a fan of heckling or booing actual comics but I think the best way to get rid of this horribly ill-conceived practice is to boo mightily and heckle mercilessly the next time a radio deejay steps to the microphone prior to a big comedy show. Even if you happen to like the person. Just do it. Knowing them, their egos won't even allow for the fact that it was directed their way so it won't sting too bad. But it just might stop the organizers from putting the next local pseudo-celebrity out there where they don't belong.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Sitting in judgment

Comedy competition season is upon us. Yuk Yuk's is in the midst of their yearly showdown. Every Tuesday in February ten or so comics take to the stage to perform six minutes of their best material in the hopes of winning $3000 and a trip to Toronto to compete at nationals (or whatever they call it) for the chance to take home $25,000. Last year, Vancouver's own Graham Clark was the big winner. More on him later.

I was one of four judges last night. I don't enjoy judging. It's so arbitrary, so hard to compare one comic against the other. I've done lots over the years and only do them because I'm asked. I'd much rather just watch. Competitions are artificial. It's like figure skating. When everyone's doing something different, how do you compare? You should just enjoy each one for its artistry without assigning a grade to it. But everyone loves a competition.

Who make the best judges? I don't have an answer to that. Should it be someone like me, who sees a lot of the comics year round and knows their act and what they're capable of? Should it be someone who hardly ever goes to comedy and comes in with a clean slate? Should it be a fellow comic? There are pros and cons to each one.

Each one of those groups has biases, so that evens out. If I have a bias towards individual comics, someone who doesn't go to a lot of live comedy will have a bias towards (or against) certain styles or ages or whatever. It's just so personal. It's ridiculous to think everyone will have the same tastes. Just take any famous comic and ask your friends. Half of them will think Robin Williams is the funniest guy on earth, and half will hate him. Some love Bill Hicks; others think he's highly over-rated.

Someone like me as a judge would be able to recognize borrowed material or overused bits because I've been going to live comedy for 29 years... What the--? My good God I'm old... On the other hand a "celebrity" or lay judge who rarely sees live comedy brings a fresh perspective and maybe represents the common audience member better.

So I think the best way to go is to have judges of various backgrounds. I think the organizers should also go for other comedy performers who don't do standup. For example, the worlds of standup and improv rarely meet. Why not bring in a veteran improv or sketch performer who's not familiar with the individual standup comics in the competition but knows funny?

Something else I'd love to see is an open scoring system like they have in the Seattle competition. The comics, and public, should see exactly who scored what. In all the competitions I've judged, I've rarely sided with the end result. Last year, one of the three winners wasn't on three of the four judges' top three. How did that happen? We don't know so we just have to trust that the organizers aren't just putting through who they want.

Some comics think they know my biases and don't like to see me at the judge's table. Fair enough. But I try to judge solely on that night's performance and no other factors. And whether I know and like them personally or not has no bearing on the score I give them. I've voted for comics I don't know or may not like all that well personally just as often as I've voted for someone I know and like as a person. It makes no difference to me.

Which brings me to Graham Clark, who also happens to be a great guy. For years I've heard from various comics that I have some sort of man-crush on Graham, like I favour him over all others. Where this comes from, I have no idea. Graham is one of the top comics in the city (and the country, as witnessed by his victory at "nationals" last year). I've only judged him in two or three competitions. The first time was at a Just For Laughs Homegrown competition at Lafflines when he was just starting out. Even though he was nervous as hell and very raw, I liked what I saw and scored him relatively high. But I didn't have him winning and, in fact, he didn't win. The next time was at a competition at the old Urban Well. He was one of the five finalists. On that particular night, I had him 5th out of five. That's no knock on him. I just felt that on that night the other four were better. But the other judges (or organizers) liked him well enough that he won the thing. And I honestly can't remember if I judged him in last year's Yuk Yuk's competition or not, but obviously I had nothing to do with his win in Toronto.

Maybe it's because I've written about him a few times. Here's the thing: I rarely if ever get to choose who I write about. I don't have a column where I get to write whatever I want. I'm either given assignments or I pitch an idea. The ultimate decision is with editors. And let's just say I've pitched way more stories than I've ever written. If there's no hook there, or editors haven't heard of the person, they're often reluctant to give up space to them.

But let's look at this dispassionately. I don't have exact records, but here's an incomplete list of locals I've written about over the years, many of them on more than one occasion:

Vancouver TheatreSports League
!nstant Theatre Company
John Beuhler
Morgan Brayton
Brent Butt
Jason Bryden
Tom Chin
Cheech & Chong (c'mon, they were local at one time!)
Tommy Chong (see point above)
Roman Danylo
David C. Jones
Sean Devlin & Kevin Lee
Ellie Harvie
Erica Sigurdson
Giggle Dam
JP Mass
Phil Hanley
Kevin Foxx
Peter Kelamis
Irwin Barker
Ivan Decker
Jeffery Yu
Sam Easton
Billy Mitchell
Graham Clark
Nathan Clark
Bob Robertson & Linda Cullen
Ryan Stiles
Tanyalee Davis
Damonde Tschritter
Darcy Michael

If you go by sheer number of articles, Vancouver TheatreSports League wins in a landslide but I don't hear anyone saying they're my favourite.

I guess what I'm saying is this: Don't assume. Because when you assume you make a ssum out of e.

UPDATE: Come to think of it, I'm not even sure I judged the final at Urban Well. Maybe it was just in my head that I ranked the finalists. I honestly don't remember. But the point holds.

FURTHER UPDATE: Forgot to mention who came through in last night's competition. The three to advance, in the order they were announced, were A.J. McKenzie, Jeffery Yu and Ben McGinnis, all worthy of advancing, too.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

February 8: Sugar Sammy

Happy Sunday, all. I'm just back from my first ever Alpine experience. Not that I went skiing or anything crazy like that. No, that record stays. But tubing is awesome, dude (I think that's what they say on the slopes). Here's proof:

But enough about me. I've got a show to prepare for... after the requisite nap, that is. Sam Khullar will be our guest tonight. Who's that, you say? Why, it's Sugar Sammy, who's transitioning into his real name as he matures into a grown-up. Sammy flew into town this very day and he'll be in studio with us tonight for his third visit to the program. This guy is suave and hilarious and I'm betting he'll be bigger than Russell Peters some day. Why the comparison with Peters? It's not fair, really, but they're both Indo-Canadians so it's the easy comparison. And I'm all about taking the easy way out.

The good folks at Just For Laughs are sending Sammy all across the country (or at least the JFL version of Canada that ends in Montreal) on a solo tour. He plays The Centre in Vancouver for Performing Arts (aka the Catchiest Theatre Name in the Business) on Friday, Feb. 13. Yes, Friday the 13th for you horror fans. And on Valentine's Day night he'll be in Surrey at the Bell Performing Arts Centre. But tonight is when you'll really get to know the man behind the Sugar Sammy persona.

: Joining us tonight will be this guy, Daliso Chaponda, who's from Malawi via the UK and Canada and also is Sam's opening act on this tour.

UPDATE: Forget the This Just In addendum. It's just Sugar Sammy on the show. Daliso is jet-lagged. But do check out his blog and website. They're pretty good.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

February 1: Maz Jobrani

A couple weeks ago, the Iranian-American comic Maz Jobrani was in town for his "Brown & Friendly" tour. As so often happens with visiting comics, they skip town on Sunday afternoon and aren't able to do my show that night. On rare occasions I think ahead and pre-record an interview with them. I was on the ball this time. Maz was able to talk to me in his dressing room at the Commodore about an hour prior to his show. Unfortunately, he could only talk for half an hour. But whatever. I won't hold that against him. He was as friendly as all get out.

So tonight, I'll play that interview and we'll fill out the rest of the hour with comedy clips. Some, perhaps, even from Jobrani himself. How's that?

Okay, nap time.