It’s easy to forget how good it feels to laugh with strangers. Like fireworks and live music, the ephemeral nature of the experience fades over time, melting into a moment remembered with fondness and a shrug.

Let me assure you: live comedy is the vitamin you’ve been deficient in for years now. No matter how many specials you binged on the couch during the pandy, it doesn’t even compare.

I was impressed and quickly overwhelmed by the sparkly and energetic red carpet style event at Club Soda for Just for The Culture‘s opening night

There were lights, cameras, kind staff whisking people around, funny folks posing and answering questions. I had to think fast on my feet, so I prioritized. First, I fawned and fangirled over Jessica Kirson (who was a total mensch, kind and patient), then I found my seat, and the bar in short order.

While I was familiar with some of the names on the lineup, others were totally new to me. It was hosted by Alonzo Bodden, who I spoke to last week, check it here.

Sheng Wang opened the show. He had a relaxed, slow burn style that eased us in and reminded us how we do this.

Lebanese Canadian Dave Merheje told family stories that’ll resonate with many, and especially with first and second generation Canadians.

Paul Rabliauskas, an Anishinaabe comedian from Winnipeg, let us kno that this was his biggest gig to date, which made it feel special. His set demonstrated his more than 15 years in the game, and I have a hunch his gigs will just get bigger.

Zainab Johnson was another name I hadn’t heard before, but one I will definitely remember. Named to Variety’s 10 Comics to Watch for 2019 (the year when comedy and the world shut down), she’s at the start of her story, and it’s gonna be a big one.

Yannis Pappas hit the stage with jokes blazing and no holds barred. Beware, he’s been here before, and he’s done some research. He’s ready to hold up the mirror the city needs, and make you laugh till you cry while he does.

Jessica Kirson closed it out like the beast she is. She did jokes, voices, act outs, until our laughter morphed into howls. We literally took a moment after the show to catch our breaths before getting up, with one of my table mates wiping away tears and saying “I’m not ready yet”. What more can you actually ask of a show?

Featured Image by Joseph El-Hage, courtesy of Just for Laughs

Just for the Culture runs from July 20th to 28th. Tickets available at hahaha.com

This is officially the best summer in years. Restaurants are full, dance floors are back in business, and be still my heart, our festivals have returned. The Coachella of comedy, JFL is back for it’s 40th edition, and I found out that the comedians have missed us as much as we’ve missed them.

“I can speak for every comic involved and tell you we have missed the festival so much and we are going to be so glad to once again be invading your city with stupid questions, and with jokes, eating off food trucks and just hanging out seeing the City of Montreal. Can’t wait to get back.”

Alonzo Bodden is a Just for Laughs legend. He was one of the JFL New Faces in 1997, winner of Last Comic Standing in 2004, and this year he’s back to host Just For the Culture Show – formerly The Ethnic Show (“it changed its own pronoun,” he quips).

“The beauty of this is everyone’s bringing their own voice to the show. So when we say just for the culture, it’s not like you’re only going to be talking about your culture, you’re going to be talking about the world from your viewpoint. With the Americans, you know, my culture is both Black and American. So I have both involved. And the same thing with the Canadians, you know, Dave [Merheje] is going to be who he is, but he’s also going to be Muslim and he’s going to be Canadian… the only thing I can tell you about the show, it’s going to be funny, and it’s going to go long, because we all have something more to say than what they want us to say. We are going to have a fantastic time and we are going to be uncensored, we are not going to worry about ‘don’t say this, don’t say that’. The thing I’ve always said about the Ethnic show, and now the Culture Show, is we are people who should be at war and yet we are laughing, so join us. I will do my best as host to tie it together, but quite often I’m simply one of the audience members with the best seat in the house.”

Current affairs are a mainstay in Alonzo’s comedy, so it should be no surprise that he’s a news junkie who’s been doing his own podcast for over 10 years now.

“The podcast is called Who’s Paying Attention?, and it started because the news stopped paying attention…We don’t have a Walter Cronkite anymore, we don’t have an Edward Murrow, we don’t have somebody saying, wait a minute: this is ridiculous. They cover Marjorie Taylor Greene like she’s real news. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: the only reason Lauren Boebert is so angry is she thought she was crazy, and then Marjorie came along and she’s been out-crazied. Let’s not talk about Ted Cruz, but you guys could have kept him in Canada.”

I made it clear that we don’t want Cruz, and will not be accepting that return. Jokes aside, I ask how he manages to keep his head above the never-ending flow of bad news.

“I’ll be honest, I have to take breaks from the news. It will wear you out. The constant barrage of stupidity is beyond belief.”

Which is exactly why his latest tour is called Stupid Don’t Get Tired. With that in mind, I ask him where he finds hope.

“You know, it’s really tough…on my podcast whenever I have a guest in, I ask them ‘what’s the good news’, because we have to try to find some good news in this dumpster fire. My hope, honestly, is the youngest generation. I think they’re the ones who hopefully will take over and restore some form of sanity, Even that they’ve given up on though, you know, because they started with Generation X. Okay, when you start at X, it shows there’s no long range plan. Gen X, Gen Y, Gen Z, what then? Oh, we’ll have destroyed it all by then.”

From looking forward to looking back, I asked Alonzo about the new mini-series he’s a part of called Right to Offend: The Black Comedy Revolution.

“I am so honored to be a part of that. It is such a brilliant documentary, going from vaudeville, and the minstrel and blackface era. right up into today with Dave Chappelle, and Chris Rock, and Tiffany Haddish and everyone in between. Dick Gregory, Richard Pryor, Wanda Sykes, Moms Mabley Whoopi Goldberg, so many brilliant voices in comedy over the years, and to be asked to be a part of that, to comment on that, and my history, it’s truly been phenomenal. They could have called it the duty to offend. We have to push buttons. And we do it unapologetically, because you can’t apologize for the truth. You can try to cancel us, you can do whatever you want to do. We are going to continually tell the truth…When I started, Somebody told me ‘listen, if 20% of the audience isn’t upset, then you’re not doing your job’, so I am okay with that. The truth hurts sometimes, but the other side of that, is there are people who are like ‘thank God for your voice. We’re so happy to hear you’. We need somebody telling the truth out there. Jon Stewart famously became a major news anchor and he was like, ‘you know I’m doing a comedy show. They were like ‘no, no, no, we’re coming to you for the truth’…We’re the last voice. Years ago, Lewis Black, brilliant comic and an old friend of mine said listen, we don’t want this job but no one else would do it. Right? We’re the last ones to tell the truth and laugh at how ridiculous it is.”

I know it’s selfish, but I had to ask what he loves about Montreal, and what makes us special on the global scene. It’s akin to a civic thirst trap, but sometimes you just want the likes.

Getting lost walking the streets of Old Montreal; the art galleries the whole vibe… I go to Old Montreal to get…centered… I truly miss that: walking the streets of Old Montreal, and looking at the beautiful people. Your city has beautiful people. And I enjoy that. You’re stylish.”

We chat briefly about Quebec’s politics and distinct identity crisis. There’s much to laugh at when you take a step back.

“Yeah, it is a different crazy,” he says. “But it’s a crazy that doesn’t involve bullets. I appreciate that…hang on to that.”

We’re sure as hell trying.

Just for The Culture runs from July 13 to 28 hosted by Alonzo Bodden, featuring Dave Merheje, Jessica Kirson, Paul Rabliauskas, Sheng Wang, Yannis Pappas and Zainab Johnson. Tickets available through hahaha.com

New Faces of Comedy is a Just for Laughs institution. After a couple of rounds of auditions, some of North America’s best comedic talents have a chance to take the JFL stage and show the world what they can do.

The people who perform at this show know they’re not just doing it for people out to be entertained, but also industry members and agents looking for the next great comedic talent. This annual event has not only launched the careers of Amy Schumer and Jimmy Fallon, but also that of host Alonzo Bodden who got his start on New Faces twenty one years ago.

From the get-go, the audience was warned the event would be filmed as part of a documentary. Bodden told us what we should do and not do. With all of us briefed, he slipped smoothly into his role as host, warming us up with jokes about the summer students posing as Just for Laughs security and the “cutest” cadets acting as police on festival grounds.

His best joke that night was about the #MeToo movement and his wish that he’d one day hear a story about a woman complaining of sexual harassment that ended with a male relative beating the heck out of the harasser. With the audience sufficiently primed, he began introducing the comedians.

With shows like New Faces, there are bound to be some comedians that fall flat with some audience members. Rather than focusing on the negative, I’m going to talk about those that really stood out to me and made me laugh the hardest.

Daphnique Springs

For me the true test of a comedian is their ability to tackle difficult subjects and make them funny and Springs was one of the best last night. She tackled topics like Libyan slavery and drugging women’s drinks for the purpose of rape in ways that had everyone laughing.

In the era of #MeToo, Springs is the kind of voice we need to hear more of: a strong, beautiful woman of colour who’s hilarious, sassy, smart, and unafraid. She also made the best Trump joke of the night, saying that he got his wife from a “build a bitch” workshop.

Rocky Dale Davis

Rocky Dale Davis is originally from Alabama and you can tell the minute he speaks. He delivered his jokes with that southern twang people generally associate with lower IQs and Trump voters (same thing). He began his act by addressing his accent, saying that his attempts to speak Spanish made him realize that: “I sound racist in every language.”

Davis’ comedy revolves around the contrast between the ignorance and racism of his roots and his current, more woke, worldview. He used sports analogies to explain that Trump isn’t as racist as the people he grew up with and though not all his jokes were homeruns, there was something hypnotic about his stage presence that made it impossible to look away.

In an era where people on the left look at Southern Americans with utter contempt, Davis’ comedy is a refreshing one that’s both self deprecatingly funny and brutal.

Nina Tarr

No comedy show is complete without someone taking the piss out of rich white people and no one did that better than Nina Tarr.

Tarr’s strong suit is impressions and her ones of “botched plastic surgery face” and “De Niro giving a blow job” were hilarious. What stood out most for me was her use of the term “BILF” aka Baby I’d Like to F*ck, a term she used for spoiled rich women who infantilize themselves to attract men, and whom she mercilessly imitated in her performance.

Usama Siddiquee

In an era of Muslim bans and Niqab bans and Islamophobia, Usama Siddiquee is the kind of comedian we need.
He’s Muslim, fearless, and funny as hell.

Whether it was his crack about his mother suggesting he change his name after 9/11, or how having sex once sent his Muslim values out the window, he was a treat to watch. He was consistently funny throughout his routine, tackling such edgy topics as terrorism, racism, and sexism with grace.

Shows like New Faces of Comedy are a bit like buying a surprise bag from your favorite store. You might not get everything you like but you’re bound to see some great things. Check it out. It’s worth it.

* There are two more New Faces of Comedy shows on July 27th with one group of comedians at 7pm and another at 9pm. Tickets available through hahaha.com

** Watch for our review of the second group from Wednesday night coming soon

The Ethnic Show is described by Just for Laughs as “a cultural melting pot for comedy”. This year is its ninth edition and comedians from a variety of backgrounds are here to show their comedic mettle. Some are well-known, some less so, but one thing is for certain, you’re guaranteed a good time even if every style of comedy is not your thing.

This year’s host is Alonzo Bodden, a last minute replacement for Maz Jobrani who had to drop out due to a family emergency. An African American comedian, Bodden’s set began with an apology for Donald Trump, adding:

“Don’t look at me, I’m black…This is on white people!”

This was not his only potshot at the Orange president, but the worst of his wrath was directed at US Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson, whom he none-too-subtly suggested was a modern Uncle Tom. Direct and brutal, Bodden proved himself a worthy host and I overheard many audience members praising him as the best act of the show.

Vlad Camano (photo courtesy Just for Laughs)

Next up was Vladimir Camaño, a Dominican American from the Bronx. Of all the acts that night, Camaño’s was the most physical and interesting to watch, as he uses a lot of animal references in his act and manages to contort his body to represent everything from a deer to pigeons. His material is a combination of mocking his Dominican father and potshots at rich people but his best jokes were about sex which managed to be both self-deprecating and original.

Third in line was Mike Rita, a Portuguese Canadian who performed at last year’s Homegrown Comics Show. His material is reminiscent of Russell Peters in that it’s all about growing up with immigrant parents and how widely their beliefs and attitudes differ from North Americans. Like Peters, he imitates his parents right down to their accents and though most of his jokes were the same ones he told last year, Rita’s energy manages to keep it funny despite the lack of originality.

Before mentioning the next act, it should be said that I am not a fan of musical comedy acts and I fully acknowledge my prejudice. Musical comedy acts often consist of either great musicians and lousy comedians or vice versa, and sooner or later said acts fade into obscurity, realizing that not everyone can be Weird Al.

Somehow the next act proved to be neither.

Said act is The Do Wops, a musical comedy duo of John Catucci – known to Food Network fans as the former star of You Gotta Eat Here!– and David Mesiano, a couple of Italian guys who asked that they be described as:

“One plays the guitar, the other is an asshole.”

The Do Wops (image courtesy Just for Laughs)

Catucci, the “asshole” of the group, danced, sang and girated while Mesiano played guitar and sang along. Their jokes were funny and there’s no doubt that they can both sing, but somehow the comedy and music didn’t quite mesh and they were actually funnier when there was no musical accompaniment.

The whole thing reminded me of an exchange between Groucho and Chico Marx in the 1930 film Animal Crackers when Groucho asks Chico, a musician, what he charges not to play. “You couldn’t afford it” is the reply.

The Do Wops were followed by Steve Byrne, a Korean and Irish American who has been doing comedy for twenty years.

Of all the performers that night, he was the only one to do an imitation of the American president. Though Byrne’s take on the Orange man’s voice was on the Satanic side, it was appropriate given the latter’s behavior. If there’s one word to describe Steve Byrne, it’s fearless. He doesn’t just take jabs at his fellow Asians, mercilessly tackling stereotypes, but also takes jabs at Jews and Caucasians.

In this respect his act started out strong. Unfortunately, about halfway through it went downhill as he started ranting about Millenials.

I understand why comedians and people in general take potshots at young people. We don’t tolerate racism, or sexism, or homophobia, or transphobia, and we make demands that people be respectful and pay fair wages. Rather than take responsibility for bad behavior, it’s easier to shift blame back onto victims by calling them whiny and entitled. I also understand that older people have the money to buy tickets to big comedy shows – much if not most of the audience were baby boomers – and many younger attendees are there on someone else’s charity, so it’s perfectly natural to want to pander.

That said, taking shots at Millenials seems incredibly lazy, as most of the material talking about the evils of safe spaces and accusing young people of being soft has already been written a hundred times over by every entitled baby boomer with an internet connection.

Sadly, Byrne’s bit about Millenials had nothing original in it, and prefacing it by saying he loved them couldn’t save the rest of his act. At least older audience members were laughing.

Last to take the stage was Jessica Kirson, who boldly announced herself as “The Jew”.

Jessica Kirson describes herself as a high energy comic and when you see her performance, you know it’s absolutely true. She is the type of comedian who tells stories, but she tells them with the kind of energy that has you laughing hysterically while on the edge of your seat trying to hear more.

Like many comedians, she does impressions, but unlike other acts, she doesn’t limit herself to family members and celebrities. No one from her elderly Jewish audiences in Florida to her Asian pedicurist were spared her impressions, which were so outlandish and exaggerated they managed not to be offensive.

Some would describe her as loud and shrill, but others, myself included, say she’s brave and talented and knows it. Her most outstanding feat was combining a joke about kids and a joke about dildos in a way that wouldn’t offend anyone except the worst of prudes.

But I’m not going to spoil that one.

Go see The Ethnic Show.

The Ethnic Show runs July 14-27, tickets available through hahaha.com

* Featured image of Alonzo Bodden courtesy Just for Laughs

Just for Laugh’s Ethnic Show markets itself as “the most culturally diverse show of the Festival.” And yeah, that’s pretty much true. The seven comics I watched last night at Club Soda came from a variety of different ‘ethnic’ backgrounds and their sets made sure everyone got a good laugh.

Entering Club Soda with my friend, the one question that I had in mind was “What the hell does ethnic mean anyway?” If you have a look at the line-up, you’ll see that none of the comics are what you would call Anglo-Saxon.

Ethnic, in this sense, does not necessarily have to do with skin color. It’s these people’s experiences as belonging to a minority group in North America that has made them fit the label ‘ethnic.’ And they seemed to be okay with it.

At the very beginning of the show, the host Alonzo Bodden reminded the audience that they would be offending everyone equally. Now, in this day and age, it could be really difficult for comics to talk about sensitive issues like race and ethnicity. To be honest, I’d like to think that it should be. I’m not saying that we should be censoring what people can say; but a comic making jokes about racial or ethnic topics should be self-aware.

After all, when people think about ethnic comedy, what pops into their heads are stereotypes. But there is so much more to the “ethnic” experience than old, cliche stereotypes. If such jokes based on stereotypes haven’t gone stale yet, it’s about time that they did.

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Rachid Badouri

Luckily, you’ll find very little of that in the Ethnic Show and that’s what I really liked about it. Essentially, these comics are telling their own stories about snippets from their own lives. They just happen to be from a certain ethnicity and that happens to colour these stories.

For instance, Rachid Badouri has a bit about parent-teacher meetings. At its core, his story is about a little boy whose father does funny things without even knowing. But because his father is Moroccan, the story takes on a different aspect. Still, the joke isn’t funny because Badouri is doing accent jokes, it’s funny because of how ridiculous the situation is – AND his facial expressions.

I especially loved Bodden’s performance as the host. He really knew how to get the audience excited and involved. In fact, I daresay some of his jokes got more laughs than some of the other acts.

I’d also urge you to pay special attention to Frank Spadone and Gina Yashere. For some reason I could really empathize with Spadone’s jokes about his family. As for Yashere, I’m simply a sucker for the kind of sarcastic Londoner humour she delivers so well.

Ronnie Chieng’s routine was also pretty funny. He told a story based on his observations at the airport line and delivered it very loudly. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t laughing because he was just screaming, but because he was screaming at an imaginary Asian person at an imaginary airpot for eating BBQ pork at the passport line. The way he set up the story made it impossible not to laugh.

I found Dan Naturman’s act a bit drier than the others. I suppose I find the single-forty-year-old-hitting-on-women routine is getting a bit old. Don’t get me wrong, though – I still laughed at Naturman.

All these comics are hilarious in their own way and not just because they do ethnic comedy. I get the feeling that they have bits in their routines about ethnicity, mostly because the name of the show is the Ethnic Show.

In my opinion, the Ethnic Show is all about great comics telling their own stories, but with us putting the label ‘ethnic’ on it.

In between the acts, Bodden kept asking audiences what they were. I think the purpose of that was to push the audience outside of their North American mind-frame. I mean, what is a Canadian, anyway? Most Canadians come from one “old country” or another.

Maybe I’m over-analyzing a great comedy show, but I think the concept of race and ethnicity deserves being over-analyzed. The show got me thinking and maybe it will do the same for you. But even if you’re in it just for laughs (get it?) I promise that you’ll have a fantastic time. Definitely check the Ethnic Show out.

The Ethnic Show is running between July 8 and July 19, twice every night at Club Soda. Check out the Just for Laughs website for more information.