DeAnne Smith is a Montreal favourite. Born in the US, they lived in Mexico for a while, and then moved to and got their start in comedy in Montreal.

I remember seeing Smith at Stand Up Strip Down in my twenties, and now they perform and do TV appearances all over the world and have their own Netflix special. I recently saw Smith at the Unknown Comedy Club’s ComedyWorks Tribute Show this past May.

At this year’s Just for Laughs Festival they will be filming their own standup special. I had a chance to speak with DeAnne as they and their partner were road tripping from visiting family on the East Coast to Los Angeles. Though I could hear the road in the background and our connection was iffy, the interview felt less like a formal exchange and more like a chat between old friends.

I asked them, as I do every standup comedian I interview, what they’ve been doing during the pandemic, given the limits on live performance due public health measures.

“Everyone says I’ve been losing my mind. Please put that on the record. It took me a couple of months to embrace my comedy, but in September 2020 I started doing my own monthly show on Zoom that I call DeAnne Smith and Acquaintances and I ran that from September until June and we’re taking a break for the summer but honestly, I think I’m going to bring it back in the fall even though there are live shows because we built such a nice, fun, supportive little community every month…I was doing my time with online shows.”

DeAnne Smith admits that, like many other comedians, it took them a while to learn the tech but they had a tech from their monthly show to help. Regarding how COVID has affected their comedy and career, they said their career halted overnight.

“Even before the pandemic, I think, a lot of what I’m trying to do in comedy… I’ve always been aware of how special it is to be in a room with people and just be creating a moment that’s not going to be repeated, that’s just for the people there. I’ve always done comedy from the point of view of real connection and I think that’s only deepened for me in pandemic. It’s like really the only thing I’m interested in is connection and making a moment where we can all feel joy together and feel good together.”

Smith acknowledges that shared joy is the goal of comedy, but feels that some people approach the art as having funny ideas they want others to hear, and while that is part of their comedy, for them it’s as much about connection and shared experience. They point out that the shared experience they seek with their comedy has deepened due to the pandemic.

“I don’t remember a moment in my lifetime where I’ve felt such a collective consciousness where we’re all experiencing some pretty similar things together.”

DeAnne is openly non-binary and has been using the pronouns they/them for many years and they made many jokes about it in their 2018 Netflix special. Though their gender identity is nothing new, they are more open about their preferred pronouns and insisting on their use.

“It feels really good to me and I’m finally in a place where I’m willing to inconvenience people a tiny bit to feel seen and referred to correctly.”

Smith says there hasn’t been any pushback regarding their gender identity and they never thought much of it until the Netflix special came out in 2019.

“I have gotten a lot of emails from people of all ages, but especially [from] teenagers and young adults saying that it was really important for them to see someone like them in a public role talking about gender issues and I forget about that a lot but I think it does help people realize that there’s a lot of ways to identify and there’s a wide spectrum of how to be a human being.”

Smith’s comedy generally has a very openly feminist slant though they admit that they aren’t discussing issues exacerbated by the pandemic like domestic violence as much in their online shows.

“One thing that’s happened with the pandemic, at least with the online shows, is that I’m not speaking to as generalized an audience as I am in the real world in the comedy clubs. By that I mean it seems the online crowds are kind of self-selected to have a similar political sensibility, so I don’t know that I’ve been pushing an agenda as much as I do in the comedy clubs because there’s not as much to push against.”

People who come to Smith’s online shows know exactly what they’re getting, with Smith pointing that if anything their comedy has gotten more personal due to the pandemic, especially with the monthly show. Many people taking in online shows are often in their pajamas or not wearing pants, and that lends itself to a more personal experience, though Smith laughingly says they will be wearing pants during their Just for Laughs appearance.

DeAnne Smith, Chris Locke and Kyle Brownrigg will be recording CTV Comedy and Crave Stand-Up Specials Saturday, July 31 at 7 and 10 pm at L’Astral, 305 Ste-Catherine Ouest. Tickets available through HaHaHa.com

The Just for Laughs festival is upon us and with more and people vaccinated and the easing of restrictions, this year’s festival is a hybrid one, with some shows streaming for free online, and live, socially distanced in-person events with limited seating. Among this year’s virtual offerings is Just for Laughs Live in LA, featuring an all-star cast of comedians including my interviewee, Jeremy Hotz.

Hotz is a standup legend, having made his big debut at the Montreal Just for Laughs festival in the nineties. His unique brand of passive aggressive observational comedy is hilarious and, as it turns out, it’s not just an act.

When I phoned Hotz on a Friday afternoon, I had SO many questions! What was he doing during the pandemic? What does he think of it? Does he really talk like he does on stage? I wondered if that high pitched, passive aggressiveness was just a persona, and whether he’d be a completely different person on the phone.

I was in for a pleasant surprise.

“Yeah, people don’t understand with me that it’s not an act. Everyone says that about me, the miserable things that happen in my act happen in my life and if you spent a day with me you realize that I seem to be a magnet for it. It’s really bizarre.”

Throughout our conversation, my best attempts at professional composure were useless in the face of his answers to my questions. When I asked him, for example, what was his biggest challenge during the pandemic, he spoke of problems getting his large nose in the mask. Given how many people wear their masks incorrectly, I asked if he only wore his mask over his mouth or covered “the whole shebang”.

“Well, you know, they got to make the mask big enough to get over the whole shebang, that’s the problem. I have the same problem with condoms.”

You’d have to be dead not to laugh.

On Just for Laughs’ website he’s identified as a Canadian American comedian. Born in South Africa, he spent much of his life in Ottawa, but moved to the United States in the nineties. In spite of this, he still considers himself a Canadian comic.

“I’m the most passive aggressive human being on the planet!” Hotz said, describing how for the past three years he’s been calling a yellow cab company once a month and sending them to a bogus address because they stood him up once, resulting in him nearly missing his flight. He considers passive aggressiveness to be a very Canadian trait.

“Canadians, they won’t say you’re an asshole but they think it all day long.”

Standup comedians, like other artists, could not perform in front of live audiences, so I wondered how he’d spent the pandemic.

“I’ve just been standing there waiting for this thing to end, like most people. And now that it is, I seem to have to go back to work which is, you know, shit…”,

When he could no longer perform in front of live audiences, he began live streaming on his Facebook page and it just exploded. Hotz says he loves the format, though, like many comedians, he had to learn the technology to give his fans the best possible experience, and that came with time and doing the show regularly. Now that they’ve mastered the tech, Hotz says they have a good little show.

“Through the pandemic when you couldn’t do standup and I could do the live show once a week, I put a lot of fucking work into it and I really enjoyed it and it became something that I actually looked forward to doing and I’m Jeremy Hotz. I look forward to sex!”

He said there are some anti vaxx trolls and conspiracy theorists that he occasionally responds to in the comments sections of his live streams, and while his responses get hundreds of likes, he can’t respond to them all.

For his upcoming appearance at Live in Los Angeles, he plans to touch on his pandemic experiences a little but feels that by the time of the show in the last week of July, the topic will be dated, opting instead to tell jokes that make people happy.

He describes the setup as a comedy club, pointing out that in Los Angeles so many people are vaccinated that COVID restrictions and mask mandates have eased almost entirely. It promises to be a good show and it’s absolutely free online!

Check it out.

Just for Laughs Live in LA will be available to watch for free online as of July 29th on HaHaHa.com

Jason C. McLean speaks with veteran comedian and Just for Laughs mainstay Andy Kindler about hosting this year’s JFL Alternative Show from L.A., the state of comedy, his affection for Montreal and more.

Follow Andy Kindler on Twitter @AndyKindler and his podcast @thought_spiral

For the complete Just for Laughs schedule: HaHaHa.com

Follow Jason C. McLean on Twitter @jasoncmclean

After offering a scaled back all-online version in 2020, Just for Laughs is back in person this summer…with a twist. What is arguably the world’s biggest comedy festival and one of the major tentpoles of the Montreal festival season will run in 2021 from July 26-31 and offer in-person standup shows in Montreal, New York and Los Angeles.

This difference is undoubtedly due to JFL’s hefty international comedic talent component mixed with the uncertainty surrounding international travel restrictions. There isn’t presently a border exemption for comedians, no matter how funny they are.

Montrealers who want to watch the out-of-town shows can do so online. They can also enjoy all the local shows that way, too.

All in-person standup shows will be available online for free. This includes the Just for Laughs Awards Show, which will feature recipients Dave Chappelle (Comedy Person of the Year), Kristen Wiig & Annie Mumolo (Comedy Writers of the Year), Jason Sudeikis and Bill Lawrence (Comedy Series of the Year for Ted Lasso) and SNL’s Bowen Yang (Breakout Comedy Star of the Year) with more to be announced.

Other big names and returning favourites this year include Kevin Hart, Patton Oswalt, Gina Yashere, Andy Kindler, Dave Merheje and The Daily Show‘s Dulcé Sloan. The Nasty Show and the newly re-branded The Alternative Show are back and so are more recent creations New Faces and Comedy Night in Canada.

Just For Laughs 2021 runs July 26-31. For ticket info and to watch shows online: hahaha.com

The Comedyworks was a Montreal institution. Not only did it launch the careers of so many standup comics, but it was my go-to place for a night out in my CEGEP and university days.

I therefore had very high standards when I set out to cover The Unknown Comedy Club’s virtual Comedyworks tribute show. The lineup consisted of Comedyworks veterans, including The Unknown Comedy Club’s founder and host, Rodney Ramsey, Eman El-Husseini, DeAnne Smith, Kwasi Thomas, and headliner, David Pryde.

I am happy to report that I had a blast!

The show was set up as a giant Zoom call, with audiences invited to ask the moderator of the event to unmute their mics since “laughter is crack for comedians”. Since I spoke to Rodney Ramsey a few days before the show, I knew to expect him in avatar form when hosting.

His avatar, I must say, was extremely creepy. Ramsey had told me it looked him in a suit, and while that was technically correct, it had some traits that were rather unnerving: the eyes are larger than the rest of the face, but the irises don’t move with him, giving a wide-eyed look, the hands were also disproportionately larger, and the jaw only moved up and down. The overall effect was similar to a ventriloquist dummy planning to kill you.

Handling the music before and during the show was DJ ‘Black Nick’, whose tunes had me bouncing in my seat on the couch. All the while the group chat was active, allowing for a more intimate experience where audience members can communicate with the performers. My big honor was when DeAnne Smith herself gave Forget The Box a shoutout in the chat.

When showtime arrived, I braced myself for the mixed bag that comes with every group standup comedy show, and I was pleasantly surprised. Every comedian killed, including headliner David Pryde, a Montreal comedian whom I’d seen fall flat a few times at the Comedyworks in my youth.

Host Rodney Ramsey in his intro invited all the performers to tell a joke from their days at the Comedyworks and they did not disappoint. Kwasi Thomas, whose standup is clearly quite physical, managed to deliver the physical aspects of his jokes while seated at his computer. Thomas also gets credit for having the best laugh, howling so much that David Pryde had to pause during his set to give him a chance to calm down.

Eman El-Husseini’s jokes were superbly topical. El-Huseini is Palestinian and made a lot of jokes about her life with her Jewish wife, all of which are sadly relevant given the ongoing fight between Israel and Hamas.

DeAnne Smith deserves credit for the best COVID joke, ranting about people wearing masks incorrectly and comparing mask wearing to making love to a woman:

“If you’re doing it right, it will fog up your glasses.”

Headliner David Pryde was the only performer who was standing and holding a microphone for his set. Dressed in the classic old-guy-trying-to-look-cool outfit of a T-shirt and blazer, he opened with a great line comparing his basement to the Comedyworks:

“I’m in a filthy room that’s a fire hazard.”

Pryde’s jokes were his classic mix of wordplay, snarky comments, and tongue-in-cheek remarks about his own life during the pandemic, not a single joke fell flat. This was a perfect performance by a seasoned standup veteran and very much worth the wait.

If you’re stuck at home due to COVID rules, you need to check out more of The Unknown Comedy Club’s shows. They feature standout lineups of supremely funny people, delivering standup comedy from the comfort of your own home.

Featured Image of Rodney Ramsey (without his avatar) courtesy of The Unknown Comedy Club

The Comedyworks was a Montreal institution. Like the Just for Laughs festival, it was a club that many big name comedians got their start at. I used to go during my CEGEP days to see the On The Spot Improv troupe and the occasional headliners.

Then one day, in 2014, it closed. It re-opened under new management a year later. But then, shortly after St-Patrick’s Day 2018, a fire in an apartment above the neighboring Irish Embassy Pub consumed it and spread to the Comedyworks. There were plans to re-build and re-open, but then COVID hit.

There hasn’t been a comedy club quite like it since, and to this day so many local comedians treat their memories there with reverence. Rodney Ramsey is no exception.

Ramsey is one of the many Montreal comedians who got his start at the Comedyworks when he was still working as a telemarketer. Now he’s a full-time comedian and the co-founder of the Unknown Comedy Club, a Canadian black-owned online comedy club presenting live stream standup comedy performances each week.

Tonight, the Unknown Comedy Club is virtually reviving The Comedyworks with a show featuring Comedyworks veterans including David Pryde, Kwasi Thomas, Eman El Husseini, and DeAnne Smith.

I asked Ramsey what he meant by the notion that the Unknown Comedy Club would recreate the Comedyworks for one night. He spoke of recreating that warm atmosphere in which so many like him got their start in standup.

The audience isn’t muted. Both they and the performers are invited to appear as themselves or as an avatar. Ramsey chooses to perform as the latter.

One of the major questions is how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting standup comedy. Ramsey replied that while comedy clubs were closed due to public health restrictions, corporate jobs performing for company events were still available at the beginning. Like other entertainers, he’s had to adapt to a world without live on-site audiences.

“We had to open a virtual club,” he says, adding that all the technology to deal with issues arising due to the pandemic already existed, if you have the money for them. “We have all the tools to replicate the standup live experience we just needed to learn how to use those tools to do it,”

Given the uptick in racial tensions in the past year with the murder of George Floyd and the suspicious death of Joyce Echequan, I couldn’t help but wonder the Black Lives Matter movement impacted the establishment of the Unknown Comedy Club. Ramsey said not really.

“I think this thing was born out of necessity. I don’t think this Club would ever have happened if it wasn’t for COVID, I think the global pandemic had the most effect on it.”

He mentions that he and his co-founder were producers of Canada’s first and longest running all-black comedy tour and are always mindful of bookings for The Unknown Comedy Club.

“A lot of the shows that are being booked are mostly white men. We’re booking diversity.”

He mentions that the Comedyworks tribute will feature Eman El-Husseini, one of the biggest acts in Canada who is also Palestinian, and that the Unknown Comedy Club has an upcoming show called I Heart Asians which will tackle anti-Asian hate head-on by featuring all Asian comedians.

“We do not book like everyone else. We’re booking for everyone.”

The Unknown Comedy Club presents Comedyworks Revival hosted by Rodney Ramsey and featuring David Pryde, Kwasi Thomas, Eman El Husseini and DeAnne Smith takes place Saturday, May 22, 9pm. Tickets for this show and any other Unknown Comedy Club shows (Wednesdays to Sundays) are available through UnknownComedyClub.com

Jason C. McLean speaks with comedian Preach, the host of this year’s Gala Dynastie, a celebration of Black excellence from across Quebec. They talk about comedy during COVID, this Saturday’s online edition and this year’s theme: The Rise of the Engaged.

The 5th Edition of Gala Dynastie streams live this Satruday, March 6th, at 6pm. For tickets and for more info: GalaDynastie.com

Follow Aba & Preach on YouTube and Facebook

Follow Jason C. McLean on Twitter @jasoncmclean

Standup comedy is an art form that particularly relies on live audience interaction. Comics frequently tour the world and perform in front of as many crowds as possible. That’s exactly what DeAnne Smith was doing until COVID-19 hit.

“I had just moved to LA in January,” Smith told me in a phone interview, “and spent the first few months travelling back and forth to Canada and around the US as per usual. Luckily I had already decided I wouldn’t go back to Australia this year in 2020 and that is part of my usual routine as well.

Everything halted for me in March and my whole touring calendar just got completely cleared out. I’ve been stationary in LA since March, which is truly the first time in about 14 years of doing comedy that I’ve been in the same place for so long. So it’s really different.”

After a few months of appearing in other comedians’ remote shows, Smith decided to try something new: hosting a monthly comedy shows on Zoom. It’s called DeAnne Smith and Acquaintances and you can access it through Smith’s Instagram or Twitter (which are also worth following in general).

“It’s at least a way to feel connected to people,” Smith said, “and to feel a little bit of a sense of community like it would have been if we were all in person.”

While still missing the large in-person group experience, Smith is able to re-create the live show feeling somewhat by performing to a visible audience that have the option of unmuting themselves and laughing and interacting for all to hear.

“In some ways it’s more intimate because I’m literally seeing people’s names on the screen and their faces and they’re all very well lit up,” Smith observed, “in a comedy room a lot of times you can see the first one or two rows and that’s it, but you don’t know people’s name or see their living room or their cat. I’m trying to focus on the ways in which online performances can be more intimate and more interesting than the live performances we’re all used to.”

At Just for Laughs this year, Smith will be part of a different type of live online performance with Hannah Gadsby. The pair will appear as part of the festival’s Conversations with Funny People series.

While they were initially offered a moderator, the two comics who have been friends for well over a decade (Gadsby even sublets her place in LA to Smith when she’s in Australia) opted for a different approach to the show.

Smith gave me the scoop:

“I had this goofy idea that I’m really surprised she went for. I have these little cards that I picked up at a sex shop once and they’re called Speed Dating Questions and they’re just like little get-to-know-you questions. We’ve been friends for so long and there’s still a lot of stuff we don’t know about each other, so we’re going to be reading these goofy speed-dating questions back and forth and answering them for each other.

I think it will be a really fun thing for us to do as friends and she has such a huge fanbase that I don’t think has probably seen her in this way before, so I think it will be really interesting for people.”

Smith lived in Montreal before moving to LA and hasn’t ruled out returning for more than a JFL visit:

“There is a chance I might come and live there. Everything is very uncertain at the moment, so I don’t really know where I’m going to land.

What I miss about Montreal is really hard to articulate. There’s a special quality to the city…Let me try and explain it through an anecdote:

When I lived in Montreal, I had these two friends who knew each other through me and they had known each other for at least five years. They had Thanksgiving dinners together. I mean they knew each other. About five years into them knowing each other, one of them flipped and said something about their career and the other one said ‘Oh, I never knew what you did!’

And I thought that is so special that in Montreal, it’s just not so career driven. It’s focused on everything else. These people who had known each other for five years never once started a conversation with ‘What do you do?'”

Conversations with Funny People Featuring Hannah Gadsby and DeAnne Smith streams live on Saturday, October 10th at 10pm for FREE and will be available through Video on Demand through October 11th at midnight

Comedian and writer Jenny Hagel has good advice for aspiring writers: just write….but also…fake it ‘til you make it. I chatted with Jenny Hagel recently about the writing process, as well as her upcoming appearance at this year’s Just for Laughs comedy festival, which, like most live entertainment events in 2020, will be held online.

Jenny Hagel has a graduate degree in Writing for the Screen and Stage, and cut her comedy teeth while performing for five years with Chicago’s legendary improv troupe, The Second City. Hagel has written for many comedy TV shows over the years, and currently performs and writes for Late Night with Seth Meyers.

While she won’t get the chance to perform in Montreal for this year’s (online) Just for Laughs Festival, she has visited before, and the town left her feeling all warm and fuzzy. Tired of people kissing Montreal’s ‘Charming European’ ass, I worried that Montreal was getting smug, and asked Hagel if there was anything that miffed her about Montreal.

“My brother lived there for a little while, I used to visit him and man, what a beautiful, beautiful place. No, I probably have a different baseline for miffed, because I’ve lived in New York, so when I go to any other city, I go ‘These people’s manners are amazing!’”

My French is terrible though…I speak Spanish, I don’t speak any French. The one time I drove to Montreal, I listened to a French CD in the car the whole way up there, trying to learn phrases, to be a polite traveller, to be able to have some phrases when I got there. I’ll be honest, it was years ago, so those phrases have all left my mind. I tried at least, although I’m sure people in Montreal, when they heard my French accent for one second were like ‘No no, this does not help.’

But when I travel, I always feel the weight of the stereotype of the terrible American tourist, so I try very hard to be a one-person goodwill ambassador. I’ve tried really hard to reset that balance.”

Jenny Hagel’s upcoming Just for Laughs show with Amber Ruffin (Drunk History, The Second City, Late Night with Seth Meyers, The Amber Ruffin Show), Conversations with funny people featuring Amber Ruffin and Jenny Hagel will be live and unscripted. I asked Hagel if she had any memorable improv calamities she wanted to share.

“Oh absolutely. One time when I was touring with The Second City we were doing a show, and the whole audience was a convention of economists, and I’m sure are very interested in economics, but they were not interested in laughing. At least they were not interested in the jokes we were providing, and it was truly, truly, a gruelling and silent 90 minutes, I’ll never forget it.

I think about 45 minutes in, I thought ‘Well I took two semesters of economics in college, I’m sure I can pull out some fun economic references,’ and I really tried, and they were also not interested in those. I think I tried to pull out something about a PPF curve or something, I really was digging deep. Nothing worked. It was really a rough hour and a half of my life.”

Hagel went on to describe the format of this weekend’s Just for Laughs show, where she and Amber Ruffin ‘will be asking each other questions that they have not seen before.’

Basically we’re going to be interviewing each other. We’ve done a lot of panels in our lives where the moderators ask the two of us questions, but this one, we don’t have a moderator, so I’m going to interview Amber, she’s going to interview me, we’re going to go back and forth, so we each have a list of questions the other hasn’t seen.

We each dug up a clip of the other one performing — I don’t know if it will be embarrassing, but it will be something that the other person doesn’t know is going to be shown, so it’ll be fun. When you do a certain number of panels, over time you start to get the same questions over and over, so I think it will be fun to answer questions that we weren’t expecting.

Oh, and I’d love for people to check out The Amber Ruffin Show on Peacock if they’re able to.”

Jenny Hagel and Amber Ruffin also plan on discussing their approach to writing, and will be giving advice for aspiring writers. I asked Hagel if she could give us an overview of her advice for writers.

“I think I would just say write. I mean nobody wants to hear that, it’s not sexy advice, but it is the most real advice. The best thing you can do if you want to write is just write.

The best thing you can do when an opportunity comes along is to be prepared and have a bunch of writing to show someone. Like (if they say) ‘Hey, I saw you before, you’re great, do have any writing samples?’ If you haven’t written them it is too late, because they want them then.

Or they’ll be like ‘Hey can I see them tomorrow?’ You can’t go home and stay up all night and write a body of work, so the best thing you can do is be writing all the time.

“If you have one particular writing form you are trying to succeed in, write that as much as you can. If you are interested in a bunch of different writing forms, try them all out, and do them over and over again.

“At Late Night with Seth Meyers, I write monologue jokes, and I did not know how to do that originally. I learned how to do it by applying to late night jobs.

One time I had to do an application, I watched several monologues by the host of the show I was applying to and I transcribed them. Then I looked at them on paper and said ‘OK how do these feel?’ and then I wrote a bunch of stuff. I’m sure they were very terrible at the beginning, and a little bit less terrible later on, and slightly less terrible after that.

And over time, it’s just truly like going to the gym and doing reps. I think the best thing you can do as a writer is just keep writing, and it may not feel like it’s getting better, but it is.”

I expressed my admiration for Hagel’s old school ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ attitude, and meekly mentioned the growing pile of Idiot’s Guides I have piled on my coffee table.

“But that’s OK, as long as you’re doing it. It sounds silly, but I like to run, and I am not a world-class athlete at all, but I know that every time I run, I go a little bit farther, and my legs are a little bit stronger. You don’t want to strive to wake up one morning and be a genius, you want to be just a little bit better each time.

You also want to know that every once in a while, no matter how good you get, you’re going to write something that stinks. That happens to me every week — I turn in so many things each week that inevitably, many of them, I would say most of them, are rejected.

And your job is just to keep coming up with new things, and it’s OK — some will be great, some will stink, a lot will be somewhere in the middle, and all of that is OK.”

Hagel and I discussed how writers have to learn how to be prepared to deal with endless rejection…

“But I don’t even think of it as rejection, I think of it like…if you watch someone play baseball, you watch somebody take a bunch of swings, right? Every time a batter misses a ball, it’s not rejection, it’s just ‘OK, well that one didn’t connect. So let’s hope the next one connects.’”

On comedians/late night comedy in the COVID-19 era:

“You know that’s a great question. I think ‘comedians’ is such a big category, and there are so many different forms comedy can take, that I don’t think that there can be one answer to that.

I know for television, during the spring and summer, a lot of late night shows found ways to tape from home — do safe, remote work, and I think that’s what helped late night shows survive. Now some of those shows are starting to bring it back — like the host is in the studio, and SNL had a small audience last week.

So I think that the way comedy is surviving is the way that we are all surviving, in general in the world, which is to continue to adapt to each new phase of the pandemic, to each new challenge that the pandemic brings.”

On the challenges of doing comedy without a live audience:

“I think you just have to go more on gut, like when you’re writing a late night show that has an audience, then the audience tells you what works and what doesn’t, right? And I think without the audience, you have to go with your gut.

One thing I have really liked about that, and not to say that the pandemic is good, but I feel that an interesting outcome of it, is that I think that shows have started to gravitate a little more to their own weird, quirky personalities, because then it becomes less about writing and choosing jokes by committee.

Then it becomes more like, ‘OK, what is the culture, what is the belief set, the comedic taste of this show?’ It emerges a little bit more specifically, which is interesting to see. But I certainly wouldn’t take this over a normal world, where we all get to be together.”

I asked Hagel if she ever wrote jokes that were so outrageous or ridiculous that she never expected them to get on the air at Late Night with Seth Meyers.

“I think that happens all the time, like if you write enough jokes in a row, you stop being able to tell what’s funny to other people. It probably happens at least once a week where I’m like ‘Oh really? OK!’ and then meanwhile, there are other jokes that I think are a complete slam-dunk and my boss will be like ‘Pass,’ and I’m like ‘Really…OK.’”

“That’s absolutely one (Hagel’s ‘How to Properly Wash your hands’ skit) where I pitched it and was like ‘Well obviously this is not gonna get approved,’ and boy, to my surprise, the next thing I knew, the props department was building a bunch of different skeleton hands for me.”

On the 2020 COVID-19 “everything on Zoom” reality:

“I don’t know, I think it’s a mixed bag, I think everybody thinks it’s a mixed bag. There are some days when I think it really helps, like one day recently where I had a crummy day, and it just happened that a group of women that I’m friends with, one of them texted ‘Hey should we all Zoom tonight?’ Fifteen minutes later we were all on Zoom with a glass of wine, and it really helped.

And then there are some days where I feel like if I have to look at one more human face on a screen I’ll die. So I think it’s probably like a weird blessing and a curse to me, and to everybody — I think we’re getting both a little bit of solace and a little bit of loneliness from it at the same time.”

Conversations with funny people featuring Amber Ruffin and Jenny Hagel will be online on October 9-10, and like all of the Just For Laughs 2020 shows, it will be streamed for free.

Stand-up comic Andy Kindler loves Montreal. He loves it so much that he’s even (half?) joking about moving here one day. He loves the rest of Canada too, for that matter. Well, most of the rest of Canada.

During my recent chat with him, I got the impression that he was a low-key Canada-phile — he knew quite a bit about our geography, culture, politics, hockey, official languages, and he even had a shocking position on The Great Bagel Debate.

Andy Kindler is a stalwart comedy veteran from Queens, New York, known not just for his well-honed stand-up routine (with appearances at the Just For Laughs Nasty Show), but also for his recurring role on Everybody Loves Raymond, and his many appearances on Late Show with David Letterman. He is also a contributor to the Daily Show, and is the voice of Mort on Bob’s Burgers.

Local comedy fans may know Kindler from his legendary State of the Industry Addresses at Montreal’s Just For Laughs Festival. Andy Kindler has given the speech, which has become a cult institution among comedy fans and industry insiders alike, every year since 1996.

Of course, this year’s address, his 25th, will be a little different, given 2020’s quote-unquote “uncertain times.” To be read in that gravelly voice that radiates grim empathy…you know, the voice that now narrates every commercial…

I asked Kindler how stand-up comedians were faring during 2020’s COVID-19 lockdown, especially when a live audience is the lifeblood of the industry.

“I mean everyone is scrambling. I started doing Cameo…do you have Cameo up there? Like if you want a comedian or celebrity to wish you happy birthday or give you a pep talk, you go on Cameo. So what I’ve learned from that is that people will not pay $45 to hear me say happy birthday…but they will pay $35! So if I needed the cold slap of reality in my face, I know what I’m worth now.

The other thing is that I’m doing this speech for the first time virtually from home, and I actually think I’m the only person who looks forward to not having an audience. I mean I know it’s gonna be weird, but so many times I spent in the past castigating the people who aren’t laughing.

And I won’t be sitting down for the speech, I’m gonna put a little effort into it, I’ll be standing. And I’ll be dressed nicely from the waist up. I always dress nice, my mother used to say ‘You mean you wouldn’t wanna wear a dress shirt, open-necked?’ You always gotta have a nice shirt.”

While on the topic of virtual comedy, I asked Kindler about how he has taken to the whole ‘everything online’ zeitgeist of 2020.

“Well in some ways I feel like there’s a green, eco-friendly side to this, and a lazy side to it where I would love to, in the future, not go back to going in for every interview. I actually like going in the studio, but I do think that in some ways, that having Zoom, you can do a lot of things that you had to be in person for, but you can do them remotely now, so I think we’ve learned things that way. It also makes you really focus on what you’re doing because you have so much time on your hands. But obviously I think we’re all hoping it (COVID-19) lifts.”

This being Andy Kindler’s 25th State of the Industry Address, I asked him to comment on the most notable changes in the industry since he gave his first address.

“Yeah, it’s an unbelievable anniversary, unbelievable that I keep the streak going. I think in 1996 it started. So what happened is the first time I came to the festival (Just For Laughs) was ’93, and I had written an article for National Lampoon called The Hack Comic’s Handbook, you can find it on my website.

Then I did a live demonstration of hack comedy in 1995, and Bruce Hills (President, Just For Laughs) said ‘Why don’t you do another speech?’ and then my manager came up with the idea to roast the industry, and it just became a thing, like a summer camp kind of tradition where I would just give the speech.

I think that what’s changed for sure, is that when I first started coming to the festival in ‘93, it was right when a lot of comics were getting sitcom deals from comedy festivals — you had Raymond (Romano), Tim Allen — all these people got deals from the festival, so you had a lot of presidents of the networks there, so there was more of a charged atmosphere. Everybody knew what sitcoms were coming out and all that kind of thing, so it was…not easier, but I knew how to focus it better.

Now, it’s to the point where there’s no fall TV season. I mean yeah, there are fall TV shows, but it’s all changed. But I kind of like it now, because I like the festival now, not the virtual version, but I’ve liked the festivals in the past few years because it feels like people were up there to have fun. And there are actually really great fans in Montreal.”

The most pressing issue Kindler addressed was whether he would bring up Louis C.K.’s penis, which he has discussed at his previous two addresses. We also discussed who else in the industry deserves to be blasted in this year’s address.

“Nah…you know, I think at this point I will get off of his penis (chuckles), but I probably will bring him in at some point. But you know what, there are so many other people to talk about. Like Joe Rogan. And it used to be I would make fun of Jay Leno, but I kind of want to apologize to him because I used to make fun of him just for having bad comedy…but now, with Adam Corolla, he’s not just a horrible comedian, he’s also saying that COVID-19 is fake.

And everybody is going after Chris D’Elia as a person, but let’s not forget that he was also a horrible comedian. What he was doing on stage, it was also a crime.

So I don’t know exactly how I’m going to tackle this thing, but I am totally going to tackle this idea of these people who weren’t very good at stand-up comedy who have gone into things like…Adam Corolla does shows with Dennis Prager and all this right-wing media about how there are no safe spaces on campus, it is a very odd and disturbing trend, so I’m gonna analyse that a little bit.”

No interview with a New Yorker is complete without getting their take on the great Montreal vs. New York Bagel Debate, and Andy Kindler’s response genuinely surprised me. Poutine, and other Montreal and Canada-related topics were touched upon in this exchange, and his proficiency in French also came up.

“Well certain things about Montreal are always going to be great. The bagels will always be the greatest in the world. I decided to try Montreal bagels one year, and they’re lighter and they’re sweeter (than New York bagels). I took a bunch of them to my family in Long Island, and they didn’t travel well, and they made fun of me for years. But overall I much prefer, right out of the oven, a Montreal bagel.

I don’t know what it’s called…oh yeah, the smoked meat. When I first tried it, it was ‘Oh my God it’s the greatest thing in the world,’ but that did wear off. And let me say something…not that anyone cares about poutine, but there’s nothing charming about it. It’s a national joke, right?

But what am I complaining about? It’s really hard, coming from LA or New York to complain about Montreal, I mean when I first went there in the 1990s, I was single at the time, women’s legs were taller than me, I couldn’t even believe it. And the French, everything French, I just love it. And the food, the French food…it’s really hard to get tired of it. But I will say this — Montreal is very touristy.”

When the topic of politics was sideswiped, Kindler brought up a Canadian political figure I was not expecting.

“You know what, I like that Chrystia Freeland. I don’t like Bill Maher, I can’t watch him anymore, but I used to like her when she’d go on Bill Maher. You know, Canadians are better people than Americans. I know you have prejudice up there, and I know you have First Nations issues, but anything bad you’ve got, down here, it’s dwarfed — we’ve done it worse and with less taste.”

On performing in Canada’s Western provinces:

“I remember going out west, it was the late ‘80s early ‘90s, that’s how old I am, I used to play the Western part, and I remember I used to bomb a lot. I was bombing in Edmonton…these crowds were not for me, and the bartender was like ‘Yeah it’s hard to impress us because we have everything here.’ Y’know, they’d just won all those Stanley Cups, so they were very smug in Edmonton. But it’s pretty amazing how diverse the crowds in Canada are, from Halifax and Vancouver, to Montreal.”

On speaking French:

“I speak French very poorly. I took French in grade school, it was terrible, it was in New York and Queens: ‘Bone-jouar class…ou est le porte, ou est le fenêtre?’…so when I go into a room (in Montreal) now, it’s ‘Where is the window, where is the door?’”

On Donald Trump:

“At least you have a regular government there. I’m gonna get in trouble, but (Trudeau isn’t bad) compared to a fascistic madman running around. Well you know the thing is, there’s a Comedy Central clip…there used to be a show on Comedy Central called The Root of all Evil, Louis Black hosted it, and I actually argued that Donald Trump was the root of all evil, and I was making fun of Trump University. So I don’t want to say I’m a seer, but I pride myself on being the first person to compare Trump to Hitler. At least Hitler was a veteran. So that’s basically my take on it.

So you know I’m holding on by my elbows, or whatever you hold onto when you’re trying to keep yourself suspended over a vat of hot oil. I just can’t think past November, I think America is going to be sunk as a country if Trump gets re-elected. We’re in such a deep hole, because it literally is like Orwellian times a million.

Everybody he puts in every department knows nothing about the department, and just wants to undo that department. There are so many parallels (to Hitler), I mean people in the conservative Weimar government, they thought they could play ball with Hitler, people made fun of him. He obviously was smarter than Trump, there are so many parallels — he looked like a crazy man with the way he talked and everything. Actually Trump looks a lot like Mussolini, you know how he shakes his head up and down, self-satisfied.

I don’t think he’s gonna win. I think he might implode before, he’s going nuts I think now, it’s really crazy. That Mary Trump book, I got it and I love it. You really see how he is a sociopath. That will never change (Trump’s support from his base), it will always be about that 40%, but I don’t think he’s gonna get people coming onto him like he did four years ago, I think people are scared of him.”

(Ed’s Note: This interview was conducted prior to the news that Donald Trump tested positive for COVID-19)

What else Andy Kindler is working on:

“I do a podcast called Thought Spiral, and my co-host is Josh Elvis Weinstein, he used to be on Mystery Science Theater 3000. We advertise it as ‘Two jews, two microphones, two hours,’ so it’s basically us just bantering, I really love it. It took me a long time to love it, because it’s a different kind of skill, but we’ve been doing it for three years, so if you need more of me, that’s where I would go to. And I do have an album that’s still available in digital download anytime you want, it couldn’t be any less COVID dangerous.

You know what? You want an answering machine message? I’ll do it for you for $25.”

Andy Kindler’s 25th State of the Industry Address will be online on October 9-10, and like all of the Just For Laughs 2020 shows, it will be streamed for free.

This time of year, the world’s largest comedy festival Just for Laughs is normally in full swing in Montreal (and we’re generally knee-deep in coverage). We knew a few months ago that 2020 would be different, with the festival officially pushed back to the fall.

Today JFL announced that the entire event will take place over two days, October 9th and 10th, and be entirely online. This is due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the surrounding uncertainty over what type of event they would be able to run, given the heavy presence of international talent usually relies on.

“With no precise indication of when borders will reopen, and faced with soaring demand for high-quality digital comedy content, we’ve made the decision to move our festival online,” JFL President Bruce Hills said in a press release, “while always maintaining our focus on the excellence of our offerings – an excellence that is recognized and appreciated throughout the world.”

Just for Laughs is still sorting out the details, but so far we know that this year’s festival will consist of comedy performances, panels, conversations, gatherings and events. They promise to do their best to recapture the feel of the in-person festival as much as possible and that most of the festival will be free to virtually attend.

While the English event will be 100% virtual, its sister festival Juste pour rire will offer a combination of in-person, pre-recorded and virtual performances. According to Charles Décarie, President and CEO of the Just For Laughs Group:

“More than ever, we want to maintain our position as an industry leader by creating innovative comedy events that allow our artists to work and to make the highest-quality comedy available to the public. Despite all the changes our industry has been going through, the most important thing for us is to satisfy our festival-goers. We’re sparing no effort to present the best festival possible, while respecting the health measures that are in force.”

For more information: hahaha.com

Just for Laughs, a staple of Montreal’s summer festival season and the largest comedy festival in the world, will still take place in 2020, just a little later than  anticipated. Due to the developing COVID-19 pandemic, organizers have postponed the festival, until fall. Originally slated for July, JFL, which features a large slate of international acts along with local comics, will now take place September 29th through October 11th.

“We are energized by the ability of our teams to adapt to current conditions and present a festival redesigned in its form and content as early as the fall,” Just for Laughs Group President and CEO Charles Décarie said in a press release. “If the situation permits, we will resume work in the interim and thus be able to play an important role in reviving the cultural sector, but also in the social healing that we all need.”

Organizers are looking at several possible scenarios for staging the outdoor portions of the festival, but that will depend,of course, on social gathering restrictions. JFL will honour festival passports purchased for the summer event at shows in the fall.

This information comes two days after the Montreal Fringe Festival decided to postpone its 2020 edition to summer 2021. We also learned today that both the Montreal Jazz Festival and Les FrancoFolies are cancelled for this year.

Lesbian Speed Date from Hell is a true horror comedy. Following a successful run at the Mainline Theatre as part of Off- JFL/Zoofest, it’s back as part of Montreal Pride’s official programming. Presented by Pride along with Christina Saliba, the show is funny and scary, and for abuse survivors, it can be triggering.

The play revolves around Jackie (Katharine King So), a young lesbian who is grudgingly attending a speed dating event hosted by her friend and neighbor Regina (Kathy Slamen). Regina is your typical lesbian cougar. In case you had any doubts, Slamen’s costumes consist of mostly of leopard print, and her portrayal is a hilarious mix of sassy, maternal, and raunchy.

At the event, Jackie meets Amy (Martha Graham), an awkward blonde, Natalie (Alexandra Laferriere), a beautiful black lesbian jonesing for Regina, Kyle (Jeroem Lindeman), a stereotypical dudebro and Ashley (Kate Hammer), a former one-night stand of Jackie’s with a big grudge.

What follows is a display of awkward conversations, hilarious facial expressions, and uncomfortable torture scenes.

Hammer’s portrayal of Ashley is at once horrific and riveting. All the time she’s on stage you never doubt her anger, her malice, or her psychosis. Her madness is believable yet just over the top enough to keep the play from being too real.

King So’s Jackie is a perfect foil for Ashley’s crazy. Her screams are bone-chillingly realistic and her fear and outrage appropriate.

Survivors of abuse will likely find the interaction between Jackie and Ashley uncomfortably triggering as there is blood and violence and accurate portrayals of pain. But there is enough humour in the play to balance it out.

The fight choreography is hilariously done in slow motion and with more courtesy than one would expect in a struggle between a psychotic murderer and a desperate victim. There are murder mystery clichés like the strategic use of on and off lighting, and Jeroen Lindeman’s Kyle is amusingly obnoxious and a reminder of why our culture needs more feminist entertainment like this.

That said, if you’re an abuse survivor go in prepared to be a little uncomfortable and reassure yourself that with the horror comes plenty to laugh about. For everyone else, be prepared to laugh, cry, and gasp in horror.

It’s an emotional rollercoaster of a show, but it’s worth it.

Lesbian Speed Date From Hell runs until August 16, tickets available through Montreal Pride

Following my interview with Shaun Majumder, I had the chance to see HATE. The almost sold-out audience happily shared in Majumder’s frustration and confusion to the continued hate that surrounds the Trump presidency, and its effect even up in the Great White North.

Majumder opened with the acknowledgment that yes, it has been a year since he left This Hour has 22 Minutes, and no, he is not bitter about it. In fact, so much so, that he seamlessly features a one-on-one interview mano-a-mano with himself. Incredibly, he makes no mistake, and has the audience alive with his self-inflicted argument.

The Majumder v. Majumder Skype call set the tone for the rest of the show, exploring how hate can grow inside of us, and covers his departure from CBC quickly, not deviating from the jokes.

The multimedia aspects were flawless and really complemented his comedy, seeing as it revolved around bigoted tweets, racially charged videos and a sprinkling of memes. When he broke into his self-written song Rainbow Infection near the end of his set, it was perfectly lit in bright green.

The show centered around the reaction he received when he wrote a satirical song for This Hour has 22 Minutes in 2016. Beige Power approaches the idea of blending cultures through “genetic criss-crossin'”which was taken much too seriously by a few alt-right twitter users, who took to the platform to berate Majumder to such an extent that the best ones made their way into his comedy special.

The racist tweets are a treat to behold and are featured in their full glory on a giant screen behind him. Some are difficult to fathom, but Majumder takes the piss out of them, breaking them down, joking about nonsensical concepts like “racist brown mother fucker”, which Majumder says is just a bigot’s oxymoron.

Majumder included some of his well-known impersonations: the charming, rural newfie accent, his east Indian father, and a pretty good aloof Trudeau. These were crowd-favourites, and anytime a Canadian-ism made its way into a joke, it left many of us in stiches. In the end, we all just enjoy laughing at ourselves.

His attempt to not just attack the white supremacy and the inevitable connection to Trump but to bring it back home was better than expected. With a show titled HATE, there is an expectation that it will be dark, mean or angry, but Majumder kept it light, yet uncharacteristically unapologetic.

“This hour has 60 minutes,” he joked, harkening back to his 15 years with CBC, “but if you came here looking for Rick Mercer, you’re in the wrong fucking place.”

Majumder continues his HATE tour in November in Alberta and Saskatchewan

Would You Bang Him? is a show with a funny premise. Hosted by the Nasty Show’s Bonnie McFarlane and her husband, Rich Vos, it is a mock game show in which a panel of female comedians assesses a group of male stand-up comedians and decide whether or not they’d have sex with them. It’s one of Off-JFL & Zoofest’s late-night offerings, and it is hilarious.

The panel of judges consisted of female comedians Marina Franklin, Beth Stelling, Emma Willman, and Carmen Lynch. In addition to the judges on the programming, they invite a young woman from the audience to participate, though the eloquence and humour of her questions to the contestants told me she might have been a plant.

Competing for the judges affections were Jak Knight, Jim Norton, Bobby Lee – who also hosted the Nasty Show, Big Jay Oakerson who also played the Nasty Show and Donnell Rawlings – who was also part of the Ethnic Show this year.

Donnell Rawlings

It should be said that none of these guys are classically bang-able and mostly average – some are older, some are heavier, and some could definitely use clean clothes and a shower.

They are not being judged on their appearance, but rather their personalities and ability to make the judges laugh, and every competitor is supremely talented in this regard.

Each comedian has five minutes to plead their case. Some, like Jim Norton, went the route of dark self-deprecation. Others, like Jak Knight and Big Jay Oakerson, opted to keep it raunchy with discussions of semen and cunnilingus.

Jak Knight

Bobby Lee’s material was uniquely Asian in flavor, tackling stereotypes in his five minutes. Donnell Rawlings was particularly notable not just because he turned around and went judge by judge, saying whether he thought they’d bang him before they gave their ruling, but also because he made the only Montreal joke and it was hilariously on point. Of the construction holiday he said:

“How you on vacation from a job you ain’t even finished?!

As hosts, McFarlane and Vos are adorable and funny. Though they were constantly ribbing on each other, you can tell there is real affection there not just for themselves, but also for many of the comedians both performing and on the panel. While the judges gave their votes and opinions on the men, McFarlane and Vos were always ready with a snarky comment. The first performer, Jim Norton, affectionately referred to them as “Dummy and Cher”.

Jim Norton

Would You Bang Him is not for everyone. If you’re the kind of guy who loves watching female beauty pageants but will have a trolling mantrum when women judge men, you should probably avoid this show.

If you were hoping any of the judges will actually bang the competitors at the end, you probably won’t like this show either. If you want to have laughs delivered in a unique format and are willing to stay awake for an eleven forty-five show, check this out. It’s fun!

Michael Che is the first Just for Laughs Gala host, or at least the first host I’ve seen, to fully embrace all aspects of the job.

It’s not just having a solid standup set for the beginning, which he did. It’s also not just having the ability to riff on and with the audience, which he clearly did as well.

Introducing the other comics performing is something other hosts I’ve seen have treated as almost a throwaway emcee duty. Che, on the other hand, made his intros a solid part of the show.

Of course he did. Reading dry, witty one-liners off a teleprompter comfortably into the camera is pretty much his day job, or rather his close to midnight on Saturday job as a co-host of SNL’s Weekend Update.

My favorite joke of the night came during one of his intros:

“Our next comic comes from England, which is known for its alcoholism and Islamophobia. He should do great in Quebec.”

– Michael Che

There were other edgy gems in his intros and throughout his set There were also some solidly funny sets from the other comics performing last night.

Jessica Kirson was the standout for me. I’ve seen her perform before, but her inner monologue bits, seemingly a new edition to her act, narrating both what she and the audience were thinking of her set in real time, was some fourth-wall breaking hilarity.

Jay Pharoah, who closed out the evening, had the large audience laughing the whole time he was on stage. His bit about escaping unwanted advances in Greece was particularly good.

Fellow SNL alumn Fred Armisen was, um, interesting. A couple of short songs, a singalong, and that was it.

Fin Taylor, the aforementioned Brit, made some good points, and one really solid one, but, for the most part, I wasn’t really sure where he was coming from and where he would land and I’m still not sure.

Pete Holmes and Sam Jay delivered solid sets, as did fellow Canuncks Matt O’Brien and Phil Hanley. It was a night jam-packed with talent, as Che remarked at the beginning.

Also kudos to the warm up act/hype man whose name I don’t know. He started dancing in our row and decided to let his energy get everyone ready instead of jokes, as those would be forthcoming.