For 10 days, JFL42 turns Toronto into the centre of the comedy universe
Late on a Thursday night last September, I was at home in bed smoking a joint and streaming an episode of Louie—an objectively ideal way to end a workday—when a stand-up comedian friend of mine sent me a text: “Louis CK just walked into Comedy Bar.”
I dragged myself out of bed and headed over to the basement comedy club at Bloor and Dovercourt, arriving in the narrow, low-ceilinged room just as the schlubby comedic superstar was introduced to the crowd of a hundred-odd local stand-ups and die-hard comedy fans. The audience seemed simultaneously enthralled and a little awkward, as if eager to keep their cool in such unexpected proximity to an idol. During CK’s impromptu 15-minute set, the crowd laughed more appreciatively than raucously. Mostly, everyone was happy that one of the biggest comedy stars in the world had decided to turn up at their little clubhouse.
CK was in town as the marquee headliner of the inaugural JFL42, a new comedy festival under the Just for Laughs banner that hosted 42 different shows in a single week (hence the name), and which returns this month. JFL42 is Just For Laughs’ second kick at Toronto’s comedy can. The company ran a much smaller festival here for four years ending in 2010, but it felt like an afterthought—an ersatz version of the main event in Montreal, where aspiring comics produced breakout moments and churned out half-hour specials that could be endlessly replayed on the Comedy Network. The Toronto edition was a moderate success, but came and went without any sense of excitement. This time, the organizers wanted to create something that had its own identity. Specifically, they wanted it to have the feel of a big music festival, complete with a smartphone-friendly pass system meant to encourage ticket-buyers to wander from venue to venue, checking out acts they might otherwise have skipped.
Though it isn’t quite the comedy equivalent of Bonnaroo, the inaugural edition of JFL42 succeeded in a way that’s almost unheard-of for a first-time event. Nine thousand people bought passes and filled venues for shows by comedians like Patton Oswalt, Todd Barry and Amy Schumer—the kind of smart stand-ups beloved by comedy snobs who might turn their noses up at, say, an hour’s worth of Russell Peters’ funny accents. Andy Kindler, a frequent Letterman correspondent and the quintessential comedian’s comedian, ran a late-night alternative show at Comedy Bar for much of the week, cramming in L.A. comics, local stand-ups and whoever else he could coerce into doing a surprise set. For the first time in our history, this city felt like the centre of the comedy universe.
Toronto has a thriving stand-up scene. On any given night, you can see great comics all over town: working the back room of the Rivoli, testing out new material in front of the stoned, quietly giggling crowd at Vapor Central on Yonge or improvising mock episodes of Game of Thrones at Comedy Bar. And yet, despite producing enduring comedy icons like Lorne Michaels, Mike Myers, Dan Aykroyd and the entire casts of SCTV and Kids in the Hall, there’s been no single event—the election of Rob Ford aside—that has put Toronto in the comedy spotlight. Festivals like JFL42 have a symbiotic relationship with their host cities, feeding off a scene’s energy and amplifying it.
JFL42 arrives at a moment when the comedy world is changing. In the ’90s, with more and more comics looking to break away from the prevailing “guy in a sport coat tells jokes about his nagging wife in front of a brick wall” school of stand-up, and alternative scene began to grow. Alt-comedy was smart, surreal, self-conscious and unabashedly nerdy, with experimental rhythms and offbeat jokes that veered from the traditional set-up, punchline formula. The simplest analogy is to indie rock—bands like Pavement and Sonic Youth defined themselves in opposition to the soullessness of mass culture. Similarly, comics like Janeane Garofalo and David Cross had nothing but disdain for the state of stand-up comedy.
Depending on who you talk to, alt-comedy was either an invigorating departure from the bloated mainstream or an overdose of clever self-indulgence for literate college grads. Either way, it has slowly taken over, and like indie rock before it, has become indistinguishable from the mainstream. Bearded weirdo Zach Galifianakis anchors blockbuster Hollywood movies, and Marc Maron, the professional self-loather who co-founded an early New York alt-comedy show with Garofalo back in the ’90s, hosts a massively popular comedy podcast, publishes memoirs with Random House and is the star of a new sitcom based on his life. Look at Arrested Development, an arch cult-hit sitcom that paid the price for being too hip for the room and was cancelled after three seasons. Its Netflix-assisted return was one of the most-hyped cultural moments of 2013. The tastes of comedy nerds, like those of their video-game or comic-book brethren, are no longer easily dismissed fringe enthusiasms. They help define big-money pop culture.
JFL42 is an attempt to embody the new reality. This year’s lineup reads like a roll call of the hip, Internet-approved comedians of the moment. Alongside big shows by Parks and Rec star Aziz Ansari and a live reading by the cast of Seth MacFarlane’s animated sitcom Family Guy (another offbeat show that returned triumphant from a premature cancellation), the festival features alt-comedians-turned-mainstream-stars like Maron, Garofalo and Sarah Silverman, plus critical darlings like Hannibal Buress, a former writer for Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock, and Maria Bamford, the brilliantly troubled comic whose most recent special, entitled The Special Special Special!, was an epic of awkwardness filmed in front of an audience of two: her elderly parents, sitting in their own living room.
After playing two packed shows at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre last year, Patton Oswalt tweeted his appreciation: “Oh, that’s right, Toronto is an amazing city to do comedy in.” In the Internet age, that kind of comment is the equivalent of exiting the stage with “You’ve been a great audience!” But during JFL42, when you can find yourself watching someone like Louis CK perform in a tiny neighbourhod bar, it happens to be true.
Sept. 19 to 28