Ayn Rand, @DadBoner, and David Cross: The A.V. Club recaps Just For Laughs 2013

Ayn Rand, @DadBoner, and David Cross: The A.V. Club recaps Just For Laughs 2013

The Montreal-based Just For Laughs festival, now in its fifth year in Chicago, has perhaps finally found a foothold in the Windy City. With 59 different shows spread over eight venues, the fest draws top-notch talent every year. This year alone, JFL nabbed headliners like David Cross, Bob Newhart, Seth Meyers, Bill Maher, Artie Lange, Kyle Kinane, Chelsea Peretti, Maria Bamford, Moshe Kasher, Doug Benson, Todd Barry, Russell Brand, John Hodgman, Nick Swardson, Pete Holmes, @DadBoner, and more. Once again, The A.V. Club attended a number of shows (in addition to our own) at the fest, all of which were funny, and all of which had their own little quirks, perks, notable moments. The best, worst, and weirdest of those are below in The A.V. Club’s second-annual Just For Laughs superlative round-up.

Best appropriation of someone else’s material, non-author division: After Jon Glaser flashed a footlong-sub-shaped middle finger at the [REDACTED] crowd for the second year in a row, Doug Benson and Todd Glass conspired to throw the audience for another loop by jesting that each had only been booked to introduce the other. Not one to let a friend and colleague’s hidden talent remain as such, the Doug Loves Movies host eventually summoned Glass back to the stage to do a selection of Mitch Hedberg one-liners in the style of Rodney Dangerfield. Though nowhere near the conceptual heights reached by John Hodgman’s objectivist show-capper, Glass’ application of one late comic’s signature rhythms and tones to another’s fried non sequiturs was nonetheless an inspired bit, one of the best surprises in a night predicated on surprise. [EA]

Best host for a mostly empty house: On stage, screen, and in-studio, Andy Daly specializes in playing characters who are at the ends of their ropes, hanging on to the very last fibers. (The hysterically dark depths of his Comedy Bang! Bang! appearances these days are mere preludes to the main event, where Daly and Scott Aukerman contrive increasingly ludicrous excuses to get Daly’s character to leap to his death through the studio window.) Professional “life of the party” Danny Mahoney isn’t as depraved as Don Dimello, theatrical director, or his everything-addict partner Cactus Tony, but there’s still a desperation to that particular persona that primed him to emcee the sparsely attended DailyMotion Showcase at Stage 773 Thursday night. To viewers streaming the event at home, Daly probably looked like an unhinged loner in a “Caution: Extremely Hot Dance” tank top shouting into a void—and that’s a somewhat accurate interpretation of the character. He only got more desperate (and by extension, funnier) the less response he was able to elicit from the crowd. The gig was one “international waters” allusion away from being a one-man version of what Daly does so well on CBB. [EA]

Most effective use of limited stage time: Looking (and blustering) like Basil Fawlty and Gallagher stuffed into the same pair of skinny jeans, Australian comic Sam Simmons turned his 10 minutes of the DailyMotion Showcase into a miniature performance piece that utilized visual aids, musical cues, an unexpectedly crucial bathmat, and what was undoubtedly the festival’s finest pun on the word “loafers.” It was a whirlwind set wisely scheduled for the end of the showcase—because who in the hell wants to follow the mustachioed Australian whose closer involved him brandishing ping-pong paddles to defend the stage from audience members hurling hamburger buns? As a full half-hour, it would’ve been exhausting; at showcase length, it was just weird enough to work. [EA]

Least likely cause for cosplay: For three years, Mike Burns has used the Twitter feed @DadBoner to tell the story of Karl Welzein, an epic (in Karl’s mind) tragicomedy about “livin’ the American Dream, U.S.A. style” that becomes a book in July. When Just For Laughs announced the Stage 773 lineup would include @DadBoner And Friends, You Guys, there was much speculation as to how the show would play out: Would Burns show up in character as Captain Karl? Would someone else be there, reading off tweets while sporting the backward Kangol cap and rockin’ pony of Grand Blanc, Michigan’s proudest/least proud son? The answer to both questions: “Sort of.” Burns read from the Power Moves pitch he swears he wrote to HarperCollins in Karl’s voice, and later participated in a reading of the character’s Craigslist-published screenplay, Roadhouse 2012: Pain Still Don’t Hurt, alongside Kyle Kinane, Al Madrigal, and Johnny Pemberton. Kinane might be the only person besides Burns more qualified to play Karl in an audiobook version of Power Moves, but he wasn’t sporting any signature Welzein threads, either—that was left to the members of the audience, one of whom showed support for Karl’s beloved Detroit Tigers; one was dressed like the man’s culinary idol, Guy Fieri; and an entire row was decked out like extras from Kid Rock’s “All Summer Long” video. There’s a hint of minstrelsy in people who can afford to attend Just For Laughs dressing like blue-collar Midwesterners, but that’s the kind of thought Karl Welzein just wouldn’t have any time for. Mocking or not, he’d undoubtedly bow to the bold flavors of these sartorial choices, you guys. [EA] 

Creepiest use of a pop hit: Los Angeles-based stand-up Johnny Pemberton jokes that he stopped aging at 15, but he puts those man-boy looks of his to startling uses, such as an opening bit that finds him commenting on everyday minutia with the mouth and posture of a New Jersey wiseguy—before transitioning into prepared material in his own, less intimidating voice. But those innocent looks also allow him to sneak some unsettling stuff into his stand-up, like the dance to a slowed-down version of Alannah Myles’ “Black Velvet” that ended his portion of @DadBoner And Friends, You Guys. The routine’s bait-and-switch introduction—a deadpan story about touring as part of a multigenerational USO dance troupe—made the comic’s gangly writhing all the more perverse; working with a song that places “little boy’s smile” and “bring ya to your knees” in such close proximity, it’s not like he had too far to go on that count. [EA]

Best callback: The night titled David Cross And His Super Duper Pals not only found him sharing the stage with Mr. Show alumni Paul F. Tompkins and Brian Posehn, but an old-school Mr. Show-style callback, when a seemingly throwaway quip Cross made during his introductory stand-up set—“I hate yogurt-covered raisins, but I like Go-Gurt-covered Craisins. Isn’t life funny?”—popped up twice more throughout the night. First, follow-up act Todd Glass made a similar joke about “schmocolate-schmovered schmetzels,” expressing faux-anger that Cross had apparently stolen his bit. Then Cross invited local improv legend David Pasquesi to reprise their “famed” improv duo, Chicago’tlanta, seeking increasingly inconsequential audience suggestions (“What’s the barometric pressure like? Do I have any lesions?”) for a short scene that finally turned on a gag about, yep, Go-Gurt-covered Craisins. It was no “Hey, who wants a banana?” but it lent a similarly artsy twist to an equally silly joke.  [SO]

Best bomb disposal: David Cross debuted what was clearly a work in progress about his younger sister’s obsession with liking random pages on Facebook, all leading to his expressing mock concern that this indiscriminate “liking” meant that supposed favorites like Ford Explorer would end up jealous of Oreos. Idiotic Facebook interests aren’t totally fallow ground for comedy, but the tepid response confirmed Cross hadn’t quite found the angle on it yet. And after a pause, Cross acknowledged, “That’s not a bit… I just wanted you to know that I know that,” which got much bigger laughs. [SO]

Best ad-libber: While Paul F. Tompkins delivered his set—which was mostly a story about awkwardly proposing to his girlfriend—with typically polished panache, his best moments came completely spur of the moment. First, after taking the stage in front of a stool laden with Fiji bottles, Tompkins announced that tonight’s show would be overseen by “the watchful eye of the Council Of Waters”—bowing obsequiously, begging their permission to perform for the audience, and finally bidding them, “Good Hydratia to you.” As his set ended, Cross caught Tompkins while he was leaving the stage so he could tell him his own awkward engagement story. Asked to stick around while Cross relayed his anecdote, Tompkins agreed by standing stiffly frozen in the spotlight while Cross talked—a simple gag, but evidence of how Tompkins can do a lot with a little. [SO]

Best joke evolution: At both [REDACTED] and his set at David Cross And His Super Duper Pals, Brian Posehn told a story about how he and Cross had eaten at local restaurant Schwa, and how one dish had spurred Cross to compare it to “angel cum.” As it so happens (and apologies for the name-dropping nature of this), Kyle Ryan, Josh Modell, and I were also at that dinner, and indeed Cross did say that. And it was fascinating to watch this offhand remark develop in that moment into Posehn’s short riff at [REDACTED] on his love of “farm-to-table angel cum” only a few hours later that night. Yet it was even more fascinating to see that, by his Chicago Theatre appearance, Posehn had developed this into a solid, 90-second routine about the logistics of angel cum, whether this meant that angels were jacking off into their mouths, and what it said about Posehn that he’d automatically assumed angels jackin’ it would be part of the service. It’s rare that anyone gets to see someone’s process in action like that, and the relatively quick turnaround was a real testament to Posehn’s writing skills (and Schwa’s quail egg ravioli, which really is like angel cum). [SO]

Most perfectly preserved: Native son Bob Newhart returned to the Chicago Theatre accompanied by a tuxedo-clad jazz orchestra, a montage of clips from his decades of television appearances on Ed Sullivan and Dean Martin, and other reminders of a gentler, bygone era of comedy—right down to jokes about Tammy Faye Bakker and the differences between various ethnic groups. A veritable anthology of what stand-up was like before the dick joke was invented, Newhart stammered charmingly through antique gags about Japanese and Mexican airline pilots, and even reprised his classic “Driving Instructor” routine from 1960’s The Button-Down Mind Of Bob Newhart. When the latter’s set-up about “women drivers” received some modern-day groans, Newhart affably offered to sidestep the chauvinism and go with a Chinese driver instead. He then spoke several lines in cringe-inducing, mock-Chinese before saying he could either go on like that for nine minutes, or he could do the routine as written. Of course, were any comedian today to attempt something like that, they’d be lambasted across the social-media-sphere. But disagreeing with someone as amiable, beloved, and accomplished as Bob Newhart for remaining so steadfastly pre-PC would be like getting angry at an old movie. It’s simply how it was done, and you’re just happy it’s still around. [SO]

Best family counseling: When a 14-year-old and his dad popped up in the second row of Pete Holmes’ Tuesday night show, the comedian could have had an awkward situation on his hands. While Holmes rightfully compares his own looks to that of a youth pastor’s, his material’s not exactly clean. As it turned out, though, the kid, Matt, and his dad, Mike, were fans of Holmes’ fairly racy You Made It Weird podcast, so after a good deal of enthusiastic riffing about what Matt wants to do with his life—something with film—the comedian just went on with his show, making sure to shout-out the teenager whenever something film-related was mentioned. To his credit, Holmes didn’t pull any punches just because there was a minor in the crowd. Toward the end of the set, he even launched into an extended bit about a phone sex encounter he’d had that would have had Ron Jeremy cringing at its extremity. It was a little awkward for everyone else in the room, but rather than alienating the family pair down front, the bit had Matt and Mike giggling together. [ME]

Best funny musician: Hometown hero Kyle Kinane was all over the fest, popping up on a number of other shows and hosting the three-show run of Dancing Around The Shit Fire, which he also curated. Each of the three nights of the run had different guests, including a local Chicago musician of Kinane’s choosing. Friday-night audiences got The Lawrence Arms’ frontman Brendan Kelly, who Kinane said he’d never met, but clearly took to right away. While Kelly was just set to play songs between comedians, he quickly became one of the show’s highlights. As he got increasingly drunk, Kelly invited the audience to make requests and told jokes between stanzas. As a topper, Kelly performed a song he wrote when he was 15 and had never played live. After acknowledging that the song was indeed horrible, Kelly launched into it with a kind of shameful aplomb, singing lines about his “stupid sister” and burning himself with a pin that had the audience simultaneously cringing and laughing. It worked, though. As Kinane said to Kelly when the comedian came out to close the show, “Every train wreck needs a caboose.” [ME]

Hottest topic: Since both Illinois and the country are on the verge of making gay marriage legal, a good number of comedians thought it pertinent to bring the topic up in their sets. Cameron Esposito did a bit about gay marriage and guacamole at [REDACTED], and both Ben Roy and Bryan Cook did lengthy riffs on the topic at Kyle Kinane’s Dancing Around The Shit Fire. All the bits were pro-gay marriage, and while audiences might have been sympathetic to the cause, the whole preaching-to-the-choir thing definitely got a little sanctimonious by the time it came up for the second or third time. Maybe move on to another issue, guys? [ME]

Iciest audience: For whatever reason, the audience at Saturday night’s Chelsea Peretti show was just a total dud. Though Peretti opened the show saying that she assumed the audience was a huge fan of her work—just like she is—the comedian quickly switched her take on the matter after noticing four open seats right down front. Nothing Peretti was floating joke-wise seemed to land, either, leaving her pacing the stage and pondering aloud whether all the audience members at both that show and the one before had mistakenly seen a woman’s name on the festival lineup and assumed they were going to see Ellen DeGeneres. [ME] 

Biggest complainers: The lineup for Friday night’s Doug Loves Movies taping was a veritable murderers’ row of past and future DLM guests including Brian Posehn, Kumail Nanjiani, Samm “The Ma’am” Levine a.k.a. L’il Wolverine, and, to both Doug Benson’s joy and dismay, Pete Holmes. During the Leonard Maltin Game, Holmes and Levine were seated next to each other on the end of the contestants’ row, and the interplay between the duo—which was at one point likened to a ventriloquist and his angry dummy—was well worth the meager ticket price. While Levine urged Benson to move the game along, Holmes went off on tangents about Denis Leary and Nanjiani’s accent, and constantly interjected self-sung portions of Usher’s “Yeah” into the chatter. The high jinks didn’t go unnoticed by the always-prickly Levine, especially after Holmes somehow managed to win the game in two straight rounds, and even nabbed a third point in a special bonus round. [ME]

Best cosplay: John Hodgman is nothing if not committed. At both Wednesday night’s [REDACTED] show and his own headlining gig on Thursday, the author and Daily Show correspondent donned a dress and went on an extended riff about how he’d somehow come to live in the mind and body of Ayn Rand circa 1979. It’s a hard concept to get in theory, but in practice, it was absolutely genius. Hodgman read from (or pretended to read from) Rand’s column in Parade magazine, where she both expounded on the virtues of capitalism and mused about how great Fresca and Charlie’s Angels were/are. Hodgman clearly put layers upon layers upon layers of thought into both Rand’s life and the gag, and it showed. It was the funniest (and smartest) thing any of us saw all week. [ME]

Most prepared to become a prime-time player: Ask anyone who’s seen Saturday Night Live head writer and Weekend Update anchor Seth Meyers live in the past five years about any joke from his Just For Laughs headlining gig: He’s been doing a slight variation on the same act the entire time. But to paraphrase an old adage, Meyers hasn’t had to fix what’s working. In the largest venue, with the biggest crowd, Meyers got more deafening roars of laughter than just about any other performer at the festival. Perhaps that’s just broad appeal—though Meyers came prepared with plenty of material not suitable for national broadcast television—but what Meyers did prove onstage at the Chicago Theatre is that he’s ready to make the leap to late-night talk show host. With a solid writing staff around him—and if SNL doesn’t screw up promoting John Mulaney, there’s Meyers’ head writer right there—he’ll do just fine with a monologue every night. [KM]

Most likely to go broke in New Orleans: Chicago’s own Hannibal Buress made a triumphant return after the success of his special Animal Furnace and the news of a Comedy Central show. Opening for Seth Meyers, Buress performed mostly new material that continues to build on the promise of his first album, My Name Is Hannibal. His best new bit involves a bachelor party in New Orleans, where for $300 you can purchase a permit for a walking parade through the streets with a police escort to go along and no “open container” laws—which would basically be the only thing besides gambling Buress would spend money on if he lived there permanently. Not quite the Lenny Bruce-esque lettuce jokes that would cause a Dallas crowd to walk out, but it perfectly fit his persona as a laid-back, fun-loving son of Chicago. [KM]

Most appreciative new American citizen: Nerd Poker host and Dungeons & Dragons aficionado Brian Posehn was a natural lead-in for frequent Harmontown D&D player Kumail Nanjiani at Stage 773, one of the festival’s smallest venues. Nanjiani has proven far too talented for his role as an extreme agoraphobe on Franklin & Bash. He’s a stellar podcast guest—when he isn’t hosting his own show The Indoor Kids—and he absolutely killed it when he appeared on The Jeselnik Offensive season finale. In addition to a lengthy story about living in Chicago and dealing with strange noises in an attic along with his similarly frightened roommates, Nanjiani’s best bit told the story of his final citizenship interview, where he charmed his interviewer by pretending to have adopted Christian beliefs instead of becoming an atheist. His first special airs Saturday June 22 on Comedy Central. [KM]

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