Comedy festivals are for everyone, but comedy addicts are especially well-served because they get to gorge on the stuff until they pass out, post-Thanksgiving dinner style, in a pile of aching stomach muscles and alcoholic bliss. And one of the most satisfying treats is seeing the same performers in different contexts, since it provides a window into how and why they make different types of people lose their shit.
Take Deborah DiGiovanni, a stand-up veteran of Montreal’s Just for Laughs festival who headlined a 9 p.m. show at the Place des Arts Studio Théatre, just off the festival’s downtown epicenter. Her hour-long set at the dark, subterranean space was fast-paced and eager, but it didn’t have the same knowing harshness that her later appearance at the Midnight Surprise show at Théâtre Sainte-Catherine did. There she didn’t just imply that she was worried her male roommate would mistake her electric toothbrush for a dildo, she actually spoke the word several times. And though she cursed and did largely the same material at her earlier show, it felt more calibrated for a middle-aged festival crowd than the younger party people who comprised the midnight one.
The husky (her words, not mine) comic delivered hyperactive takes on air travel, exercise, Hollywood, and the intersection between porn, weed and horror movies with an eye toward general audience tastes, but her much shorter Midnight Surprise set got markedly different laughs when she dropped lines like, “I hate people who don’t hate people.” Both sets featured self-insulting Lisa Lampanelli-esque punchlines, but the vibe gulf was wide and deep. One can only imagine how the other comics at this event, many of whom have been performing the same shows night after night for the better part of a week, find new twists on the same material—assuming that’s what keeps it interesting to them.
That probably doesn’t apply to Judah Friedlander, the New York comic and 30 Rock schlub who worked a miserably sweaty audience at the Mainline Theatre with a masterful mix of stand up and improv at 10:30 p.m. Starting with a few one-liners that came off like Steven Wright delivering a gym-teacher pep talk, he quickly transitioned into a big-balled Chuck Norris persona that had him repeatedly encouraging the audience to ask how he would handle his obvious and impending U.S. presidency (see his baggy, yellow “World Champion” shirt and trucker cap that said the same in sign language).
It’s easy to imagine each of Friedlander’s JFL sets veering in wildly different directions depending on the makeup of the crowd, although he was able to weave tested material in while drawing zero attention to that fact. “Any other questions about karate, the presidency or my dick?” he asked at one point, moving the only electric fan in the room in a semi-circle to keep the suffocating crowd alive. Unlike everyone around him, his mind was clearly working several beats ahead of (and in conjunction with) his mouth at all times.
By contrast, the festival-favorite Midnight Surprise sets offered a quick-hit showcase of talented and mostly mid-level names such as Nick Turner, the aforementioned DiGiovanni, Comedy Central Roastmaster Jeffrey Ross, Kurt Metzger, Ron Funches, Derek Seguin, Johnny Pemberton and Chappelle’s Show co-creator Neal Brennan—all hosted by New York standup Michael Che. To see any of them on a different show, even if it was on the same night, was to understand the creative clay-throwing process that gets all of their hands so righteously dirty.