“IF YOU WERE being raped and you saw a shooting star, would you use your wish to stop the rape? Or would you look at the bigger picture?”
The question came courtesy of twenty-four-year-old LA-based comedian Jerrod Carmichael during his set at the cozy Théâtre Sainte Catherine in downtown Montreal. I had arrived from the airport just hours before for the final week of the monthlong, annual Just for Laughs festival. The latest iteration, the fest’s thirtieth, featured dozens of shows per night in bars, tents, strip clubs, and opera houses radiating outward from the crowded Place-des-Arts.
Given the recent scandal (New York Times megillah and everything) involving Daniel Tosh making light of the subject, rape jokes, or jokes about rape jokes, were just another way of staying topical during comedy’s hoariest showcase. The other recurring touchstone was the humor industry itself, which Patton Oswalt tackled in his cautionary keynote: “Us comedians, we’re beginning to realize our careers don’t hinge on someone in a plush office deciding to aim a little luck in our direction. If you keep trying to cram all our wildness and risk-taking back into the mimeographed worksheet form of middle school, we’re just going to walk away.” And while Oswalt criticized agents, managers, and producers for their lack of imagination, he used a reverential tone with regard to his fellow comics, who he deemed “the most top-heavy with talent young wave this industry has ever had.”
Andy Kindler wasn’t so precious about his colleagues-in-humor during his “State of the Industry” address, taking down heavy hitters Robin Williams (“he’s not funny, we were all just on coke”), Chelsea Handler (“I mentioned her in Melbourne and nobody knew who she was; for one night I was on top of the world”), and even the seemingly untouchable Louis C.K. (“I have so much anti-C.K. material, but none of you believe me”). He proceeded to mock C.K. for seven straight minutes, poking holes in the logic of his bits, deriding him for laughing at his own jokes, and scoffing at his narcissistic PR tactics: “I throw away my material each year. Put that in the article. I write and direct and star in my own show. Put that in the article.” And while I am a devoted fan of both Louis and his sitcom Louie, it was still a thrill to see the emperor stripped bare. Later I mentioned to Kindler how surprised I’d been by his speech. He smiled brightly: “Me too.”
Much of the festival mingling took place either on or around rue Sainte Catherine—where conversations competed with political demonstrations, spoken-word stylings, and incomprehensible parades (lots of aliens)—or after hours at the Hyatt hotel bar, which sometimes led to dancing nearby (the Funny or Die party was a highlight). And while most JFLers weren’t seeing much of Montreal, the centralized socializing made it easy for an art worlder to dive into the funny biz.
My status as Artforum ambassador-spy elicited reactions from most everyone I chatted with. “Oooh, classy,” (comedian Will Weldon). “Oooh, fancy” (IFC VP Dan Pasternack). Eugene Mirman called me “sneaky,” impressed that I had parlayed five days of endorphin-raising activities into a writing gig for such a heady rag. Some offered more fleshed-out feedback, particularly when asked about comedy as art. Marc Maron argued that both artists and comedians only hit the genius mark when they “infuse the form with their own personality, their own style, even if it’s difficult or misunderstood.” Or as Pete Holmes put it, “Comedians are trying to do art from the beginning, but I don’t think I got near what I would consider artistic stand-up until later, when I hit pain.” He paused. “Is that cliché?”
One of the pleasures of watching comedy is that you instinctively know what you like; you really don’t have to think about it. Lauren Lapkus, one of the comics in “New Faces,” the festival’s emerging comedians showcase (an essential credit in the career of a young funny), floored me with her lethargic stripper character at the sleek Place-des-Arts Theater, in which she apathetically removed her hoodie and lazily gyrated to the tune of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car.”
On the edgier side of things was Chappelle’s Show veteran Neal Brennan, cocky and compelling during his nightly “Midnight Surprise” show, where he delivered sharply written material (“Every time a woman pleasures herself she makes a hundred million epic movies in her head—dozens of horses in carriages, thousands of extras in period garb”). So did many of the comics he programmed onto the bill, including Chris D’Elia, Rory Scovel, Chelsea Peretti, and Arthur Simeon. Hannibal Buress did a killer bit about a run-in with the Montreal police: “I apologize not for the act of jaywalking, but for how my jaywalking made you feel.”
One of my favorite moments of the fest was at the intimate live version of Holmes’s “You Made It Weird,” a podcast in which the host green-lights his guests’ musings about strange and uncomfortable subjects (Eric Andre going overboard on MDMA, Jamie Lee responding to her suicidal cat . . .). And while the in-person event was a touch less titillating than the show itself (the two-hour, psychedelic Duncan Trussell episode is a must), I loved geeking out and cheering with the crowd of fellow weirdos.
Overall, the festival had a summer camp/family reunion vibe—both supportive and ball-busting. (“Comedy Christmas” was how manager–talent scout Brian Baldinger described it). There was something refreshingly cathartic about this convocation of funny-industry insiders. “By round of applause, how many people here tonight are just actively trying to keep their shit together?” Joe Wengert asked at the beginning of his “New Faces” set. At its most therapeutic, the ministry of comedians helps do just that, manufacturing joy and exposing the fallibility and ridiculousness of it all. Bigger picture indeed: Who knew rape jokes could be so Zen?