Northern exposure

By SARA FAITH ALTERMAN  |  July 29, 2009

With any luck, their success at an international showcase like Just For Laughs can boost the many other rising local talents who are a few steps behind. (To keep tabs on the scene, check out the Boston Comedy Festival coming up next month, the AltCom Festival beginning to pull itself together for 2010, and visit thePhoenix.com/comedy.) But there were other, non-Bostonian comics at the fest who shone, as well.

Funny week
Massive arts festivals like Just For Laughs usually help to project upcoming entertainment trends — think of it as the Fashion Week of comedy, a glimpse into the industry's future. What's obviously inspired by previous eras? What pops, what disgusts? What's so brilliantly terrible, and so terribly brilliant? Comedy is no exception to this requisite scrutiny.

At this point, you're likely thinking: it's just fucking jokes, lady. Shit's either funny or it ain't.

Wow, tough crowd here, in my head. Anyway, most of the acts I got excited about in Montreal were as conceptual as they were purely funny. Performers like Reggie Watts, Mary Mack, Josh Fadem, Jerry O'Hearn (alter ego of Andy Daly); sketch troupes Idiots of Ants, the Birthday Boys, and Two White Guys; and comedy dance troupe Dance Animal — these are the comedians whose acts seem freakish and esoteric, but, in a few years, will inspire cheap vanilla knockoffs.

Watts is easily the most original act I've seen in a long time. Crowned by a wasp's nest of an Afro and adopting a revolving mélange of characters, the comedian/musician babbles, fumbles, raps, and croons, all to dizzying and dazzling effect. Probably best known for his song "Fuck Shit Stack," Watts mixes his beats live and layers them with hilarious wordplay. Over the course of my week in Montreal, his was, jazz-hands down, the name I most often heard being bandied about as one to watch.

Mary Mack, straight outta the Midwest, reminds me of a fresh-off-the-farm-doncha-know version of Boston's own Maria Bamford — high-pitched voice, faux-confused delivery, absolute confidence in her own battiness. A lot of her material — based on her parents and on her ability to play the recorder and the mandolin — is total crackpot nonsense, but she knows it, replying to a skeptical audience, "The less you laugh, the more abstract this crap is gonna get." Nobody can figure out if she's playing a character or being herself on stage, but I'm content to leave it a mystery.

And Josh Fadem? Dear God, Josh Fadem. Looking like Waldo's wimpier kid brother, the California comedian strutted onstage, opened his mouth to speak, and promptly knocked the microphone off of its stand. He then proceeded to spend the next five minutes fumbling around for it, doing Charlie Chaplin better than Charlie Chaplin. It was excruciating. It was exhilarating. When he finally, finally began to deliver actual jokes, his performance only continued to crescendo.

Montreal begets trends, and I predict that the next "big thing" in comedy will be artists who, like Watts, Mack, and Fadem, challenge their audience to think about what they're laughing at. Plus, if the on-the-edge-of-superstardom success of Just For Laughs veterans (and Boston-area natives) Bo Burnham, Eugene Mirman, and Mike Birbiglia is any indication, the festival could help our city reclaim its rightful international title as comic-genius breeding ground.

Sara Faith Alterman can be reached at salterman@phx.com.

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