As I sit here, living off of the boissons gratis of the 24-hour Subway restaurant and paying for temporary WiFi access in Montreal's Trudeau airport terminal, I realize that my initial plan to bring you a full slate of reviews from Montreal's Just For Laughs festival today might not come to fruition. Something about spending most of the afternoon trying to get a flight to New York City, then boarding a flight that takes off, and almost makes it there only to circle back and land in Canada, forcing you and your fellow passengers to pass through Customs even though you just left (the Customs agent had a quizzical view of the situation, as well), then spending the rest of the evening and into the morning hoping that the skies have cleared and airports reopened -- it all leaves me tres fatigue, as the French write. At least for a few hours, though, I was sitting in a chair in the sky!
With that nod to Louis CK, who put on two of the best shows (and hottest tickets) during the fest, I do want to share some initial thoughts about Montreal's annual celebration of comedy, and how it fared this summer. More in-depth reviews of the shows I saw will get published once I'm back home in New York City, to be sure. But first, a few thoughts, opinions and ideas to get you thinking about -- and hopefully talking about -- comedy.
Ever wonder what's really going on inside a comedian's head? Will Franken often lets those inner voices out to play, and in "Side Two of Abbey Road", he tells his life story and his comedy story by wrapping it in and around the Beatles tunes from the final side of their final album. Franken himself says it best near the end of his 12th and final podcast in his series: "Oh, c'mon. This is too many layers. They're never going to get this!" If you listen to the whole thing, though, or if you've seen Franken live before, perhaps it'll make a lot more sense. Oh, and it's got some NSFW language and content. Just so you know.
When I first saw Will Franken perform last fall, the best I could come up with on my Daily News blog was this description: "manic brilliance."
Speaking to Franken at length this week over coffee amid the Williamsburg types, I realized the words really do fit this untraditional comedian. First, though, watch this portion of his most recent one-man show, "Grandpa, It's Not Fitting," which I recorded with Franken's permission during his Jan. 18, 2008, performance at the UCB Theatre in NYC.
Franken, 34, grew up in rural Sedalia, Missouri, and began his professional career as a teacher of English at Southwest Missouri State University, but he acknowledges he wasn't the best teacher. He'd much prefer taking the class out on field trips or showing Harold & Maude or listening to The Who. "I was always going to the A/V department," he said. At 24, he decided to up and move to New York City. He'd done an open mic or two in Springfield, Missouri, and felt he was ready for his big break. "I thought I was going to go to Washington Square Park and do what I do and someone would walk past and say, 'I want you to do that on TV.'"
Instead, he dabbled in horrible theatrical productions, moved to Harlem and taught school there for a year. Discouraged, he moved to Charlotte, N.C., got married, got unmarried, and randomly ended up in San Francisco, where he said he lived out of his car for three months in a Target parking lot.
In 2002, he was walking in Oakland and spotted a sign for an open mic and tried performing again. But he wouldn't do comedy shows. Franken said he'd go to folk music open mics and coffee houses, sign up on the list and spring his performances on the audiences. Turned out, Bay Area audiences dug him. "San Francisco was extremely good to me," he said.
His comedy has never been conventional, which almost made him a natural finalist for the Andy Kaufman Award -- competing in the contest last November at The Comedy Festival in Las Vegas. I saw Frranken hours before the contest and he was in a slight panic. He really wanted to wow the judges and win the $5,000 prize. He rolled the dice on a bit that relied on an audience member and finished just shy of the prize. Months later, he's more than slightly unhappy about that. "I really needed that $5,000," he said. There's more of a connection to Kaufman, though. Franken said he'd read about Kaufman's career and how he didn't want to do the sitcom, Taxi. "When I read about that as a kid, I wondered: What is he doing? Get on TV! The older I get, I can understand where he was coming from." As potential managers have seen Franken's one-man show and asked him about his goals, Franken's reply is a simple one: He wants to do his show, just on TV.
About that show. Yes, you may describe it as one-man sketch comedy, but he packs so many ideas, references and voices into the sketches that you really do need to pay attention throughout. Franken's not afraid to take on religion, diversity and political correctness. He'll start off with what looks like an interview with The Beatles and wind up at Burning Man. He'll begin a scene as a marriage counseling session, bouncing around from wife to husband to therapist, whirling around and imploding the sketch into self-therapy. Sound effects poke fun at sound effects. False starts and stops. A sense that he's talking to the audience between sketches falls away to reveal he's already launched headlong into a new sketch already. This SF Weekly article goes to greater lengths to try to deconstruct Franken's act.
Where does it all come from? Franken said he truly believes there's a divine nature in art. When he's not smoking (currently blowing through three packs a day, and that's just the legit tobacco), he'll prefer to sit and allow himself to go into a trance, waiting for the voices in his head to emerge as a voice that'll become a character that'll enter a scene. And then he's off and running. Though he began his career with a four-track recorder and obviously records and edits for his podcasts, Franken said he'd rather not write or record, but rather repeat the voices and the material over and over again until it sticks. "I just shove it in my head," he said. Huh? "I've got a really strange memory. My head's like flypaper."
He boldly opened our chat by saying he wanted to debut 60 minutes of brand-new material for SF Sketchfest, where he'll be this Thursday and Friday (Thursday with The Apple Sisters and Kasper Hauser at the Eureka Theatre, Friday with The Apple Sisters and Kathleen Phillips at the Purple Onion). "I'm reckless, I know," he said. "All I have right now is an interview with the director of Stomp. And I don't even know where that's headed."
Related: Listen to Will Franken's podcast, Things We Did Before Reality, here. Also available on iTunes.
Through methods not entirely spelled out -- although, really, anything associated with the late Andy Kaufman should go without any easy explanations -- eight comedians from across America got invites to Las Vegas to perform in front of Kaufman's dad, Stanley, and his manager, George Shapiro, for the coveted award named for the eccentric performer. This was the contest's first visit to Vegas, having been conducted the first three years in New York City. How would it play in a ballroom of Caesars Palace during The Comedy Festival?
Well...you can watch the video submissions of all eight finalists here...
Past winners Kristen Schaal and Reggie Watts co-hosted the affair with their usual pluck and delight.
Chad Fogland chose a clowning mime striptease for his act, disrobing 12 pairs of pants, three pairs of boxers and a pair of briefs to reveal...another pair of briefs. Impressive enough, but far from extraordinary.
Mary Mack made her case with a washboard that she plays in her day job as a one-woman Eagles cover band. "This is where the show really amps up," she said. Certainly off the beaten path.
Nick Gibbons used a lie detector during his act that prompted him to change his answers repeatedly, almost exactly like an improv game my old troupe used to perform with bells and buzzers. Even Gibbons said on his blog later that the bit was "pretty tame," so I'm wondering if he could've chosen something different for the finals?
Brent Weinbach (spoiler alert: he won!) talked about being a substitute teacher in Oakland, Calif., then offered interpretations of "gay" and "psychotic" eyes, then ripped on the idea of "being natural" onstage by calling back to Gibbons' bit, then ripped on those who'd talk of him "being too creepy onstage" by being creepier, then offered three dance moves. Here was his contest submission:
Kate Micucci had a drum and cymbals to sing about being a librarian, put on a puppet love triangle show in a cardboard box, then sang a sexy song about sleeping. Adorably odd and funny.
Mitch Magee operated a slideshow of fruit photos with a low-key understated delivery, with commentary and music cutting in to enforce the idea that it's all an ode to his late grandmother.
Paul Rust, seen earlier in the weekend as part of the Unprotected Sketch! show, had a tech mishap (or did he? in an Andy Kaufman show, it's often difficult to know what's true onstage) and said, "Mistakes are God's way of telling you, 'Just quit the business!'" So instead, he played an anti-drugs song on the keyboard that just so happened to also be onstage.
Will Franken told me beforehand that he had something different planned for this show. He walked onstage as a waiter in a play with an unsuspecting audience memner who, of course, didn't know any of his lines, which only made Franken angrier and angrier. Decidedly risky, so kudos for that, even if he didn't win.