Sunday, June 19, 2011

Just For Laughs: Bits

The Just For Laughs Chicago comedy festival wraps up tonight with a sold-out Chicago Theater show featuring two up-and-coming young comedians named Steve Martin and Martin Short. It's the first time the two have performed a stage show together.

Yesterday I talked to a Just For Laughs producer, in town from the festival's home base in Montreal, who'd just finished going over the running order of tonight's show. He told me it was going to be amazing. Quelle surprise!

I've had the good fortune of catching some choice shows over the past few days, dutifully recording for this blog a few of the hundreds of jokes that have been washing over me in a hilarious deluge.

Jeffrey Ross flew in from the Newark airport—which he described as "the Newark of airports"—to "roast Chicago" at the Vic Theatre, taking the starch out of every local celebrity, sports team, and in about ten cases, audience member. At one point he welcomed to the stage Ryan Dempster, the next day's starting pitcher for the Chicago Cubs against the New York Yankees at Wrigley Field. "Ryan has won 107 games at the major league level," Ross told the crowd to wild applause. Then: "He's also lost 107 games. That's like saying you have $8 million in the bank but you owe $8 million to American Express."

Opening for "Saturday Night Live" Weekend Update anchor Seth Meyers, "Chappelle's Show" co-creator Neal Brennan argued that our current president gets a lot of unfair criticism: "Obama is just another brother in the wrong place at the wrong time. When the cops show up he's like, 'It was George Bush and Alan Greenspan. They just left.' "

Meyers, in turn, delivered a confident hour to a fired-up crowd that cheered his every move. He mentioned that he used to live in Amsterdam, "but not for the reason you think. It was because weed is legal there."

Louis C.K., widely considered the best standup in the business, headlined two sold-out shows at the 3400-seat Chicago Theatre. Incredibly, the prolific C.K. throws out his entire act every year and comes up with an entire new hour of material. He scored with a very funny bit about how he frequently flies first class—then as an aside, "Who am I kidding? I always do. I don't need to try to relate to you people. I haven't flown coach in the past three years"—and sees soldiers on his plane returning from Afghanistan. The soldiers are never in first class, even the colonels.

He told how he often thinks it would be a nice move to give a soldier his first-class seat and sit in coach, but he never does it. "I've thought this literally hundreds of times, but I've never even come close to doing it. But I still think what a great guy I am. I give myself the credit as if I actually did it. Then I look around at the other people in first class and think, 'Look at these jerks. They didn't even think of doing it.' "

He tries to play Chicago only once a year, so he was reluctant to perform in this festival since he was just here last October. "They gave me a ton of money to produce this show myself and said I could make it different from the last one by hiring anyone I wanted to open for me. Their idea was like an all-star show. My idea was more like, I'm going to find the three lousiest guys I can who will work for nothing, then I'll just keep all the money."

What he did do was to bring in three big-name headliners to do about 10 minutes each. The show was billed as "Louis C.K. and Three Special Guests," the identities of which were a closely guarded secret. Each time he introduced one of them—in turn, Jake Johannsen, Richard Lewis and Steven Wright—the crowd went insane.

Of course, the secret was out by the time the 7:30 show was over. At the top of the 10:30 show, Louis admonished the crowd, "Do me a favor. Stay off of Twitter and Facebook so you don't find out who's opening this show. Don't ruin it for the people around you. Try to live your actual life for once, not the one on your iPhone. Look up here at the real world. The resolution is amazing. A lot more megapixels."

All four comics played to a huge response, the three openers also receiving warm introductions from Louis C.K. extolling them as formative influences. Particularly moving was Louis' description of a horrible show he played early in his career at a Boston comedy club in the mid-1980s. He was supposed to perform six minutes but made it only four because the show was a complete disaster: no one laughed, the crowd hated him, he couldn't figure out how to stop drowning, and he slunk off the stage in abject defeat.

Louis was so demoralized that he started to consider giving up comedy altogether. Then someone came up behind him said, "Good job." He turned around to find his idol and the evening's headliner, Steven Wright. The compliment was enough to keep him at it for another two years.

Wright still stands as comedy's mind-bending poetic genius, and on this night he served up his umpteenth crowd-pleasing performance. Among his dozens of gems: "I got a new camera. It's so advanced, you don't even need it."

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