Saturday Night Laughs: A Few Reviews of Guelph Comedy Festival 2016
Friday, October 28, 2016
Image courtesy of Ellie Shannen @eshannen | Photo property of the cannon.
I don’t know who invented the phrase “the fourth wall,” but I can scarcely imagine a more inapt term for describing the complex dynamic that exists between live performers and their audience. Live shows, in my experience, live or die by their ability to harness the power of an audience’s attention. This is especially true of comedy, where a wave of laughter can buoy a comic or troupe to new, inspired heights—but a lapse in audience interest can stop a bit in its tracks. The three shows that concluded the Guelph Comedy Festival at the Making-Box Theatre this past Saturday demonstrated the diversity of the festival lineup—both in terms of their form (sketch, stand-up, and improv) and their ability to engage the audience.
The night began with the Templeton Philharmonic, a sketch comedy duo composed of Toronto performers Gwynne Phillips and Briana Templeton. Billed as “Delectably Surreal” and introducing their set as “the most spectacular show you’ve ever seen,” the Philharmonic proved to be short on spectacle (excepting a few costume changes and a couple of hideously blonde wigs) and long on wordplay, pastiche, and conceptual absurdity. The Philharmonic boast a varied resume, which includes gallery installation and site-specific murder mystery, yet their scenes boil down to a handful of formulae. In a typical Philharmonic sketch, quite a few of which can be seen online, an episode of banal middle-class existence (a book club meeting, a baby shower, a high school reunion) turns weird as the characters’ desperation—or the supernatural itself—seeps into their dialogue. For a sketch troupe devoted to the surreal, however, I found that neither their perversion nor their poetry went far enough. In scenes like the one in which a ditzy girl gossips about her ghoulish boo (the phantom of the opera, of course), or the one in which a woman pregnant with the devil attends a baby shower (her name is Rosemary, of course), I kept waiting for a further twist that never came. Instead, the Philharmonic ladies seemed content to keep things relatively staid. Two sketches, however, stood out for their originality: a dream-like take on a Hitchcockian film trailer and an unsettling stream-of-consciousness parody of “The Sound of Music” (“It Sounds Like Music,” where some of “My Favorite Things” include “Doorbells and doorbells and doorbells and doorbells”).
The Templeton Philharmonic stuck to their scripts, and the audience’s response was similarly contained. The next show, on the other hand, delivered a master class in keeping things live. Host Spencer Dunn (certainly my favourite local comedian) started things on a high note with his curiously joyful self-loathing, lamenting his lacklustre Tinder track-record and roasting his personal physique (in one joke he describes himself as a stack of three different types of potatoes). Self-deprecation is well-trodden comedic ground, but Dunn’s vivacious delivery, pitch-perfect details, and frequent call outs to the audience carry you away. His infectious energy had the crowd well warmed-up for opener Preeti Torul, who took the stage to deliver a set similarly suffused with suffering, as she recounted her impoverished childhood growing up in a family of six in a one-bedroom apartment (yes, she has, apparently, masturbated while sharing a bed with her grandma). Except for an interlude about Beyoncé’s Lemonade, her set focused on her terrible childhood—but while Dunn managed to mine gold out of his personal suffering, Torul left the audience with the suffering. Torul might qualify as a comedian’s comedian. Her standoffish set seemed designed to test the audience more than entertain them, tension building painfully between jokes that, as often as not, lacked punchlines. I could imagine her set slaying in a more masochistic room—the Making-Box is not that room.
The following comic, Gavin Stephens, took to that room like a storm-battered sailor to a balmy beach. A veteran Canadian comic with tons of accolades to his name, Stephens reveled in both the youth of audience (“You’re all babies!”) and the generosity of the crowd compared to clubs in his home-base of Hamilton. (His impression of a Hamilton audience: “This joke better be as funny as the last one.”) Energized by his warm reception, he continually dialogued with the audience, pushing whatever buttons he could, whether by genially mocking a woman’s laughter, caricaturing the millennial job market (“based on a six-year-old’s birthday party”), or, in an especially poignant segment, talking to a young black woman in the front row about his experience as a black man. Stephens crossed the lines of good taste—in fact, he danced over them—but always reached out to make sure that you stayed with him in what amounted to a masterful performance. I was sad to see him leave the stage, but not sad to hear Dunn welcome the headliner, Mark Little of Picnicface fame.
Mark Little similarly took his connection with the crowd as the starting point, and not the end product, of his set. His material ranged from bits more surreal than anything in the Templeton Philharmonic catalogue (a bit of drinking advice: “Beer before cider / Awaken the spider / Cider before beer / No spiders appear”) to observational asides on his inability to enjoy smoking weed (he keeps trying) and why more people don’t like raccoons. But the bulk of his material (including an epic musical closer) took inspiration from his conversations with a high schooler named Jared in the front row, whom he speculated was the epitome of teen-ness, grown in a test tube sometime in the preceding few days. That is material one suspects he will never repeat—never be able to repeat. As such his terrific set fulfills the criteria that one wishes could be said of all live acts: you had to be there.
To close out the night, the Making-Box’s in-house improv troupe, the Making-Box Brigade, took to the stage with local cover-band the Hot Karls and special guests Coko and Daphney for the Rock ’N’ Roll Improv Show. In an improv format known as an Armando, a song by the Hot Karls would inspire a number of scenes from the Brigade accompanied on the piano by Making-Box musical director Chris New. At first jarring (“Wait, I’m going to have to sit through a whole cover of ‘I Think We’re Alone Now?’”), the format soon felt natural. A musical performance doesn’t speak to an audience like a comedian does. Instead, music, and especially the nostalgia-heavy material of the Hot Karls, speaks directly to the audience’s memories and emotions—soon much of the crowd joined the huge ensemble in singing along to the Friends theme and “Paper Planes.” Given this sentimental atmosphere, the Brigade’s sketches, initially goofy and cerebral, eventually took on a heartfelt tone, as scenes about young lovers broke into touching improvised musical numbers. In the warm glow of the stage lights, the ensemble joyfully dissolved any and all boundaries. Characters crashed into other scenes, improvisors pushed each other to more and more ludicrous heights, and even the Hot Karls got in on the action, playing off Chris New’s piano lines to fill out the sound. After a final, epic number (the theme song to fictional franchise Mayor with a Badge), Hayley Kellett of the Making-Box encouraged everyone to push their chairs to the wall, get up, and dance. The audience and performers finally became one.
I cannot imagine a more fitting end to the Guelph Comedy Festival.