Thursday, March 5, 2009

Montreal Looks To Boston for Talent

Boston comedy and the Just For Laughs Festival in Montreal have had a good relationship over the years. The Festival is where Lenny Clarke got his first sitcom deal. John Pinette packs big rooms there. Mike Birbiglia gave his one-man show, Sleepwalk With Me, a pre-Off Broadway spin there. This weekend, Just For Laughs is coming to Boston again looking for more Boston comics for their New Faces showcase and other shows. Jeff Singer will come to the Comedy Studio Friday and Mottley’s Comedy Club Saturday scouting for the Festival (see below for the full line-up). Here’s a sneak peak at what he’ll be considering when he looks at some of the best talent Boston has to offer.

How long has it been since Just For Laughs has scouted Boston?

We make sure to visit Boston every year. One of my colleagues covered in 2008. It's been a few years for me personally. The city has always produced a wealth of comedy talent going back to Jay Leno, Steven Wright, Lenny Clarke and Denis Leary through the current generation of comics like Mike Birbiglia, Eugene Mirman, Jon Fisch, Shane Mauss and Patrick Borelli. In our industry there are a handful of cities that have a reputation for being good comedy towns. Boston has always been one of them. Austin is another. If you find me a town that rhymes with those, I'll be on the next plane and let you emcee the show.

What is it you’re looking for from a comedian?

It really depends on the show we're booking. For New Faces, something that makes them stand out from the pack. It could be clever writing; a distinct persona; unique point of view or a "born-with-it" quality that draws in the crowd. We want comedians who are polished and ripe enough to be thrown in the spotlight. They've also got to be memorable, whether it's their personality or their jokes. I know I've found someone special when I'm reciting one of their bits the next day without consulting my notes. Those traits generally apply to most comedians we hope to book at the Festival. However there are other theme shows such as Nasty Show, Ethnic Heroes of Comedy, The Relationship show, Alternative or the Music Show where we're seeking specific kinds of comics to fit the bill. The material is paramount. And of course I can't ignore the obvious: being able to get laughs. There are comics I personally find amusing who I know would die a horrible death in certain rooms. Conversely there are others who might not be my cup of tea but would resonate strongly with a local crowd as well as the industry We try to maintain the tricky balance of being taste makers and giving the audience what we think they want. I believe I answered this question without once using the word "funny". Damn I just blew it.

Is there a certain quality that disqualifies someone immediately?

Steroids. But we don't do drug tests in comedy. If we did the Festival would be down to 6 stand-ups and an Italian quick change artist. That guy's got to be on something too.

I can't really think of anything that would disqualify someone, however I have seen auditions where performers have committed comedy suicide. We saw one guy this season who yelled nonsensically at an audience member his entire set without saying one joke. Perhaps he was trying to be Andy Kaufman-esque or something. He missed the mark completely. It was a disaster. As he was bombing, his microphone disconnected from the wire and he still continued his maniacal rant using only his voice in the dead, hollow room. It was a layer of uncomfortable on top of awkward. I suppose that counts as a disqualification. We were all afraid to go near him after the show. My colleague thought he was going to Travis Bickle one of us.

Has what the Festival has been looking for changed over the years?

I'd like to think we continue to seek the best talent from around the world. One thing that has changed is the growth and expansion of Just For Laughs. The Festival expanded to Toronto last year, and this June a version launches in Chicago. With these new editions plus the cross-Canada tours and other ventures in development, the Festival is looking now more than ever for comics who can play big stages to wide audiences in multiple cities. Also, the solo, sketch and specialty shows have grown so there are more opportunities to showcase different forms of comedy in addition to traditional stand-up. Even with stand-up, we've experimented with storytelling format shows like "Confessing It" which was a big hit for several years, and other variety type shows. I think you'll see more of that this season and in the coming years.

How did you wind up going to the Comedy Studio and Mottley’s?

Comedy Studio has a great reputation too. I've personally known about it for years, from the days when I ran a popular alternative comedy show in New York called "Eating It" at Luna Lounge. For ten years I saw many Boston comics who played my room. The majority of them got their start at the Comedy Studio. So now of course I want to go straight to the source. I've been there once before but it's been at least 5 years if not more. The gentleman who runs it, Rick Jenkins, is a really nice guy with good taste. All the Boston comics speak fondly of him. I like working with someone like that. As for Mottley's, I only recently discovered the club through the grapevine. Since The Comedy Connection moved on up to the East Side (in Jeffersons parlance), I needed a new small to mid-size downtown room. I've heard good things and am looking forward to doing my first showcase there.

Have you seen Boston comics do well in Montreal before? Any specific memories?

Louis C.K. and Nick DiPaolo have destroyed so many times it's hard to keep track. Those guys could kill at a Tsunami Concert for Bangladeshi AIDS Research. Same goes for Patrice Oneal and Bill Burr. On the New Faces level, Ira Proctor did very well last year. I love seeing Bostonians flourish in Montreal, except when the Bruins are in town.

How many cities are you visiting for auditions?

In addition to New York where I'm based, I'm going to seven cities this season. I just got back from Austin, Texas. Then Boston, Nashville and Atlanta followed by the final leg of Denver, Minneapolis and Detroit. I'm also attending showcases in L.A. My L.A-based colleagues cover San Francisco and another associate is doing a showcase in Chicago. I try to mix it up every year. Last season I hit Raleigh which was really strong. In years past I've been to Washington, DC and Philadelphia. We also work with clubs around the country who help us put together showcases which we tape and review. We draw many callback candidates from those taped showcases. So if I can't make it to Cleveland or Omaha, I'll still see who's making them laugh there.

How do you narrow down your list once you’ve visited all the towns you’re drawing from?

Again each show will have different determining factors. For New Faces, my primary focus, I basically look for the qualities I mentioned earlier and then begin to compare my lists to assess the overall talent pool. We like to mix it up with some diversity, including geography, when possible. I can usually narrow it down one showcase at a time. By the time I'm done I should have enough final callback spots between New York and L.A. to see everyone I initially liked. If I'm forced to cut it down for whatever reason, I'll consult with my colleagues for a second pass. For shows like Masters or the Gala, I work closely with my Festival associates who already have certain candidates in mind or waiting lists from years past. If these scouting trips produce an abundance of outstanding comedians, narrowing them down will be a good problem to have.

Friday, March 6, 8PM

The Comedy Studio
Shaun Bedgood, Maggie MacDonald, Matt McArthur, Tony Moschetto, Lamont Price, Ken Reid, Robby RoadSteamer, Dan Sally, Sean Sullivan, Renata Tutko, Joe Wong.

Saturday, March 7, 8PM
Mottley’s Comedy Club
Ken Rogerson, Tony V., Robbie Printz, Bethany Van Delft, Erin Judge, Orlando Baxter, Tom Dustin, Mike Whitman, Mike Dorval

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