These Comedians

Just a sample of the more than 90 comedians I spoke with in Montreal

I have often thought of going back to the raw footage of every piece I’ve shot over the past few years, and taking a still of each and every person I’ve met and interviewed. So, after wrapping up Tuesday night’s piece from the Just for Laughs Festival in Montreal, I thought I’d try it with just one, to see how it went.

I gave up after 70.

Maybe I was tired from the long hours we pulled shooting the bit: the best place to bag a Comedian in his native habitat is in the hotel bar after the shows are over. After shooting for a few hours in the day, we would get to the bar at the Hyatt at around 11, stake our claim near the elevators, and try to catch every comedian, publicist, manager, agent (and waitress) that we could. This would go on until about 3:30am, when the lights would come on and, blinking, drunk and unable to buy more booze, the aforementioned group would slink back to their hotel rooms, shades pulled tight.

More likely, I was tired of the comedians. I’m so used to shooting civilians in bits like “Pitch to America,” that doing a total immersion with professional funny people was akin to being embedded with a manic-depressive platoon on a sixty mile hike. And they’re not even our troops: as a writer for the most mainstream, number one show on TV, I’m considered to be Establishment. And the same rule applies now as it did in the ‘60s: Establishment = Enemy.

But I’m not your enemy, oh brothers and sisters of chuckledom. I’m just the guy who wants to put you on TV. Come on over, grab this here microphone, and tell my little camera a joke. You do this for a living, right? What better place to be anti-establishment than in front of 8 million viewers?

But I have to be fair. Turns out that many comedians don’t do jokes. They don’t even do anything that could be both humorous and under 45 seconds long. It’s just impossible. Jokes are for squares, there’s no street cred in jokes, there’s no momentum in joke telling. The real thrill, the thing that elevates your status among your peers is the premise. Like a real, ballsy premise that makes everybody go, like, “WHAAAT? Did he SAY that? You gotta be SHITTING me!”

I can’t be critical. It’s a job I could never do. I’m terrified of speaking in public. When there’re more than three people at the In-N-Out drive-thru window I just keep moving. I write for comics but could never perform the jokes. Doing a bit on the Tonight Show is out of the question. I can’t knock these guys, and if they have something to say, but choose not to phrase it in the form of a standard setup/punchline with a possible flip, they still have something to say.

And some of them really delivered. Shocking, odd, nostalgic, silly – I got more than enough to divert the viewing public for five minutes, and it was damned funny. It takes guts to do something as reckless as being the only thing on NBC for thirty seconds, and the reward? Everybody repeats your material the next day. You defined yourself with a joke, then gave it away.

And with the May 29, 2009 end date announced on Monday, that closes the book on the “Pass the Mic” bit. The first of a long list of my own routines that I will be crossing off in the coming months. So goodnight, Montreal, and thanks. You’ve been a great audience.

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