We arrived at the penultimate day of the festival a city on the brink, having cusped summer into fall the weather had normalized by Friday evening into the light cool of fall. Having already had a very exciting day getting to sit down with Jackie Kashian for a great one on one conversation and then rush back to publish my recap I was ready to just ease into the packed evening.
Arriving at the theatre it well before the event I was a little surprised to find the line to get in stretching down the street and around the corner. As a fan of Maria Bamford I’ve always been excited to see her perform but it’s a great pleasure to see that excitement spreading to larger and larger audiences with each successive show I’ve seen her at. She really does feel like a comic speaking to an audience who have, until recently, felt largely unrepresented.
Settling into our new-found favourite seats at the Winter Garden (the box seats) we had a great view of the stage and big comfy chairs. The house filled up very quickly and was packed from front to back. Opening for Maria was Jackie Kashian, Maria’s friend and long term touring partner. Having spent almost 50 minutes earlier in the morning chatting with Jackie I was very excited to hear her set. An L.A. based comic Jackie has been an active and working comedian for many years. She currently hosts two podcasts. The first is The Dork Forest, her exploration of people’s passions and the second is The Jackie and Laurie show where she and Laurie Kilmartin talk about the issues facing woman comedians from a comedian’s perspective.
This is the third time I’ve seen Jackie who we’ve always enjoyed when we’ve seen her in the past. Her with is very dry and often spiked with deep historical, literary and pop cultural references. More often than not her material has been personal and experiential in nature but for the first time in the sets that I’ve seen she’s been very passionately political speaking on the themes of bravery and responsibility. It was a deeply passionate and inspiringly hilarious examination of privilege, power and relationships. Jackie’s wit has seldom been sharper than it was this evening and it was a true pleasure to watch as she dissected the intersection of personal and public responsibilities.
After a killer set Jackie introduced a frenetic Maria Bamford to the stage, Maria’s energy out of the gate filled the room and was wading into new territory touching on subjects like politics, gentrification, living wage, social media and relationships. Through the entire show Maria remained in motion with her signature traits of dancing and singing through the sets keeping people who were familiar with her earlier work at ease meanwhile tackling topics she’s not explored in her specials or hours before.
A near hour later Maria had kept the room in stitches and waiting for more she closed out the set with two bits. The first an exploration of ethics and the second a signature self roasting based on her experiences in the entertainment industry. To see Maria tackle such topical humour was a change but it was good to see her spread her wings and tackle new types of material.
Going downstairs and then turning right around we lined up for the Chris Gethard show immediately following Maria. New York based and New Jersey born Gethard is a long term fixture in the comedy world. A member of the UCB and a great experimenter in comedy Chris recently brought his 7 year experiment in what was effectively improv television (spanning public access, internet streaming and the TruTV network) to a close but has instead directed his attentions to his Beautiful Anonymous podcast. A heartfelt and revelatory experience where he has conversations with anonymous contributors who call in and relate stories ranging from light and fun to deeply personal and tragic in nature.
Like Bamford, Chris was in motion through the entire set but the energy was very different. In the case of Chris it felt like an attempt to personally engage with every person in the audience. He was reaching out to make eye contact and engage everyone creating a very empathetic and safe environment. His crowd work was funny and kind and truly felt inviting in nature.
Off the top the set was very dark dealing with things like the apocalypse, toxic masculinity and the underlying theme of fear. Something that, he feels, is influencing culture in a way that is profound and far more powerful than people are willing to admit. His observations regarding pop culture were insightful and his dissection of bullying and growing up felt truly resonant with my own experiences with my youth experiences.
Ultimately the true theme of the show was that of a heartfelt authenticity to self and a dedication to do not watch. In many ways it felt like a compassionate call to action. One that understood we all have different limitations but we all have a responsibility to be true to ourselves as best as we can.
Shifting gears, I made my way to Second City to watch The Alternative Show with Andy Kindler. Andy maintained form from the last couple of nights. His energy was high and his tangents were oblique and funny as hell. He kept up the ribbing of Howie Mandel and Richard Lewis and leaned into the fire he was putting to the feet of Louis C.K. The entire evening was high energy and bordering on the world of clowning with exaggerated motions and arch-silliness in the best of ways.
The first guest of the night was Anthony Jeselnik who had just finished his headliner set at the Sony Centre and wasn’t about to let anyone especially Andy forget it (in the most playful of ways). His material was typical ego driven humour that this evening strayed between joking about the process of being a comedian to some really dark themes that always landed on the right side of edgy. A lot of comedians play at being edgy but Jeselnik is able to do so and always know at just the right point to make the turn and bring his point home.
Next up was Chris Gethard, this was the moment he went from someone whom I knew and enjoyed to someone I am in Comedy Love with. Chris spent many years of his career as a professional improviser to the point he was involved in teaching at the UCB and wrote curriculum for them. Being in a room in Second City Toronto, the home of some of Canada’s greatest sketch and improv comedians he wanted to pay tribute. As such, he paid tribute by returning to his improv roots and doing 12 minutes of improv with a bottle of water. The subject he was handed by the audience was Tobacco and damn it, he made it work. When they said he could make a scene work with any scene partner they weren’t kidding!
Following Chris was no easy task but local icon Seán Cullen. Cullen of Corky and the Juice Pigs fame was generous with his attention and did a good deal of material that was absurdist in nature but never unrelatable or unconventional to the point it didn’t land with the audience. He combined a set full of character work, local references and silly asides leaving the stage having thoroughly entertained the audience for his 12 minutes.
Next up was L.A. based Mo Welch, Second City and Improv Olympics alumni as well as a member of the UCB she presented a very dry and laidback set that was a great change of pace from the proceeding sets. Touching on sex and sexuality, coming out and the clitoris it was delightfully blue while never being cringe inducing. Her energy was very in control and was a great pleasure to watch, should the opportunity arise I highly recommend making it out to see her full sets as if this was any indication they would be a terrific joy to be a present for.
Closing the evening local Pat Thorton gave us a high energy set that was joyous and a hilarious send off to the evening. Self deprecatory he touched on internet absurdity, room service and ubers while also making local references that only a Torontonian would really appreciate. It was the perfect chocolate on the pillow of comedy for the evening.