Welcome to day 4, by now I’ve fallen into my JFL42 rhythm. I’m staying up to ungodly hours, drinking (which is something I seldom do), and laughing… a lot. To be fair, this would be a nice way to live every day. Today I took in my second headliner (Wanda Sykes) as well as an improv show (Paul F. Tompkins and Marc Evan Jackson).
Settling into our seats at the Sony Centre (literally one row and two seats over from my seats from the night before) we readied ourselves for what we were sure was going to be a great night and were not disappointed. The audience off the bat was high energy and excited to see Wanda. Security meanwhile were also very excited to make sure everyone’s cell phones were put away. Many headliner acts (especially ones with a special on the way) do not allow photography, this was the case here and security were buzzing about the entire show checking that there were no phones out.
Shortly after seven Keith Robinson took to the stage to warm the crowd up for Wanda. Keith is someone worthy of a headlining gig himself. A prolific New York comic who’s appeared in movies like Trainwreck and Diary of a Tired Black Man on TV on Wanda’s The Wanda Sykes Show and The Chelsea Lately Show as well as on the podcast Amy Schumer Presents: 3 Girls, 1 Keith which are all only a few of his prolific credits.
Keith was hot out of the gate with material about race, the NFL player protest controversy, Trump, modern policing and the power of mothers. He brought a joyous and bold energy to the stage and his observational comedy was punctuated by cringe inducing comedy moments especially when it came to discussing his health and the stroke he experienced in 2016. He dominated the stage, made the audience roar with laughter and easily could have took an hour up there to himself but as a long-time colleague of Wanda’s he was simply there to make sure the audience was ready for her. Bowing out he left the stage for Wanda to take over the primed and ready audience.
Wanda has a prolific career from The Chris Rock Show through to the Curb Your Enthusiasm. Film roles from Monster-In-Law to Ice Age: Collision Course and four albums, multiple specials and 21 years of writing experience. She even took a turn at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner (it appears to be the unifying theme on the headliners I saw this year).
The lion’s share of Wanda’s set was dedicated to the Trump presidency and the hypocrisy and lunacy that surrounds it. Nothing was off limits from his sexual partners to his epic lack of empathy and latent guilt that Republicans must be experiencing over his election. Her material did not exclusively focus on the President (though I’m sure she could have easily filled an hour discussing him) but also touched on the #MeToo movement and the attendant contradictions in pop culture, her own experiences and the current political situation around those forces. Setting aside the political though she took time to discuss her family, her experience growing up versus those of her children and the realities of being a woman who is aging. The set was at once a fiery political engagement that encouraged people to action while also a personal recounting of one person’s experience with life and family. It was a joy to watch someone so in command of the stage and I couldn’t have asked for a better evening of stand-up.
Hustling out of the Sony Centre we made our way to the Winter Garden theatre to see Paul F. Tompkins and Marc Evan Jackson perform improv. The Elgin and Winter Garden are two full theatres stacked one atop another with the Winter Garden being the upper floors of the building. The Winter Garden is substituting for the Queen Elizabeth Theatre caught up in the ongoing labour dispute and lockout initiated by the Exhibition Board of Governors in their attempt to interfere with union jobs (honestly, it’s a venue I hope that JFL42 stays with as it is infinitely more convenient to make my way there than to the Exhibition grounds and allows for people to jump from headliners at the Sony Centre to other acts at the Winter Garden much more readily). While the Winter Garden feels smaller it in fact has a higher capacity (1,410 seats) compared to the Queen Elizabeth Theatre (1,250 seats). That said, a big portion of those seats are on a balcony with wrap around boxes. Getting to the theatre requires quite the hike so if you don’t like stairs be sure to get there early to get a good seat and if you require assistance with accessibility you will want to allow for extra time.
Settling into our balcony seats we had a great view of the stage and I was quite excited, a long-time fan of Paul F. Tompkins online material I could not wait to see him perform improv life and in the moment. After a short wait sartorial perfectionist Paul and his partner accomplished actor and improviser Marc Evan Jackson took the stage (in black tie because… of course they were in black tie).
Paul F. Tompkins is a comedy veteran having worked on the legendary sketch comedy program Mr. Show, Best Week Ever, BoJack Horseman and many more television programs. He has multiple film credits like There Will Be Blood and Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny with fellow Mr. Show alum Jack Black. All of this and much more atop his work with sketch troupe Super Ego and a litany of podcasts produced by himself, in conjunction with collaborators and friends like Lauren Lapkus and Scott Aukerman plus many MANY other podcast appearances, many of these featuring his stunning improvisational skills.
Accompanying him is an equally accomplished actor, comedian and improviser Marc Evan Jackson. A Second City alum who has been part of Thrilling Adventure Hour not to mention Comedy Bang Bang, Superego, Paul F. Tompkins’ Spontaneanation with Paul F. Tompkins and many more podcasts. This all serves as an appetizer to an active film and television career going back to 2000 including highlights like 22 Jump Street, King: Skull Island, Kroll Show, Parks and Recreation, The Good Place and Brooklyn 99! This doesn’t even scratch the surface of his credits and having listened to him improvise on many occasions on Spontaneanation I knew I was in for a treat.
The show got off to a gentle start with Marc and Paul engaging the audience in some light banter building up rapport with the audience and warming them up for the oncoming improvisation. We got to learn about Marc’s love of Baseball and foul ball fever as well as well as Paul’s seemingly inexhaustible urge to tease people (and the infectious laugh that goes along with it). After setting the audience at ease they asked for a one-word suggestion from the audience of something that makes them feel good. Many of the suggestions coming from the audience were the types of grist for the improv mill that you get at most improv shows like sex and cake vs. pie (likely an attempt to get Paul to brush off the Cake Boss impersonation he has done many times before in podcasts). Interestingly though, they took the much more abstract concept of honesty as the grounds to build out their improv set.
I wont go into the blow by blow of each bit as there is no way to do the work justice here but watching them move from a hippy trying to sell a car to a dad so he can give it to his daughter to a man parking a car and a stranger telling him were to and not to park through a host of interconnected bits that all loop back around to the man parking his car and the initial attempt at the sale was a thing of beauty. These are two improvisers who are comfortable with each other and able to telegraph their intent to one another in a way that’s not immediately obvious to the audience but cues the other to which direction they would like to go. Watching, the entire show went so smoothly I would have easily believed it to be a polished sketch.
What really made it shine for me was the little moments, gentle asides and easy call backs that referenced their initial setup conversation or moments two or three bits back where they will seamlessly touch on funny moments earlier in the performance. One in particular, a moment between a groom (who later turns out to be the man who was so possessive of a parking spot) and his best man, about the nature of a “good sigh” felt like it could have been lifted from an episode of The Good Place. These are little character ticks that define these characters created in the moment and make them unique from the characters that come before or after and really allows the comedy to shine.
This evening was made up of comedy extremes which is part of why I love JFL42 so much. It started with performances by two incredibly commanding performers which were intensely polished and highly personal explorations of politics, race and mortality. It ended with irreverent joy created in the moment and relying on two performers being completely at ease with their audience and totally trusting in one another’s ability to not just yes and but have their back on a bit. Both were very different experiences but both were equally a joy to behold.