Weird Scenes Inside the Joke Mine

Austin Comics at the Montreal Comedy Fest

by Robert Faires

Two hundred comics walk into a bar.... It sounds like the opening line to a joke (and it probably is one), but in Montreal every July, it actually happens. That's when funny people from across the globe flood the Canadian city to attend the "Just for Laughs" Comedy Festival, a huge celebration of humor spanning 12 days, with hundreds of performers from a dozen countries. Imagine a South by Southwest for comedy: packed shows featuring every kind of stand-up artist and comedian there is, with agents, corporate execs, comedy stars, and wannabes catching the buzz, cutting deals, looking for the next big jokester.

It can rocket a comic's career to a new level. Just ask Austin comic Tom Hester, who has seen his friends Thea Vidale and Brett Butler get big breaks through the festival, or Johnny Hardwick, who, with Hester, was one of two local comics to perform at "Just for Laughs" this year. As a result of getting in the festival, Hardwick signed a development deal with New World Entertainment. Says Hardwick, "You can do more for yourself in eight minutes there than you can do in eight years other places."

Getting there isn't easy. A year before the event, Hester and Hardwick began sending videotapes of their acts to festival officials. Both had to submit multiple tapes, each one with specific kinds of material on it, to see if they could be slotted in one of the fest's theme showcases: gay comics, relationship comics, blue comics, alternative comics. There was a live audition at The Laff Stop in November, and for Hester, a final audition - the worst - that required him to do his act over the phone. Talk about a tough house.

But it's indicative of how strange it gets when comedy and commerce cross. The Austin comics describe the experience as a long, surreal whirl, show-biz movers and shakers (who are as likely to pay you for not doing work as doing it) close-dancing with joke biz shovers and mockers (whose job, after all, is to bite the hands that feed them). "It's a wild ride," says Hardwick. "I was there five days and slept maybe 10 hours. There's just too much shit going on. It's an absolute nonstop schmooze-fest. But it's not like Hollywood gross schmoozing. And it's not a competiton; everybody is appreciating what everybody else is doing. And everybody is happy that they're there." Adds Hester, "You realize it's the same hundred people going to all these parties. By the end of the week, you felt like one big class."

Both comics were originally scheduled to do two shows apiece. Hester's gigs went as planned. He did one in a 40-seat club, which let him test his material on the locals. Then, he helped end the festival in the "Queer Comics" show in Club Soda, a 500-seat venue which was jammed with 700 people for each of the two shows. Hester performed next to last, a spot that gave him five minutes more time than most comics. "And I used that five minutes," beams Hester. "I had one of the best sets I've ever had. I think I'd been pumped for that show for two weeks. I was ready to do that show."

Hardwick's schedule... evolved. He did a show at Club Soda, then was set to do "New Faces" at The Comedy Nest, but as soon as he inked the deal with New World - the deal he had gotten by being on the "New Faces" bill (see sidebar) - he could no longer be a "New Face." He was yanked from that show and thrust into one for "high-profile" comics. He also worked his way into the late-night, alternative show, "Danger Zone," helped out in a seminar on "hack comics," and was tapped to open for Stephen Wright in the fest closer at the 2,400-seat St. Denis Theatre. "The day before, they asked me to open the show," he says. "It was like a progression: doing a set, then hanging back, then being asked to do another set and hanging back, then being asked to do another set."

Both comics felt encouraged to do alternative comedy: "There's this commercialization of comedy that's been big the last few years," notes Hardwick, "comedy as a product, and what they were looking for this year was the anti-product, original stuff, not the same old schtick. That's why it worked so well for Tom and me: What we've been working on for four years here is an alternative to the kind of Tim Allen, homogenized, sitcom kind of material."

Beyond the work were the little incidents that perfectly characterize a convocation of comics: Hester and Rich Hall [the Sniglets guy] convincing a young woman they were musicians. "We told her I was the half-white, half-Hispanic Stevie Ray Vaughan." When they offered her comp tickets to the comedy festival, she told them, "I hate comedians. They think they're so funny. They're always trying to trick people."

Or Hardwick taking cabs with a group of Brits to Mont Royal. "Everybody's got credit cards, they're putting everything on expense accounts, so we're partying all night, then going to the top of this hill to watch the sun come up. The real lesson I learned is the people who really know how to have fun are the people who aren't Americans."

Or Hardwick, Hester, and three friends - Britons Alan Davies and Phil Kay and Austinite and Esther's alum Cass Vizard - getting stuck in an elevator at 3am. While waiting for firemen to pry them out, Hester reports, Hardwick and the Brits did improv "at the top of their lungs," concocting a sitcom idea called "Hellevator." Hardwick was so into the improv, Hester says, "that when the fireman came to pull him out, he was in the middle of a joke and he made the fireman wait while he finished the joke."

Or when Hester was leaving Canada. "I'm at the airport," he says, "and this guy at the counter asks for my passport and birth certificate. I said, `I don't have them. I have tax documents and my green card. I was told that was all I needed to enter Canada.' And he says, `That's all you need to enter Canada, but I work for the United States, and to enter it, I need your passport or birth certificate.' My plane was leaving. I said, `Oh man, I don't know what I'm gonna do. I don't have them.' Then he said, `I'm just messing with you. I could see you were one of the comics; you have your tag on.'"

Everybody's a comic. n

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