He Who Doesn’t Laugh Laughs Least

I might have mentioned a couple of times that I spent most of my twenties as a full time rock critic/photographer for a daily paper in Toronto, a youth that would have been better invested in a good law school rather than wasted on such a frivolous pursuit. But I was having too much fun until I wasn’t and, with some encouragement from my editors, I pulled the plug when I was twenty nine based on my own personal belief that thirty is the cut off age for the three chord lifestyle which requires one to truly live it short of an intravenous dependency..

I share this backstory with you because this space has, sporadically in its lifetime, been given to some criticism whether it be movies, books or television I have watched or read. Let’s call it flexing some intellectual muscle memory. Or maybe it’s just congenital dissatisfaction. Mostly with myself. Lately, however, I feel I have been suffering from a hybrid malaise of old age and the realization that perhaps I have been over entertained over the decades and am therefore numb to the possibility of the joy that comes with an uplifting cultural experience. Most of the TV I watch ranges from disappointing (Succession just rolls the same storyline every three episodes) to downright execrable (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel ran about three seasons too long and don’t get me started). I don’t go to movies much. Even though I enjoy the odd Tommy Cruise effort, nothing has reached me since Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood, admittedly mostly for the way it gave yuppies a fantasy flashback to their childhood theatrical and television experiences. BTW, the accompanying novelization by Tarantino was terrific.

All this came to light to me last month after a trip to Montreal to do some business and take in a couple of nights at the long-running comedy institution Just For Laughs. I have been attending the festival for most of the past twenty plus years, taking an extended break for several years through the pandemic and resuming my attendance last year. I will preface my remarks by saying that everybody at JFL from President Bruce Hills down have been terrific partners on a few DVD ventures and fabulous supporters when I had a comedy film I needed to showcase at the festival, now a truly global entity. Last year, thanks to them, I had front row seats to see John Mullaney’s somewhat funny chronicle of his time in rehab and got in a few minutes of the very smart Sklar Brothers who are in their 50s and, wait for it, relatable in their late middle age Jewishness. All in all, good.

This year, I stretched it by picking up tickets to two one-woman shows by Ali Wong and Jessica Kirson plus one of JFL’s taped-for-TV galas hosted by Russell Peters. None of it was free so my companion and I had to be pumped. Sadly, however, there was very little to laugh about. For us, specifically. As to the general audience, this was the funniest material they’d ever heard. Or at least the standing ovations indicated that. But not for me. It reminded me of several first dates I have had with women to whom I had so little attraction I left questioning my own sexuality. I recall a routine by the ‘Lord God King Of It All’, Dennis Miller who used to joke in that terrific sneer of his, “Yeah, I just got back from the south. Played a club called I Don’t Get It.”

Because I didn’t. Wong, for a start, is a wildly successful standup act with several streaming specials under her belt and now a hittish Netflix show called Beef. She is the biggest Asian standup act since Johnny Yune (“Haro”) and will quickly tell you that she is a millionaire. Probably in multiples. And she threw this out there in a 45-minute set documenting her sex life since her divorce last year. Essentially it was an endless recollection of her getting “dicked down” by a rotation of three-week lovers who she tosses aside like Nespresso grinds. No beginning, no middle, no end as she left the stage in sweats with the $300K I calculated she was taking home for the two nights.

The next night we were kind of psyched for a doubleheader starting with a club show featuring Jessica Kirson, a distaff version of Don Rickles in terms of ethnic energy, who I have been following for ten years since I first saw her at a JFL Jewish Show which I helped program. A lot of fun especially if you had a grandmother in South Florida. And I had seen her at the Comedy Cellar after that in a short set that killed. She killed at Club Soda but with an act that was just about as raunchy as Wong’s, stooping to conquer with graphic impressions of her grandparents having sex and more. She was short on material and ‘worked the house’ for several minutes, even saying at one point, “My career is exploding. I don’t need this.” Again, the audience went nuts while my party of four alta kachers kind of grimaced. I read somewhere that Rita Rudner made $150 million over the course of her long running Vegas residency for working clean. And smart. She has my respect. For a lot of reasons. 

The last show featured Peters fronting a roster of unknowns who will hopefully stay that way. This was ‘woke comedy’ at its most triggered save for Peters’ decent riffing (“You have a son?….well, for now.”). The only person on stage wearing a skirt was a guy. The women were mostly deadpan nasty if I were to generalize, one of whom ‘joked’ that a fetus isn’t fully developed even at five years and therefore can be aborted then. Hilarious. Another thought it would be cool to give the audience the finger as she walked on and off stage. The dude in the dress had to be introduced as “trans” because we couldn’t figure that out. He laughed while bragging that he freely uses both bathrooms. Finally, an act that goes down the toilet both literally and figuratively. 

Interesting that in Christopher Hitchens’ landmark 2007 Vanity Fair essay Why Women Aren’t Funny, he specifically wrote that women stay away from the “filth” that provides the lion’s share of the “laughs” male comics reap from their stage time. Yet, as evidenced by the above headliners’ graphic blow job and copulation simulations and their use of near “rapey” language that would be way out of bounds for any male comic, we find the roles flipped in just a decade or so. Blame Amy Schumer if you will but the scant few male comics I saw were kind of wussified and obsessed with their own inability to handle life. On the other hand Wong and Kirson, among others, are producing material that is a standup’s version of Only Fans. You paid your money and now we’ll expose ourselves. For better or worse. 

Yeah, long gone are the days when you could walk into JFL and see a club set from Maniscalco or Burr or Chappell. Maybe a free concert by one Weird Alan Yankovic. Actual entertainment. Programming JFL these days must be a tough sled and my take is that the festival is now booked with extreme attention to inclusivity. Finally, I am not going to name names in the gala lineup that was no more funny than an Open Mic Night at a Chucklehead’s in Cincinnati. The audience was an average of twenty five years my junior which makes what I have to say ultimately irrelevant. Wong, Kirson or the rest didn’t go out there with a crotchety 69 year-old as their target audience. So while I could channel my outrage by trashing these acts down to their home insurance policies, there’s no point. Nobody cares what I have to say and internet criticism is unvetted and cheap. That is as far as I’ll flex because even though the ‘gala’ crowd was egged on by the floor manager to laugh extremely loud for the sound truck, the overall impression was that they left satisfied…at a $100 a ticket!

As for the future, having been a fan of standup comedy since my father, thankfully, made us watch Alan King on the Ed Sullivan Show sixty years ago and having seen the comedy titans of my era – David, Lewis, Kaufman, Belzer, Brenner – work up their acts at The Improv and Catch A Rising Star in New York way back in the mid-70s (Thank you for the tables, Marjorie) I have surmised that I don’t need to attend Just For Laughs any more. My friends and I will survive on the echoes of hilarity we were blessed with forty and fifty years ago. As it was with Disney World, I’m old enough to understand that these days, the joke is on me.

  1. As the alta kaker that sat with you at jfl kirson i couldnt agree with you more jonathan. I look forward to golf and giggles over dinner instead of jfl. Hugs zuck

  2. Comedy used to require a certain depth of knowledge and waSnt necessarily easy to follow. TODAY WHAT PASSES FOR COMEDY IS VULGAR, INANE AND A RACE TO sEE WHO CAN EMPLOY THE MOST OFFENSIVE LANGUAGE IN THE SHORTEST PERIOD OF TIME. how droll

  3. Can’t believe I would ever agree with you on anything but I shall step down from my ivory tower for a few seconds and express my full agreement with you. Hope my politeness aint shocked you you dear heart!

  4. Your observations of the world around you as well as the review, heartens me. No, I’m not at all blind to how disappointed you are with both. Time keeps ticking, age moves forward with increasing speed, and comedy is better defined as “My life most recent past week as told by Bob Guccione”.

    I’m heartened by references to; “wokism”, crowds of people who have no understanding of the “Good Life”, and tenacity to speak truth potentially to power.

    I’m heartened that this was written and maybe more so that it hasn’t resulted in a cancellation which over the last 5 or so years would have been immediate.

    You Go, Man, Go!

  5. ah Jonathon Gross. I remember you well. 80’s. Fiesta, Edge, Etc. You used to pop by and hang out at my apt on Maitland. Believe you had a small crush on my room mate at the time, Tricia. In any event, I am not sure how I stumbled upon your page but it was a pleasure to read. The world certainly is not as it was when we were in our 20’s. I understand exactly what you are experiencing and the past few years have enjoyed hanging out with my Partner of 35+ years and our big furry dog, then most people! I no longer understand how people outside of my smaller group view life, politics, humour. I walked away from a great many I knew decades ago. More so in the 90s with the increasing anti israel politics. it just became worse from there! LOL. People, used to love them. Then I wisened up. lol. Good memories of you even if it WEREN’T me you were coming to see! 🙂 I will enjoy reading more on your pages now! (this post will only type in capitals-sorry if it comes out that way! cheers!!

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