Just for the Culture review laughs festival

Jessica Kirson, Zainab Johnson and Yannis Pappas

Just for the Culture (fka The Ethnic Show) is absolutely phenomenal: REVIEW

“An hour and a half of wide-ranging, often rapid-fire humour that had me doubled over in laughter nearly without pause. Do whatever you can to get tickets and thank me later.”

Starting off a comedy show by acknowledging we’re all squatting on unceded Indigenous territory is a bold move. 

Indigenous land acknowledgements are serious statements that invite sober, often somber, reflection. I’m all in favour of them, I just don’t think I had ever heard one in advance of a comedy showcase before. It was interesting to watch a full house at Club Soda, one that was boisterous and eagerly anticipating the show — or the return to normality that such might signify — rather suddenly shut up and consider the long dark shadow of settler colonialism (if only for a moment). I hope Just for Laughs keeps it up because it feels like the right thing to do, though I worried that the acknowledgement might only be made at this particular show, what with it being just for the culture. I guess we’ll see how far this goes.

Just for the Culture is the new name for The Ethnic Show, one of Just for Laugh’s many successful and long-running annual showcases. Though the rebrand is well-considered (the more I say The Ethnic Show, the more dated it sounds), I’m not sure changing the name alone is really what’s needed here. There’s nothing wrong with having a showcase of comedians who are going to specialize in foregrounding, or comparing and contrasting cultural distinctions per se, but the premise seems to invite the comedians themselves to occasionally fall back on lazy stereotypes. At times, and to be really specific I’d say rarely, it felt a little like two steps forward, one step back.

That said, much of what was best received by the audience tended to not be over-focused on the idiosyncrasies of specific cultures at all: some of the funniest jokes had either absolutely nothing to do with the comedian’s culture whatsoever, or were universally relatable. Jokes about Lebanese, Jewish and Greek parents seemed interchangeable.

I think this is fundamentally a good thing, but it makes me wonder how much longer Just for the Culture will make any sense as a distinct programming block. It’s a bit of a catch-22 for JFL programmers and producers, because despite their best intentions to broaden the audience’s horizons (which was very much the purpose of the original Ethnic Show as much as it is Just for the Culture) they can really only go so far as cultures that North Americans are familiar with, and comedians who primarily (if not exclusively) work in English. I would personally be very interested in a show in which East Asian, South American and/or African comedians could explain what’s funny in their respective cultures, or point out the different ways in which jokes might be constructed, but I think I just described a graduate level course in comparative ethnography.

Now, after that whole spiel, this message is much simpler: go see Just for the Culture.

It was an absolutely phenomenal hour and a half of wide-ranging, often rapid-fire humour that had me doubled over in laughter nearly without pause. I want to make it very clear, and irrespective of my aforementioned philosophical musings above, that it was a great show and I highly recommend you go see it for yourselves. You won’t be disappointed. 

Host Alonzo Bodden had a unique take on the festival’s prohibition on recording devices that also took aim at our societal ADD: “We’ve been living on screens for two fucking years. PUT IT AWAY!”

Sheng Wang was first up and seemed to be channelling Mitch Hedberg with a slow-paced and often deadpan delivery focused on his refreshingly unique and atypical worldview. His bit about signing up for a rectal exam to make sure he got his annual health insurance deductible’s worth was priceless. Themes of Millennial ‘fancy poverty’ permeated throughout, such as his begrudging acknowledgement he doesn’t yet make fancy juice money, and that his acquisition of a juicer to save money and live more healthily constituted a ‘top of the line mistake.’ I also appreciated his observation on organic produce: “You know it’s natural because it’s dirty.” 

Next up was Paul Rabliauskas, who struck me as a slightly nervous latter day version of Sam Kinison. He was a tightly wound ball of pure energy, though you could tell (and I think he admitted as well), that this was the biggest crowd he’d ever played for. Opening night jitters aside, he found his stride, though he was often so hyper he didn’t give the audience much time to digest what he was saying. The best joke from his set was about shit talking with other video game players, some of whom were evidently young white boys living in relative privilege: “You ever talk to a white kid who’s never felt guilt before? You can’t roast him!”

Dave Merheje will have his own one-hour show and is also to be featured in several other JFL galas and programs, and that’s good news because his set was razor sharp and got some of the first really big laughs of the night. Much of his material focused on growing up with Lebanese parents and their incredulity with the amount of time North Americans spend thinking about their feelings. A comment the young Merheje made to his father about his feelings prompted a response I’m almost certain I heard from my own father once upon a time: “How are you seven with emotions?” And on the subject of revealing to your Lebanese parents that you’re seeing a therapist: “She’s probably white, and she’s going to turn you against the family.” Best line from Merheje’s set was a memory from his pubescent years, walking past his mother in the kitchen who calls out to him, apropos of nothing: “Jesus will choke you in your sleep if you masturbate!”

Alonzo Bodden’s sharp analysis of contemporary U.S. politics and society were very well received, and I’d pay to watch him do a full hour. Among his many kernels of wisdom: “white supremacists are without fail the least supreme white people”, “the U.S. is the number one reality show in Canada,” and my personal favourite, in reference to awful U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and his equally horrible wife, Ginny, “If you’re a Black man married to a white woman who says black lives don’t matter, you lack supreme judgement.”

Zainab Johnson was a last-minute replacement added to the Just for the Culture bill, and I’m glad she was because, let’s face it, our society has some pretty weird preconceived notions of what a Muslim woman is, or how they’re supposed to be (all hyper negative stereotypes that wind up getting reinforced even by ostensibly well-intentioned or well-meaning aspects of the mainstream media), and it was truly wonderful to see Zainab break those walls down with a sledgehammer. She exuded confidence and seemed to be the most in control of both her own timing and setting up the audience. Commenting on her strict upbringing, and her parents’ refusal to let her or her siblings have candy, she observed that this was illogical, and that children should be given a lot of candy because “No one’s kidnapping an obese child.” On the subject of being 1 of 13 children (to which the audience reacted by moaning in unison), Zainab replied, “That’s what my mom’s vagina says.”

I was waiting for one of the comics to start up about our culture here in Montreal, and Yannis Pappas jumped headlong into it, with a rant against Bill 96 that pleased everyone. Some of his material about Montreal and Quebec and language laws (and blah blah blah) felt a little tired but his delivery and timing were so perfect, I didn’t really mind we were covering well-worn terrain. The observation that Quebec isn’t like real France, but more like Vegas, was pretty good. The joke about French people being lazy, and that maybe it’s time we all got back to work and finished our city (because it’s still under construction) could have been made 40 years ago and have been just as relevant. I wish Mathieu Bock-Côté would have been there as I’ve always wanted to see a rage induced cranial explosion. 

Closing out the show was Jessica Kirson and, quite frankly, it would be worth the full price of admission just to see her one set. It’s that good. She got a standing ovation and deserved every bit of it. Her impression of the elderly audiences she performs for in Florida, or of an elderly Jewish couple having sex (she says to him, “I hate your penis, I hate that it curves to the right, oh I forgot to go to the market, chicken’s on sale right now”) was a perfect blend of societal self-deprecation, absurdity and a likely accurate depiction of what love-making is like after 40 years of marriage. The whole bit (and attempting to summarize it here would be an immense injustice to the artist) was some of the most solidly, uncompromisingly funny material I have seen in years. 

And then Kirson one-upped herself. Her rapid-fire impression of a teen girl whose brain has been rewired by constant social media use was both frighteningly accurate and hysterically funny. Again, and without hyperbole, the whole cost of admission is worth it just for the last five minutes of Kirson’s set. It’s the kind of bit that’s so funny you might have trouble breathing afterwards. Do whatever you can to get tickets and thank me later. ■

Just for the Culture continues its run at Club Soda (1225 St-Laurent) from July 20–28, 7 p.m., with additional 9:30 p.m. shows July 21–23, $63.24

For more Montreal comedy coverage, please visit the Arts & Life section.