The Nasty Show 2023 review

What is the purpose of The Nasty Show in 2023?

“I want a Nasty Show that runs a genuine risk of being hit with public obscenity charges. I want Chris Rock, Bernie Mac and Tracy Morgan in the ’90s levels of nasty. I want ribald, crass and bawdy, but clever. And while there was certainly some of it this year, it was all too often inconsistent.”

I’m not sure what the point of the Nasty Show is anymore.

In a recent conversation with an elderly relative, they related that, many years ago, one of their work colleagues — a fairly straight-laced, middle-aged, suburbanite mom with a government job — was so shocked and appalled by The Nasty Show that she got up halfway through and walked out.

Not because it was bad or unfunny, but, as this relative emphasized, because it was nasty. Real nasty.

Without knowing the exact content or context of this apocryphal performance, based on the reaction alone I would call this a roaring success. A good Nasty Show should send the bridge and tunnel crowd fleeing for the hills. I would almost want to propose an upper age limit, though I don’t think that would solve our problem.

I’m torn. Do we need a Nasty Show anymore? Has the concept run its course? Or is the problem that Just for Laughs’ producers need a clearer idea of what The Nasty Show needs to be, or how it should evolve? It’s been a feature of the festival since 1986 at least, meaning it’s been around since practically the beginning. Comedy has changed considerably — perhaps even unalterably — in the last four decades.

I recognize that this isn’t fundamentally any different from my criticisms of last year’s Nasty Show, but I stand by them: I think the concept needs a retool. On the one hand, the base line of acceptable humour these days covers a much wider range than what might have been acceptable in the standup acts of 30 years ago. It’s worth considering that what constituted ‘nasty’ as recently as 20 years ago might simply have been nothing more than a woman discussing her period. Evidently, times have changed, but it doesn’t seem like The Nasty Show has. 

It’s a strange, paradoxical situation. On the one hand, some subjects that might have been very taboo not too long ago don’t seem quite so risqué anymore, and their inclusion in a Nasty Show seems out of place. On the other hand, we’re living in a weird Golden Age of self-censorship and language- and thought- policing. An explicitly un-PC show might be considerably more shocking in this era than graphic depictions of sex, as an example.

This is not to say that The Nasty Show isn’t worth seeing, but rather to manage your expectations. Consider as well that I saw the ‘media night’ preview, which may have been modified somewhat to suit the presumed tastes of the audience. It is an opportunity to see several comedians, and thus is basically a fairly typical gala. So if you want to see several comedians for about half the cost of a gala show, this is a fine option.

It just might not be nasty, per se.

Perhaps I’m the problem, so let me describe what I think the show ought to be. I want 2 Live Crew levels of nasty. I want a Nasty Show that runs a genuine risk of being hit with public obscenity charges. I want Chris Rock, Bernie Mac and Tracy Morgan in the ’90s levels of nasty. I want gross, but clever. I want ribald, crass, bawdy, but so much more so if I actually have to think about it. There was certainly some of it, but it was all too often inconsistent.

To begin with, it was a pleasure to see Mike Ward, especially after he was vindicated by the Supreme Court. As a free speech absolutist, watching a comedian who won a supreme court victory over an individual who sought damages for having their feelings hurt felt almost like a personal accomplishment. From the crowd’s cheering I would guess I’m not alone (and just to be perfectly clear, I’m a progressive free speech advocate and hate speech is, for very good reasons, a crime… unlike conservative free speech warriors who spend all their time hypocritically policing the language and ideas they don’t like while spreading hate and disinformation and wanting that to be considered protected speech, but I digress). 

Ward spent much of his time reflecting on the court case and the fact that there were not one, but two employees of the Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse (the organization that had originally determined he had to pay damages to the off-key-singing exploited child he made fun of) who were recently determined to have committed pedophilic sexual assaults. One of those two men was ordered to pay $50,000 for a sexual assault committed on a child. The commission had originally ordered Ward to pay a $42,000 fine. After a long walk, the punchline: “For just $8,000 more dollars I could have fucked that kid!”

To me, this is on target. There was a solid setup, the audience was led along by Ward — who mostly focused on the ethics of his court case and comparing how he was treated with the relative slap on the wrist handed out by our justice system to two men who admitted to child rape — and then after so much misdirection, Ward makes a joke about raping the person who caused him all this grief in the first place. It’s funny for several different reasons, not least of which that it’s self-referential and, in a really strange way, people are almost more offended by the prospect of rape than murder (which is the joke that got Mike Ward in trouble initially). Far more significant than the content, in this case, is the misdirection and the absurdity of the punchline. It’s a joke that wouldn’t have been out of place in a Jimmy Carr set, or even an episode of 8 out of 10 Cats Does Countdown.

What is the purpose of The Nasty Show in 2023?

Unfortunately, it seems that Mike Ward had the highbrow content of the show. The first comic up was Steph Tolev, who seemed to be channelling Sam Kinison in terms of stage presence and energy levels. Great. Her crowd work was also on point. Even better. But when it came to actual content of her set, it was sophomoric. There were too many fart jokes, and on the whole immature. Nasty without cleverness.

Geoffrey Asmus was better, including his observations that the quicker one comes, the straighter they are, and his rhetorical question about whether children aren’t the target demographic of child porn. He also managed to fire off two 9/11 jokes (this is actually a recurring theme of this year’s Just for Laughs: 9/11 can be funny now) and then made some excellent observations about abortion and abortion jokes, including “they’re just abortion jokes. Grow up! They can’t.” Another excellent line was, ‘you never hear Syrian gas attack victims talk about their pronouns’. I liked Asmus a lot, though I got the feeling he wasn’t straying too far from off-kilter dark humour that might make up much of his cannon. So be it, still funny and a solid routine.

Dino Archie followed with another excellent routine. It was really funny and he’s an excellent up and coming (no pun intended) comedian, but his set wasn’t nasty in any discernible way. His routine about how white women dropped the term ‘gas lighting’ last year like it was their new single, and how ‘gas-lighting was like lying but with a little arugula on top’ were well received.

Adrienne Iapalucci would have been phenomenally well-cast had it been called The Dark Comedy Show or something along those lines, but her set, much like Archie’s, was well-conceived and funny, albeit without really being nasty in any way, shape or form. I couldn’t tell if she was uncomfortable with the concept, or if she had to retool a lot of her material, but it didn’t quite come together, even though some of her observations were well-received. One line in particular — about how she doesn’t understand why any transgendered person would get upset over the wrong pronouns (because if ever there was a group of people who understand that mistakes happen) — earned a weird and unnecessary groan from the audience. It was a clever and benign joke and it certainly wasn’t any kind of cheap shot at transgendered people, so I was surprised the joke didn’t land. It was almost as though the audience wasn’t quite paying attention, heard the word ‘trans’ and then decided they didn’t like what was coming next.

My guess is that the crowd, which definitely wasn’t young, had been up past their bedtimes and were starting to get a little fussy. The table next to us was basically running their mouths the whole time and were very drunk. There’s nothing inherently wrong with going to a comedy club and having a lot to drink, but it was that they were seemingly trying to compete with the comedians and also trying to encourage them simultaneously that made for a subpar experience. (And a note to JFL: You’re paying good money for a lot of ushers and security people. Rather than have them playing musical chairs with reserved tables, maybe ask them to tell people to shut up once in while. That would have been more useful.)

Donnell Rawlings closed the show and seemed to have a better idea of what the Nasty Show was supposed to be, though he spent a little too much time dissecting “Wet Ass Pussy.” I enjoyed it, but I could tell at least half the audience thought Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B were prizewinning thoroughbreds. Rawlings was nonetheless the right person to close out the show, seemingly channelling the raunchy strip club comedians of the 1960s and ’70s. His Taylor Swift sing-a-long routine was also well worth it.

All that to say, yes, go see The Nasty Show, you’ll probably have a great time. Don’t bring your parents because they’re probably already interested in seeing it, and manage your expectations. The Nasty Show may have run its course. Given we live in disturbing times, it wouldn’t surprise me if the audience’s tolerance now far exceeds what the world’s leading comedy festival is able, or willing, to tolerate.

The Nasty Show continues nightly at Club Soda through Wednesday, July 26, 9:30 p.m., $58.50

For more Montreal comedy coverage, please visit the Comedy section.