Being funny is not easy. Being funny when people expect you to make them laugh is even harder. Fortunately for us, Montreal attracts humble masters of the art of comedy: Performers who know how to perfectly create humor through the juxtaposition of injury and cheer, but who do not pretend to be superior in their ability to make people laugh. The jokes at this year’s Sketchfest were never used to divide or rank, but instead worked as a unifying force by focusing on emotions and universal experiences.
The festival–which ran from May 4 to 13–perfectly captured everything that makes Montreal so unique: Everything from its bilingualism to its charismatic bars and cafes and its friendly, easy-going, and good-humoured people. The show’s venue, Theatre Sainte-Catherine, doubles as a coffee shop and bar, giving it the perfect laid-back vibe for an evening of comedy. The sketches were diverse in style and yet universal in the experiences they evoked.
Montreal comedy has a reputation for being too centered on local issues, in part due to the distinctiveness of this North American city. When comparing the comedy scene in Toronto to that of Montreal on the podcast, Laughmatic, host Mo Arora argued that Montrealers love to talk about Montreal much more than Torontonians like to talk about Toronto. On the contrary, however, no one at Sketchfest, not even local artists, dabbled in controversial topics like language laws or student protests.
Instead, the sketches dealt with a wide variety of subject matter. The first troupe of the evening, Ape Island, performed a sketch about a couple on a date night, when the girlfriend decides to spice things up with a sexy board game from Costco. The game turns out to be very awkward and not at all sexy. While the storyline in itself was pretty funny, the real laughter stemmed from the acting. These comedians were very convincing and great at conveying absurd confusion as they rolled the “sexy dice” which landed on “touch your partner’s face for three minutes”.
Another standout troupe, Flo & Joan, turned to music to create humor. The two British sisters from Toronto perform comedy songs which seemed to give them freedom to talk about anything–from boyfriends, to bees, to British folk music. They started three years ago when both were out of a job and realized that they had nothing to lose.
“If we are not any good, we don’t know anyone in Toronto so we can always go back to England and no one has to know we tried this,” joked older sister Nicola Dempsey.
Nicola played the piano and both sisters sang. The Dempseys kept perfect composure and a smile while blurting out complex lyrics at the speed of light. Their biggest inspiration is Victoria Wood—an English comedian who wrote and starred in sketches and composed many songs that she performed on piano. Much of her humor was grounded in everyday life and included references to quintessentially “British” activities. Flo & Joan’s songs were not about British life, but more about the universal experience of being a woman, with all its burdens and inexplicable complications.
While some of the artists, like Nicola Dempsey, studied theatre and music in college, this is not necessarily the case for all comedians. Another performer, Kevin Shustack–member of the sketch troupe Cousins–studied math and statistics at McGill before dedicating himself to comedy full-time. He then studied sketch comedy writing at The Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in New York. For Kevin, performing in comedy shows is a contagious thrill.
“With a lot of people who end up pursuing comedy, they kind of catch the bug and just love being on stage and that feeling of when a joke lands…there’s nothing better,” Shustack explained.
Shustack performed that night with Cousins, and also does stand up and writes for the Teletoon show Toonmart Marty.
Laugher is a powerful tool to unite people, but it is not used enough to unite strangers. Today, with the internet and social media, we often laugh in isolation. The Montreal Sketchfest, while only a small show in a small venue, was refreshing in the way it created a space for unmediated and intimate performances to connect people together.