10 days, 42 events, 1 tired student writer
This year’s JFL42 promised “some of the most hilarious, riveting, and relevant comedians [they] could find.” Armed with that promise, a press pass, and a debilitating cold, I set out to see as many comedians as I could without skipping any classes. Because of my poor planning and a mysterious heatwave-induced illness, I didn’t get to catch as many shows as I would’ve liked to. Despite that, the shows that I managed to go to reminded me that laughter really is the best medicine.
JFL42 headliner John Mulaney and his opener Max Silvestri played two back-to-back shows on September 21st at 7 PM and 9:45 PM as a part of Mulaney’s Kid Gorgeous tour. Despite opening his set with the disclaimer, “I’m feeling a little sick tonight,” Mulaney launched into a 90-minute, non-stop, energy-filled routine. Mulaney’s status as an online legend, due to his comedy specials New in Town (2012) and The Comeback Kid (2015), and his recorded Broadway show Oh Hello (2017)—all available on Netflix—set up an expectation for the audience. Luckily, that expectation was met and far exceeded. Mulaney’s dynamic storytelling featured a cast of hilarious voices.; this included a story of the overly-zealous child homicide detective J.J. Bittenbinder and his many personal safety tips, leaving the audience in stitches. Though the show was in the nearly-sold out Sony Centre, Mulaney managed to make it feel intimate. The tour’s name, Kid Gorgeous, encapsulates everything great about his set. These sentiments of childhood wonderment and confusion that carried over into adulthood, were all relayed back to us as though we were friends at a sleepover.
Known mostly for her film and television roles, Jenny Slate provided a glance into her stand-up material at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on September 23rd. Her hour-long set saw her lamenting the current state of affairs in America. Throughout her performance, Slate continually and self-consciously referred to her desire to be more positive, as the rest of America is not. She also unpacked much of her zany childhood experience, talking at length about her poet father and potter mother—often poking fun at their unorthodox approaches to parenting and how it has contributed to her adult life.
Her brand of comedy; a sly and confident sarcasm was carried effortlessly by her vibrant and energetic stage presence. However, some of Slate’s repetition for comedic effect didn’t quite work for me. I found that some of her bits relied too heavily on the repetition of key phrases or “moments.” Despite that, Slate’s set was still filled with a refreshing amount of energy, pep, and positivity—all necessary when thinking about current affairs.
Fresh off her immensely successful and popular Netflix special, Baby Cobra (2016), Ali Wong headlined this year’s JFL42 with an hour-long set that launched into an expansive story and commentary about her new life as a “sorta-famous” mom.
Wong pushed the limits of what is appropriate as the audience sat there in absolute awe of this fearless and outspoken woman of colour. She went on to rant about experiences that aren’t commonly discussed, from the changes that her body has undergone since the birth of her daughter, to giving a blowjob to someone with a micropenis. As Asian women, we are often told to be quiet, polite, and docile. Wong’s unabashed and loud display of her sexuality, and how she finds both pleasure and comedy in it, is something that I thought was extremely powerful.
That being said, the set wasn’t only centred around lewd comedy; Wong also made scathing observations of how society treats women. With a hilarious deconstruction of heterosexual couples where the woman earns more, why being a stay-at-home-mom sucks, and the not-so-restful maternity break, Wong kicks ass and smashes glass ceilings.
After winning an Emmy for his show on CNN, The United Shades of America, W. Kamau Bell, often described as a socio-political comedian and commentator, closed JFL42, playing two shows on the last two nights of the festival. Bell opened his set by playing “The Star Spangled Banner” and taking a knee. He then launched into a hilarious critique of the American anthem and offering “The More We Get Together” as an alternative. That opening bit demonstrates what the rest of Bell’s set was like—scathing commentary on the political climate in America, told in a fantastical, hilarious series of “what ifs” and comparisons. Bell’s routine also went into his role as a father and his mixed-race daughters. He used this personal anecdote to provide some hilarious and insightful commentary on shadeism and the perception of race in America.
Bell’s set was the perfect cap to JFL42; political and silly, calling out the inequities in society—this set captured comedy’s role today. Comedy’s purpose as drawing attention to issues and painting them as absurd and as things that shouldn’t exist, ran through many of the routines I saw this year. From John Mulaney’s ending bit that likened Trump’s presidency to a horse in a hospital, to Jenny Slate’s exasperated rant about her relief to be in “not the United States of, y’know, whatever,” to any number of hilarious Trump rants that I undoubtedly and regrettably missed—this year’s JFL42 proved that comedy can be an agent of social change and commentary.