Mission to Montreal
Four Las Vegas comedians hit the big Just for Laughs festival. Was it worth the trip?
Thu, Jul 31, 2008 (midnight)
Photo: Benjamen Purvis
In their own words, three Vegas comics at very different levels of their respective careers, and one rabble-rousing former Vegas open-mic-er, share their experiences throughout this year’s Just for Laughs in Montreal, the largest and most prestigious comedy festival in the Western hemisphere.
George Wallace: Flamingo headliner, future mayor;
Doug Stanhope: Anti-establishment road warrior;
Bryan Bruner: Friday-night host at Planet Hollywood’s LA Comedy Club;
Don Barnhart: Producer, filmmaker, actor, founder of Chucklehut Entertainment.
Bruner: I’m here at the Montreal Comedy Festival to be in the mix of all the professionals. It’s kind of like, if you want to be a fast motorcycle rider, you hang out with the fast motorcycle riders, right? Or if you want to be a musician, you hang out with all the good musicians. The Montreal Comedy Festival’s where the best of the best of every year come to congregate. I’m hoping I can get a granule of that to rub off on me and take back.
Barnhart: I’m here as a producer and comedian pitching several projects, one of them that we shot in Vegas, the Freedom of Speech Comedy Show. It’s a show that I created based on my many, many USO and Comics on Duty Tours that I’ve been doing since ’92, before it became a publicity stunt for comics to get in the press. Guys on my level that are solid comics, that you don’t know by name, we have to go over there and sign these release forms: “By penalty of death under Saudi law …” The military says, “Don’t talk about sex, religion, politics.” I’m not saying you have to be dirty to be funny, but when these guys are dying for the First Amendment and freedom of speech and democracy and making the world a little safer place, it really bugged me. So we came back, and I put a show together. I said, “I’m just going to make a show for comics, where you can do whatever you want. I’m not going to tell you what do to. You can be dirty, you can be clean, you can be improv-y; I don’t care.”
Bruner: Sunday, I’ve got a side show for the ExtravaGANJA tour, a medical marijuana benefit. I guess for my first time in Montreal that’s the perfect show for me to be on. What a rad way to pop my cherry. I’m on the medical marijuana show, and I’m one of the biggest pot-smokers there is. It’s kind of like being a puppeteer and being invited to do a Jim Henson show.
Barnhart: I have meetings with several people from the big suits: ABC, CBS, DreamWorks, MTV and Comedy Central are the main ones. We’re also pitching several sitcoms that I wrote and we’re developing, along with a comedy film that we’re in preproduction on already to shoot hopefully at the end of the year in Vegas.
Wallace: I was up there about 10 years ago, and I did it, like, three years in a row, and it was fun. I do the same show, the All-Star Show at the St. Denis, the big main theater. I’ve always done the big theater. That’s enough for me. I’ve been around; people know who I am. It’s just a good thing to keep your face out there to a lot of Canadians.
Stanhope: I’m doing [The Doug Stanhope Just for Spite Comedy Festival] on Friday and Saturday nights. They cheesed me off with their slap-in-the-face offer to come here for peasant money, all the while blowing smoke up my ass about how much of an opportunity it is for me and how much exposure I’ll get. I don’t care for how they run their festival. They make gobs of money and they give none of it to artists. And they’re condescending shitbabies. That’s not hyphenated.
Bruner: I’m looking forward to seeing Stanhope, ’cause Stanhope’s one of my biggest influences. He’s the guy who really showed me you can do comedy in any type of situation. The first time I ever saw Doug Stanhope perform was at Tommy Rocker’s, like, 10 years ago. That guy could stand on a table in an Irish pub, with a mug in hand, and be the leader of the drunk revolution. He can get people motivated. He has that knowledge from late nights of drinking, that education from late nights and making wrong decisions and learning from life, but being able to discuss it. So to be in the game as little as I have been in comedy, and be able to come here and see him from doing those bar shows and to seeing him in Montreal, it’s kind of full circle for me.
Stanhope: The first time I was here was 1996, and they’d come back and tell you, wicked condescending, “Yeah, we really feel like this bit kind of worked a little better than the bit you’re doing now. You think you should change that up?” I was doing the Nasty Show the first week, and then they’d stick you in here and there to do one spot at the Danger Zone or whatever crazy show they have. But the first time I was here I didn’t pay any attention because I was just happy to be here. The second time [in 1997], not so happy. I crashed, I came up just to come, and I ended up doing a bunch of shows just for being here. When I came back in 2005, same thing. I was like, “Are you kidding me?” It’s one thing when I’m a youngster. It was the Nasty Show again, and they want “Dick, dick, dick.” They don’t want abortion, rape, child molestation.
Wallace: Just for Spite? [Laughs] They do everything up there in Canada. They get so much different comedy there. Somethin’ for everybody. When I was up there 10 years ago they had a guy with a Roman candle up his ass. It was interesting. Everybody was talking about it, and that’s what you want.
“Maybe I should start my own Las Vegas Comedy Festival and do what they do in Canada.”
Barnhart: Everybody who’s anybody is here for comedy. It’s one of the biggest festivals, even though the Las Vegas festival is coming on really strong, and the people here are planning for the fourth year to be even bigger and better.
Wallace: People get to see a variety of acts from all over the world, that’s what they do in Canada. We don’t have too many of those in America, and we should try to pull it off in Las Vegas, but Las Vegas, it’s more or less the big guys. And they’re more into it in Canada. The whole city is involved. It’s the city moreso than just a company like TBS. They have the Arts and Entertainment Department. They’ve got a Department of Arts for the country. Lot of cities do that. Someone ought to do that in America. Especially Vegas.
Bruner: This already seems a little bit bigger and has a lot more notables. The Comedy Festival in Vegas had big-name notables, but then there was a big drop-off. I don’t even think there was a New Faces show there. Everyone was already established at The Comedy Festival. You’d heard of everyone. But here there’s a lot of people you don’t even know. We sat in the lobby, and there was probably four or five or six comedians that were going up, all super-cool dudes, and I’ve never heard of them before, but now I’m looking forward to seeing them. There isn’t that in Vegas. There’s more of a comedy community here. In Vegas all those headliners just came in, did their thing, hung out at the casinos or whatever. This is different.
Wallace: The festival in Vegas, they don’t even want us involved. I was on a show last year, but not the year before last or this year. Carrot Top, Louie Anderson, Roseanne … use some of those names that are making Las Vegas work. The festival should include us, and they don’t, and I don’t know why. Maybe I should start my own Las Vegas Comedy Festival and do what they do in Canada.
“... Tim Allen, Ellen, Kevin James, Ray Romano, David Spade … I’m hoping to be the next all of those.”
Barnhart: The interesting thing to be up here as a producer instead of talent is I’m not here: “Please pick me! Please pick me!” I don’t need them to tell me I can do my show. That’s a great part about being independent and self-funded: You don’t have to answer to anybody. That’s the hardest thing about this business: You have to appease everybody. You see that in Vegas all the time, you’ve got to be somebody, and it’s really hard for the locals to break out. They’re trying, and some guys, like this kid Bryan who is up here, who opened up for me last week, is absolutely brilliant. Very funny, very original, and he just needs somebody to focus him now, to get him out of that loop and into the next level. And that’s the hardest thing, breaking that. I’m up here trying to break my own level now as a producer and become the next Bill Engvall or Drew Carey, Tyler Perry, even Seinfeld, Roseanne, Tim Allen, Ellen, Kevin James, Ray Romano, David Spade … I’m hoping to be the next all of those, who doesn’t have to do stand-up anymore but does it because I love the art form.
Wallace: I’ve heard it’s changed. Maybe even for the better, with the New Faces, different types of acts, some of it broke off and went to Toronto. But if it’s been around for 25 years; it’s changed for the better. The producers and the directors are very good guys, and they’re doing a good job, with who they have on the show, the entertainment they bring out. From Joan Rivers to Craig Ferguson, it’s definitely gotten better.
Barnhart: They’ve brought everybody from the East Coast, the West Coast, TNT from Atlanta, they’re all here, so it’s a chance to facilitate networking.
myspace.com/dougstanhope: Just because I don’t care for the douchebag that runs the festival is no reason to not go hang around with my comedian friends that are working the festival. Ron White, Nick DiPaolo, Brendon Walsh and a shitload more were all down at Club Soda in the green room between shows. Ron had given me his laminate so that I wouldn’t have a problem getting into Henry Phillips & Mike O’Connell’s show down the street.
A good time was being had by all.
Until the douchebag that runs the festival shows up.
Barnhart: It was a long day of meetings, a long night of schmoozing … and boozing … but it went great. They may not be throwing out ideas, but they’re looking and digging and mining the comedy mind. I’ve got people from Fox and ABC interested in follow-up meetings.
myspace.com/dougstanhope: “If I was that bad, why did you make an offer to get me back this year?”
Cartoon steam from his ears.
Grabs my arm—“It’s time for you to leave ...” and pushes me as though I was resisting to make some show in front of the comedians, stopping momentarily ... “And I’m taking this laminate because I know it’s not yours!”—pulling Ron White’s pass off my neck. He said it exactly the way you’d say, “And it’s my ball and I’m going home if you’re not gonna play my way!” only he wasn’t joking.
I said nothing more—mostly because I was pretty drunk. Anytime you see a drunk guy arguing with a sober guy, you always assume the sober guy must be right. Even I would, and I’m a drunk. It’s a sad fact of boozing. So I shut up and left with a lot of his beer and paid to see Henry Phillips & Mike O’Connell. Money works just like a laminate, and the show was worth every penny—I just wish the performers would see nickels on the dollar of it.
Wallace: This year I didn’t have the opportunity to go up during the week, obviously, because I have the show here at the Flamingo. But I flew up Sunday, got there about noon, 1 o’clock, did the show at 7 and was back on a plane at 5 o’clock in the morning. You had a funny man, Larry Miller, on the show and Paul Poundstone from San Francisco, she was great. Ron White from the Blue Collar tour and a kid named Danny Bhoy from Scotland. It was a wonderful evening.
Bruner: You just look around the Hyatt lounge and there’s Hal Sparks and Stanhope, Greg Giraldo’s hanging out, and Ron White’s in the back, Ryan Stiles and Colin Mochrie; just everybody! Everyone who’s anyone. Craig Robinson or Patrice Oneal looked you right in the eye, and they looked at you like you were a comedian. Here I am, Bryan Bruner, looking around seeing all these people. I felt like the new hire who’s on probation, like, we’re going to let you in behind the closed doors to see what happens. You see all these people and you’re like, “This is my career, and I have a long, long way to go. But I’m in.”
Stanhope: I’m actually enjoying being at the festival. I feel bad that I put that out. He just had to be a douchebag about being called a douchebag. I hate that, when douchebags do that. So now I’m going to try to go back to having fun.
Bruner: Not being here as, like, one of the New Faces, it’s more just a spectator’s point of view, like a vacation. Lots of socializing, lots of drinkin’, staying out late. You’re networking, and that’s the other part of the game. You’ve got to be mentally tough to do that as well as go deliver a killer set that people pay tons of money for.
Barnhart: I enjoyed being able to help introduce Bryan around to people. I think that was a thrill for him, because you can go up there and be completely intimidated, like, “My whole career rests on this one moment.” And it doesn’t. That’s a crock of shit. There’s 50 ways to do it, and you can do it yourself.
“I think as the kids would say, ‘They weren’t feelin’ it.’”
Barnhart: When I was here last time, 10 years ago, and I wrote about this, my story that got published in the I Killed book, about following George Wallace and tanking it. Coming up here, people are so nervous. Young comics just trembling before they go onstage … but most of the industry are sitting in the back, talking to each other, making their deals. They’re not watching.
Bruner: Stanhope had known me from a few other instances; a good friend of mine knows him, and we just have somewhat of a small history. We went to his show the night before, and we were talking about funny things, and I guess I made him chuckle a couple of times. He actually stomped his feet on the floor, and I felt really good about that. We rolled to his show the second night, and he hung out over the balcony and he quoted one of my jokes that I had written on a piece of paper—I had my notes out on the ironing board, and Stanhope came erupting into our room and apparently read some of my notes. When he asked me if I wanted to do a set, the first thing I said was, “Are you sure you want me to do a set?” And he said, “Yeah!” I was kind of bewildered, but I said, “Okay.” You can’t tell Stanhope no. If Stanhope offers you a set, you take it, ready or not. I thought I was ready, but we were getting drunk all week ... I said, “Are. You. Sure?” and he said, “Yes,” so f--k you, Doug Stanhope, it was actually on you that I sucked. I asked you twice! [Laughs]
Stanhope: He was around, and I know he’s a comic. He ate a little bit of the dick there. I think as the kids would say, “They weren’t feelin’ it.” But he didn’t abominate the stage.
Bruner: Stanhope’s in another era of his life. He’s never been a setup-and-punch guy; he’s always been conversational, but it’s even more now. He gets the comedy across, but for a guy who leads the drunkards and the drug addicts and is the pied piper of the dysfunctional, he forces these people who don’t normally use their brains to think, right there in the set. If you’re not laughing, you’re not thinking. Most of us comedians just spoon-feed you shit. And there was a big street scene going on outside with probably 1,000 people, and yet Stanhope never lost rhythm, never missed a beat. If those people only knew what was going on five feet away from them on the other side of that wall …
“Since I got back, I’ve been contacted by Fox and by the CBC for follow-up meetings.”
Bruner: Tonight’s show was the 180, the complete contrast. It was what I came here to do, which was be ready, have a good set and have a great time and be in the zone onstage. When I was up onstage for Stanhope’s show, I was not in the zone. I was more in awe that I was opening up for one of my heroes, and instead, I’m choking out. Tonight was the complete opposite. I was comfortable, I was prepared, and I guess that goes to show, one of the many thousands of lessons learned through this whole week, just always be ready to go.
Stanhope: The only way to do the Montreal festival is to not do comedy as much as you can. I think I might add less shows next year. The shows were a nuisance. But yeah, it’s fun to see comics that I saw 12 years ago. Now we’re old men.
Barnhart: Since I got back, I’ve been contacted by Fox and by the CBC for follow-up meetings. They want to discuss the Freedom of Speech Comedy Show, so that’s awesome. And we’re talking to MySpace about hosting the show as well. So things turned out really well. And then I’ve got follow-up meetings with DreamWorks already.
Bruner: I learned how small we are in the grand scheme of things, and what we comics in Vegas think is cutting-edge and what we think is so different sometimes is just another day for someone else in another part of the country or the world. Things that are big to us don’t mean shit to other people, but things that are big to them, they just don’t let on. You just have to be open, you need to be completely ready for anything and be yourself.
Stanhope: I wish I had the ambition to go with my bright ideas, ’cause yeah, it would be very easy to do an alternative festival, ’cause the audiences here are great. And the industry’s here; they’ll go to your shit. They don’t have any loyalty to Just for Laughs. They’re here to get drunk. They’ll go wherever the buzz is. So if you bring better comics up and pay them; that’s the only difference, is you give them the gate rather than [JFL producer] Bruce Hills, and that’s how you get better comics. It’s easy on paper, but you’d have to be someone who’s committed to putting that kind of time into it, and I’m not that guy.
Wallace: I would like to do it again next year, because I didn’t get to finish my set. So I would love to go back next year because it’s a good crowd, good audience, and when you deliver, it makes other people happy, so I have another 20 minutes before I’m ready to go. I think I was supposed to do 12 minutes. I did 18.
Bruner: I need a lot of work, that’s what I learned. I learned how the game really goes down. Well, not really goes down, but there was a taste of it, I guess. I got to see the machine in motion for one week in Montreal. It opened up its gearbox, and I looked in. It was like a comedy portal.
Wallace: I tell you this, we represented Las Vegas very well. Better than anybody. We went up to Canada and we showed them how to do it.
Bruner: This whole thing has been completely surreal.