Small venues deliver big laughs at Vancouver ComedyFest

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At venues around town from Thursday to Sunday (February 16 to 19). Continues until February 25

The big ticket shows during the first week of the Vancouver ComedyFest may have had higher-profile names and fancier venues, but it was the club shows that generated the biggest laughs.

With sold-out crowds at the Orpheum for Carol Burnett and the Centre in Vancouver for Performing Arts for Betty White, it’s no wonder these legends were invited to the festival despite not having an act. Peddling nostalgia helps pay the bills. And sure enough, fans lapped up the Q & A sessions with the veteran comedic actresses. The Burnett session was more fun, thanks to old TV clips and livelier questions from the crowd. White was subjected to the most boring recitation of her credits masked as questions from two television-news types with nary a follow-up. But both women were wonderfully witty, quick, and warm.

Margaret Cho, also at the Centre, was better than I’ve ever seen her, less preachy and pandering and more personal. The famous bisexual also did a kind of George Carlin–esque baseball vs. football routine, only with dicks and pussies.

The opening-night gala, also at the Centre, was a good cross-section of the types of comedy available elsewhere throughout the festival. Locals Paul Bae, Kevin Foxx, and Ivan Decker all killed (Decker’s a real star in the making); Brett Gelman, Brody Stevens, and Howard Kremer confused the less-experienced comedy patrons with their unusual deliveries and content; little person Brad Williams was locked in and on fire; Doug Benson’s giggles were contagious; and Seán Cullen and Garfunkel & Oates provided laughs through music.

But it was at the clubs where the comics could really let loose with more time and crowds that got it. Williams may have stood tallest of all, achieving two things I’d never seen before in clubs: an encore at the Comedy Mix and a standing ovation in Lafflines’ Baby Grand Room. The Orange County native will surely be back to headline one or both of those clubs in the near future.

Todd Barry’s always a treat, too. His quiet, dry style sets him apart from typical club comics, but on Saturday’s early show at the Mix, he tamed a chatty crowd by speeding up his delivery just a shade, leaving no room for idiotic heckles.

Barry got the room ready for Garfunkel & Oates, who, they told me later, had the best reception of their career. Each line was met with howls as they sang about weed, gay marriage, accidentally masturbating in a go-kart, and inept hand jobs. (“How can I learn when you always make me stop?”)

Over at Lafflines’ newly refurbished Grand Room, Jeremy Hotz was slaying with his patented crowd work and irritation at everything. His Muttley-like perma-snicker can get annoying, but there’s no denying his chops.

A real disappointment was SuperEgo with guest Paul F. Tompkins. To be fair, the brilliant standup comic was out of his element as an improviser, but even the four regulars weren’t stellar. Matt Gourley was the best of the lot, but not nearly as hilarious as the other three would have you believe by their fits of on-stage laughter. Watching them perform the same sketch later at the gala, and seeing the same fake laughs at the same lines, one might think they were trying to spur on the audience members—who were, granted, laughing, too, but only perfunctorily, it seemed.

But what are you gonna do? It’s comedy, where one man’s laughter is another man’s bore. New acts take the stage this week.

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