What do a seniors’ barbershop quartet, a teenage table-tennis champion, a ukulele ensemble, standup comedians, wild animals, and a four-year-old girl singing “MacArthur Park” have in common?
Not much, but they all make Paul Anthony smile. These are just some of the acts he’s booked over the past five years for his monthly showcase, Talent Time, a cult phenomenon that’s been flying under the radar at the Biltmore since 2008.
What started out as a gentle ribbing of fringe acts has turned into a life-affirming celebration for the actor-comedian. Anthony used to run Soft Core Comedy at the Cobalt with comedian Aubrey Tennant until Tennant left town. When he was approached by the Biltmore to bring a show into its newly renovated space, Anthony tweaked the concept, which was slightly more hard-core than its title suggested, making it more than just a comedy experience.
“This is the dilemma of who I am,” he says over a tea at a local mall. “I love comedy and I like being involved in it but I don’t think I’m a comedian, so I like being close to it. It started off like the show we were doing at the Cobalt, sort of a fuck-you variety show. The elements I liked, though, were a little more positive. Without thinking too much about it, it just gravitated more towards that, to more of this community show than a kind of late-night, dark, kind of shitty show.”
You won’t see many big names on the bill (although Anthony did score Randy Quaid and his band last year), but he’s used his connections in the acting world to get some stars to plug Talent Time in promos (available at talenttime.tv and on YouTube). Alan Cumming, Dave Foley, Iggy Pop, and Malcolm McDowell have all gone to bat for Anthony.
His house band, Original Lineup, is made up of members of Hot Hot Heat and the Gay Nineties. (HHH’s lead singer, Steve Bays, wrote the theme song and, while he isn’t in the band, is a regular in the audience.) And Anthony’s second banana is last week’s Straight cover boy, actor and improviser Ryan Beil.
Talent Time runs the first Wednesday of each month, and December’s offering will be a Christmas-themed affair. A sponsor is taking care of the decorations, so Anthony promises they’ll be “crazy” and “over-the-top”, which is appropriate given the array of acts, some of which seem obvious for a festive gathering, and some of which make you go “Hmm.” There are the Gentlemen of Fortune (a 50-person choral group) and an Israeli Dance Festival troupe doing a Hanukkah presentation. Fair enough. Now add professional wrestlers from the ECCW, a George Michael tribute artist singing “Last Christmas”, hilarious standup comic Ivan Decker, and overweight, middle-aged teen-pop sensation I, Kandee dressed as Santa Claus and you’ve got yourself a show. And to add to the ambiance there will be chestnut roasters and marshmallow guns.
Talent Time defies genre. You have to experience it to truly appreciate it. An edited version airs on both Novus and Shaw TV, but it’s not the same as being there. And you certainly don’t get the chance to win your $8 back in the cover-charge piñata by sitting at home.
You can enjoy the acts ironically but that’s not how Anthony sees it.
“The show started with a little bit of cynicism but I realized very quickly the acts that I was connecting to were more on the positive side,” says Anthony. “Putting on Talent Time keeps me more positive. Basically, I put on this show so that I’m not depressed. But I feel the audience has connected with that themselves and it helps their month, too.”
He talks of little Angel Lumayah, the four-year-old mentioned above, who also performed a Whitney Houston tribute right after Houston’s death. “She makes me smile the way a really good joke makes me smile,” he says. “Not because it’s funny, but it’s surprising and enjoyable and has some sort of positive spirit behind it.”
Then he catches himself: “Talking about positivity and having acts that can lift your spirit doesn’t sound fun at all,” he says. “But it’s put on by me, so it’s different! It’s through the lens of my warped sense of humour.”
Talent Time is at the Biltmore Cabaret on Wednesday (December 5).