At the Railway Club on Thursday, November 10
At Yuk Yuk's on Friday, November 11
I'm constantly amazed at the variety of styles in standup comedy. To cast the whole genre aside is like saying you hate music. If one form doesn't grab you, there are plenty more. Last week, two comedians played Vancouver who were as different from each other as Robert Goulet and Gil Scott-Heron: Neil "America's Funnyman" Hamburger and local legend J.P. Mass.
Hamburger is the creation of Gregg Turkington, renowned practical joker and the founder of the defunct Amarillo Records label. With three drinks nestled between his arm and chest, the tuxedoed and greasy character made his way slowly to the stage well after midnight at the Railway Club and proceeded to clear his phlegmy throat for about five minutes. Into the microphone. And that was some of his better material!
You see, Hamburger is for all those hipsters who otherwise hate comedy. He pokes fun at the stereotypical lounge comic's hacky groaners. Only Hamburger takes it one step further-his "jokes" are funny precisely because they're so unfunny?; in fact sometimes, their humour lies simply in their sheer offensiveness. And unlike any professional standup you'd see in any era, his material is nothing but riddles: "What's the difference between Courtney Love and an American flag? It'd be wrong to urinate on an American flag." When someone in the audience cursed at him, he indignantly insisted this was a family show. He draws out his one-liners partly for comedic effect and partly, I'm sure, because he doesn't have much material. You'd think these nuggets of pure gold would be easy to come up with.
Hamburger performed for 30 minutes to a constant chorus of boos. Of course, no one walked out. They were all in on the one-note act. Half the fun of a Hamburger show is abusing the man.
Over at the city's only professional comedy club, Yuk Yuk's was welcoming back J.P. Mass after an eight-year absence. The Vancouver comic had a falling-out with the national chain but was tentatively invited to return at the urging of the local manager, Mike Breslin. If his weekend shows are any indication, he'll be back touring for Yuks in no time. Mass gets up on-stage only about once a month these days, but he shows no sign of rust.
The hipsters who hate traditional standup could also, I'm convinced, appreciate Mass, who influenced almost every comic working here in the 1990s. He doesn't do traditional setup/punch-line material, he talks about real issues (smoking, drugs, diets, sex, computers), and he throws out as many jokes a minute as Hamburger does in his whole set. (He thinks the people who nag him for smoking should have a go at the meth addicts. He imitates a busybody still complaining as she lies in a pool of her own blood: "I can't believe he shot me. I have rights." The war on drugs, he tells us, is just directed at the drugs we like. He compares the horrendous side effects of prescription medication with what you get from magic mushrooms: five hours of laughter and a rudimentary understanding of cognitive physics.)
Unlike the impersonal gags of a Neil Hamburger, Mass's comedy tells us something about him, ourselves, and the human condition. Both acts, though, are entertaining in extremely different ways. It's just a matter of whether you're in the mood for a little filthy schmaltz or some thought-provoking soul-funk.