Northern exposure

Four Boston funnymen tell some jokes at Montreal's Just for Laughs festival, and prove that comedy is more than just getting-r-done
By SARA FAITH ALTERMAN  |  July 29, 2009

COMEDY NORTH-CENTRAL: One of the biggest hits in Montreal was Reggie Watts, who layers music beats with hilarious wordplay.

While New York is grittier, Los Angeles juicier, and Boston is wicked smahter, for some odd reason it is Montreal that, for two weeks every summer, becomes the epicenter of the comedy universe. The bastard French city's Just For Laughs festival is the Cannes of comedy (or, the SXSW of comedy, for you hipster audiophiles) and during the fest, Montreal is awash with an international array of artists and journalists (myself included), not to mention industry folks who circle each other like vultures.

It's here, in the ultimate landscape of Anglo/Franco mash-up, that the world's finest comedians, both familiar and obscure, congregate to make their case for stardom — or whatever the comedic equivalent of stardom is.

Montreal express
I drove up to Montreal with local comic Zach Sherwin, known onstage as MC Mr. Napkins (and who, in fact, was your pick for this year's Phoenix Best Local Comedian). Our trip, filled with artistic war stories, vegan snacks (sigh), and a dip in Lake Champlain, gave me a chance to pick his brain about the state of the Boston comedy scene.

"When I tell people that I'm from Boston," he says, "they either talk about how many amazing comedians have come out of Boston, or ask what the comedy scene is like there. A lot of comedians who started in Boston, but move elsewhere, still get introduced at these massive shows [like in Montreal] as being from Boston. So, for that many new audiences to hear comics repping Boston is really good."

Boston was represented at Just For Laughs by four comedians who are among the cream of our comedic crop: Sherwin, Shane Mauss, Gary Gulman, and Myq Kaplan. (Though Kaplan and Gulman actually live in New York now, they choose to be introduced as hailing from Boston. Other comedians with Boston roots, like Louis CK and Dan Levy, don't.)

"Boston comedians are forged in the fires of all kinds of audiences," notes Kaplan, "from blue collar to blue blood, from white people to other kinds of white people — and some international students, probably. As such, they're equipped to thrive anywhere, and they do. Boston is an amazing town for stand-up . . . and it developed a reputation of respect throughout the rest of this country. . . . When I've traveled the country, people always speak highly of our scene."

With good reason. The Boston comedians killed in their Montreal shows. Kaplan, part of the fest's "New Faces" line-up, delivered his nasal brand of amusing word-nerdery — "I strongly support gay marriage. I am gay-friendly, or, as they called me in high school, 'gay' " — and was rewarded with callbacks for encore shows later in the week. After three stellar sets that featured his signature rap about blood-pressure instruments, "Sphygmomanometer," Sherwin found himself courted by Hollywood game-players. Mauss, as always, completely destroyed, winning over several late-night audiences with his wide-eyed, Masshole-via-Wisconsin cheddar-sharp filth.

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