Photographs by Tobias Wang.
Funny or Die’s Oddball Festival rolled into the Molson Amphitheatre in Toronto with a line-up set to crush. Co headliners Aziz Ansari and Amy Schumer headed up a bill stacked with talent, from SNL alums Michael Che and Jay Pharaoh to sketch comedy savant Nick Kroll. It’s a good thing the seats were comfy, ‘cause with almost 3.5 hours of comedy, the crowd’s asses were damned near laughed off.
Big Jay Oakerson kept things filthy, funny and flowing as the night’s MC. Unflappable and affable, he somehow brought the crowd along no matter how perverse the premise. I guess that’s what they call charisma. Mark Norman was first up, espousing the positive influence of gay culture and questioning the broad nature of hate speech. Sarnia ex-pat Katherine Ryan questioned the politics of rape culture and representations of race, while praising Beyonce for making power, motherhood and “pouting like there’s a bad smell and you’re angry about it” sexy.
Michael Che had a laconic confidence and peered into power dynamics. Apparently if you want something done, get a white woman to do it. Anyone who can make Brooklyn safe is a force to be reckoned with. Jay Pharaoh captured the crowd instantly with a bit on hometown hero Drake’s propensity to paint himself as a stalker. Do you really want his eyes on you? I know I won’t listen to “Hold On We’re Going Home” the same way again. Closing out the first half was Jim Norton, contemplating the logistics of non-creepy tickling and marvelling at Bruce Jenner’s childhood gender discomfort pushing him to “overcompensate himself” all the way to the Olympics.
Kicking off the second half, Anthony Jezelnik stalked the stage with his trademark cockiness and pitch black setup, punch delivery. Between admiring his own material he touched on such light fodder as child molestation, familial masturbation and dead relatives. With punchlines unfailingly out of left field, it was easy to jump aboard his self-admiration. Nick Kroll had a way with words, whether it was referring to the Declaration of Independence as “hubris filled”, or Canada as the United States’ “beta”. He considered the value of different animal sound onomatopoeia in assorted languages. Kroll closed out with a painfully relatable story of pants shitting that had the crowd squirming with laughter and empathy.
Co-headliner Amy Schumer was greeted by a standing ovation before she even reached the mic. Coming off the success of her debut starring role in the film Trainwreck, she had a brand new perspective on the pitfalls of Hollywood. She lambasted the film and “women’s health” industry for its absurd representations of body image and cashed in some good old fashioned name dropping to relate the glory of meeting Bradley Cooper. She was forthcoming with her new year’s resolution of catfishing someone (worth it, apparently), and vain hopes of relatively clean underwear post-use.
Aziz Ansari has become somewhat of a relationship expert (how many other comedians have literally written books on the subject?) and came out swinging with what he knew best: the too real struggle of partners ruining your Netflix algorithm. The set was packed tight, but flew by in an instant due to Aziz’s endearingly childish vigour, a style that allowed him to deal with serious material in a light-hearted manner. Calling out the systematic oppression of modern society, he likened the daft #alllivesmatter movement to civil rights era white people wondering if they could still use the water fountains. Moving his sights to birth control, he highlighted the unfair gender imbalance of responsibility in preventing childbirth. He venerated the visceral, messy nature of human sexuality as something that unites us all, while also using it as justification to sometimes take matters into your own hands, so to speak.
The one character I failed to mention was the venue itself. Comedy at its best is an intimate art, relying on a comic’s ability to read the room and respond accordingly. Any chance of sharp, incisive performance is unavoidably dulled in a large scale, open air venue. It’s an unrealistic expectation to cater material to such a broad audience, so the jokes remain broad. The kind of connection a comic makes in a small venue is no doubt sacrificed when they have to compete with empty cans rolling down the aisle, aggressive swarms of insects and planes flying past every 20 minutes. How is anyone supposed to keep their timing up around that? It was a talented line-up from top to bottom, but there’s no way they were at their best with so many distractions. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend any of these comics, but if you’re gonna see them, do yourself a favour and find a theatre, a bar. Any place where low flying planes won’t be a concern.
Thanks to Live Nation Ontario for media access.