Valium Vickie

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Experiencing Canada's Second-Largest Comedy Festival

When I opened the e-mail titled "FunnyFest booking," I found what I looking for instantly: "We would desire that perform & participate for at least four consecutive nights." It was right there in writing -- I had gotten into my very first comedy festival. I went to the Calgary Comedy Festival website where phrases like "delivers 50,000 comedy lovers," "11 day mass media event," and "largest comedy festival in Western Canada & second largest in the nation" jumped right out at me. I pictured myself in front of sold-out theater crowds where the uncontrollable laughter was interrupted only by thunderous, Comedy-Central style applause breaks. I envisioned being ushered offstage into a small, side rooms where I'd be interviewed -- performer badge proudly displayed around my neck -- by the exotic "Mass Media" of Calgary. What I actually experienced up in the Nashville of the North wasn't quite that.

6:00 a.m. Eastern Standard Time (EST): I answer a call from my mom/ride to the airport
"Hey hon! Funniest thing, for a second there, I thought I was supposed to take you to the airport today."
She was most definitely supposed to drive me to the airport that day. On a rushed drive to Philadelphia International Airport, my mom switches lanes haphazardly while juggling a cigarette in one hand and a coffee in the other. I wonder whether the onset of dementia is setting in.

1:40 p.m. Mountain Standard Time (MST): Our plane lands in Calgary. My girlfriend, Liz, asks what the plan is. I pull a printed e-mail out of my bag confirming that someone is supposed to pick us up and take us to the hotel. At this point, I start worrying about the packet -- containing the festival schedule, hotel info, etc. -- that I was supposed to get a few weeks ago, but never did. We wait 20 minutes, and Liz makes a comment about this "being all on me." I call the festival organizer, Stu, tell him my name and a conversation like this ensues:

Stu: Hi, Jared. What are you doing? We have a show in an hour. You need to be at the hotel.
Me: I thought someone was picking me up. I sent over an itiner...
Stu: Oh, yeah. We lost a car. You gotta get over to the hotel, eh. (Note: The majority of Canadians end all of their sentences with 'eh.' It's like the verbal equivalent of a period or an exclamation point or even a question mark in some cases.)
Me: What hotel?
Stu: Best Western. Port O'Prince. Not sure of the address. Figure it out. Call me as soon as you get into your hotel room.
Me: Sounds good, man. I'll see...
Stu: As soon as you get there. Call. As soon as you get there (phone hangs up).

A shuttle brings us to the hotel, which appears to the only functioning business (besides a shady-looking Vietnamese take-out restaurant) for miles. When I give the clerk my name, I'm relieved -- and a little surprised -- to find I actually have a room. In the center of the lobby is a giant, cutout of a cartoon cow adorned in a jester's cap and collar. The cow is holding a microphone in its left hoof and sitting cross-legged on a stool fashioned from its own udders. This is the FunnyFest mascot. Despite the giant jester cow, and an array of FunnyFest flyers and handouts littered throughout the lobby, no hotel workers seem to know anything about the giant festival. So I head up to my room to drop off my bags and field two calls from Stu in the process.

3:35 p.m.: Back in the lobby, there's a guy in his late-twenties pacing back and forth. He notices my girlfriend and me and introduces himself as Ben -- our ride to the show. Ben's ride is a Mercedes-Benz that must be at least 25 year's old judging by the rust that has built up on its light blue body. Inside, I can't believe the odometer, which reads 395,000. It takes few minutes to remember that Canadians measure everything in kilometers.
On the ride, Ben points out a building where he was ordered to take anger management classes after the "fucking all-knowing Province of Alberta" decided to take away his license. I ask why, and Ben tells me aggressive driving and lots of speeding tickets. "In Calgary, they care more about speeding than drunk driving, but I got a few DUIs, too." he adds.

Show No.1: China Rose

3:50 p.m.: We arrive at the China Rose, a standard Chinese restaurant complete with bad lighting and a massive buffet station. A side room is packed with 20 guys and two well-dressed older women. This would be a great crowd for a Tuesday afternoon in a random Chinese restaurant. But it soon becomes clear that everyone here is a comic. Liz and I have a conversation with the older women -- a sketch-comedy duo known as 'Cow Tips.' In the background, a few people wearing blue polos with the festival's mascot on the chest hang an unnecessarily large "FunnyFest" banner behind a makeshift stage.

4:00 p.m.: A tall man donning the same blue polo as the stage crew enters and makes a rushed announcement about the magnitude of the festival. He begins calling out names I recognize as the comics listed on the festival's web page -- waiting until each answers, 'here' or 'present.' He lets everyone know they're to do three-minute sets. Then, he asks, "Is Jared Bilski here? Yeah. Good. Jared, you're closing out the show. You'll do six minutes, eh?"

This is Stu, the executive director of FunnyFest, the Calgary Comedy Festival. After his speech, I introduce Liz and myself, and my second conversation with Stu follows:

Stu: You didn't tell me your girlfriend was coming. This really messes up the logistics of everything. Jesus Christ, eh!
Me: I told you over the phone. Plus, I sent you both of our itineraries and I even talked to you about....
Stu: Yeah, whatever, OK. This really messes things up, eh. So when you're done your set you're gonna have to hurry and get a ride over to the next place. Jesus Christ, eh?

Before I could ask where the next place is, Stu walks way.

For the next hour and a half there's a steady flow of movement -- comics walking to the stage, comics exiting the stage, packs of frustrated comics heading to the buffet, happy comics returning from the buffet with heaping plates of laxatives disguised as lo mein and General Tso's chicken. By the time my name is called, all of the comics have left for the next show. Luckily, a group of four non-performers wander in. Always the consummate professional, I do the full six minutes and exit the stage to thunderous sounds of four pairs of clapping hands and one timid, "Nice job, man." My first show of the 2010 Calgary Comedy Festival is complete.

Show No.2: King Henry VIII

6:30 p.m.: I second venue is a standard watering hole with low-lighting, a huge oak bar and a series of wooden booths throughout. Several TVs are showing playoff hockey and the five or so non-comedians seem completely unaware Canada's second largest comedy festival will be starting in a mere thirty minutes. In addition to the TV, the perimeter of King Henry's is littered with VLTs (Video Lottery Terminals) -- Canada's answer to the slot machine. I count the back of eight patrons who are engrossed in the game and note that we have over ten people at this show. Next to the bar is a makeshift stage. It's a slightly raised block of wood with a checkerboard design that's closer in size to an actual checkerboard than a real stage. The regular-sized microphone resting in the center of the "stage" adds to the overall sadness of the set-up. Of course, the ubiquitous FunnyFest banner hangs proudly in the background.
The 20 or so performers are huddled around the complimentary food and drink -- a single appetizer sampler and one pitcher of beer -- when Stu enters room. He calls everyone to attention and launches into another pre-show speech.

OK. Everyone listen up. What the hell are ya doing? Move out from behind me, so I can see everyone. This is important, eh. I need everyone to listen. I don't ask much -- just five minutes of your time a day, OK. So, here's the line-up, eh. Everyone do around four minutes. Corey, you're going close out, so do between seven and ... Hey, can all of ya shut up, eh. This is serious. We're about to do a show here.

After Stu's pep talk, he asks Ben -- the angry guy who's been driving Liz and I to the shows -- to hang up some FunnyFest flyers at the local businesses in the area. When Ben mumbles that hanging flyers "isn't exactly what he was told he'd be doing," Stu informs him:
"It's a privilege for you to be here. I know tons of people who would want your job. You don't want to hang fliers, eh? You see that? That's the fucking door. Get the fuck out."

The driver informs Stu that he's "a human being" and storms off to hang fliers.
The show's another marathon of short, rushed sets with little to no audience reaction -- save for an old, leather-clad biker guy with his back to the stage. He's visibly drunk and participates in the show by yelling out his own jokes while the comedians are delivering their punchlines. The only non-performer who's directly facing the stage, my girlfriend, is only doing do out of some vague sense of obligation to the person she has sex with. She's stationed in the center of an island of empty chairs. About 45 minutes into the show, the drunken biker decides he wants to physically interact with the comics. He walks up to the stage, takes out a tape measure and tries to determine the various dimensions of the comic onstage. After about five minutes, the bartender decides the biker's gotten enough measurements and kicks him out. The Video Lottery Terminal (VLT) players haven't turned around once during show the show. I make it a mini-personal goal to get at least one of these people to look in my direction. I don't succeed -- even after I describe the clothing of several VLT players. I practice a few of my bits, take in the silence and walk off the checkerboard.
A few moments after the MC brings up the headliner, one of the polo-wearing workers bursts in and yells, "Hey man, that's it; show's over. We don't have a microphone at the next place, so we need to use that one." The headliner's response, "Thank fucking god," gets the biggest laugh of the night. With that, my second show of the day comes to a close.

Most of the comics are at the next venue, so I check my e-mail to see if I can pull up an old schedule rest of the night's shows. Instead, there's a singe unread message from Stu with the subject line "Rides for performers only." The e-mail contains the following message:

Rides are for performers only. No exceptions. No lap sitting. Thanks for understanding. Stu

I head to outside to search for a cab to the next show.