Just For Laughs: Talking to three of the Mega Stars of Comedy Lewis Black, Iliza Shlesinger and JB Smoove
By Stuart Nulman – mtltimes.ca
On the evening of Saturday, July 30, the stage of Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier of Place des Arts will belong to the stars … the Mega Stars of Comedy, to be exact.
Starting at 7 p.m., the Just For Laughs festival will present a gala with a line-up filled with some of the brightest international stars in comedy over the past 15 years, who have carved out large-scale careers in comedy on the club circuit, TV, movies, and cable specials, as well as in past Just For Laughs festivals. They include Canada’s own Gerry Dee, Greg Proops from the U.S., Dave Hughes from Australia and Danny Bhoy from Scotland.
Over the course of an afternoon earlier this week, I managed to conduct a series of whirlwind phone interviews with three of the comics who are scheduled to perform at the Mega Stars Gala (who are also JFL veterans): Lewis Black, Iliza Shlesinger and JB Smoove.
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I hooked up with veteran comic Lewis Black at his New York City home, as he was watching live coverage of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, in particular, the moment when presidential nominee Donald Trump made his grand arrival into the city.
“I love Montreal, it’s a great city. So this year, in the event that Trump does get elected president and I need to get out of the U.S., I am going to ask you Canadians to help us out,” he said. “Maybe you can sneak in and just vote him out, because there are some states that are happy if just anyone shows up and votes.”
And while we’re on the subject of Canada and Canadians, Black is pleased about Justin Trudeau’s election as prime minister, especially after what Canadians went through with 10 years of Stephen Harper and his brand of conservatism.
“I also liked when the first Trudeau was prime minister with Maggie. Now how good was that? With those two, it was like Canada hit the nail on the head,” he said.
But now, back to the presidential election. During our conversation, Black was getting into his familiar, angry ranting self when he said the biggest problem during the Obama administration was that Congress was doing absolutely nothing, as they discussed issue after issue without any sense of compromise, which he found quite frustrating.
“In this election, you got a crank going up against someone who is always cranky; two candidates with the lowest trust levels ever in my lifetime, and they’re being nominated for the highest office in the land,” he remarked. “This is beyond my comprehension. I don’t know if I’ll be able to make it to the end of the campaign. They’ll probably find me lying on the sidewalk of some city in the Midwest drooling.”
And if you want to hear more of Lewis Black’s ranting takes on the presidential election and other relevant issues of the day, then also check out his solo performance on July 27 at Theatre Maisonneuve, as part of his Naked Truth Tour.
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Iliza Shlesinger, the Dallas native who was the winner of season six of NBC’s “Last Comic Standing” reality competition series, is a true JFL veteran, marking her fourth time performing at the festival, and marvels how Montreal audiences are true comedy fans.
“Montreal is a cosmopolitan city, and Montreal audiences who come see Just For Laughs shows are true comedy fans. They come to fill the many clubs and venues to catch good comedy, and not just go for the drinks,” she said.
Shlesinger developed her comedy chops first in her native Dallas as part of the Comedy Sportz Dallas troupe, and then when she studied film at Emerson College in Boston, where she joined the campus comedy group Jimmy’s Travelling All Stars, before going west to L.A. to pursue a career in comedy. “I was always really funny, and I knew I could be funny for a living,” she said. “It was the only option I had, because I couldn’t do math and wasn’t a fast runner.”
As well, she emphasizes that her material, which mainly deals with relationships and issues that concern women today, is actually more inclusive in nature. “There is definitely no male bashing here, and no one, male or female, are made to feel bad when they hear my routines onstage,” she added.
Besides her appearance at the Mega Stars Gala, Shlesinger will also perform her solo show on July 28 and 30 at Cinquieme Salle, as well as do a live taping of her podcast “Truth and Iliza” on July 30 at the Hyatt Hotel. She is also about to debut a new digital series she wrote and stars in for ABC called “Forever 31” (which is about a group of friends who deal with struggles and absurdities of modern adulthood); her new stand-up special for Netflix, “Confirmed Kills”, is scheduled to air on September 23; and next spring, her first book – Girl Logic – will be published by Weinstein Books.
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JB Smoove, who has been performing stand-up comedy for over 25 years, is aware that he has to follow a rigid structure for the 12 minutes that he will be allotted for his set at the Mega Stars of Comedy Gala. But for him, he is more comfortable doing his stand-up comedy act in a loose, improvised-based structure.
“I realize that doing a show with a structure is different than what I usually do onstage; it allows a comic to do what he does, as long as it fits into that certain pocket,” he said in a phone interview from Los Angeles. “However, I love performing for the moment and breaking the rules. It makes JB Smoove JB Smoove and it makes the crowd go crazy.”
“It feels like walking on a high tightrope without a net or painting pictures onstage,” he added.
Smoove, whose real name is Jerry Brooks (he adopted his stage name from the time he was a hip-hop dancer named J. Smooth; he developed the name from the initials of his birth name and the merging of his hip-hop last name with that of fellow dancer J. Groove), admits that about 30% of the jokes he uses for his act have never been done before, which provides him with the challenge he relishes every time he goes on stage. “I also have a good ear for my audience. I listen to what part of my jokes in my set the audience laughs at. As well, I observe their physicality and facial expressions that they use when they laugh at what I say, which lends to the honesty of my jokes. That is why when I do five shows a week, those five shows are never the same show,” he said.
Another unique aspect to Smoove’s comedy act is that before every show, he always checks out the club or venue that he will be performing at, to see what parts of the stage or any equipment that are at his disposal, so he can build a routine from scratch for that evening’s performance. “I just dive right in and build it with my own version of hammer, nails and screwdriver. Sometimes I’ll just write the premise and leave it up to the audience’s reactions, which works for me,” he said. “At one club I performed at, I saw the stage had a curtain. So I developed a routine that lasted 10 minutes, in which I portrayed three characters in a restaurant, and one of the customers confronts the chef … and I did the whole routine behind the curtain!”
Smoove is currently on his cross country tour that’s entitle “Profounity”, and he will soon revise his popular character of Leon Black, Larry David’s fast-talking friend and houseguest, in the upcoming new season of HBO’s sitcom “Curb Your Enthusiasm”.
“I wouldn’t miss that for the world. I can’t ignore ‘Curb’, Leon and all the improvising that goes with it, and have the chance to mix it all together,” he said. “I am definitely coming back to ‘Curb”, so that I can get the chance to get on Larry David’s ass once again.”
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For more information about the Mega Stars of Comedy Gala, or any other Just For Laughs show, go to the festival’s website at hahaha.com.