The Montreal Just for Laughs festival was designed with standup in mind, serving mostly “club acts” to comedy fans for its first quarter-century. But according to JFL talent producer Robbie Praw, that strategy left a significant portion of the comedy pie unrepresented — from sketch acts to video-based comedians.
In an effort to include these other forms, JFL has expanded to offer everything from improv opportunities to a film fest. But their most successful addition has been a music-themed comedy showcase called Amp’d, introduced in 2007 and now positioned as the focus of this year’s fest. (At last year’s Amp’d, Judd Apatow even climbed onstage and sang alongside Craig Robinson.)
“For a while, musical comedy was a dead art form. I was always very afraid to be the comedian with the guitar,” says Jon Lajoie, who attributes his success to a musicvideo-turned-viral sensation he shot two years ago. “Without the music I would have been just another guy making a few sketches online. I probably wouldn’t have graduated to performing a live show.”
Lajoie made his JFL debut in 2008 in the Amp’d show and has since been touring both music venues and comedy clubs across the U.S. and Canada (a pattern more befitting a rock star than a comedian). Fellow YouTube star Bo Burnham, who recorded the song “My Whole Family Thinks I’m Gay” in his bedroom, caught Apatow’s eye at Amp’d and is now writing the “anti-‘High School Musical’ ” script for the producer. And it was the tongue-in-cheek band Tenacious D that helped Jack Black go from background player to leading man.
“Maybe it’s always been here, but acts doing music are making a name for themselves, and it’s making it easier for others to do the same,” says comedian Reggie Watts, who left his gig as lead singer of the band Maktub, moved from Seattle to New York and started performing his unique beatbox-based routine at standup clubs when he realized “you can do more damage as a solo artist.”
For Watts, who is hosting this year’s Amp’d show, his abstract, hip-hop style might not seem so unusual if he were still playing music venues, but presented in a comedy context, they’ve helped brand him as an original.
“I think the music lets me break out of the comedy club scene a bit easier,” Burnham says. “Music festivals and rock clubs seem to fit the act better.”
For many of these performers, the music came first. Kate Micucci, one half of the Garfunkel and Oates duo, says she turned her music comedic to make up for a questionable singing voice. “Singing a song over and over seems more natural than standup repeats. I just feel more comfortable when there’s music involved,” says the ukulele-wielding performer, who also appears on the NBC comedy “Scrubs” (in which she’s performed a number of her songs).
Mitch Fried, senior vice president of Comedy Central Live Entertainment, approaches the promotion of a musical comedian’s tour no differently from any other act. He says the network tries to emphasize each comedian’s specific abilities, although a musical hook does offer some advantages.
“When someone performs on a radio talkshow, people in their cars can actually listen to a song they will see performed live at the show he’s promoting,” he says.
That makes for a radically different dynamic from traditional standup, as Praw observed when Lajoie and Burnham took the stage during the Amp’d show last year. “People were singing along with their songs,” Praw says. “From a booking standpoint, I’ve never seen that before. People don’t just go to a comedy show and mimic people’s bits.”
But not all comedy connoisseurs are enthused by the attention musical acts have been getting. “There are a lot of people who play guitar and change the words to songs,” says veteran comic Eddie Brill, who also serves as a talent producer for CBS’s “Late Show With David Letterman.” “As comedians, we consider that stuff you do in seventh grade, but audiences go crazy for it.”
And though funny songs seem uniquely suited for YouTube success, bite-sized clips can be misleading for comedy scouts, who prefer to evaluate whether standups have enough strong material to sustain a full set. That’s not an issue for talents like Lajoie, Burnham or Micucci, who’ve written enough songs to support a proper concert — a format many auds seem to prefer.
“Once you put together a song, it’s a joke wrapped in a nice little package that people understand,” Lajoie says. “You don’t have to sit and wait for the stand-up comedian to set up a joke.”
When: July 16-26