I've just arrived in Charlottetown for the third night of the West Meets East comedy tour. Four comedians - two from the Vancouver scene (Brad Dorian and Stefan MacNeil) and two from Halifax's (Chanel Freire and Andrew Vaughan) - are doing a run through three provinces: six cities in six days.
The name is a hint deceiving, though: all four are originally from Atlantic Canada despite where they currently ply their craft. As such they bring informed perspectives on East Coast life to their acts. What is more, each city they travel to is a homecoming of sorts for at least one of them.
The tour is unabashedly democratic. There is no 'star,' and from performance to performance they change who hosts, who opens, who middles, and who closes. (There have also been special guests, like Ian Black in Halifax.)
I've attached myself to them like a deer tick or an uncle back from rehab. I'm a folklorist who studies stand-up comedy, and I've been watching and taping their shows and hanging out with them until it gets creepy.
One of the things that strikes me is how they don't do stand-up: they are stand-ups. After the shows they're quick to critique their own and each others' performance. Chanel told me of a joke that didn't work last night, and why. But she tried it, and she knows she will figure out how to make it work, because (a) she knows the premise is sound and, (b) without introducing unnecessary gravitas, it is an important point she wants to make on stage. (I'm not going to spoil it here: that's not my right.) It's a new idea that came to her that morning: she knows she needs to build up the lead-in to it. But there's no really way of knowing what will work and what won't until one tries it on a stage. You can intuit, you can project, but until it is tested in real life it's only theoretical. And one joke that doesn't land within a twenty minute set of strong material is no big deal.
So people coming to see these shows will be entertained, but it isn't mere entertainment. A distinction made last night by Stefan was how there is safety in using the material you know will work, and double safety if the topics are easy targets, but 'safety' is not why one goes to stand-up. "You want to bring the audience to an uncomfortable place and then, just, release." A comedian with integrity is not afraid of making the audience uncomfortable. Furthermore: "If you like any of your jokes from the past year you're doing it wrong." It's all about never being satisfied with the success of your act.
Afterwards, Brad, Stefan and I retired to a pub and the conversation continued long. long into the night. Having worked closely with each other in Vancouver, they knew each others' material well, and at Brad's suggestion each identified their favourite joke of the other. Then they went through their favourite comedians. Then their favourite joke: of theirs, of others, of all time, as of right now. Then their least favourites. Then comedy audiences. Then comedy markets. They talked comedy because they breathe comedy.
People coming to the shows will see four young but seasoned comedians, working at a high level but never resting on laurels. They can read a room and deliver strong and original material to that room, all while pushing that audience just a bit past their comfort level only to guide them back again.
The tour continues tonight at 9:00 (doors open 8:30) at Marc’s Lounge, Charlottetown. Then it's Friday in Saint John at Taco Pica at 9:00, Saturday for an 8:30 at The Wilser’s Room in Fredericton, and Sunday at Moncton's The Comic Hunter for a 6:30 (with doors opening a half hour early at all venues).