One of my favourite things about covering comedy is seeing a stand-up climb to a new level. I've seen Dave Merheje a half dozen times and often felt he coasted on nervous energy, a squeaky voice and his self-consciously awkward suburban hip-hop look. The Lebanese-Canadian jokester is bald, skinny, wears thick glasses and a baseball-cap.
Watching him perform a short set at the NXNE Comedy Records show at Free Times Cafe last night (Wednesday, June 18), however, was like witnessing the pieces of his onstage persona finally come together. There's lots of honesty - emotional, if not factual - in his material now. He's the socially awkward man-boy who's dressed gangsta but doesn't quite know the rules. There's some Woody Allen neuroses in the mix, as well as a hopped-up physicality that gives his act a jolt of adrenaline.
His opening bit - about goofing around with his roommate and landing up in the hospital - establishes his persona well: the chip-on-his-shoulder attitude, the false bravado. All of which he then sends up in an awkward encounter with a genuinely intimidating dude - someone who's actually living the life he tries to mimic.
It's a quick, brilliant scene that immediately gets us on his side. Merheje uses his voice and his body well to make us see the interaction. He does it again in two other in-way-over-his-head scenarios: one about waiting for a bus in a shelter with crackheads, and another about working out at a gym. One brief word slip-up aside, both jokes land terrifically.
He closed his set with a joke about giving and receiving bad oral sex that - talk about lateral shifts - included him repeating Denzel Washington's monologue from Training Day. Incredible.
The rest of the show was a mixed bag. Tim Nasiopoulos was a low-key, genial host who never connected with the crowd. Danny Polishchuk delivered the best Fleshlight joke (they are the festival sponsor), but not much else, although his material isn't bad, while Chris Robinson completely misread the hipster-ish crowd, thinking a finger-in-the-butt and Japanese girls in porn jokes would get laughs. Boy did they ever not get laughs.
Todd Graham had a better read on the crowd, forcing us to come to him by endlessly readjusting his mic stand and then delivering one sarcastic salvo after another that addressed his outfit and his middle-age. He even managed to turn a cellphone dick pic joke into something fresh.
Steph Tolev is a force of nature: she's got a wild, unpredictable presence, gritty voice and the ability to dramatize a scene that obviously comes from her sketch work with LadyStache. Her writing could be sharper, but Tolev has got a strong point of view and great instincts.
Fraser Young proved once again that he's a master of sending up lapses in logic. His joke about being confused by an Ebony MC rap lyric was inspired.
And headliner Arthur Simeon, one of the best around, ended the show on a high note, although his opening bit about a conversation with a cab driver meandered like that car. And a couple of set-ups were too insistent, so we could see the punchline coming from miles away. A bit more subtlety would have paid off in laughs.
Further uptown, the 11 pm Cottage Country show was delayed until just past 11:30 pm, probably because the Comedy Bar Mainspace was empty. When word spread that Interactive keynote speaker Marc Maron was in the house and might appear - he was just finishing up a surprise set in the cabaret space - a few people eventually migrated over.
After host Andrew Ivimey's spirited and competent opening act (his role through the night was less a host than a coach trying to rouse a listless team), Maron delivered a couple of stories about his hilarious hypochondriac habits.
Pulling up his chair to edge of the stage to get intimate, Maron expertly told us stories about his self-diagnosed brush with brain cancer, describing a scene getting an MRI in such intimate detail we felt we were there. He closed with his famous bit about experiencing a colonoscopy, ending with the words "I get it." Solid storytelling, and what a mensch to do two impromptu sets.
It's unfair to mention the comics who were less than stellar - there were maybe a dozen people in the audience by the end of the endless show, which happened just before 2 am. But Rob Mailloux, Peter Anthony, Richie Redding and Tyler Morrison soldiered through and earned a few laughs thanks to a combination of masochism, professionalism and solid material.
To these comics (and others): as they say at funerals, I hope we see each other next time under happier circumstances.