Sled Island Comedy Showcase review

By Andy Williams

Sled Island festival’s biggest attraction is undoubtedly its music. Though the festival has waded into other artistic territories and media over the course of its five-year run, the music remains the nucleus. With that in mind, I weighed my decision about attending this year’s comedy showcase heavily. It landed smack-dab in the middle of Friday night, one of the most jam-packed days of Sled Island, and above all, the day the mainstage shows at Olympic Plaza kick off. Still, on Friday night at 7 p.m. I found myself nestled in the cozy Auburn Saloon in the shadow of the Calgary Tower waiting for this year’s Sled Island Comedy Showcase to start, and what a showcase it was. 

Neil Hamburger was the motivating factor behind my attendance. For those who don’t know, Hamburger is a character created by Gregg Turkington, an Australian comedian and musician. For over 20 years, Hamburger has regaled audiences with his off-colour humour and his anti-jokes in a style similar to Andy Kaufman’s contentious Tony Clifton lounge singer act. Before the show, I had seen clips of Hamburger and heard stories about his performances, but I just couldn’t conceive of Turkington being able to spout his signature off-colour humour for the full 45 minutes of the headlining spot. 

The show opened with the only Calgarian on the bill, Ryan Kukec. Kukec– who was serving as host for the evening– performed a brief five-minute set. Kukec’s opening jokes were funny, but weren’t very well-received, a situation I attribute to the fact that nobody was really settled and the Saloon was still gradually filling up. Next up was Edmontonian Jon Mick. Mick’s self-deprecating humour was funny as well, but he suffered from the same problem as Kukec– the crowd just wasn’t attentive.

The show really kicked into gear with the first of two longer 30-minute sets. The crowd had settled down and was fully attentive for Los Angeleno Brody Stevens, who took the stage for a forceful, hilarious and meandering pep talk, peppered with repeated allusions to his small roles in the movies Due Date and The Hangover and his small-time baseball career. If that sounds ridiculous, it was, but Stevens’s energy made it entertaining. It did wane a bit after the 20-minute mark, but overall Stevens did well. 

Next up was Tig Notaro, who is probably most famous for playing Officer Tig on The Sarah Silverman Program. Her set was structured around her biting and self-effacing observational humour, and it was wonderful. Notaro recounted some hilarious anecdotal stories, but the highlight of her set was when she invited a heckler who was complaining about the quality of Notaro’s impressions on stage to do an impression herself. The heckler was terrible (aren’t they always?) and laughs were had by all. It was a great way to wrap up Notaro’s spot.

Then headlined the aforementioned Neil Hamburger. Hamburger took the stage in his infamous dumpy tux with his hair greased and cajoled into a formidable comb-over. Clutched between his arm and his body were his usual four highballs, at the ready to spill or be dropped but certainly not drank. The enraptured crowd listened to Hamburger deliver joke after joke, and though the material definitely wasn’t for everyone, it went over well ­– that is, until a disgruntled patron stormed the stage to reprimand Hamburger for the insults he had directed toward her as she had left his show earlier. Part of Hamburger’s bit is heckling people as they leave, and the offended woman ran up on stage berating Hamburger for calling her a whore. She proceeded to punch him in the face, and Hamburger quickly scurried off the stage after dropping one of his drinks. At first, this seemed like it was just another part of the set, but the gravity of the situation quickly set in and the assailant fled. The room was tense after the incident but Hamburger quickly diffused the situation by again insulting his assailant as she left and proceeded to carry on with his set. The remainder of Hamburger’s set passed without incident and ultimately, he performed admirably. 

I’m surprised to say this, but without a doubt, the Comedy Showcase was one of the highlights of Sled Island for me this year. The depth and eclecticism of the lineup certainly made it an attractive choice on Friday evening, and it showed, as the Auburn Saloon was packed. I hope that Sled Island continues with its Comedy Showcase next year being just as well programmed as it was this year.

Leave a comment