Some performers, says a history of Canada's premier comedy festival, were even crazier offstage
THE JOKERS WERE WILD
Some performers, says a history of Canada's premier comedy festival, were even crazier offstage
The Maclean’s Excerpt
From 1986 to 1999, Andy Nulman was one of the leading figures behind Montreal’s Just for Laughs comedy festival, getting to mingle—and tussle —with some of comedy’s biggest stars. Ln I Almost Killed George Burns!, to be published this week by ECW Press, he describes the many tears he shed behind the scenes, as when John Candy visited in 1988, and during Jerry Lewis’s 1986 and 1992 appearances:
It took about two hours for the festival to become Candy's kingdom. He held court nightly in the far end of the Delta's Le Cordial, reminiscing, drinking, chainsmoking and laughing with gusto.
John partied hard, but he worked hard, too. For this mega, live-TV event, he would play a
number of different characters, including a chain-festooned rapper and a stuffy government official named Gordon Massey-Ferguson. On Friday night, the production staff and a handful of HBO execs gathered in the suite of Stu Smiley (HBO’s VP of comedy programming) to watch the rehearsal tape and make last-minute changes. It
was almost 3 a.m. “Someone better make sure that Candy gets to bed,” Smiley smirked.
I volunteered my services and made my way down to Le Cordial. Of course, there was John, trading war stories with SCTVvets Ron James and
Robin Duke (also of Saturday Night Live famé). I had never seen him so happy. “Don’t worry,” he
told me when I reminded him of the big show coming up. “One last drink, and I’ll see you in the morning.” Morning? “Aren’t you coming to watch me record those CBC intros?” he asked. “Of course,” I said. “What time?” He looked at his watch. “Oh about seven hours from now.” I smiled uneasily. “OK, see you there.”
I was amazed to see John show up
on time the next morning. Granted, he was tired, but he was chipper and ready to roll. A pro’s a pro, I figured. For the next three hours, he introduced performers who weren’t there and made stage entrances talking to a non-existent audience. By 1 p.m., the fatigue was evident in his delivery, and there was an overabundance of throat clearing and “ahems,” so Bob Kaminsky and Carol Reynolds, supervising the recording for the CBC, wrapped the session and sent John back to his dressing room.
The St. Denis Theatre is a gorgeous old structure, but at that time its backstage amenities left a lot to be desired. To keep John cool between introductions and costume changes, we augmented the building’s meagre air-conditioning system with a fan blowing on huge cakes of ice.
Great for the skin, but not so wonderful for the throat. We kept this going throughout the afternoon rehearsal. We finished just minutes before the theatre
doors were opened to the public. On with the show, this is it.
It kicked off with a rap number by Barry Sobel. Starting from the back of the hall, Sobel snaked his way through the standing, clapping, chanting audience. As this was going on, John Candy—decked out in a porkpie hat, dark shades and a mile of gold chain—was snuck onstage, and he stood in shadow before two turntables. While Sobel rapped, Candy’s silhouette feigned some record scratching. Then, climbing onstage, Sobel performed his final verse.
I’d like to introduce a man who’s fine
He ain’t Barry Manilow, he wont
He’s a stand-up kind of guy, a real
My favourite Volunteer, Tom Hanks!
I kid. . . John Candy!
And with that, every light in the theatre fixed its beam upon the show’s star. The band whipped itself into an orgy of highpitched squeals and thumping bass. The crowd went nuts. But then Candy delivered his opening lines: “Hello Montreal!
Are you ready to party?” They came out broken and croaky. “I said, are you ready to party?” Again, coarse and raspy. And then came the straw that broke the camel’s back—Candy’s introduction of the night’s first act, a one-man Jackson Five impersonator (don’t ask) named Christopher: “Good, ’cause here he is! Christopher!” There was no joy in Mudville. With the word “Christopher,” Mighty Candy’s voice shattered like a 10-cent lightbulb.
Candy came backstage with pure ter-
ror in his eyes. Christopher’s musical bit would last only as long as the Jackson Five tune The Love You Save, which gave us about three minutes not only to restore our star’s vocal chords, but also to get him out of his funky rap outfit and into his elegant host’s tuxedo. Panic struck fast and hard. Like an army sergeant under enemy attack, Kaminsky
barked orders: “Get f-g tea! With
honey!” And within an instant, everyone backstage—TV execs, hangers-on, technicians, even some of the performers scheduled to appear later in the show— was racing through the streets of Montreal in search of hot beverages. Shortly afterward, steaming cups filled just about every surface in the theatre’s dressing rooms, corridors and wings.
Whenever Candy left the stage during the rest of the show, someone would be waiting for him with a cup of hot tea. Not only is it a miracle that he made it through the hour delivering every line, but it’s also amazing that he made it through without his bladder bursting. When he finally raised his arm and croaked: “You have been a wonderful, wonderful audience! Thank you, Montreal!” I breathed yet another massive sigh of relief.
To this day, every time I hear the words “Jerry Lewis,” the right side of my face breaks out in an uncontrollable twitch. More than any other performer at Just for Laughs, this comedy God wreaked havoc with my psyche.
The scene was a Muscular Dystrophy Association press conference, Jerry’s final commitment on his visit to Montreal in July, 1986. A reporter referred to Lucinda Chodan’s scathing critique [of the show the night before] and asked Jerry if re-
views still mattered to him after so many years. Jerry began to answer very graciously, intelligently explaining the balance between the fragility of artists’ hearts and the rhinoceroslike toughness of their skin. But then, as a coda, he took a potshot at the offending review: “You can’t accept one individual’s opinion, particularly if it’s a female, and, you know—God willing, I hope for her sake it’s not the case—but when they get a period, it’s really difficult for them to func-
tion as normal human beings.”
The incident became a cause célèbre throughout the North American media. Women’s groups denounced Jerry. There were calls for him to apologize, even to step down from his MDA responsibilities. But Jerry rode out the storm, and by the time his telethon hit the airwaves, about five weeks later, he’d managed to put the whole episode safely behind him.
On Aug. 5, 1992, with visions of the aloof, nasty, vindictive character I’d encountered in 1986 filling my head, I reluctantly climbed into the limo that was to collect Jerry Lewis at the airport. Press reports said that he had mellowed since the birth of his daughter, Danielle, and I figured that bringing along a gift for the baby would be a good icebreaker. Well, the press was right, and so was I. He greeted me with a wild yelp and Lewisian facial contortion.
Jerry’s rehearsal began at Place des Arts at 1 p.m. At 1:10,1 got my first phone call from assistant Raemona Slodovnick. “You better get over here fast,” she whispered. “He’s really pissed off!” Oh, Christ. Arriving there, I encountered a flurry of fury. “You little prick! A Lincoln Town Car?
That’s the type of car you send over for a movie star and director? A Lincoln Town Car? Where’s my limo?” Although the words were loud, they were said with a smile, so my response was semi-serious.
“Aw, come on, Jerr,” I smiled back. “It’s a simple screwup by our logistics department. If you really want a limo, I’ll have one over here by the time you finish rehearsal.” Still smiling, Lewis said: “That’s what I want.” Then he put his arm around my shoulder and squeezed. “A Lincoln Town Car! What were you thinking, you putz?”
The next time I ran into Jerry Lewis was at the massive Comedy Central bash, a free-for-all in which over a thousand Just for Laughs artists and guests stuff themselves into two Delta Hotel ballrooms. The party starts at midnight, includes an all-night bacon-and-egg breakfast, and is the festival’s most popular social event. With a double Absolut on the rocks in my hand, I circulated merrily through the throng. Then I glanced over at the ballroom’s main entrance and saw Jerry tentatively peering in. As a good host should, I put down my glass and walked over to welcome him. “So, how did your show go tonight?” I asked. He responded by closing his hands around my neck.
Throttling and shaking me, Lewis smiled and said: “You Jew bastard! Trying to pull a fast one on me!”
I tried to think of a snappy comeback, but all I could summon up was: “Huh?” “I saw TV cameras there tonight! I never gave you the right to tape me!”
He hadn’t given us that right, but his manager, Joe Stabile, had. Yet rather than confront a man intent on strangling me in front of hundreds of onlookers, I immediately downshifted into ultra-humble mode: “Jerry, do you think a little nothing like me would try to put one over on a respected mega-star like you? I negotiated the film rights with Joe.”
“Well, I knew nothing about it,” he replied, “but if Joey signed it, I’ll live up to it. Let’s put it this way: if you can show me this agreement by tomorrow afternoon, signed, I’ll apologize, I’ll respect you, I’ll
CANDY HELD COURT NIGHTLY, REMINISCING, DRINKING, SMOKING AND LAUGHING WITH GUSTO
love you and I’ll give you a great show. If you don’t show me this agreement by tomorrow, I’ll still love you, respect you, and perform for you ...” And then his face turned to stone “... but I’ll make the rest of your life a living hell, understand?” And then another memorable party moment occurred, this one co-starring Lewis and Alan King. Seeing the two comedic icons hanging out in such close proximity was too much for Mike MacDonald to handle. The only comedian to appear at every Just for Laughs, Mike had studied his comic predecessors, and he had the utmost respect for them. Mike made his way over, got on his knees and bowed, lying facedown at their feet. Lewis glanced down, gave King a “let’s split this scene” look, stepped on and then over the prone worshipper, and quickly exited. King followed suit. When Mike looked up, his idols had vanished.
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