TIFF this. TIFF that. If you’re not TIFFing, you’re nothing.
Don’t get me started on the Toronto International Film Festival. Toronto’s King streetcar route is changed for its duration. Honest to heavens, the busiest surface transit route in North America has to go up and around, and this way and that, instead of going in a straight line. Why? Because of TIFF.
You’d laugh, if you weren’t on the streetcar cursing away TIFF for making you late. And laughter is our subject today. Not everyone in this great and glorious country is rocking in their heels with childish excitement about film festivals. What loads of people would like is a pleasant hour-ish length of laughter.
Now, there are more stand-up comedy specials on the streaming services than there are movies at TIFF. I draw your attention to two recent arrivals. One is very pleasant, funny and charming in an old-school way. And the other is numbskull-ranting that many of you may find cutting edge and refreshing, but others will find so tediously coarse that they will run from the room seeking medication.
The two specials are polar opposites and unnervingly so. Never mind TIFF, if you want to understand this polarized world, you must watch both, really. No matter how unsettling.
Jim Gaffigan: Quality Time (streaming on Amazon Prime Video) opens with Gaffigan saying, “This is what I look like. It’s mostly my fault.” And you know where you stand with this guy: White, middle-aged dad doing unpretentious observational comedy. And yet Gaffigan – a reliable late-night chat-show guest these many years – is actually an absurdist in disguise as a regular guy.
He does a rather strange bit that’s filled with horse jokes, and then shifts into another voice, telling the audience: “I can see on some of your faces that you would frankly prefer if I did more horse jokes.” They wouldn’t. He’s teasing them to the point of taunting, and he ends one very funny story about encountering a bear in Alaska by hinting that it was all made up, but he’s aware of how plausible he seems.
Gaffigan’s special was partly written by his wife and directed by her. And you can tell. The comedian isn’t allowed to sit in a comedy-content silo of phony male bafflement at the world. The audience is subtly invited to judge him, and that is a good thing. The laughs come from an earned affability that isn’t phony at all.
Dave Chappelle: Sticks & Stones (streaming on Netflix) is the stand-up’s fifth special, part of a massive, multimillion-dollar deal with Netflix. He got the deal because of his well-earned reputation as an incisive, witheringly funny guy, a reliably provocative entertainer. He staked his brand on useful provocation.
Here he continues to provoke but it’s not that funny. Watching Chappelle now is watching a guy who has soaked up the adoration and also memorized every negative remark about his comedy. What he does isn’t really challenging or outrageous. Unless you think victim-blaming is cutting-edge comedy. He sets out to double-down on those who have been offended, especially the gay community.
What’s really fascinating – though not amusing – is the cocky tone of the poor-me act Chappelle has going now. He starts by reminding people that Anthony Bourdain, who had had one of the best jobs in the world, killed himself. He goes on to claim, as if there was a connection, that it’s “celebrity hunting season.” People like him and other comedians have never had it so bad, apparently. You see, there’s all this stuff about sex with minors and offending the LGBTQ community.
He defends Kevin Hart, and he defends Louis CK. In an already notorious segment, he heaps scorn on those who accused Michael Jackson of abusing children. It’s a long rant and he has zero sympathy for the victims. Zero. Chappelle’s schtick is that he is now a one-man truth-telling machine, a corrective to the #MeToo movement and a foul-mouthed scold of victims. From the vantage point of fabulous wealth and fame, he’s a destroyer of hypocrisy while, of course, embodying hypocrisy in his every crass utterance. It’s a precarious position to occupy and far from entertaining.
Yet it’s creepily relevant. It’s like spending an hour online reading all those trolls who sneer and sneer. Humanity can be disgusting. Or brilliantly amusing. There, we’ve all learned something, without going near TIFF.