Since 1983, comedians from around the globe have gathered in Montreal, Quebec every July for the "Just For Laughs" comedy festival, which has become arguably the biggest event in the world of stand-up. Image Entertainment's Just for Laughs: Over the Edge compiles bits and pieces from well-known comics over recent festivals, as seen on the CBC "Just For Laughs" TV show. This special features some big laughs and first-rate performers, though often in performances that one wishes had a little more bulk to them.
Each comic does five to seven minutes, clearly edited together from a longer set (and with occasional backstage footage). First up is hyperactive Boston comic Bill Burr, who does some very funny material on relationships, communication, and the subject of his greatest ire: Sunday brunch ("Why would we wanna sleep in on Sunday when we could go spend $18 on eggs?"). Next up is the great Lewis Black, one of my favorite working comedians--though his material about the "recent" re-election of George W. Bush is somewhat dated. However, he does work in a great bit about how we can win the war on terror by electing a dead president, and his reflections on a trip to Ireland are priceless ("It's a good idea to go to Ireland when you think you're drinking too much, because you find out you're not even close.")
Greg Fitzsimmons does some sharp material on marriage and parenthood, while the pre-HBO Flight of the Conchords (who describe themselves as "probably about the fourth most popular folk/parody group" in New Zealand) do two songs, including an outstanding send-up of a deep-talking sex groove. Other highlights include Greg Giraldo, who offers up some tart cultural commentary (on the "sanctity of marriage" argument offered by gay marriage foes, he asks "Anybody here married? Does it feel like a gift from God to you?"); Jim Gaffigan, with some laugh-out-loud observations on sleep, laziness, movie food, and bottled water ("Oh, this is good--this is more watery than water"); Bonnie McFarlane, whose dry delivery is a wonder to behold; and Jeffrey Ross, whose extended riff on a very old aunt could be dismissed as Catskills-style hackery if it weren't so damned funny.
The special also features an appearance by the late Mitch Hedberg, whose oddball stoner non-sequiturs are as funny as ever; he says that someone showed him a picture and said, "Here's a picture of me when I was younger," to which he replied, "Every picture of you is when you were younger." And while Norm McDonald does some goofy, rather soft material (including an extended bit about Star Search), he sells it with his oddball timing and peculiar presence.
An Irish comic (previously unknown to me) named Tommy Tiernan closes the show; he's not exactly gut-busting, his material is smart and nuanced with an Eddie Izzard sort of vibe. Arj Barker gets some laughs in his discussion of dating, travelling, working out, and early jobs ("The worst thing about working in a hospital: you can't call in sick"), though his considerable charm is occasionally at the service of some fairly weak punch lines. However, the only real misfire in the show is Jeremy Hotz, whose strangulated delivery is, frankly, pretty monotonous.
The special's other problem is its sloppy construction; each comic is introduced with the same ugly montage set to the same irritating music, with their name appearing as on-screen text. But nowhere (including in the end credits) is there any indication of when these performances date from; we're left to put it together from context clues (like Black's Bush comments). A little more information would have been appreciated, especially for fans who might like to know how late in his life Hedberg appeared, or why McDonald looks so damn young.
The special's origin as a standard-def TV show is evident in the noisy, rather ugly full-frame image. There is frequent compression artifacting and some heavy grain, particularly in darker crowd shots. However, I can't imagine anyone is watching this disc to be dazzled by the visual pyrotechnics; as it is, the video presentation does the job, if nothing more.
The 2.0 Dolby Digital track will, again, not exactly blow you away. But audibility and clarity are just fine and none of the gags are muffled. We're not hearing the crisp, immersive 5.1 sound of a Comedy Central performance DVD, but what we get is good enough.
There are two sections of brief backstage clips. First are four segments of "Backstage with Binder," in which Shaun Majumder's sweaty, awkward alter ego Raj Binder interviews Burr, Tiernan, McFarlane, and Fitzsimmons. These are hit-and-miss; Burr, for example, works well with Majumder, though McFarlane's interview is strained.
"More Backstage" begins with a funny montage of interview snippets with Giraldo making up stories about his life before comedy (including his 12 years as a neurosurgeon). We then have a brief (and fairly funny) interview of Ross being interviewed by show host Harland Williams; this is followed by a longer version of Williams' interview with Gaffigan, seen during the special proper in a shorter version that should have stayed that way (this longer one doesn't work at all).
Just for Laughs: Over the Edge has its flaws--the brief chunks of each comic's act often gives the feeling of a set ending just as it's getting started, the quality of the comedians is somewhat uneven, and some of the comics (particularly Black) sound somewhat neutered by the no-profanity requests of the original TV show (though there is a bit of adult language, most of it from Ross). Though stand-up aficionados will still find plenty here to enjoy, this disc is probably more of a rental than one for the permanent library.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.