Toronto Fringe 2022: Life’s a Tragic Comedy

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Dear reader. No, wait. Sorry, a content warning is needed before you read ahead. This isn’t going to be a scandalous piece like Lady Whistledown’s, but it will be intriguing all the same. Read at your own risk. Anyway, continuing —

Sometimes life is the biggest tragic comedy. This might sound dramatic to you, but I implore you to think about it for a second. What are some most popular topics amongst comedians? Relationships? Exes? Family? Racism? Intrusiveness masked by curiosity? Annoying people in airport lines? — life? Don’t take my word for it, but as someone who has recently been to (and is now expertly reviewing) two back-to-back stand-up comedy shows at this year’s Fringe Festival in Toronto, I claim myself to be a regular (not) on the stand-up comedy scene. So you might as well take my word for it.

Coming back to my point about life being a comedy, what’s amusing to me is whom I ended up going with to see these shows. Let’s just give them shape names for the sake of this piece — a heart and a diamond. Make what you will of that. Much like the Fringe’s lottery system where shows are picked at random from a fishbowl, the shows I went to see were too. The night I went to see my first show, Aliya Khanani’s ‘Where are you From, From?’ My (actual) heart ended up happy for more than one reason. 

A fellow citizen of the world (we are an exclusive group of eight), Aliya’s sketch is primarily about being a brown, Muslim woman. She begins with a keen observation of the claimed randomness of secondary airport searches — “Eeny, meeny, miny, Mo… hammed?” And then moves on to ask a question that I, as an international student, get asked every day, “Where are you from?” Apparently, being non-white gives you an automatic un-subscribable subscription to this question. For Aliya, however, having grown up with a nomadic rhythm while moving from one city to the other, the answer to this question isn’t so straightforward. However, child Aliya seized the opportunity to spin stories about where she’s from, her genealogy and her heritage, only to watch people squirm and try and get to the answer their unconscious bias oh so clearly wants to confirm. As a fellow storyteller, I felt both validated and sheepish sitting in my seat. Unfortunately, the venue’s mask requirement did not allow my (or anyone else’s) expressions to be communicated with the charming, creatively interesting artist in front of us.

What I loved the most about Aliya’s show was her subtlety and charm in approaching problematic topics that at one point would have been frustrating, irritating and even hurtful. From her childhood experiences of being teased about her last name (word play on “punani”), and being bullied as the new kid in school, to her adult experiences of show organizers asking her to include anecdotes of her family and race in her sketch or the pleasant cohort (not) of passengers she had to deal with as a flight attendant, everything was something either directly or potentially relatable. Remember what I said about life being the biggest tragic comedy? 

Like Aliya’s exclusive citizen of the world status, there are only a handful of people I know who can make a diverse room — in more ways than one — feel, laugh and move together, especially when the central theme of the conversation is ‘otherness.’ Almost as much as I loved Aliya’s show, the audience on Sunday night at the Tarragon Theatre had my heart too. Especially this one man sitting in the second row whose heart-warming guffaws intoxicated with honesty, confidence and self-surety (much like Aliya’s fearless niece) boomed across the theatre long after everyone else’s polite laughter had died down. There were jokes I (and my fellow patrons) ended up laughing at a lot more because of this man’s contagious laugh. Partial credit to which I’ll happily give Aliya, who, in an interview with Kieran Eaton, stated that she wanted everyone to relate, regardless of “where they are from.”

 

Branching off the same interview,  Aliya challenges perceptions in a way that feels like you are on a date – being gentle and gradual – unlike some male approaches to intimacy she gets. Maybe it was serendipity that discount-loving Aliya’s tryst with comedy writing began with cashing in a Groupon. Maybe it was serendipity that I went for her show with heart. We’ve seen how it worked out for the former, but for the latter, time will tell.

As for night two, fate had me seated on the seventh row at Anesti Danelis’ “This show will change your life” on Monday night. For a comedian who went viral in 2019 with a video of him singing his resignation from Starbucks — the song is called “F- This, I Quit,” I should have expected something drastic. During the 50 minutes of run time, Anesti targeted the lofty claims self-help books make, and touched upon (an understatement) his life experiences — including having arguments with people in his mind (the only part I related to), stealing from work (funny, but also extreme), trying to date while living at home with Greek immigrant parents (a little disturbing), how being bisexual opens up new ways of getting dumped (not what you’d imagined at all), and last but definitely, definitely not the least — ways of coping after being dumped (I am still a little traumatized). You may say I have a weak stomach, but I’m sorry, the idea of my ex potentially — excuse my language — fucking my entire family (each member having been explicitly named), is not something I want to digest, let alone put in my mouth. Pun not intended. Rumour around the grapevine is that a couple of people left midway through the show the previous night, and as they were leaving, Mr. Danelis very politely cautioned that he would fuck all their families. I checked the content warning of the show after it ended, and PG 13 is not an accurate rating. Sometimes, life is simply tragic.

The saving grace of Anesti’s show was his cheerfully misanthropic series of songs he sang between every set, constantly changing his instrument of choice. Again, pun not intended. Playing the keyboard, guitar, violin and tambourine, sometimes simultaneously, by the end of the night, it was clear to me that Anesti’s musical talents were a lot less troublesome and problematic than his comedic talents. I also appreciated the visual elements of the show, especially the lighting design, which was dynamic and perfectly adapted to suit every mood.

Having gone to see this show with diamond, who’d just broken off a long-term relationship, there were moments I wanted to shrink into my seat and disappear for having dragged her along with me. We didn’t talk about it after, but when I sheepishly asked her to accompany me to a different show on Thursday evening, she politely declined. My brain refuses to think about what it would have been like if the shows and shapes were swapped. Let’s just say that if I ever find myself on stage, an anecdote of my first Fringe Festival will be sure to come up, because whether you’re convinced or not, tragic situations make for great comedy.