Comedian Vic Lippucci has five days to polish his act for the finale of the Montreal Comedy Festival, the biggest, most influential in the world. Five days to make the kind of impression that might launch him into the big time.
BCBusiness magazine, December 2003
“Ladies and gentlemen, all the way from Vancouver, please welcome to the stage Vic Lippucci!”
It’s showtime. Lippucci, a bundle of raw energy, has completed his pre-show push-ups and closed-eye visualization in the wings. This is not a high-profile show, but the casually-dressed comic treats each performance seriously. Hearing his name, he sprints to the microphone, zig-zagging through tables along the way.
He is feeling awesome. Prowling the stage like a mountain cat, Lippucci bends over at the waist and makes direct eye contact with as many people as he can, dying to tell everyone how his day went. He paces frantically, talking with his arms (he is Italian after all) and throwing his head around like his neck were made of rubber. He’s definitely excited.
“What’s up, Montreal?!”
A few mumbles, but mostly the audience just sits there. They’re waiting for the first punchline, which is coming in due course. In the meantime, Luppucci is trying to pump them up.
“Yeah! I’m feeling awesome!”
“I’m feeling good because I got a wake-up call in my hotel today.”
He screeches a telephone ring into the microphone. “Front desk calling,” he mimics in a sing-song voice. “That’s right, giving you a wake-up call. Just for you. We’re here for you.”
The audience isn’t biting. But the joke’s coming. They’re just have to be patient.
“I’m not used to that. Yeah, because I grew up in an Italian family. My dad was in charge of wake-up calls in my house. My dad didn’t talk; my dad yelled everything. Imagine if my dad was working in a hotel. That would be so cool.”
And here it comes, folks. Right down the pipe: Affecting his best Italian father impersonation, he screams, “Wake up, you bum! Go to work lazy bum!” First major laugh. Relief.
Fast forward five minutes in the scenario. His dad is standing outside the door, banging. Lippucci knocks into the mic 19 times. The sheer number of knocks and the time they take is absurd, but serve to drive the big payoff home: “You tink dis is some kinda hotel?!” Another big laugh.
Now he’s rolling.
He moves on to assorted funny bits about his mother’s obsession with keeping all the good food for guests, his family’s Smithsonian-model wooden TV set, ColecoVision TV games like Pong, and the duties and functions of a first base coach in baseball.
His 10 minutes up, Lippucci tells the crowd they’ve been awesome and exits to a decent ovation, slapping hands with some audience members on his way back to the greenroom.
Vic Lippucci is in Montreal for the world’s biggest and most influential comedy festival, Just For Laughs. Now in its 20th season, the festival has become the comedic Mecca to anyone associated with show business. But worshippers can’t just show up on its doorstep; they must be invited. Festival organizers hold showcases throughout the world to look at the best new talent to invite, while more seasoned or more famous acts get the nod by reputation.
Once, a single shot on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show could launch the career of a young comic, but the hundreds-of-channels universe has changed all that. Not enough eyes are concentrated in that one spot anymore. Now, for two weeks every July anyway, Montreal is the centre of the entertainment world. Comedians, agents, managers, producers, TV executives and bookers converge on the city’s Delta Hotel to wheel and deal. A good seven-minute set can be enough to turn a no-name into a household name.
So Lippucci, or Pooch as he is known to his buddies, is fine-tuning his shot at stardom this evening at the Comedy Nest on Ste. Catherine Street West in a show called Comedy Night in Canada, one of 18 live comedy shows at various rooms and clubs around the city on this Wednesday night. He is gearing up for what his manager, Dale J. Manton of Integra Entertainment, calls his most prestigious show yet – a televised gala performance this Sunday at the St. Denis Theatre hosted by the legendary American comedian/writer/director/author Carl Reiner.
As a professional standup comedian, it’s Lippucci’s job, as he sees it, to convey energy to his audience, to channel his excitement over to them, culminating with hearty laughter and – if all goes well during this momentous week in his career – a deal.
But in the greenroom after this his first of eight performances at the festival, Lippucci worries about the crowd’s slow reaction. Before the show he had commented that the room didn’t seem very cozy. “There’s something missing,” he had told BCBusiness. But now he’s put his finger on it.
“They just didn’t give it up when I went up there,” he says, blaming it on the distance from the holding area to the stage. “It took too long to walk all the way from the back of the room to the front. Four or five seconds is good. But 20 seconds to walk on stage, the crowd dies. Now it’s, ‘Hurry up and be funny. Right now!’ It’s more pressure. I wasn’t really happy with the set. I didn’t feel bang-on. Also, the whole stage isn’t lit. I’m very physical and I was very aware that I was in the dark.”
Lippucci is always analyzing the ins and outs of the business. Some comics concentrate solely on their material, but this Vancouver-born and –raised funnyman has a keen eye and a savvy business sense about his act and the self-promotion that goes with it.
As the act stands now, it’s about 10 seconds, by his clock, to the set’s first punchline. That’s a little long, especially factoring in a long sprint from the back of the room to the stage. This, though, is a peculiar problem of the Comedy Nest, one he need not worry about at any of the festival’s other venues. Still, Lippucci discusses with Manton and one of Manton’s other clients, magician Sean Watson, who is along for the ride, a way to move into that first joke more quickly. Instead of the usual “What’s up? I’m feeling awesome! How are you guys?!”, Vic decides to go with a simple “Yes!” Yes is positive. Yes is short. Yes is still not funny, but it will allow him to get to the funny stuff in short order. He still wants to keep the excitement going.
“I do a lot of physical stuff,” he says. That’s not to say Lippucci is slipping on banana peels and throwing confetti to the crowd. Rather, he expresses each word with a movement of the hand, arm, neck or eyebrow.
Says Lippucci: “The key is to get their attention as soon as you can. Something that really makes them say, ‘Hey, let’s listen to this guy.’ When you’re excited about something, people can’t help but watch, right? My stage persona is a guy who totally just has to tell you guys this. ‘Oh listen to this! You wouldn’t believe what just happened.’”
Lippucci does 12 minutes this night, five longer than he’ll get at his gala. Each night until then, he’ll record and listen to his sets, constantly cutting and second-guessing himself. But he knows all too well the dangers that brings.
This is his third appearance at Just For Laughs. In 1999 he won the BC Homegrown Comics Competition at Lafflines Comedy Club in New Westminster, sending him to Montreal for the national competition for young Canadian up-and-comers. The smart thing would have been to refine the set that got him there, but he was seeing stars and decided to make wholesale changes. “I thought he could have taken [the competition], but he messed around with the jokes he was going to do and made a last-minute decision as he walked up onto the stage,” says Brent Schiess, manager of development and alternative programming at the festival. “It was a dumb move.”
“I’ve been learning a lot,” says Lippucci. “I’ve been really concentrating on just enjoying everything. I used to be really down and out on myself. I changed my whole set with an hour until showtime. And I was told not to by industry people. And I was like, ‘But I want to make it better!’ I’m like a poet or a writer. When you’re an artist, it’s never good enough.”
This year he will heed the industry’s advice. Now it’s a matter of cutting little bits here, adding a touch there. He will lose the ColecoVision material and the bit about his father trying to act hip by calling women “chickens.” “I’m not having fun with it,” he says.
He heads over to Comedy Works on Bishop Street for the 11:15 show Best of the Fest, where he tries out his minor adjustments. Again, the crowd response in the very cramped, very hot attic room is not where it should be this close to his shining moment. The show was running long (it wouldn’t end until 2 a.m.), and everyone was perhaps comedied-out. But other comics did well.
“I’m just concentrating on my set, not really so much the audience response,” he reflects the next morning, “because I know the stuff’s gold as it stands right now. And the crowd was into it last night, but they just saw a lot of comedy.”
There’s a telling scene in the documentary Comedian in which a frustrated Orny Adams gets a poor response from an audience at the Montreal Festival. He flings open the stage door and screams to the world about the early time of the show, the lousy crowd – everything but his act.
Lippucci says a comic should always look within before lashing out at an audience. “These people aren’t going home thinking, ‘How can we be a better audience?’ It’s the comic’s job to go home and say, ‘Why did that not work?’”
Lippucci finished his second set of the evening and headed downstairs to the bar where he ran into a fellow from Fox Searchlight Pictures. “He said he was very interested in my set and my style,” Vic says later. “They liked the physical stuff in my set, the expression, the craziness.”
Who knows whether anything will come of this chance encounter. But these are precisely the situations that jump-start careers. Schiess points to young performers who have bombed in their showcases, yet have come away with deals. Why? Producers aren’t always looking for the ability to generate laughs with original material. They have their own writers. What they want is a look, perhaps, or a character. “The crowd may not go for it,” says Schiess, “but industry still flocks to them saying, ‘I want you because you’re fantastic. You’ve got acting skills. This audience didn’t get it, but I’ve seen through that.’” So the performers walk off the stage in tears, but it turns out to be the best night of their professional careers.
Lippucci, naturally, would love to ink a deal. His immediate goal is to do the cross-country fall tour with Just For Laughs, which plays virtually every major Canadian city. He wants to pitch his ideas for two TV shows. And he wants to perform on The Tonight Show, which has producers present in Montreal. The Tonight Show is huge, he says. “It’s a very serious, possible goal as of the last couple of weeks. I’ve been looking at the guys that I’ve worked with in New York that have done it, and I believe I’m very capable of attaining that here at the festival.”
This is where Manton comes in. It’s his job as Lippucci’s manager to make all the necessary connections and do the follow-ups. Manton, who worked in an insurance company for 12 years before deciding it wasn’t much fun, is a newcomer to the festival, which, in effect, doubles his workload.
Not only does he have to schmooze day and night, but he’s also going in cold. Nobody knows his face.
“The festival will never be more intense than it is for me this year because the learning curve is so large,” says Manton. “Every person you meet, virtually, is a brand new person. Once you have the relationships established, it’s much easier to go to conferences like this.”
This is the reason a festival like Just For Laughs is so crucial. Manton would have to fly all over the map to meet any of these people. Here, they’re all conveniently located in and around the Delta Hotel bar, which acts as the focal point for festival insiders. It’s one big party until the wee hours every single night.
“We check after a number of different markets while we’re looking for the large breaks that can possibly come our way,” says Manton, sitting in the hotel restaurant sticking Vic’s schedule onto promotional postcards. “You gotta have staying power in the industry to develop your act, to go on waiting for the right break, waiting for the right opportunity, being in the right place at the right time.”
Manton and Lippucci are at the right place at the right time, that’s for sure. The key now is to make the right connections. A lot of people think a comedian works for just the 10 or 20 minutes he’s on stage. As veteran comic Glen Foster, another of Manton’s clients, says, “Comedians get 7½ days a week off. ‘I gotta go to work. I’ll be back in 40 minutes.’” That may be true the other times of the year, but in Montreal they put in a long workday. The comic mentally prepares for his set during the day, wanting to make sure it’s his best in case there’s an industry dealmaker in the audience. He does his show, and then the real work begins.
“You are officially on the clock from the second you touch the mic to the second you go to bed,” says Lippucci. “You do your set, you rock it, you kick as much ass as you possibly can and make all these people bleed from their eyes because they’re having a good time, peeing their pants. Then you hang out and you grab a drink and you just mingle. And you work that room. You ooze with self-confidence and a happy smile that everything is awesome in life. If you’ve got a miserable-looking face and you’re not sending out that aura and that good energy and the vibe, nobody’s gonna want to talk to you.”
The festival’s Schiess advises a three-step process for maxing a comedian’s effectiveness: talk to everyone, gather business cards and follow up. If the industry happens to catch your set, all the better, but it’s not necessary. Just knowing you were booked at the festival shows them you have talent. Sometimes, having a good mouth is more than enough. “One young lady who was here years ago got a deal signed – not even a performer – just by hanging out at the Delta,” says Schiess. “Her look, persona and conversational skills got her signed to a deal.”
If conversational skills are enough, the very personable Lippucci should have no trouble. It’s just a matter of talking to the right person. But he’s still got to do his main job. If a deal doesn’t come about this year, he shouldn’t consider himself a failure. “You’ve got to concern yourself, as a performer, with, number one, having a good show,” says Schiess.
The 28-year-old Lippucci, while confident, is well aware that his time to ink a big deal might not be this year. It’s a crapshoot. He might be disappointed, even surprised, but not devastated. “Because as soon as you’re devastated,” he says, “You’re the guy who got devastated and ‘Let’s not do business with him ever again.’ So instead, you’re like, ‘I wonder why? What do I gotta do to get that?’ Realign the crosshairs and just go to it again.”
Just getting a much-coveted gala is more than many comics accomplish. Not every comedian at the festival gets invited to perform at the large downtown theatre. There are five galas with nine acts per night. That works out to 45 comics out of the total of 1,003 performers. The galas are held at the St. Denis Theatre and hosted by big celebrities, not necessarily standup comedians. Brad Garrett, Rick Mercer, Kelly Ripa, Tina Fey and Carl Reiner are this year’s hosts. Only those considered at the top of their field – or destined to get there soon – get booked as guests. It can be a nerve-wracking experience for a young comic who has never played a large theatre before. Couple this with the fact that the televised program will be seen in syndication for years and it’s a recipe for sleepless nights.
Still, Lippucci seems in his element. He’s more excited than nervous – at least on the outside. He’s not admitting to any nerves (to the media, anyway).
Months are spent doing your gala set over and over to the point where you hate it. At the halfway point of the festival for Lippucci, he finishes his set at a show called Bubbling with Laughter, basically a dress rehearsal for his gala. His parents are in the audience, on their way to a vacation in their native Italy.
Outside Club Soda on St. Laurent Blvd., a weary-sounding Lippucci tells his family he’s going to retire the set once the gala is over. He says he’s getting bored with it, and his father, Angelo, nods his head. “It shows,” he says.
“My dad’s bored of seeing it,” he says later. “Bored of hearing it. It’s like a newbord kid, right? You love your kids when they’re newborn. Then they start turning into adults and you’re like, ‘Okay, when are you going to move out?’ So the jokes have become adults and they keep asking to borrow the fucking car. And I can’t handle it anymore. I’m ready for some new ones.”
But he’s still got three more performances before the big night. And althought Lippucci may be getting tired of the act, Manton likes where his client is at this point.
“I think he’s really, really close,” he says in a buffet line at the hotel. “It’s a roll of the dice with the audience. The comics are up there baring their souls. They’ve been working for years on this material. This is the toughest business in the world. Can you imagine? Just place yourself on stage telling what you think is your best joke, or even the best story, in front of 250 people and all of a sudden everyone’s just sitting there looking at you.”
Later, in his hotel room the night before his moment of glory, Lippucci reflects on what made him and others get up on stage in the first place.
“Comics do comedy for acceptance,” he says. “If you look at any comic, many of them are sad, depressed, disappointed with their lives. So they go on stage and hog the stage and work their asses off just for acceptance. Because there’s nothing better than the feeling of people going nuts, clapping, applauding, saying, ‘Hey, man, really good show.’
“When I first started, I was like, ‘Man, you know what? I want some acceptance in life so let’s do this. Wanting all the attention is what standup comedy is. It’s you and you only, so when you rock, you rock, and it’s you that rocks. And when you suck real bad is when you go stick your head in the sand or go to the greenroom and you just cry for the next three hours. And you wait for the whole crowd to leave and then you leave.”
Vic Lippucci can’t worry about all of that now, though. The gala is tomorrow – “the biggest show in my career by far,” he says. A week of late-night schmoozing is starting to take its toll. Lippucci is starting to lose his voice. His penultimate performance tonight at the Comedy Nest is perhaps his best. Foster says there are so many factors that need to come together, from the performer to the audience to the room, that’s he’s amazed successful standup ever comes together. But tonight is one of those nights for Lippucci. So he’s peaking at the right time. In his hotel room, he wants to call it a night, but knows he’s got to put in an appearance downstairs.
“I gotta really sleep,” he says. “I gotta watch my voice. I can’t be in a crowded, loud, smoke-filled bar. I gotta de-stress because after a really good show, it’s my up. Instead of doing cocaine or drugs or anything like that, I just do standup comedy. So now I’m really high on myself. I’m really ecstatic and happy. So I’m up, but I’m gonna bonk.”
Manton reviews with Lippucci the advice that veteran comedians Mike MacDonald, the only comic to have performed at every Just For Laughs festival, and Glen Foster gave him. They said to start each bit before the crowd finishes laughing, unlike one would in a club. It may sound weird in the theatre, but on TV it sounds just perfect. “If you wait for the crowd to stop before you start your next bit, you set’s going to be 22 minutes long,” Lippucci explains.
Shaun Majumder, one of Canada’s most popular comedians and now a regular on CBC’s This Hour Has 22 Minutes, talks about the bigger picture: “There’s so much business and bullshit that revolves around this festival. It’s crucial to not lose sight of the fun aspect of it all. Vic loves doing it. I love seeing him on stage. He’s so good, so giving to the audience, that as long as he doesn’t let the business part of it get into his brain and affect him, then you can’t help but win.”
The night finally arrives. Lippucci, a ball of energy at the best of times, seems to have relaxed a little for the big show. He’s in his element. The evening’s performers are backstage 90 minutes before the 7:30 show, sitting around talking about the previous day’s artist vs industry basketball game, trying to keep their minds occupied. Christopher Titus, who has starred in his own TV sitcom on Fox-TV, is on the biss. He tells Lippucci, “It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been doing it, on a show like this, you’re always nervous.” But Lippucci claims he isn’t. Just excited.
He’s dressed in a simple black shirt he paid $70 for on Ste. Catherine’s the previous day. He hits the floor in the wings for his pre-show push-ups, then does his pre-show visualizing. Manton is beside him.
The legendary Carl Reiner is onstage reading his intro from cue cards. He stops midway to put on his glasses, destroying the illusion that he knows anything about this Canadian kid. Lippucci gives a power punch to Manton.
“All right, bro, I’m outta here.” He runs towards the bright lights.
“Yes! I’m feeling great today! I got a wake-up call in my hotel today.”
The audience is slow to respond. With the time constraints, Lippucci loses some of the natural rhythm and hurries into his first bit. Still, just looking at him on stage, you wouldn’t know his big kick at the can was not going as dreamed. He looks comfortable and is having fun. He was so comfortable, in fact, that on his call-back he runs back out topless – a first in the history of the festival.
“Comedy is business,” the always-thinking Lippucci says after the show.
“What can I do so that it’ll be on the opening montage that they’ll re-air over and over again? What can I do that will set me apart?” With no time to unbutton his shirt, he simply ripped it open, completely ruining his new purchase. But as Schiess says to him after the show, “This of the heart you created. Is that worth $70? Yes it is, my friend.”
A contract for a TV series or a spot on The Tonight Show or even the fall Just For Laughs tour is worth a lot more than 70 bucks. But Lippucci was not on the 18-city November tour. Nor have Jay Leno’s people come calling. He says they are very interested in meeting him and Manton, though, and that he will do a show called Premium Blend on Comedy Central in the U.S. next season. “We’re planning meetings and heading down to L.A. to show them how eager we are to do business with them,” he says a month after his big show.
In assessing his performance in Montreal, Lippucci takes a deep breath and reflects on what got him there. “I did good,” he says. “I had a good time. It was fun. This was my gala. It’s over 10 years of anticipation. And it’s done.”
It may be done, but the hard work continues.