At the Comedy Bar this week, they are running things up flag poles and also throwing them against walls. Seeing who salutes what and taking note of what sticks is what it's all about at the second-annual free Festival of New Formats, an experiment in novel comic presentation.
Four new shows happen nightly; the offbeat one I enjoyed on Monday was The Big Lebowski Live - a series of script-faithful (yet larky enough) re-enactments of memorable scenes from the unruly 1998 Coen brothers' comedy.
Do not take "memorable scenes" to mean dialogue that is famous. Rather, because the film is one of those beloved by a sect of fans, "memorable" refers to memorized lines, quotable by those enthusiasts who absolutely know what it means to say "The Dude does not abide."
Many of those devotees - visible by their wearing of Lebowski T-shirts and drinking of the film-referencing white Russian cocktails - were on hand at the Comedy Bar. On a chilly, post-holiday Monday, the choice of a cult-film classic as a comedic premise shrewdly drew an audience. And, artistically, the film's eclectic conversations are easily humorous, needing no embellishment really to appeal to those in the room unfamiliar with a film based on bowling-alley bravado, mistaken-identity shenanigans and more Raymond Chandler-esque twists than a bag of movie-lobby licorice.
Because the film's plot is complicated to the point of ridiculousness - "you know, a lotta ins, lotta outs, lotta what-have-yous," as explained by the Dude, the central slacker played by the great malleable actor Jeff Bridges - the condensed retelling posed no problem. Just as the Dude is a creature of the moment, the chosen sketches at the Comedy Bar stood on their own as well. (One scheduled troupe bowed out on short notice, resulting in the skipping over of a climatic scene - but to no show-sinking loss.)
Things were helped along by show creator Andy Hull, who took on the cowboy-narrator role played languidly by Sam Elliott in the film. Hull repeated Elliott's set-up that ends with the narrator admitting to a lost train of thought. When a movie pokes fun at itself, a comedic retelling doesn't need to lampoon - that work is already smartly done.
Most of the recreated scenes involved Bridges's character and the easily-riled blowhard played by John Goodman. Both were sometimes represented by women - a sight gag to start, but not simply that. This was a joke well-placed atop absurdity.
Playing it straight - that is to say, employing no black-tape mustaches - was the Wilderness of Manitoba, the agile folk-rock ensemble that performed parts of the Lebowski soundtrack, including Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In), a hit by Kenny Rogers & the First Edition.
"Comedy is unusual people in real situations," Looney Tunes director Chuck Jones once said, "farce is real people in unusual situations." Where The Big Lebowski Live (or The Big Lebowski itself) fits in there is hard to say. It does address some of the more interesting premises coming up at the Festival of New Formats, though. On Thursday, comics are to portray celebrities doing stand-up for the first time; on Friday, improvised "deleted" scenes from The Empire Strikes Back are presented. May the farce be with us, needless to say.
Free shows at the Festival of New Formats this week include:
Real Autobiographies Those who appreciated Gordon Pinsent's satirically solemn reading from Justin Bieber's recent memoir on CBC's This Hour Has 22 Minutes may find laughs when the improvisers of the Impatient Theatre Co. explore the meanings of Jay-Z's autobiography Decoded. (Wednesday, 8 p.m.)
The Celebrity Stand-Up Show Comics impersonate celebrities doing stand-up for the first time, hosted by Veronika Swartz as the pop-music provocateur Lady Gaga. (Thursday, 8 p.m.)
Empire Strikes Back Get a Yoda this: Improvised "deleted" scenes expand on the classic space film. Ready are you? Friday, 10 p.m.
The Best Burn Insider trading may be scandalous, but the practice of insult trading scorches like crazy. (Saturday, 10 p.m.)
The Festival of New Formats continues to Jan. 8 (shows at 8, 9, 10 and 11 p.m.). Free. Comedy Bar, 945 Bloor St. W. (comedybar.ca).