The JFL NorthWest comedy festival returns to Vancouver with the likes of Trevor Noah, Jim Gaffigan and Sarah Silverman on deck. Meanwhile, youngest-ever and only female Last Comic Standing winner Iliza brought the annual fest's first big headlining set of the year to the Vogue on February 17.
Local funny-man Ivan Decker did an admirable job warming up the soldout crowd. He did a solid 15 minutes, starting on Vancouver-centric topics like our unpreparedness for snow and a prominent white lie about neighbourhood naming when on a date, then landed on eating at Dark Table Restaurant, the restaurant in which you eat in the dark, among other dining foibles. Granted, it was all surface-level, white-bread observational humour, but it was all the slot required as the momentum of his presence set the table for Iliza's manic energy.
Iliza wasted no time ingratiating herself to the city, calling Vancouver a "cleaner, happier Seattle." She had clearly done her research to localize her set, going on to drop two references to my hometown of Kamloops and a mad zinger at Saskatchewan's expense, but largely settled on more established routines.
As has become her tradition, she dropped her "Party Goblin" bit early on. "Party Goblin" is to Iliza what "Goat Boy" was to Bill Hicks, a character that speaks to a primal essence embedded in the human psyche, a part of our brain that polite society does its best to stifle yet always finds ways to surface. It's one of Iliza's most renowned bits, and for good reason. She has an amazing, elastic voice, made for cartoon voiceover work, and when "Party Goblin" takes over, Iliza practically manifests the creature physically and vocally. If that doesn't make you want more, Iliza probably isn't for you.
From that point on, though, Iliza seemed to beat her own path. It had been almost half-a-year since the release of her third Netflix special, Confirmed Kills, and she obviously had some new material to test out, including a lengthy, honest dissection of the Las Vegas experience. She came off as well-rehearsed, but she never phoned it in, staying with her moments, rearranged from her ever-expanding arsenal, but open to new streams of thought as they arose.
She is a feminist, but she somewhat tones down her political edge on her specials. In this live setting, she was free to be more overt about it, calling out racism and sexism straight up, and it paid off. When she realized (again) that she was in Canada, she said, "Fuck Trump," to much applause. Can't get any more obvious than that.
What's more, she seemed to be receptive to criticism. Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya wrote a review of Confirmed Kills that decried Iliza's impersonations of black women and overuse of mermaid material; neither of these elements were present in her set. She discussed the power of language in relation to third-wave feminism, so she is aware of her impact. On a smaller scale, near the end of her set, Iliza was called out by the crowd for repeated referenced to the Uber driving service, which Vancouver does not currently allow, but she rolled with it. ("That's right… No Uber, because of the Nazi thing.")
Her plentiful substance aside, Iliza's performance skills are what anchored her live show. She contorted her body, using her physical comedy to sell her bits, and her voice, albeit sounding a little gravelly with road wear, delivered all the nuance of her diverse characters and eccentric asides for her entire hour-and-a-half long set.
Iliza's command of her skills underscored the many worthy messages she delivered. She worries for the future of the world, acknowledging the scientifically proven yet conservative-denied existence of global warming, and knows Trump is toxic. Yet, she noted that we are too hard on ourselves for being human, too wrapped up in our appearance and not enough in our essence. For every madcap neurosis, she offered a nugget of immutable truth. Iliza's specials have all been great, but seeing her live is truly special.