James Davis JFL42, Toronto ON, September 24
Published Sep 25, 2018Leaving James Davis's show at the Royal Theatre on Monday night, you'd be forgiven for wondering when some of his jokes were written. "I'm tired of these old people on Facebook," Davis lamented near the beginning of his set, levying a premise that feels like it would have been more appropriate five years ago. "Being woke is a new thing," he offered shortly thereafter, causing you to wonder how many years it's been since this would have been an accurate reading of the landscape.
To be fair, old jokes are not worthy of condemnation in and of themselves, but when the tone of said jokes is rooted in faux-exasperation — as many of Davis's were — out-dated premises can have the effect of unintentionally curbing their effectiveness. Davis's angry rant about the presence of old people on Facebook, for example, was difficult to invest in emotionally because the stakes felt as nonexistent as those of a hypothetical monologue about the TV show ALF or the limitations of pager technology.
Elsewhere in his set, Davis was able to get more mileage out of similar premises that were more purely observational in nature. Although he wasn't breaking any new ground discussing the unsatisfying nature of protected sex or Magic Johnson's surprising vitality, he was able to find fresh punch lines about these well-worn subjects ("safe sex is like eating a starburst with some of the wrapper still on") that drew big laughs from the crowd.
The best bits of the night, however, came when Davis abandoned his quest for relatability and sought to share singular insights or personal experiences. His anecdote about being a black golfer, for example, was simultaneously hilarious and thoughtful, punching up an otherwise stale topic with a unique perspective and fresh reference points. Similarly, his exploration of how social media causes us to lose empathy for others by enabling us to consume one another's lives as entertainment was artfully written.
Working in Davis's favour throughout the night was his natural likeability and his clear gifts as a performer. His effortless charisma allowed him to get away with bits that may not have worked in the hands of another performer, and in the moments when he waded into politically murky territory, like during a brief aside about the #MeToo movement, he seemed to possess an innate sense of the right way to qualify his jokes in order to preempt outrage. In moments like this, it was difficult not to get the sense that Davis is smarter than some of his material might suggest, and that he could stand to benefit from challenging himself in the future by being a little more inventive.