Variety’s “10 Comics to Watch” showcase, an annual series at Montreal’s Just for Laughs comedy festival, got off to a great start. The lineup of comics, picked by a team of the magazine’s editors, writers, and critics, included Insecure’s Amanda Seales; SNL writer Julio Torres, soon to appear in the new HBO comedy Los Espookys alongside Fred Armisen; Daily Show correspondent Dulcé Sloan; American Vandal and Big Mouth writer Jaboukie Young-White; and rising stand-up star Joel Kim Booster. It’s a testament to the slowly but surely changing times that almost every comedian on the bill was either queer, a person of color, or both.
Then Darren Knight came onstage. The final performer of the evening, Knight and his routine felt out of place from the get-go. Knight, who is from Alabama, is only a couple of years into his comedy career and is apparently known for his “Southern Momma” character, which, according to Variety, has “garnered a windfall of social-media page views.” If you don’t believe the magazine, just ask him: Knight spent about half his time onstage at Montreal’s Monument-National theater thanking the organizers of the festival — he couldn’t even remember its name — and boasting about his supposedly meteoric rise to stardom. (Knight’s website claims he is “the fastest rising comedian in American history.”)
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Knight began by making a groan-inducing “joke”: “To our wives and girlfriends,” he drawled, “may they never meet!” Then he told a bunch of poo jokes. The crowd tittered. One guy couldn’t seem to stop cackling, but not at the so-called punchlines; he was just uncontrollably giggling throughout. As his routine came to a close, Knight declared that he wasn’t going to get up onstage and talk about race or sexual orientation, because that’s not what people paid to be there for. They were there to laugh. At this point, basically everyone in the audience loudly booed, and Knight left the stage. The evening’s host, Chris Redd, came back out and lamented that the show ended on such a weird note, and the audience streamed out of the theater, puzzling over what they’d just seen.
Even before Knight gave his parting shot, I couldn’t understand how he’d ended up on the showcase. He simply did not seem to be at the same level as the other comics; maybe Variety, which put together a notably diverse lineup, wanted a token Southern white guy to round it out. Fair enough, but surely there are Southern white male comics out there who aren’t complete and total hacks whose idea of funny is the fact that men cheat on their wives and also sometimes have IBS. I saw one such comic, Rocky Dale Davis, just a couple of days ago at the New Faces showcase, and he built much of his set around his identity as a white guy from Alabama. He was also funny.
I’m not saying every straight white male comic has to center his act around his identity. (Although that’s something that most queer comics and minorities kind of do feel the need to do; performers like Cameron Esposito and Hannah Gadsby have spoken about the pressure they feel to put the audience at ease by declaring that, yes, they’re lesbians, and they know what they look like.) I just can’t figure out how Variety’s editors decided Knight deserved to be on the same bill as Torres, Young-White, et al.; the cynic in me assumes they wanted to throw a bone to anyone who might complain that straight white men were underrepresented on their list (lol), that they wanted to appear hip by including a YouTube comic, and that they fell for Knight’s self-boosting talk about his stratospheric career trajectory. What they didn’t seem to consider was if the guy had any talent.
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After the show, a few other performers took to social media to call out their fellow “comic to watch.” Early Saturday morning, Seales posted a short video to her Instagram page, of Knight being booed off the stage, and wrote, “This clown ass hack Darren Knight embarrassed himself royally by being made to close out the Variety Comics to Watch showcase at Just for Laughs Montréal after…speaking the same ‘challenging racism has no place in comedy’ sentiment during an earlier panel.” She added, “Comedy is a tool that uses laughter to heal, to uplift, and to educate. If you ain’t doin that, get off the stage. WE DON’T FUCK WITH YOU COMEDICALLY.”
Soon after the show ended, Young-White tweeted, “This comic said, on stage, that comics shouldn’t talk about race or sexuality and got booed by Canadians do u kno how trash u gotta be to get booed by Canadians.”
This morning, Comedy Hype posted a short video to its YouTube page, which shows Redd confronting Knight backstage: “You sat there and bombed the whole time, and decide what comedy is?” Knight is shown walking away. Seales posted similar footage in the form of an Instagram story, followed by a short clip that shows Sloan telling another man, presumably Knight’s manager, “Drop him as a client, he’s not good for you.”
Booster pointed out that what made Knight’s set so noxious wasn’t just what he said, but how he said it. “No matter what your terrible opinion is, if you’re a comedian onstage the least you could do is present it as a joke,” Booster told me. “He didn’t do that. He was right that the audience paid to laugh and he didn’t even attempt that in his lecture.”