Variety Kicks Off Annual 10 Comics to Watch Panel at 40th Edition of Just For Laughs Fest

When a global pandemic strikes and you’re a stand-up comic whose livelihood and art form depends upon performing in-person in front of audiences, you look to other creative outlets, and short-term professional endeavors, to survive – to even just get through the day.

For comedian Matteo Lane, that diversion was in the form of the ubiquitous video game Fortnite.

“My friends and I just decided, we’re gonna get Fortnite and it genuinely saved my life,” said Lane with a throaty laugh. “I never laughed that hard because there’s a bunch of gays playing Fornite. You watch straight guys play Fortnite and they’re all like, ‘Go to the left,’ and we’re like, ‘Oh, my God look at this.’ My friend Nick came in and we’re like, ‘Hey, Nick, do you think we should go get guns?’ and he was like, ‘What do you think you should do: go get guns or sit around and jerk each other off?’”

Lane, currently developing an animated half-hour series with Bob the Drag Queen inspired by their comic series “Kickass Drag Queen,” is one of Variety’s 10 Comics to Watch who participated in the Friday afternoon panel discussion held during the 40th edition of the Just For Laughs comedy festival in Montreal.

Nine of the 10 comics selected for the coveted list were present at the event, sponsored by Cohen Gardner law firm and moderated by Variety’s feature editor Malina Saval. The panel has helped launch the careers of comedians such as Zach Galifianakis, Tiffany Haddish and Amy Schumer.

Also present: Rosebud Baker, a writer on “Saturday Night Live”; J.R. De Guzman, whose comedy album “Dual Citizen” hit number one on Billboard and iTunes; Vanessa Gonzalez, opening for Chelsea Handler’s “Vaccinated and Horny Tour”; Jay Jurden, an original staff writer on Apple TV+’s “The Problem With Jon Stewart”; Atsuko Okatsuka, who recently made her late night stand-up debut on “The Late Late Show With James Corden”; Blair Socci, who hosts the podcast “Dear Owen Wilson” for iHeart Radio; Moses Storm, whose comedy special “Trash White” is on HBO Max; and Sheng Wang, who cut his teeth as a writer on “Fresh Off the Boat” and whose upcoming Netflix special is produced by Ali Wong.

Australian comic Claudia O’Doherty, who appeared on Netflix’s “Love” and is also one of Variety’s 10 Comics to Watch, was not able to attend the fest.

“I got certified in Reiki,” said Socci of her time in the pandemic lockdown. “I got certified in so much shit. I couldn’t stop taking courses. It was crazy. I also did ayahuasca and went to the pink marshmallow jungle. It’s a miracle I’m here.”

“Blair called me up during the pandemic and said, ‘I’m doing breath work,’ and I was like, ‘You’re breathing right now,’” quipped Baker.

“I think it was a time during which we spent a lot of time figuring out what weren’t our interests — you know, what we weren’t,” proffered Okatsuka. “Am I a Reiki healer? Can I grow lettuce? Am I a farmer? I was none of those things. It all kind of leads back to the question of, ‘How do you figure out what your thing is in this industry?’”

The conversation was peppered with humor and philosophical insights, touching on the exponential growth of comedy on digital platforms and the people from which the comics have garnered support in their careers.

“Women have lifted me up the most,” said Gonzalez, who worked as a preschool teacher in Austin before turning to comedy full-time. “I moved to L.A. in 2018 and, you know, everyone thinks it’s cutthroat and dog-eat-dog. But all of the women were so supportive as soon as I got there. They’re like, ‘Come to this show or let’s go have brunch.’ They’d tell me all the secrets and, like, which guys suck and don’t talk to them. And that was super helpful.”

For Baker, it’s the “women in comedy that have helped” her the most.

“I owe pretty much everything to women in comedy that I know,” she said. “I don’t know about the ones I don’t know. But honestly, I love that I can talk to other women in comedy because when I show up for a show and I’m just as strong as any other comic in the lineup and the booker comes up and he’s a guy and he goes, ‘You’re gonna do great.’ And I’m like, ‘I fucking know that.’ You know, women understand that that’s not the way you talk to comics. We have to deal with that, where the men kind of pat us on the back like they’re proud of us. And it’s like, ‘Um ,hello, you hired me.’”

The comedians also touched on how they’ve evolved as artists and how they’ve discovered their creative strengths.

“There’s a lot I love about the writer’s life,” said Wang of his tenure at “Fresh off the Boat.” “And I also learned that I wanted to go back and do stand-up. To be a writer and to have that Writer’s Guild support and be on a network TV show like that — it’s absolutely amazing. Every day, I was just grateful. But for me, ultimately, I wanted to do stand up. I wanted to at least get to an hour special and then see what happens after that.”

Jurden, who moved back in with his parents during the pandemic, experimented a lot with social media for a while, trying to see if that was a compelling creative niche.

“At that time, I just edited a bunch of videos and started doing social media more and that was an outlet for me and it was fun. But it was also kind of soul-sucking at the same time,” he said. “I really enjoyed putting out clips every day. I guess I’m still figuring it out with writing and auditioning and stand-up. I just keep trying to see what works.”

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