If you’ve spent any amount of time around Vancouver’s comedy circuit, you’ll know Aaron Read can be counted on for queasy laughs. Take Hell Night, for instance — a high-concept stand-up comedy night, interspersed with gross-out gags straight out of the nightmares of a neurotic (which, admittedly, describes much of Read’s work in general.)
A fixture at local indie comedy space Little Mountain Gallery since last April, Hell Night features Read along with his “friend” Gorbman (who may or may not be the shape-shifting reptilian alter ego of LMG collective member Christine Bortolin) as hosts. While Read tries to keep his stand-up night on track, Gorbman tries their best to upstage him with a motley crew of creepy guests doing off-putting things on stage, often involving copious amounts of liquid and / or the infliction of moderately humiliating acts on Read himself.
Though billed as a holiday special revolving around the “festivities on Gorbman’s planet Kunk,” the December 27 episode of Hell Night quickly branched out from that conceit. For one thing, Hell Night has an inescapably Halloween-y vibe in general, which opener Ronald Dario contributed to by starting the show off with a stand-up set that touched on distinctly spooky topics like conspiracy theories and slasher movies.
If anything, the Hell Night holiday special had the feel of a seasonal party with friends, if it was large enough to fill a small theatre. Much of the night’s comedy came from the banter between Gorbman, Aaron Read and each of the stand-up performers that night — the dynamic between Brent Constantine and Gorbman was especially funny to watch. With Constantine’s interactions with Gorbman moving from expressions of disgust and exasperation to mild flirtation over the course of his set.
But for all the witty repartee and cringe comedy on display, there was also a distinct sense of pathos in many of the performances at that night’s Hell Night — whether it was Gorbman describing their guests’ antics as the result of “having a bad year”, or Ronald Dario imagining himself as a “depressing Freddy Krueger” making a series of increasingly downbeat (and fatal) appearances in teens’ dreams. The night’s performances were also frank discussions of issues ranging from race, gender and sexuality, to everyday life in one of the world’s most expensive cities. Chalk it up to comedy’s upward trend toward greater social awareness, or even the diverse cast of the show itself, with Ronald Dario’s (whose long list of credits include producing the all-Asian comedy show Yellow Fever) and Andrea Jin’s material reflecting on their experiences as Asian-Canadians — almost as much as their experiences as weird young people — and Emily Bilton centring her experience as a queer woman in her set. Gavin Matts rounded out the token white dude quota along with Brent Constantine, but they too were keen observers of the everyday awkwardnesses of life in Vancouver under late capitalism.
The appeal of Hell Night was also simply the product of many of the night’s performers honing their craft well over the past decade. Take the relentlessly defensive patter and racial obliviousness of “White Woman with a Platform,” one of Gorbman’s other holiday special guests, who was portrayed to staggering effect by another long-time local comic, Bita Joudaki, who gnawed her whitefaced character’s feet to metaphorical stumps. With star-studded performances like these, there’s little wonder that Hell Night is moving up: in less than a year, it has gotten the attention not only of local peers like the Unibrow Arts Fest (whose inaugural lineup this past August included a musical crossover episode of Hell Night featuring chip-punk artiste Shitlord Fuckerman) but also from the likes of Just For Laughs (Hell Night’s next episode will be part of JFL NorthWest this February.) If that isn’t the making of another local fixture in a town perennially bereft of such things — well, that would be a shame, wouldn’t it?