This Town is a Joke: Our Comedy Renaissance (Vancouver Magazine)

This Town is a Joke

Our Comedy Renaissance

Vancouver Magazine, November 2005

It's Tuesday night in No Fun City. But you wouldn't know it from the crowd down at Yuk Yuk's. More than 200 people are crammed into the downtown comedy club to watch a competition to find the funniest comic in Vancouver; a fool's game, to be sure, in such a subjective art form, but a club owner's dream. Everyone loves a contest. This particular one is running over an eight-week period and the club has been consistently selling out.

But head south over the Burrard Bridge that very same night and a similar scene is playing out in another room, sans competition. The Urban Well in Kitsilano has been running a Tuesday standup night for over eight years. It's the place to be for comedy in the city, with lineups often down the street. Not only do all of Vancouver's top comics show up each week to do a set, hang out and talk shop with their peers, but superstars in the comedy world like Robin Williams, Sarah Silverman and Kevin Nealon drop by to perform whenever they're in town.

These midweek shows are no exception here. A Vancouver comic can work seven nights a week throughout the lower mainland if the desire and work ethic (not to mention skin thick enough to shake off the non-responsiveness from the notoriously reticent audiences) are there. There's definitely something happening here comedy-wise, although you wouldn't know it from the lack of press it receives compared to its arts brethren.

Standup comedy flourished throughout Canada and the U.S. from about the mid-1980s to the early-'90s. It was omnipresent. Not only were clubs popping up across the continent, but TV shows celebrating the movement filled the airwaves. Shows like A&E's Evening at the Improv,
Caroline's Comedy HourComedy on the Road, and HBO's Comedy Showcase provided a more sanitized version of the live shows they could see on their hometown stages. 

Rich Elwood opened Punchlines underneath the restaurant at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in March of 1978. At the time, it was one of only a handful of comedy clubs in North America. By 1980, it had moved to Gastown where it would be home to some of the best and brightest standups in the country for another 15 years. Names like Ryan Stiles and Colin Campbell started – and ended – their standup careers there: Stiles found fame with improv, which requires a lot less preparation, and never looked back; Campbell's body was found washed ashore on Vancouver Island three months after going missing. A life of painkillers due to a bad back and excessive drinking led to a weakened heart, which ultimately did him in.

They weren't the only ones, though, to make an impact in comedy from that room. Patrick McKenna, Craig Campbell (no relation), Ian Bagg, Rick Ducommun, and Bonnie McFarlane have all done scads of TV work here, in the US and in Great Britain.

Pete Johansson started his career in comedy in Vancouver in 1989, nearing the end of the boom. He was, by his own admission, one of the worst comics to have come out of Vancouver, but counts himself as one of the best after he left. He moved to Montreal, where a six-minute set at the Just For Laughs festival landed him a development deal with Warner Brothers television, before moving to Los Angeles where he has been based ever since, regularly touring the U.S. as a headliner. 

Like now, Johansson says you could do comedy every night of the week back when he was an open-miker. The difference, though, was they were all paying gigs back then. You could actually make a little money, he says, before adding, "Well, I couldn't, but other comics were making money."

But those rooms, as well as Punchlines, eventually disappeared.

"It ran its cycle," says Elwood today. "A&E killed the comedy club. You didn't have to go out to the comedy clubs to catch what was going on. Essentially, you could sit at home and at least believe you saw what was going on, on television. It was too much. It kinda killed the art form." 

While Toronto is the centre of the universe and Montreal hosts the world's biggest comedy festival, Vancouver's scene pretty much went unnoticed in the last quarter century. Back when many national variety shows like The Alan Thicke Show, The Tom Jones Show, and The René Simard Show were all taped here, local comics were used both in front of and behind the cameras. "Sometimes the assumption is if you're not in Toronto, you're not really a comedian," says Elwood. "The opposite used to be the case back in the late '70s, early '80s, when the place to be was Vancouver."

Those days are long gone, however. Now comics like Peter Kelamis or Sam Easton are lucky to get supporting roles as actors on TV and film or leads in commercials. The powers-that-be for their comedy careers are all in the east or down south.

Still, standup is making a remarkable comeback in Vancouver. It's not quite at the level of the heyday, but it's getting there. And we're not just talking quantity of comics. The quality of the local acts is on par with, or better than, the best in any other city save New York.

The person most likely responsible for the renaissance is Brent Butt, the stocky star of CTV's Corner Gas. Butt moved to Vancouver five years into his standup career after falling in love with the place and hosted the Urban Well show for six years, providing a solid example to all the up-and-comers of what a professional comedian is. When the funniest and most respected comedian in the country lives and works in your community, you've got to keep sharp to impress the godfather.

"Brent had a great impact on everybody," says Johansson. "He raised the bar on a lot of levels so everybody would work harder to write. The guy wrote like crazy. I stayed with him for two weeks when my girlfriend kicked me out of my apartment and all we did every day was write. And it was the coolest thing ever because I'd never stayed with a comic who'd actually had a work ethic."

The modest Butt, who now lives in Saskatchewan six months of the year while working on his sitcom, believes western alienation is as much to credit for Vancouver's mini-resurgence as anything he did.

"I think the quality of comics in Vancouver is great because you're not under the thumb or the nose of any particular decision-making entity," he says. "As a result you have some freedom. And so you get really creative, experimental standups trying some stuff because they've got a bit of freedom to fall on their face."

And lately those decision-makers are starting to pay attention. Butt says he has taken an interest in trumpeting the abilities of Vancouver comics to Toronto and American talent scouts and producers. "They've always been really kinda blown away. They're seeing more really high quality comics than they expected they would," he says. "Maybe it was just because their expectations were shitty, I don't know."

Who knows why they've been blown away, but he's not speaking just out of civic pride. J.P. Buck is a freelance comedy producer from Los Angeles who booked talent on Star Search and It's Showtime at the Apollo before moving over to HBO's U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen to run its talent department. He estimates he's seen about 8000 comedians in his travels over the years."I'm looking for the next comic genius," he says.

In his initial scouting venture for Aspen, he had New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, Austin, Atlanta and Toronto on his itinerary. Along the way, Will Davis, a Vancouver comic who now runs the CanWest Comedy Festival here, got word to him that there was a scene in Vancouver he should take a look at. Davis personally drove Buck up from Seattle and put on three showcases of 36 local comics for the American producer. "I was really, really impressed with the depth of talent there and just the variety of performers, of material, and how original a lot of the comics were," Buck said on the phone from his home in California. "Usually whenever I go to a city, I'll maybe, if I'm lucky, find two or three out of thirty that I'm impressed with. And when I came back from Vancouver, I probably had on my list at least eleven guys that I had no fear of recommending for the festival. And actually two of them got in, which is still a great rate."

Buck agrees with Butt about why Vancouver has suddenly nurtured this topnotch breed of comedian. He says the years Vancouver has been hidden from the mainstream media and international industry (agents, producers, et al) have been creatively beneficial: It fosters an environment where they can write their own material, think differently, work on their sets and their skills, and become much better comics for it, and not get overexposed too soon. 

Buck goes on to term Vancouver a comedy mecca, supplanting such famous locales as Boston and San Francisco. "I definitely think right now that there's such a wealth of comics the audiences are almost spoiled."

Zach Galifianakis is an American comic who may as well be a local for all the time he's spent here shooting various TV shows and films over the past five years. Unlike some of the bigger names, like Robin Williams, who show up at the Well, do a set, then leave, Galifianakis has integrated himself into the Vancouver community by also playing the smaller, more alternative rooms and sticking around to befriend many of the city's young comics. He's impressed with the scene here, seeing it as a place that produces a fresh and unique variety of comedian. "It could really be a standup town, known for standup much like Chicago is known for improv and Second City or how Seattle or Athens, Georgia, and now Montreal is known as the birthplace of a well known music scene," he writes from North Carolina where he's in the last stages of buying a farm to act as a writers' retreat. "I believe these are the early days of something taking root that may one day evolve into a particular brand that may be known down the road as 'Couve-like' humour."

But is there a particular style to Vancouver comedy? Ask around and you get different opinions. Some, like Yuk Yuk's founder Mark Breslin, say it is based in a kind of casual, slacker ethos ( "You'd never see a comic in Vancouver in a suit," he says, Butt, Irwin Barker and Graham Clark notwithstanding). The manager of the Vancouver franchise, distant relative Mike Breslin, calls it a beatnik quality, comics with really laid-back styles that lend themselves more to funny storytelling rather than bang-bang in-your-face comedy. Others, though, find a diversity of delivery. Buck calls it unapologetic, saying everybody is working so hard they've had time to form their own styles. Eddie Brill, the comedy talent booker for The Late Show Starring David Letterman, disagrees with the slacker tag, too. "What I've seen of the local comics, smart and quirky would be a good way to describe them." And Davis says there's a smorgasbord of comedy in Vancouver. It's a buffet of jokes. He correctly notes that if you were to put such local joke-tellers as Damonde Tschritter, Kevin Foxx, Simon King, Kelly Dixon, Sean Proudlove, Peter Kelamis, Jen Grant, J.P. Mass or Erica Sigurdson on the same stage, the only thing in common would be that they're all standing behind a mic being funny. 

If you haven't heard of any of these professional
funny people, it's no reflection on them. "There's an amazing amount of talent," says Johansson of his former home's comedy scene. "There really is. You look around at the uniqueness and the strength of some of the comics and you're like, 'Wow! Why aren't these guys famous?'" 

However you want to describe them, it's fair to say that we, the people, have helped shape who they are. It's a reciprocal arrangement, according to Mark Breslin. "The audience kind of creates the comedy and vice versa," he says. "If anything, it's the crowds that could be described as slackers. Not apathetic, though, because Vancouverites are showing up to all the comedy rooms throughout the city, which implies at the very least an interest. But our reserved nature can be unsettling on a comic's ego. Still, it serves a purpose: a standup really has to fine-tune a joke and edit out dumb material that would fly elsewhere in order to get any kind of reaction here." 

Buck noticed this on his first trip to our city: "Vancouver has possibly one of the most discerning, and also toughest, crowds I've ever seen," he says. And remember, this is a man who travels to every big city and one-horse town in North America to assess talent in their natural environment - on a stage in front of people. "You've got these amazing comics on stage. It's funny, if you saw these comics in other cities, I think you'd get audiences that are flocking to them. But the toughness of winning the crowds over makes the comics work even that much harder here. I definitely think right now that there's such a wealth of comics the audiences are almost spoiled."

Graham Clark, who embodies the beatnik, slacker qualities the Breslins talk about, with his scruffy goatee and lazy persona, also happens to be, oximoronically enough, one of the hardest-working comics in town, constantly writing and performing new material at as many shows as is humanly possible, and even wears a suit, albeit one from Value Village. He has a love-hate relationship with the crowds here. "That's always been the best thing about this city," says the 25-year-old winner of last year's competition. "Your bad material is going to be turfed. In a place like Calgary, you could get away with some stuff you wouldn't even get halfway through out here. It makes you tougher. It just makes you better. Smarter."

Johansson agrees. "You can get away with getting a laugh in Red Deer by being very general, but here if you try to develop that joke, you've got to now make a point. The point's got to hit and make sense. I think that's a great thing. It takes a little bit of the stupidity out of it. You can always dumb something down later. But here you gotta make it hit." 

Butt has the best analogy about working in front of laid-back west coast audiences: It's like swinging a heavy bat. Before his TV fame, Butt was working the rooms, doing two or three spots a week just to keep his craft up and try out new bits, often in front of a smattering of silent people. He never sabotaged his own act by abandoning material or commenting on the crowd; he always sensed them smiling even if there weren't many audible laughs. "It's like you're in the batter's box. And in the batter's box, it's always good to swing a heavy bat. So when you go on the road, you've been performing in front of tougher crowds than some other places."

Maybe we're to blame for the city's bad rep. It's not because there's nothing to do here; it's because we just look like we're having no fun when we do it. But if our reserved manner helps produce some of the best laugh-makers in the land, it's all for a good cause. We may not be laughing hysterically on the outside, but you can bet in Red Deer they're rolling in the aisles.

Top Ten Comics to Come Out of Vancouver

1. Brent Butt No one comes close. The funniest stand-up in all the land. Some consider him a prairie comic because of his Saskatchewan roots. Butt says he learned to be a comic in Toronto, but learned how to be himself as a comic in Vancouver. If there was a war and I had to side, he says, I would be on the Vancouver side. Butt now stars in, executive produces, and writes the hit Canadian sitcom Corner Gas.

2. Ryan Stiles The most successful of them all. The American-born but Vancouver-raised comic started his career at Punchlines as a standup comic with a knack for spritzing with the crowd. Somebody in the audience would say something to him and Ryan would go with it for ten or fifteen minutes and it was funny, says Punchlines founder Rich Elwood. He was funny from the first time he went onstage. Stiles decided he had more fun with improv and went on to find fame on Whose Line Is It Anyway? and The Drew Carey Show

3. Colin Campbell Ah, what might have been... Campbell was one of the best standups this city ever produced before booze and painkillers culminated in his death in 1991. "I would forget the 'Vancouver' part of it and put just one of the best standups to walk the planet," says Butt. "He had the perfect standup comic way to process information and at the same time be completely original. He could walk from the hotel to the corner and he would think of ten things along the way." Elwood remembers one night finding Campbell backstage between shows taking notes. Turns out he was writing 40 minutes of new material for the next show. "The guy was just an amazing writer," he says.

4. Irwin Barker Speaking of great writers, it's been said the professorial Barker is such a smart and effective writer, he doesn't need charisma. Has appeal right across the board, from frat boys to Christian crowds. The former Winnipegger writes forThis Hour Has 22 Minutes so spends the TV season in Halifax, but returns home to Vancouver as soon as hiatus hits. 

5. Rick Ducommun You know this plus-sized comic from his many supporting roles in films such as Scary MovieGroundhog Day, and The 'Burbs. He was very influential ten, fifteen years ago, says Mark Breslin. Okay, fifteen, twenty years ago. Ducommun, too, got his start at Punchlines before moving south to work as announcer and performer on Alan Thicke's failed American talk show.

6. Bonnie McFarlane She may have been the first one eliminated on NBC's Last Comic Standing, but McFarlane's unapologetic Vancouver style isn't for everyone, let alone middle America. "She's a great example of subjective comedy," says Pete Johansson. "I will run into people that find her the funniest thing in the world, and right next to them, who just saw the same show, will hate her guts. There's a power to that. Divisiveness actually breeds marketing value. Bonnie's very skilled and I think she's going to become very high profile in the very short term, too." McFarlane got her start working the door at Punchlines before working up the nerve to try amateur night.

7. Patrick McKenna The big-toothed Harold Green from The Red Green Show started out as a sketch performer with Second City in Toronto, but when the touring company hit Vancouver for Expo 86, McKenna took the opportunity to give standup a try. With Punchlines going strong, the environment was here for him.

8. Colin Mochrie The Killarney High grad got his start at Vancouver TheatreSports League before moving on to star with good friend Stiles on Whose Line Is It Anyway? He's one of the busiest actors working in Canada as witnessed by his appearances in... every show ever made.

9. Will Sasso Started out in Vancouver as the quirky teen on the dramatic series Madison. Moved down to L.A. where he became known as one of the funniest sketch actors in the U.S. on Mad TV and has been seen in scores of film comedies, including Best In ShowBeverly Hills Ninja, and Happy Gilmore.

10. Craig Campbell You might know him as the co-host of Ed's Night Party hosted by the inimitable Ed the Sock. "I still think Craig Campbell is probably one of the best acts this country's seen," says Johansson. But he's chosen to focus his energies on England. Chortle, the U.K. comedy guide, says "His whimsical opinions are eloquently put... Hugely enjoyable stuff."