Over a year ago, Gary Rideout, Jr. of the Sketchersons bought a former Eritrean restaurant and pool hall at Bloor and Ossington and transformed it into the Comedy Bar. And his timing couldn’t have been better. With venues like the Diesel Playhouse shuttering and big standup chains acting cool to so-called “alternative” comedy, Rideout’s spot provided a haven for purveyors of standup, sketch, improv ,and acts that don’t fit neatly into a category.
What makes the place so special is that Rideout, as a comedian himself, has genuine affection for the community, sometimes sacrificing profits for the sake of nurturing budding talent (witness the weekly slots given to fresh-faced sketch troupes Etched in Sketch and The Assembly).
Beginning Sunday, Comedy Bar celebrates its one-year anniversary with a week jam-packed with events. The party kicks off with an edition of the venue’s weekly Sunday Night Live hosted by improv hero Colin Mochrie and ends with another one, the following Sunday, hosted by Tim freaking Meadows of Saturday Night Live.
Last December, Torontoist named Rideout one of our Heroes of 2008. He’s still one of our heroes and even more so after listening to him detail just how much serious work he puts into running one of the most fun hangouts in town.
Torontoist: Did you think you’d still be around a year after opening?
Gary Rideout, Jr.: Well, we signed a seventeen-year lease, so I planned on having to be here for a year! But I couldn’t have predicted anything that happened this year or the way it happened.
What do you mean by that?
There were a lot of things that were great about the year. You know, a lot of firsts for the venue. But it was certainly helped and incredibly supported by the community. A lot to struggle with. I mean, mostly financially. We still haven’t done any marketing to the public. It’s all been kind of word of mouth and Facebook. I’d like to get to the point where there could be more of that. But I’d have to not feel so crippled by debt. It’s just the idea of creating brand recognition over time. People will come to recognize it, like Second City or Yuk Yuk’s. Because if you say you do comedy, the first thing anyone over forty always ask you is, “Oh, do you do Yuk Yuk’s?” or “Do you do Second City?” And there’s a ton more out there that’s going on. And especially within a community of comedy that has nothing to do with those places.
So your crowd is pretty much under forty, then?
For sure. Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. Which is fine. That’s the demographic we’re trying to appeal to. I’d really like to tap even further into university markets and have this become a viable option for entertainment for young people. There’s a lot of fun to be had here and a lot of good times and a lot of good comedy. A lot of good shows.
How did people react when you told them you wanted to open this place?
My closest friends told me I was an idiot.
Probably because they’re good judges of my character. People I’ve worked with have seen me be, like, an angry producer. There is stress involved in putting on one show a week, so imagine putting on fourteen a week. It’s way more responsibility.
What are your memories of the actual physical transformation?
It dragged on forever. Like, fifty-one weeks. And it’s been a digging-out process ever since.
Do you have less time now to pursue your own comedy?
I would say a little bit it’s taken a backseat. I’d like to say that I can balance, you know, both things. I don’t know. In a lot of ways the venue’s going to create a lot of great opportunities. It already has created a lot of great opportunities. But in other ways it’s going to hinder things temporarily.
Are people more accommodating, since they know you run Comedy Bar?
Absolutely, absolutely. Everyone’s accommodating, but at the same time they don’t want to put themselves on hold waiting for you. It’s okay; I don’t mind. I think it’ll pay off, just maybe not immediately. Comedy’s this world where we all want immediate gratification. We get it from being onstage and from the audience. Whenever an opportunity comes up, everyone in the community auditions. It becomes your entire world, and you either get it or you don’t. Then six months later, the next opportunity comes along. If you’re gonna be pursuing this, you’re in it for the long haul, and you want to make a product you wanna be proud of, I guess. Something that you enjoy making.
Do you think being a comedian yourself helps you run this place?
Absolutely. I think I have a lot of experience and insight. I’ll see new performers, and they have really specific needs and wants for their show, and I’ll be like, “You don’t need that. You can just go up and do it.” And a lot of that they’ll learn on their own, but…
Why is it important to you to have less-experienced sketch groups perform here?
Everything is about balance, you know. Putting up new acts versus putting up polished acts. I can put up a polished act, but the reality is they’re not going to have the same draw that a new act that invites all their friends is going to have. It’s just better to have more people that care about it and are good at it. It’s good for the community.
What did you know about running a bar prior to opening Comedy Bar?
I knew the manager of the Brunny, because we did shows there for a bit, and he was a good guy. And I knew the manager of the Diesel Playhouse. What did I know about running a bar? Absolutely nothing.
What is the most important thing you’ve learned?
I’ve learned a ton, so I don’t know. I would say it’s so many little things. I’ve been bartending myself a lot. The summer was kind of slow and we needed to save costs. So I learned a lot about bartending. I learned a lot about talking to the public and dealing with people. Again, even from that perspective, I learned what you have to do for a show to operate, what works for the bar in conjunction with what works for the show, all that kind of stuff.
What were some of the highlights of last year for you?
Andy Kindler coming, being the first person that we ever brought from out of town. We knew the first person we wanted was Andy, because he makes us laugh. We had Jerry Minor from Saturday Night Live come here; that was a good time. There were so many things. The COMBUSTIONfestival in May was awesome. You know, just, parties every night and acts coming in from other cities and countries. And the week after, we had Sketch Fest, and we had people come from Cleveland and New York. There were so many great parties. I know Andy went home and emailed a bunch of other comics and said, “Go to this place.”
Any other celebrity appearances?
Rachel McAdams came here once, before the grand opening. Andy Hull [of the Sketchersons] and I were joking around at the back of the theatre, being like “When intermission happens, I’m going to talk to her.” “No, I’m going to talk to her.” But that night we had a flood, so instead I spent twenty-five minutes mopping up water from around where she was sitting.
I was reading an article recently that said during the recession, comedy DVD sales have been way up, but people are less likely to go out and spend money on entertainment. What do you make of that?
I don’t know, I keep reading different statistics. You can’t spend too much time dwelling on it. I think people would be willing to spend money if they’re guaranteed a good time. I think they feel safer with the idea that someone spent millions of dollars producing a movie. I don’t know. I’m not against the idea of people getting stage time to develop themselves. But I think there was a time period where everyone in the city thought they could produce a show. And the public went out to everything because at the time, everyone could go out and see stuff. And I think people got burned by a lot of stuff because it wasn’t very good. If people come to a show here, they don’t know who it’s produced by; they just see it as a product of Comedy Bar. And so if they leave a show not liking it and I’m here, I try to offer them tickets to another show that will hopefully appeal to them more.
People actually complain when they don’t like a show?
Yeah. And with some people you’ll just never win. Some people are useless idiots who are offended by everything, and they should never bother going out to see live comedy.
What kind of things make you laugh, besides the shows you see here?
I don’t know, walking around being a dummy. Hanging out with my friends and making each other laugh.
And what are you dead serious about?
The Comedy Bar (945 Bloor Street West) one-year anniversary festival runs November 1–8 and features performances by Tim Meadows, Colin Mochrie, Pat Thornton, and others. Check out the Comedy Bar website for tickets and showtimes.
All photos by Remi Carreiro/Torontoist.