Paying tribute to the performer who died suddenly this week, at the age of 29.
It’s 10 p.m., and the Groove Bar on the Danforth (“the farthest east in Toronto I’ve ever come to do comedy,” more than one comic tells us) is steadily filling as stand-ups keep arriving, coming from sets in other bars and “rooms” around the city. Practically everyone in the bar, packed by the time we leave, is a comedian, and they’re all here to trade stories and memories of Makesi Arthur. He was just 29 when he died earlier this week, and the community is still in shock.
“He was completely genuine,” says Nick Flanagan, a 12-year comedy veteran and showrunner; when Flanagan first starting booking shows Arthur would be the first comic he’d ask to join his bills. “The first time I saw him do a set at an open mic, more than 10 years ago, it was like lightning striking. I was already cynical about comedy, coming into it, and then I see Makesi—these ideas, fully formed, not about the usual relationship stuff, or dick jokes, or race—but space!”
When Flanagan says space, he means astrophysics—Arthur wasn’t one to pull punches on high-concept jokes. “Every time I saw him do a set, I’d learn something,” says Ben Miner, another longtime stand-up, and the host of Comic Stripped on XMRadio. “Not necessarily about style, but, like—he had jokes about string theory!” All the comics at the table laugh as he recalls Arthur’s punchline: ‘They say there’s an infinite number of universes—but it’s probably closer to eleven.’” “And for all we know, he could be right,” grins Miner (Arthur once lectured at Trampoline Hall on ‘Time and a Finite Universe.’)
Audio: Makesi Arthur stand-up clip, courtesy of Laugh Attack.
Gilson Lubin, a fellow comic and close friend, found out Tuesday morning about Arthur’s sudden passing. “The family asked me to get the word out, and I didn’t have everyone’s contact info,” he says—so he reluctantly posted the news on Facebook. By midday, Arthur’s Facebook page was filled with friends expressing their shock and dismay, and the Toronto comedy community took to Twitter as well with their condolences and mourning.
No one at the “comedy wake” knows the exact details—or if they do, they’re respecting the family’s wishes and keeping the circumstances of Arthur’s passing to themselves. But there’s no sordid speculation or rumours being whispered; Arthur was one of the most laid-back and well-liked comics on the Toronto scene, and it seems inconceivable to anyone that his death was anything other than a tragic surprise. “I just know he’s not here with us now,” says Lubin, “and that’s why we’re here.”
Makesi Arthur was born and raised in Trinidad and Tobago, moving to Canada as a teenager with his family. “We’re fellow countrymen,” stand-up comic Jean Paul tells us, “but while I don’t have the Caribbean accent, he did. Considering he was from somewhere else, and sounded like he was from somewhere else, he never used it as the basis for his comedy—he took the high road, used his brain.”
By all accounts, Arthur was often the smartest person in the room. “The first time I saw him onstage, at the Rancho Relaxo, in 2000,” says stand-up Ron Josol, “he was wearing a dunce cap, explaining what it meant—like, the etymology of dunce caps! And he was following five dick joke comics. He was so far ahead of everyone else, even so young.” At the time, Arthur was enrolled at Ryerson University, studying architectural design, but he soon realized comedy was his higher calling, and enrolled in the comedy program at Humber College.
Tim Gilbert, host of Pure Gold at Laugh Sabbath, was a classmate of Arthur’s at Humber. “He was so different in what he did; there was this wisdom in his comedy.” Fellow Humber alumni Anne Vadas agrees: “He was like a hundred-year-old man in a 20-year-old’s body—an old soul.”
After finishing school at Humber, Arthur became a crowd favourite at Flanagan’s Joke Club shows, and the management at the Drake Hotel noticed; Arthur became one of their early ‘Drake Jester‘ artists in residence. He used his month at the hotel to create video work that comics still rave about, especially an installation of his own floating head telling arcane jokes while a meteor shower occurs in the background.
While Arthur was universally liked by his comedy peers, his non sequiturs and musings didn’t always strike a chord with audiences just looking for a laugh. “He was a total gentleman: sweetest kid, nice to everyone, never heard him curse, never heard him say a bad word about anybody,” lists off Kenny Robinson, founder of the long-running comedy showcase The Nubian Disciples All Black Comedy Revue. “But he got the bum’s rush a few times at Nubian shows from the crowd; his style wasn’t what they were into.” “Yeah, but he was OK with that,” counters Jean Paul. “He didn’t care about the business side of comedy, or ‘making it’… A lot of comics will say they’re ‘alternative,’ but it’s an act, a label. For him, comedy was purely about who he was—exploring ideas.”
Makesi guest starred as “the Swan” in this comedy short by Kathleen Phillips and Philip G. Berg.
Gilson Lubin points out that Arthur had a life outside of comedy, one very different from the silliness he sometimes explored on stage. “He was a very responsible young man. By the time he was 18 and living in Canada, he was already managing a restaurant. By the time he was 20, he was co-owner of a different restaurant.” Other comics who overhear this are surprised; while Arthur was well liked, it turns out few of his stand-up friends and peers knew much about his life outside of comedy circles.
In the past two years, Arthur, already a comedy veteran in his late 20s, began running a weekly Thursday night showcase, Giggles at the Groove, with a mix of amateurs and professionals appearing each week. “Nikki Payne, Gavin Stephens, Jason Rouse—if they were in town, all these pro comics would come out here,” says Lubin, himself a regular at the shows. Arthur also gave a lot of stage time to amateurs, including Jake Leland, who’d drive 90 minutes into Toronto to perform, as he did for the comedy wake. “I haven’t met another dude who was more generous with spots, even when I’d arrive late coming from out of town. I’ve been shafted at other rooms, but never here.”
Everyone we speak to remembers, especially, Arthur’s laugh. “He had two laughs, actually,” says Ben Miner; “the ‘HAAAAAA…’, which was good, but also, when he was laughing so hard he couldn’t get it out….” Miner does a choking snort, and everyone within earshot smiles at the memory. “You’d hear that in the back of the room,” says Leland, “and you’d know, ‘that’s Makesi!’”
Photos by Skye Regan.
Visitations for Makesi Arthur will be held at the Turner & Porter Neweduk-Erin Mills Chapel (1981 Dundas Street West) today, Friday September 16, from 1 p.m.–3 p.m., and 6 p.m.–9 p.m. A memorial service will be held at the same location on Saturday September 17 at 3 p.m.
Gilson Lubin & Jean Paul will host a comedy memorial show on Thursday September 22 at The Groove Bar (1952 Danforth Avenue), 8:30 p.m., PWYC. (All proceeds will go towards funeral expenses.)