Our (sort-of) sober consideration of the funniest shows of the past year.
What’s changed since last year’s top 10 comedy shows in Toronto? Quite a bit, actually. Bloorcourt venues Comedy Bar and Bad Dog Theatre are now established and often packed. One could even say, when it comes to local comedy, they’ve become the establishment. The Social Capital Theatre at Danforth and Broadview is increasingly the home for much of Toronto’s developing and alternative talent, especially for improv and sketch; for stand-up, the new tiny venue at Queen and John, The Corner, has quickly become a hot spot, being profiled this month in The Globe & Mail.
Toronto comics are also increasingly finding success on television, in CTV’s Sunnyside, CBC’s Schitt’s Creek, and more. Arguably the most critically acclaimed comedy on television this past year, Comedy Central’s Nathan For You, is the brainchild of Toronto comedy alumnus; (and 2014 Torontoist hero) Nathan Fielder, who was given a glowing profile in Vanity Fair recently.
We’ve ranked our 10 favourite live shows of the past year below in order of appearance. Almost all of them are shows, troupes, and performers who regularly appear on Toronto stages—but like Fielder, may soon leave for greener pastures elsewhere. So if you want to say you “saw them when,” you’ll need to make “see more live comedy” a 2016 resolution.
Weekly alt-comedy showcase Laugh Sabbath, which we profiled last year, has benefited from some new blood this year. They’ve shaken up some of their formats with audacious experiments, such as Jackie Pirico’s Roast of Dogs (every comic on the bill had to rip on a cute dog pic at the end of their set) and Andrew Johnston’s Halloween special, where each guest was “murdered” in a blackout at the end of their set (spoiler: it was Johnston, as Jamie Lee Curtis). But it was Issac Winter and Tim Gilbert’s Human Life Is Worthless that was the most consistently entertaining all year, with Winter’s comic alter ego Marty Topps and his enslaved-by-enchantment sidekick Swipey The Troll (Gilbert) judging every act. (Marty loves everyone; Swipey despises them all.)
The duo’s creative partnership also yielded a surprising delight when their one-day recording of Tim Sings! The Hits! became a viral hit, and landed Gilbert on CBC’s q to discuss his debatable singing ability with Shad and a game vocal coach. The 44-track album, still available for free on Bandcamp, may just be the funniest Toronto recording of the year. (Topps’ own Live From The Rotary Club notwithstanding.)
Toronto’s best sketch act, as shown by their win at this spring’s Sketchfest, continued to churn out great material throughout the year, with a pair of sold out appearances at JFL42 and weekly residency shows at Bad Dog Theatre in October and November. Two of Get Some’s members (Mark Little and Evany Rosen) appeared on the cover of Now Magazine in the past year, and most of the troupe was featured in Flosstradamus’ video for “Prison Riot” (along with approximately half of Toronto’s sketch community, as seen below). With so many busy members, there’s no telling how long Get Some will be able to hold together, but 2015 was a bumper year for their growing fan base.
Bad Dog Theatre had another exceptional year of programming. If last year had great shows but half-full houses, these days their performance space is typically full (the front room bar, too). Earlier this month, Bad Dog held their annual awards night, and Cult Wayward won Favourite Show. We fully agree. Helmed by Becky Johnson (now on the Second City Mainstage), the all women cast was full of powerhouse regular performers like Evany Rosen and Kayla Lorette, rarely seen improvisers like Carolyn Taylor and Monica Heisey, and improv “newbies” like Meghan Swahby, who was astonishingly strong in her improv debut. Bad Dog’s recently announced a new crop of featured Players, and there are plenty of new and diverse faces—here’s hoping Bad Dog’s improv veterans can help them put together shows as entertaining and surprisingly touching as Wayward.
We profiled Zabrina Chevannes and her Things Black Girls Say showcase this summer, and it was this show that clinched it. The bill included veteran stand-ups Chevannes and Keesha Brownie, rising stars Aisha Brown and Aisha Alfa (who landed on our annual Local Ladies Who Make Us laugh feature, and will be on Air Farce’s New Year’s Eve special next week), and even improv duo Coko and Daphney. Chevannes has continued to put together exceptional bills throughout the year, and the women on her bills have had raised profiles and more guest spots on shows that previously may have lacked for diversity—which is exactly what we’d hoped might happen. Chevannes has plans to take the show on the road in 2016, and we look forward to hearing how successful her bill is out of town, too.
Out of the 40 to 50 Toronto Fringe shows we see each year, there’s usually one five-star show—maybe two. This year, we saw three five-star comedies. The remount of Morro & Jasp Do Puberty, which the clown duo took to the Edinburgh Fringe in August, was even more delightful than we remembered. God’s Beard (The Only Sketch Show That Has Ever Happened) was a sketch master class, with veteran TV writers & performers Jim Annan, Scott Montgomery, and Kurt Smeaton taking every scene somewhere wild and unexpected. And Sex T-Rex earned their second five stars at the Fringe in a row with Swordplay: A Play of Swords, a swashbuckling adventure inspired by the Princess Bride and 8-bit video games (the troupe will remount it in repertory this upcoming March at Storefront Theatre).
JFL42 is now firmly established as Toronto’s premiere comedy festival, and again this year, while we enjoyed all the visiting out-of-town talent, we were very happy to see how the festival exposed Torontonians to great local talent, including headline sets by Arthur Simeon, Faisal Butt, and Dawn Whitwell. If we had to pick just one show, though, it’d be the Alternative Show, where we saw DeAnne Smith deliver a killer short set, and Pat Thornton epically riff on one joke about “cookie chips” for nearly his full time.
Toronto comedy rarely crosses over onto our theatre stages, so it was a treat to see improv show Blind Date return for a full remount at Tarragon Theatre. We just managed to catch the hot ticket on its final show, when alternate “Mimi” Christy Bruce (taking over for show creator Rebecca Northan) donned the red nose and fished audience member Yaw Attuah out of the audience and into the show. Their onstage adventure, supported by Northan, Kristian Reimer, and Jamie Northan as supporting characters, was as touching and hilarious as every other iteration of the show; the team has the show down to a science.
The Tim Sims Encouragement Awards and its Cream of Comedy gala has, for 20 years, helped develop generations of Toronto comedians; past winners include Nathan Fielder, Gavin Crawford, and Laurie Elliot. The 20th anniversary show was the last, with founder and longtime producer Lindsay Leese handing the reins to two institutions, Second City Toronto and Humber College’s comedy program. We’ve some concerns about that: while the majority of past winners have roots with either, some haven’t—the awards were previously chosen by a panel of their comedy peers, and sometimes some unorthodox outsiders made it to the final five. In any event, the final gala was a strong reminder of the influence the show’s relatively small amount of funding (especially when bolstered by the Comedy Network, until that was withdrawn in 2006) has had in nurturing Canadian talent. Married comics Chris Locke & Kathleen Phillips appeared together for the first time as a duo; Andrew Johnston delivered a hilarious insider’s look at hosting gigs; and Ron Sparks courted controversy by speaking about the contentious behind-the-scenes aftermath of this year’s Canadian Comedy Awards. Canadian comedians need support (and funding) to flourish; here’s hoping the future iterations of these awards can manage to do so objectively and free of self-interest.
Sketch troupe Panacea’s members landed on our list last year for their involvement in the Fringe show Everything is Fine. This year’s Fringe wasn’t so kind to them—they amassed a number of one-star reviews for their musical Everyone Loves Sealand—but they rebounded just fine with their sophomore sketch show this fall, which tackled some shaky moral justifications for Uber, ego in the guise of queer pride, and sexual objectification—often in song, and segued via dance. They’ll be remounting F*#% IT early in 2016; don’t miss it.
Since Pat Thornton, busy with CTV sketch show Sunnyside and other out-of-town work, suspended his 24 hour stand-up marathon, the Toronto comedy community has lacked a similar charitable benefit to rally around, and Dan Galea stepped up this year to deliver one. His annual joke awards show, given out ad nauseum for the most spurious reasons (full disclosure, we were one of the more than 300 plus recipients), this year really upped the charity aspect, raising nearly two grand to donate to the Riverdale Housing Action Group. The show itself featured showcase performers (many of whom were off-stage partners) from some of Comedy Bar’s top acts, including Dancing with the Comedians, Catch 23 Improv, and Sunday Night Live, plus video gems like the below “single” by “Zandy and The Combs”. Kudos to Galea and his friends for the work that went into it; we hope there’ll be more money raised (and more recipients) next year.