Four years ago, stand-up comic Daniela Saioni noticed a pattern in how comedians were being booked at various events around the city.
“Female comics were only getting one or two spots every night,” she says. “And at the time, there was this huge surge of new female comedians coming on to the scene.”
Wanting to improve the gender balance of Torontonian comedy and provide a safer space for female comics to test their material, Saioni started her own night, West End Girls, and turned the way the room was booked on its head. Instead of having a half-dozen or so male comics and one woman, West End Girls features roughly half a dozen women and one “Token Boy” act.
The format proved so popular that, over the last four years, it’s had to move spaces three times. What started out at a cafe in Parkdale now happens in the main space at Comedy Bar. It has helped launch the careers of several promising young female comics. Christi Olson, who won last year’s Second City Tim Sims Award, played many of her early Toronto shows at West End Girls.
“I’ve been able to bring a lot of new talent in,” Saioni says. “Some of the regulars call her a modern day Lenny Bruce.”
Christina Walkinshaw is headlining West End Girls’ fourth-anniversary show, on Saturday. She has been on Comedy Now and has a popular blog—and she made news earlier this year after she lost a gig at Casino Niagara for complaining about hecklers chanting, “Show us your tits.”
She says that while getting heckled can happen anywhere, not having to worry about a certain type of particularly drunk, nasty heckler is a relief.
“Everyone who comes to Comedy Bar wants to see comedy,” she says. “People go to a casino to get drunk and gamble. Those casino crowds are often people who’ve lost thousands of dollars and then been comped tickets…So you’re dealing with crowds who are very drunk and very mad at the world.”
Jessica Beaulieu is also on the bill for the fourth-anniversary show. She did one of her earliest stand-up sets at Virgin Suicides, West End Girls’ twice-yearly showcase for novice comics. She now runs her own all-woman monthly show, Chicka Boom. She says that all-female shows can be crucial to young women comics who are still trying to break into the industry.
“Stand-up comedy is really male dominated,” she says. “And most male comics are really supportive, but still, when you’re a woman, and you’re new, and you walk into a place and it’s 20 men and you’re the only woman, it’s a bit scary.”
She adds that, as hard as it is to believe, some people still think women “aren’t funny.” Shows like this prove how wrong they are.
“If it’s twelve guys and one woman, and the woman doesn’t kill, some audience members will walk away saying, ‘She sucked, thus all women must suck as well,’” she says. “Because they have one woman to base their opinion on. Whereas here, even if one woman doesn’t do particularly well, you have six or seven others who are going to kill.”
She also admits that, in addition to providing a place for female comics to show their skills, an all-female show is a pretty good marketing angle.
“It’s a hook, it’s a theme,” she says. “It’s more interesting than a regular comedy show. Audiences find it more interesting.”
According to Saioni, the growth of all-woman shows like West End Girls and Chicka Boom seems to have had a positive effect on comedy in Toronto as a whole.
“Toronto’s getting a lot better [in terms of programming female comedians],” she says. “I still notice it when I go out of town…but we’re more progressive than a lot of places. But that’s because a lot of people have gone out and taken initiative.”
This post originally gave an incorrect date for West End Girls’ fourth-anniversary show. It’s on September 14, not September 13.
This post also misspelled Christi Olson’s last name.