Laugh Sabbath Celebrates Four Years as the Alternative to Unfunny
Comedy collective Laugh Sabbath, who produce a different monthly show every Sunday in the Rivoli back room, recently celebrated their four year anniversary. Torontoist was there a year earlier to get a primer on the series; we returned this year to chat in detail with returning alumni and current show runners about the series’ past, present, and future—and why Laugh Sabbath deserves to shed the “alternative comedy” label that’s dogged it since its inception.
The night of the anniversary, the Rivoli’s back room fills up with a diverse crowd, who are picking and choosing seats around the candlelit tables. There’s candy scattered across the table tops, a hallmark of the Laugh Sabbath shows—though for the night’s anniversary show, courtesy of series producer and publicist Leslie Aimée Gottlieb, there’s more than usual, plus tasty appetizers from the Rivoli’s kitchen spread out along one wall.
There are four distinct monthly shows in the Laugh Sabbath line-up: The Loner Show, an all solo, no stand-up showcase; Let’s Get Hot!, a variety show; Hour of Power, which features mainly stand-up; and Talent Show, a showcase series that features fewer guests with longer set times. (When a month has five Sundays, there’s an occasional one-off.) All the shows save Talent Show predate Laugh Sabbath, explains The Loner Show‘s host and producer, Brian Barlow. “[The shows] started more than five years ago as part of Righteous Wednesdays at the Oasis”—now the Savannah Room—”on College Street. [Sketch troupes] The Distractions and Knock Knock (Who’s There?) Comedy! had a monthly Sunday show at the Rivoli called Comedy and A…,” he explains, and the two different nights shared many key players. When the Savannah Room severed ties with the comedians, the Rivoli offered the rest of their Sundays to the disenfranchised shows. It’s there that the shows have flourished.
When producers need to take time off, as when Barlow was on the road with CBC’s The Rick Mercer Report, other members of the collective step in and keep the nights running. Kathleen Phillips’s Charlotte the Harlot character (“she’s my raunchiest,” says Phillips, who has a huge collection) has appeared on nearly every edition of Let’s Get Hot!; when host Chris Locke was busy doing stand-up in New York this summer, Phillips stepped in to guest-host the show with regular co-host Aaron Eves. (We interviewed Locke and Eves when LGH! celebrated its own anniversary.) It’s this sense of shared responsibility the Laugh Sabbath collective has developed that’s helped it develop a rock solid reputation as a room where comics can keep coming back to develop their own styles.
“Laugh Sabbath has been going for four years; I’ve been doing stand-up for five years, and I’ve really come into my own as a comic by doing Laugh Sabbath. I owe these guys so much,” says Tim Gilbert, who’s taken over co-producing duties on Talent Show with host James Hartnett, who recently returned from a summer of shooting YTV’s That’s So Weird! in Halifax. “It wasn’t until I got involved in Laugh Sabbath that I felt I was involved in comedy in general,” says Hartnett. “I’m not a traditional stand-up, so I don’t know where else I would have fit in.” It’s a sentiment echoed by many of the performers; they’re all acutely aware of how rare it is to have an established room and cultivated crowd where they can hone their craft. Says Hartnett, “Our comics recognize they’re developing their own brand, that will appeal very differently.”
Graham Wagner writes for, and briefly appears in, CBC’s upcoming TV series adaptation of Men With Brooms. The writing staff for the series boasts other Laugh Sabbath alumni, like Kurt Smeaton, and onscreen, both Brendan Gall and Anand Rajaram have ties to the Laugh Sabbath community. Wagner was in town for less than forty-eight hours before flying to Los Angeles for a new writing gig, but spent his one free evening in Toronto seeing Phillips and Katie Crown perform their a capella musical Our Lives Work!—which originated as a sketch at Laugh Sabbath. “A big chunk of being a comedian is being unemployed, or between jobs,” says Wagner. “Laugh Sabbath has been really important for keeping me sane and productive in those tracts of time.” While his frequent appearances on the show didn’t give him financial stability (a five-dollar cover means performers don’t usually get more than a drink ticket or two for their work), it did provide a place to regularly work on new material and ideas. “It’s probably the reason I didn’t stop doing comedy.”
Laugh Sabbath was directly responsible for a recent career boost for Levi MacDougall. He and Nathan Fielder were picked up as writers and occasional performers for Comedy Central’s Important Things with Demetri Martin, based in part on material they developed at Laugh Sabbath. “Demetri watched every Laugh Sabbath set online he could find,” says MacDougall. “He was really inspired by the fact that there was a show here that was comics just doing what they thought was funny, with no real prospect of it leading to a TV show.” The irony that there’s so much great comedy in Toronto, with so little prospect of getting a development deal for TV or film, isn’t lost on MacDougall, who now lives in Los Angeles. “In L.A., network execs come to the smallest shows, but here in Toronto, forget it. It’s very frustrating. Laugh Sabbath doesn’t pander to network exec’s tastes, only because there’s so few options—if there was more opportunity, we’d all be compromising more, I’m sure.”
Having spent time honing his stand-up in rooms in Los Angeles and New York, MacDougall still considers Laugh Sabbath one of his favourite places to perform. “Laugh Sabbath is one of the best places to try out sets to do in the States, because Toronto has had these amazing rooms for so long.” Says Crown, who’s making the move to Los Angeles as well, “There’s no other room so supportive of what we all do; it’s really amazing that we’ve developed this niche—it’s so valuable for our comedy.”
MacDougall, who’s been doing stand-up and sketch in Toronto for over a decade, agrees that the Laugh Sabbath scene is unique. “We were friends from rooms all around town, as part of the comedy scene, and we became better friends when we formed Laugh Sabbath. We all realized there was no alternative but to produce a show that would allow us to do what we wanted.”
Ah, “alternative.” As a label, it’s been an albatross around the show’s neck, according to many of the Laugh Sabbath collective. “[The media] still feel it’s necessary to brand us as ‘alternative,’ and I don’t even think that’s a thing anymore,” says Locke. Sara Hennessey, co-producer and host of Hour of Power, agrees: “I think our ‘alternative’ is the comedy norm, now.”
Certainly, if success is a measure of how established a style of comedy is, many members of Laugh Sabbath are now firmly in the mainstream: there’s MacDougall and Fielder getting snapped up for a Comedy Central hit, Wagner and Smeaton working on a new CBC flagship show, the three Geminis That’s So Weird! was just nominated for.
Locke thinks that the “alternative” tag has stuck because for a long while, “‘alternative’ was a boon to your career; you’d become the hot new thing,” he says. “We were all huge fans of the alternative comics [of the ’90s and early ’00s]—Eugene Merman, the guys from Stella, Todd Barry, David Cross. So we accepted the label when we started out. But now, it’s become this stigma. What’s ‘alternative’ now? Being unfunny? Anti-comedy? Because Laugh Sabbath is funny—just funny. It’s not weird, non-comedy!”
As more members of Laugh Sabbath head to the United States and elsewhere to pursue their careers, they’re acting as ambassadors for the series, which hints at what the future might hold for the weekly live shows. “This year, we’ve had a lot of comics come up from New York who want to do Laugh Sabbath,” says Hennessey. She points out that when comic Paul F. Tompkins came to town for his first, now famous 300 show (his return engagement is sold out already), he specifically chose The Rivoli and Laugh Sabbath based on what he’d heard about the room and audience. “In addition to the core group of producers and regulars, Laugh Sabbath is a home for a wide group of comedians that we love, and trust in their sensibilities,” asserts Locke. “We also have old friends all the time, like Nikki Payne… She’s never done the show before, and asked us for a slot—I’d never even thought to ask her, since her schedule’s so crazy!” New Yorker Scott Rogowsky, she adds, also made his way up for the September edition of Let’s Get Hot!
Laugh Sabbath, which has helped cultivate and export so many talented writers and performers, now seems to be developing into an exchange program, bringing curious comics to Toronto. Those comics are likely to see the room and its rotating ensemble as an alternative only to the tired old comedy they’ve seen before.
Laugh Sabbath shows are every Sunday at the Rivoli (332 Queen Street West), 9 p.m., $5 at the door; check their website for more info..
Photos from Laugh Sabbath’s four-year anniversary by D.A. Cooper/Torontoist.