Laugh Sabbath and I (Heart) Jokes Find a New Cabaret Niche
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Laugh Sabbath and I (Heart) Jokes Find a New Cabaret Niche

Comedy Bar has opened a second stage, and established comedy outfits are decamping from other local venues to fill it. We met with some of them to find out why.

Host Georgea Brooks-Hancock and judge Matt Folliott will kick off Strip Comedy in the Comedy Bar cabaret room immediately following the Super Bowl this Sunday. Photo courtesy of the Trend Collective.

Strip Comedy
I (Heart) Jokes
Sunday February 5, 9 p.m. (post Super Bowl), $5.

Laugh Sabbath
Laugh Sabbath
Thursday February 16, 9:30 p.m., $5.

There’ve been a lot of changes at Comedy Bar since the Bloorcourt performance venue opened in 2008. Much of that is due to a series of upgrades, like a luxurious wrap-around bar (instead of the ice-filled beer tubs with which they started); a dedicated box office line (rather than co-owner Gary Rideout Jr.’s personal cell phone); and a professional cleaning service (a nice alternative to Rideout’s initial position of “mostly not cleaning”—his words.) But the biggest change happened just in November, when the opening of a 50-seat cabaret room turned Comedy Bar into a multi-stage venue.

About half the size of the original theatre space, it’s having an effect quickly: in the last few months, several troupes have moved shows in. It’s partly due to the intimate feel of the room, but it’s also because in the three years since it opened Comedy Bar has become a place much of the comedy community in Toronto has come to regard as their natural hub, whether they do sketch, improv, or stand-up.

Comedy Bar won praise early on for being one of the most exciting developments in Toronto comedy in years, but even then Rideout knew there was room for improvement. “In our first year,” Rideout recalls, “My birthday roast was held here, and [Laugh Sabbath’s] Chris Locke joked ‘Comedy Bar? More like Two-Different-Kinds-Of-Shows-A-Night Bar!’—which was really funny, because it was. At the time, I had to say yes to anything that might get people in the door.”

Right from the start there was reason to be optimistic, though. “There was a lot of early focus on our flagship shows, like Sunday Night Live, and Catch 23 Improv, so that helped. Also, the community was really supportive; there were comics who were here every night, out of loyalty. Now, they’re starting to realize they can go home at night, the bar will still do well, and we’ll still be here the next day. And now that the demand to produce shows here is so high, I can be more selective in what I program, and where to put it.”

It’s working. Bad Dog Theatre recently announced a new partnership with Comedy Bar, and they cited the newly opened cabaret space a deciding factor in moving there. One benefit: stability. While out-of-town guests sometimes take up weekend residencies in the Comedy Bar’s main space, regularly scheduled shows in the cabaret room won’t be bumped.

Rideout also points out that the main theatre’s size can be a financial impediment for trying new things. “There’s a lot of pressure to succeed immediately in the theatre,” he tells us. “Early on, on off nights, we took risks; after all, we incubated Impromptu Splendor here, before it moved to Theatre Passe Muraille. But now, with the cabaret, we can do all sorts of new and experimental shows,” he says.

Recently, we got together with Rideout, Laugh Sabbath’s James Hartnett, and I (Heart) Jokes’ Evan Desmarais to chat more about the venue, and some of the other new shows that will be taking up residence there.

Sabbath on a Thursday

Laugh Sabbath had been producing Sunday night shows at the Rivoli for years, but when an increase in the overhead cost of performing there (the comedy showcase had never been financially lucrative) coincided with Rideout’s offer to join the Comedy Bar line-up, the collective jumped at the chance. “The Rivoli was great,” Hartnett says, “but…there’s a vibrancy here, and widespread support by the comedy community; there’s people who are into comedy who’ll just come by on any given night to see what’s going on.” Rideout himself is a part of that: “He’s a comedian, so he really gets what you need, and what you’re trying to do when putting on a show,” says Hartnett.

As for how the move might affect things, Hartnett goes on, “it’ll be the same show with a lot of the same people, but it’ll be revamped a bit.” They’ll be doing away with the subtitles each show used to have, and they are aiming for shorter, tighter shows.

We (Heart) You Guys!

Newer outfit I (Heart) Jokes isn’t fully relocating—they’ll continue to do some shows at the Central on Markham, and a Wednesday uptown showcase at the Fox & Fiddle (Keele and Finch)—but they are taking the opportunity to expand. Their new Sunday night Comedy Bar shows are clearly something producer Evan Desmarais is excited about: “Our flagship shows are going to be here, like Strip Comedy“—which launches tomorrow with a Super Bowl afterparty. “We also have Rob Mailloux’s Rob Loves Arguing, where he claims to be the best arguer in the world, and debates people.”

“I think he’s going to lose a lot of the time,” chortles Rideout.

“For us, it’s an honour to be doing shows at Comedy Bar alongside shows like Sunday Night Live and Laugh Sabbath,” says Desmarais. “No, really!” he exclaims, as Hartnett protests self-deprecatingly. “The idea for I (Heart) Jokes to produce different themed comedy shows came from Laugh Sabbath—you guys are an inspiration for the whole scene.”

Members of the extended Laugh Sabbath family, in spoon collage form. Image by Joseph Fuda.

You Can Try, Too!

“I’ll be doing The Evan Desmarais Show, where I host and interview guests after their sets,” Desmarais goes on. “And also, I’m hosting Comedy Bar’s new Open Mic Night on Tuesdays.” “That’s been packed the last two weeks, and it’s something people have been asking about for the longest time,” adds Rideout. “I didn’t think an open mic night would survive in the theatre, but it’s doing well in the cabaret.”

“A lot of things seem to be happening all at once—Laugh Sabbath, I (Heart) Jokes, and Bad Dog Theatre moving in; the Cabaret space; the new open mic,” lists Rideout. But for him and Comedy Bar, it’s all part of the plan, coming to fruition.