Local Ladies Who Make Us Laugh (2012 Edition)
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Local Ladies Who Make Us Laugh (2012 Edition)

For the second time, we highlight Toronto-based female comedians who are among the best at what they do.

From Left to Right: Zabrina Chevannes, Inessa Frantowski, Sarah Hillier, Sandra Battaglini, and Rhiannon Archer.

We suppose it’s a small sign of improvement that a recent National Post story—the latest of many articles to denigrate and disparage “women in comedy”—never once claimed that “women aren’t funny.” Instead, it said that women have “almost no choice” but to portray themselves as “unattractive, sexually unappealing and self-deprecating” in order to succeed as comics, citing as examples Debra DiGiovanni and Nikki Payne, two of the best working stand-up comics in the country.

Notwithstanding the fact that all comics use self-deprecation as a method of establishing a rapport with audiences (because someone claiming to be perfect is only funny ironically), this half-baked assertion presumed that just because DiGiovanni and Payne may not have the attributes required of fashion or swimsuit models, they don’t have admirers. Judging from the volume of comments on the article lambasting it, that’s definitely not the case.

Talent, confidence, and accomplishment are all extremely attractive qualities that DiGiovanni (who’s already responded to the hack job in print and radio interviews) and Payne possess in spades. They’re qualities shared by the women featured in our first Local Ladies Who Make Us Laugh installment.

And now, here’s installment number two.

We asked prominent Toronto-based female comedians about their work to date, about how they use self-deprecation in their comedy, and also to name a few female performers in Toronto they admire. (Since they all cited DiGiovanni and Payne, we focused on other performers they mentioned.)

Rhiannon Archer

Archer was nominated as a “Best Stand-Up Newcomer” at the Canadian Comedy Awards last year, and has been performing for a little over three years. She has opened for Maria Bamford, Chris Hardwick, and Todd Glass. As a stand-up, she’s completely comfortable veering away from her set to chat with audience members—or, in the case of those who cross the line into heckling, smartly taking them down a notch or two. She put those heckle-destroying skills to work after reading the National Post article.

In her email complaint, Archer pointed out that, in comedy, as in real life, “people are probably pointing out their flaws. Why? It’s an effective, honest, and sincere way to connect and relate to one another.” But her own comedy, while drawing on things she observes in her own life, doesn’t dwell much on herself. “I don’t really use self-deprecating humour in my act,” says Archer thoughtfully. “Sometimes I’ll get things wrong in a situation, or do the wrong thing, and I’ll call myself out. But I don’t really rip on myself.”

While she expressed admiration for the other comics in this feature, Archer ultimately couldn’t bring herself to list other women she admires, for fear of leaving some out. “Toronto (and Canada) has so many amazingly talented females…my list would be so long, and my anxiety would go into overdrive if I left someone out,” she said. “I just think as long as someone is doing something they love and believe in, then they’re great in my book!”

Archer appears as part of the NXNE Festival’s comedy showcase at the LOT (100A Ossington Avenue) this Friday, June 15; and on Saturday, June 16, she performs in The Superstars of Comedy at Comedy Bar (945 Bloor Street West).

Sandra Battaglini

Battaglini has been at this comedy thing for a while now, and has pretty much done it all. She’s widely known and admired in the sketch, stand-up, and clown/bouffon communities.

Fearless when it comes to pushing boundaries, Battaglini’s lampooned the Holocaust, 9/11, and Communist China with her sketch troupe The Specials. She shocks even other stand-ups with her blue material when touring the Yuk Yuk’s circuit. She has even won a Canadian Comedy Award for one of her previous solo shows (Hard Headed Woman). She’s performed solo shows at festivals in L.A., New York, and Chicago, and has dabbled in opera and dance.

Before becoming a full-time performer, Battaglini was on her way to academia: “I completed a masters degree in history prior to discovering performance and comedy. My thesis was on women who worked at the nickel mines in Sudbury during World War II.” While she’s unafraid to tackle any subject on stage, including herself, she doesn’t consider her act to be self-deprecating. “It’s my life, so I talk about the things that I find ridiculous and absurd. It’s really about speaking my truth.”

Battaglini’s favourite female performers in Toronto include past and present women in this series (Kayla Lorette and Zabrina Chevannes), as well as fellow clown and Special sketch performer Precious Chong.

Battaglini’s latest solo show, Classy Lady, premieres tonight at the Alumnae Theatre (70 Berkeley Street) and runs June 14–24; she’s already released several video teasers for the show.

Zabrina Chevannes

Nearly every comic has to juggle other commitments, but Chevannes has more than most. She’s a mother to two active children, and her day job is an “all sorts of hours” position as a nurse. But she still juggles it all with a busy stand-up schedule. She’s a regular on Kenny Robin’s Nubian Comedy show, on the Yuk Yuk’s circuit, and beyond. (She recently performed several nights on the Canuck Cabaret at the New York Frigid Festival.) “I’m performing all the time around the GTA, ” she says, “after the kids’ soccer practices.”

Chevannes makes her other responsibilities part of her comedy routine. Her set is full of colourful references (and a few off-colour ones) to parenting and her day-to-day. She’s one of the most exuberant and cheerful stand-ups working in the city. She can turn a whole show around by kicking up the energy in the room.

Like Archer, Chevannes prefers to think of it as simple honesty when she talks about her mistakes and flaws in her sets. “In my style of comedy, I talk about situations I get into, and how I reacted to them. I don’t put myself down much,” she said. “For a performer, having no restrictions artistically is crucial. The only way comedy can be good and genuine is if you have the freedom to be yourself on stage.”

Some of Chevannes’ favourite performers include Shelley Marshall, fellow Lady Sandra Battaglini, Sandra Shamas, and Dana Alexander. “The reason why I’m in love with these women is not just because they are so brilliantly funny. It’s mostly because they are so powerful on stage. The fact that what people think doesn’t affect how they express themselves as artists makes them amazing to watch.”

Chevannes is appearing on a show on Saturday, June 23 at Comedy Bar (945 Bloor Street West) called Momics (Moms Telling Jokes).

Inessa Frantowski

Frantowski may be one of the hardest working women in sketch comedy in Toronto. The list of troupes she’s been a part of is long: she was a founding member of The Sketchersons, for instance. “I teared up a little reading The Grid article about Comedy Bar, because it outlines the history of The Sketchersons, which I’m very proud of,” she said. “My eight-year comedy marriage to Craig Brown in [sketch duo] Bull Hooey was born out of that.” Other sketch acts Frantowski is involved in include HIR, a trio with Holly Prazoff and Rebecca Addelman, and another duo with Alana Johnston, 2Much. Frantowski is also recognizable to TV audiences for her roles in the Kids in the Hall’s Death Comes to Town, and the Gemini-winning Cock’d Gunns, as well as many character roles on film: “I’m in David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis,” she said. “Watch for me…I’m the one…holding the rat.” [Laughs]

Most recently, Frantowski has been on the Second City Toronto mainstage for their past four revues (we’ve reviewed her performances), a job she’s leaving on June 20. “Two years, four shows, six nights a week,” she said. “Nothing beats getting on stage every night for a crowd that you didn’t have to beg to come!” As much as she loved the Second City experience, she’s excited to join the cast of new sketch troupe Primo, relaunch a music and comedy monthly with Maylee Todd and Dana Snell at the Magpie (831 Dundas Street West), and start participating in the city’s independent comedy and music scenes again.

Out of all the performers on this list—perhaps in the city—Frantowski is the most willing to expose herself (sometimes literally) for her art. “For me, comedy is taking your shame and spinning it into something positive. In doing so, it allows the audience to have more compassion for themselves and their own failings,” she said. “If you’re not laughing at yourself, you should be. We all should be.” She considers talking about the things most people are ashamed of to be one of the most powerful tools a comic has. “It’s not about demeaning yourself to gain acceptance from others. On the contrary, it’s about loving yourself so much that you can be who you truly are, without shame.”

Asked what other local women in comedy she admires, Frantowski named Sarah Hillier, Kayla Lorette, Kathleen Phillips, and Laugh Sabbath’s Sara Hennessey.

Frantowski’s final show at Second City (51 Mercer Street) will be Wednesday, June 20, with many special guests participating in the 8 p.m. show (and FREE improv set at 9:45 p.m.); her first show with Primo will be the following night, Thursday, June 21 at Supermarket (268 Augusta Avenue).

Sarah Hillier

Sarah Hillier is one of Canada’s top improvisers, and she has the hardware to prove it. Named “Best Female Improviser” at the 2011 Canadian Comedy Awards, she’s recently been nominated a second time. Hillier is a founding member of the improv troupe PROJECTProject. Like Frantowski, she’s also a longtime member of the Sketchersons. In fact, last Sunday was her last as a Sketcherson, as she has recently joined the Second City touring company. “Having performed with two such great groups—one being sketch and one being improv—has given me so much,” said Hillier. “It’s really balanced me and given me some awesome opportunities. And now working at the Second City feels really great, because it’s always been a dream of mine.”

Hillier, like all the women on this list, places less emphasis on appearances than on what makes her comedy more effective. “With some characters, I feel the uglier I look, the better. You want to take the audience into another world, and sometimes you need to shed some vanity to do that,” she said. “All the comedy women I know can play beautiful, homely, or sexy characters, but in the end they are just funny. It would be great if we could all just focus on that!”

Hillier chose Inessa Frantowski as the one woman she wanted most to give a shout-out to. “Inessa is one my most favorite female performers. She is so confident, and has always kept her own style wherever she performs. And there are so many more, too many to name them all. Toronto has such strong women performing here. I feel inspired by so many ladies every day.”

Hillier plays tonight at Comedy Bar (945 Bloor Street West) with The Ladies of The Sketchersons in the Sketch Com-Ageddon tournament. She’ll also be performing Mondays and Fridays all summer at Second City Toronto (51 Mercer Street) with the touring company cast.

CORRECTION: June 14, 5:05 PM Previously, the address given for Second City Toronto was listed as 55 Mercer Street. The actual address is 51 Mercer Street. The correction has been made to the article above.

See also:

Local Ladies Who Make Us Laugh (2011)

Thanks to the TIFF Bell Lightbox for allowing us to shoot the photos that accompany this article there.