Every night in Toronto, there's a comedy show worth seeing. We went to a week's worth of long-running shows to see why they've lasted a decade or more.
Toronto has always had a thriving live and underground comedy scene, though television and film producers, particularly Canadian ones, haven’t always been able to fully exploit the talent developed here. New performers, troupes, and shows spring up constantly and proliferate across the city, both in high-profile venues such as Second City Toronto and in cozy backrooms and neighbourhood pubs.
What sustains Toronto’s impressive comedic output is a diverse series of monthly and weekly shows that give emerging and veteran performers alike stage time to polish their craft, tinker with their routines, and develop their comedic voices. It’s rare, especially for weekly shows, to get much media attention: they’re always there, week in and week out. So we set out to attend a weekly show every night for a full week to gauge how they’re faring, find out about the audience that sustains them, and get a sense of each show’s history.
One note for novice live-comedy attendees: comedy shows never start on time. Bad Dog Theatre’s Theatresports came closest, starting less than 10 minutes late—almost meeting the “seven-minute standard” that theatres generally follow. The rest of the shows began between 15 and 30 minutes later than their listed start times. Of course, showing up on time is prudent if you want a seat (many of these shows were standing room only by the time they were underway).
Theatresports is by far the longest-running weekly comedy show in Toronto, dating back to 1982. For its first decade, the show was in residence at the Harbourfront Centre; teams that competed then included seminal sketch troupes such as the Chumps and Kids in the Hall, whose alumni have shaped Canadian (and American) television. Its second decade saw the show produced all over the city—until 2003, when Bad Dog Theatre was established on the Danforth and installed Theatresports as its signature show. The Danforth location shut down in 2011, but Bad Dog (and Theatresports) soon found a temporary home at Comedy Bar. This fall, with support from Comedy Bar, Bad Dog Theatre opened a new location a block away on Bloor, just east of Ossington; with Comedy Bar and Storefront Theatre (which often stages new comedies by local playwrights such as Kat Sandler and Claire Armstrong) within spitting distance, it’s turned that stretch of Bloor Street into a comedy corridor, where fans can pop back and forth between early and late-night shows at the three venues.
We arrived early at Bad Dog and caught the free Micetro show, a round-robin improv elimination contest that features emerging and guest improvisers. There are “student” shows at Bad Dog, but Micetro is a cut above; competitors on this night included sketch comics and actors Kat Letwin and Natalie Metcalfe. We were impressed by finalists Cassie Moes, Zoya Gai, and Rachel Aberle, who won the ceremonial five-dollar bill as last improvisor standing.
Metcalfe was also a player on the “main card” Theatresports show, teaming up with veteran improvisors Nug Nahrgang and Nigel Downer as “Ernie’s Roadhouse,” and facing Jess Bryson, Alastair Forbes, and Liz Johnston’s team, “Jurassic Parking Lot.” Hosted this week by Craig Anderson, with musical accompaniment by Tony Smith, the showdown was a competitive one: the two teams were evenly matched right up to the end, when the Roadhouse team edged out a win. This happens a lot at Theatresports; most of its players are drawn from Bad Dog’s top tier of veteran improvisers, and the audience—which featured students, white-haired patrons, and everything in between—certainly felt they got their money’s worth.
Sunday Night Live is not just the longest-running weekly sketch show in Toronto—it’s currently the only one. The Sketchersons, following a format closely modelled on NBC’s Saturday Night Live, began their weekly run in 2004, establishing themselves at the old Poor Alex Theatre at Bloor and Brunswick. When that venue shut down, the show continued at the Brunswick House pub across the street, before moving to the Tim Sims Playhouse, which has since closed. Founding member and producer Gary Rideout Jr.‘s frustrations with the lack of a permanent home for the show no doubt contributed to the opening of Comedy Bar in 2008; since that time, Sunday Night Live has been the signature show for the venue and welcomed many special guests. Often, when noted comics such as Andy Kindler or Eastbound and Down‘s Jerry Minor book weekend stands at Comedy Bar, they’ll end the weekend as guests on the show. But every week, the regular cast members present new sketches they’ve written since the previous Sunday.
As is the case with every show in this feature, Sunday Night Live has a core audience. It skews younger than the stand-up showcases—although not as young as the student segment of Bad Dog fans. Comedy Bar itself is a popular hangout regardless of which show is on, and besides just the sketch and special guests, Sunday Night Live boasts a terrific live band, the Magic Stuff, that entertains the crowd with rock ‘n’ roll covers.
For the November 23 show, the troupe was in high spirits, as the “Ladies of the Sketchersons” (Ann Pornel, Alessandra Vite, Allison Hogg, and Alexandra Wylie) had taken the top prize in the 50-troupe Sketch Com-Ageddon competition finals the night before. Head writer Jocelyn Geddie and former head writer Daryn McIntyre (the night’s guest host) introduced the show with a workout routine for Black Friday; McIntyre later killed as a sputtering Don Cherry, appearing on the News Desk segment with current host Hogg. While the traditional musical guest has of late become a more general special guest—often a comedian—this night’s guest was both: musical joker Marty Topps sang two mini-sets of “confessional” songs dedicated to an absent (and cheating) wife.
The Sketchersons are currently in a rebuilding phase: they’ve dropped from a record 17 troupe members to a core group of seven, and will be adding new members in early 2015. But we didn’t see any signs of creative fatigue. Not every sketch is a “hit,” of course, but then, even at its best, the same holds true for their television inspiration.
Since January of 1997, the ALTdot COMedy Lounge has presented a weekly comedy showcase in the back room of the Rivoli—the venue most famous for hosting the Kids in the Hall. (The ALTdot’s Tuesday-night sister show, SKETCHdot COMedy Lounge, quietly shut down earlier this year, after nine years.) Featuring stand-up predominantly, with occasional sketch and character pieces, it continues to be the city’s best-known solo comedy showcase; on the night we attended, not only was it standing-room only, but at least one Kids in the Hall alumnus was in the audience.
The quality of the comics on the ALTdot shows is consistently high, but there’s a catch: so is the number of comics on the bill. It’s a case of “too much of a good thing”—the night’s host, Julia Hladkowicz, did her best to keep things moving briskly, but with over a dozen acts, her hands were tied. By 11 p.m., a chunk of the crowd had left, which was a shame; closing comic Dylan Gott had a great set, sending the remaining audience members home chuckling about his girlfriend’s argument ender and his nephew’s inappropriate touching.
Other standouts on the bill included Kyle Hickey, a relative newcomer (to Toronto), whose sincere accounts of crying to YouTube videos had the audience in stitches; Monty Scott, who went after gender roles like a dog with a bone; and D.J. Demers, whose polished material making light of his hearing disability was showcased exactly a week later on Conan.
Most of Toronto’s comedy happens west of Yonge Street, so we wanted to make a point of featuring at least one show in the east end. We had to bend our rule stipulating that shows had to be weekly, though—but in Standing on the Danforth’s case, we were close. The Eton House show, started by local producer and comic Jo-Anna Downey, recently transitioned to a monthly format—so recently, in fact, that the show banner on stage still says “every Tuesday.” Downey, who’s lost her voice to an ongoing battle with Lou Gehrig’s disease, has handed the reins to fellow comic Sandra Battaglini. (The December 16 show will be the nine-year anniversary.)
Battaglini, opening with her own set, canvassed the audience for subjects and moved quickly past the events in Ferguson to a safer topic—the Ebola virus. She frequently peppered her intros with ribald off-the-cuff remarks, which suited the bill—and the audience—just fine. More so than the previous shows in our week, this show had a “neighbourhood” feel: we suspect the majority of the audience members walked to the tavern.
That relaxed feel extended to the comics. Hannah Hogan told a rambling but entertaining story about trying to quit smoking pot because her dealer kept hitting on her; Ali Hassan told a number of entertaining anecdotes about his kids. Dave Merheje directed an affectionate tongue-in-cheek rant at technician Earl Maillot for playing an East Indian pop song as his intro every time he’s appeared there (Merheje is Lebanese-Canadian). And Mike Wilmot chastised his fellow comics for not taking full advantage of the opportunity to roast Boyd Banks. “No-one’s even mentioned him!”
Wilmot was referring to the fact that the night would mark the last appearance of the revered entertainer, who’s moving to Alberta for a spell. “Revered” is a word Banks will no doubt despise, but it aptly describes his fellow comics’ sentiments. “I’m just going on the road,” cracked Banks. “I’m not dying.” He kept his closing set short but, like fellow veteran comic Kenny Robinson, Banks touched on very current events, talking about Ghomeshi, Moxy Früvous, and the top-ranked status of the Nylons on the very short list of Canadian a cappella groups. Banks ended with the touchy topic of Ferguson—which Battaglini had steered clear of at the beginning of the night—tying it into white privilege. “I have a dream,” said Banks, “where everyone is white…that came out wrong. Rather, where everyone is treated like they’re white.”
While Standing on the Danforth is the “new” east-end satellite show, Spirits Comedy Night, a block south of Church and Bloor, is Jo-Anna Downey’s—and Toronto’s—longest-running stand-up night. The November 26 instalment marked the show’s 18-year anniversary, so while the event usually features a mix of pro and amateur comics, this evening’s bill was particularly stacked. Downey was too ill to appear, but the evening was emceed as per usual by her partner, comic Cal Post, and her family was sitting with the comics at the back of the room. (There’s an ongoing campaign raising funds for Downey, championed by Second City, the National Theatre of the World, and too many individual Canadian comics to mention.)
Post opened the show with brand-new material about a three-way sex act on a streetcar, then followed that up with the purported final telling of an elaborate airplane joke, which comedy superfan Lisa Oki (who was also at Standing on the Danforth) had “bought” so that he’d retire it. (Sandra Battaglini and Mike Wilmot were also on the night’s bill, and were savvy enough not to repeat much material from the night before.)
The night ran nearly as long as Monday night’s show at the ALTdot had, but with fewer comics and a lot of goodwill, the show moved along at a good pace. (Part of the comedy came from watching Post take a shot, delivered on a tray by the room’s server, before each comic’s introduction.) While all the comics turned in good sets, there were, naturally, some standouts. Opener Steph Tolev, recently returned from the U.S., kicked things off well with an impression of Hulk Hogan that was nearly as good as Daryn McIntyre’s the previous weekend; she also had a strong bit about her childhood bogeyman. Basso profundo–voiced Arthur Simeon, who appeared midway though the night, killed with bits about an all-bacon diet plan, an awkward interaction at an intersection, and the feasibility of a black James Bond. And Ryan Belleville, who closed the night, poked fun at us all for enjoying Post’s growing inebriation and the esoteric flavours of David’s Tea.
Laugh Sabbath’s genealogy is more complex than most of the shows featured: the show, which ran every Sunday for years at the Rivoli, was an amalgamation of the Righteous Wednesdays weekly shows at the (long gone) Oasis bar on College Street west of Spadina and the “Comedy and A…” monthly shows, co-produced by the Distractions and Knock Knock! (Who’s There?) Comedy! sketch troupes. The loosely affiliated collective has now produced several generations of comics: some of the city’s best local comics—people such as Sara Hennessey, Chris Locke, and Kathleen Phillips, recently added to the cast of CBC’s Mr. D—developed their comedic voices as Laugh Sabbath members. Laugh Sabbath’s most high-profile alumnus hailing from outside Toronto is currently Nathan Fielder—the third season of his hit Comedy Central show Nathan For You will air in 2015.
Laugh Sabbath “jumped ship” from the Rivoli, moving to Comedy Bar when the cabaret space opened; for much of its comedy, a small, intimate space is preferable. Experiments in the Comedy Bar era have included Laying Down With Tim Gilbert, who hosts the entire show lying on a couch, and Human Life Is Worthless, where Marty Topps and Gilbert (as Swipey the Troll) force comics to compete for points.
For the November 27 edition of Laugh Sabbath, Chris Locke was hosting, but the bill was not entirely as advertised. Locke was rock solid as always, riffing on junk food (e.g., he’s only allowed to eat Uncle Burgers at A&W). Dylan Gott, who’d also had a great set at the ALTdot on Monday, delivered again, talking about his post-Halloween candy habit. Newcomer Nick Nemeroff impressed as well, discussing cosmetic brain surgery and the “opposite of racism” with a deliberately slow cadence (one that reminded us of frequent Laugh Sabbath guest Tom Henry). But a number of the comics seemed to have difficulty “reading” the room. Matt O’Brien said as much, though his bits involving Smart-car road rage and the significance of a French Bulldog in the neighbourhood were clever.
The best bit of the night was a sketch involving Locke and James Hartnett, the latter playing an agent who sends Locke out only for roles as a peeping tom. The bit was at least partially improvised, but it kept the audience engaged. When it comes to a weekly show, it can be hard not to rely on stand-ups to come in with their own material to fill the bill—but trying something different has always been admired by Laugh Sabbath’s core audience.
While Theatresports provides wholesome, if occasionally risqué, fun suitable for almost anyone, Catch23 Improv, whose tagline is “Toronto’s friendliest improv death match,” has evolved from a very different starting point: backroom bar improv. What that means is that, in order to appeal to a progressively drunker crowd, Catch 23 has always been darker, and more sardonic and experimental. First launched (like Laugh Sabbath) at the Oasis in 2002, Catch 23 soon moved to the back room at Clinton’s Tavern on Bloor, spending five years there. Early years saw improvisers trying everything from covering the stage with mousetraps, to pairing exes together and seeing if they could make each other cry on stage.
Catch 23 made the jump to Comedy Bar soon after it opened and has anchored the Friday-night lineup there ever since. It’s been co-produced for the last six years by Comedy Bar co-owner Gary Rideout Jr. and original “house team” member Becky Johnson. Alumni of the show include actor Thomas Middleditch, star of HBO’s Silicon Valley, and Tarragon Theatre playwright-in-residence Brendan Gall; befitting a show where worlds are created on the fly, many of its alums—such as Martin Gero (The LA Complex, Bored to Death) and Kurt Smeaton (Mr. D, The Hour)—have become noted writers and showrunners.
To offset and manage the anarchy on stage, Catch 23 has always maintained a strict set of rules. Each of the three competing teams gets 23 minutes (no more, no less) to perform over four rounds, and the audience and a selected judge score each scene out of a combined 10 points. For the November 28 edition, however, Rideout Jr. and Johnson were tinkering with the formula in preparation for a December 15 TV pilot taping (for which free tickets are still available by emailing [email protected]). The night was split into two, three-round showcases (this was the only show of the week that included an intermission)—teams swapped performers throughout. Norm Sousa (Too Much Information, Never Ever Do This at Home) hosted both showcases; Ron Pederson judged the first, then jumped on a team with Johnson for the second.
Scrambled teams and rules aside, this was our favourite show of the week. It started strong, with improvisers such as Kirsten Rasmussen and Kris Siddiqi impressing with their wit and energy. The banter throughout was top-notch: at one point, after a Ferguson reference that ended with Sousa miming shooting himself in the crotch, Matt Folliott quipped, “better to shoot your own dick than other people,” bringing the house down. And the show’s ace in the hole was technical director Mark Andrada, who not only decided what “blowline” ended a scene by bringing down the lights, but queued up hilarious songs within seconds of off-the-cuff jokes being made onstage.
By the second half, the tipsy crowd was giving full marks across the board to every scene, making whoever “won” the match irrelevant. It remains to be seen whether the lunacy will successfully make the transition to television—regardless, Toronto audiences can catch the live version each and every week.