Our fifth-annual profile of funny female performers and writers in Toronto who don't always get the attention they deserve.
Last year’s “Local Ladies Who Make Us Laugh” feature (we’ve taken to referring to the series as LLWMUL, for short) was blessedly unprompted by any recent and negative news items about “women in comedy.” We knew it was too good to last. The silver lining, as always, is profiling hilarious and talented women who refute the sexist drivel.
Last month, Canadian standup comic Jen Grant wrote a blog post about a corporate gig in which she was verbally harassed on stage by an audience member, to the point that she ended her set abruptly and walked off stage. The post went viral, and Grant, as well as Toronto comics Jess Beaulieu and Julia Hladkowicz, were featured in a segment on Global TV’s The Morning Show.
Towards the close of segment, co-host Jeff MacArthur (on his third day on the job) insisted that there was a “troubling double standard,” equivocating sexual harassment with the jokes he believed the comics were making at audience member’s expense. When co-host Liza Fromer disagreed, trying to explain to MacArthur how women in the public eye can be made to feel “sexually vulnerable,” he doubled down, insisting it was the comics’ fault for allowing their own harassment. “You have to be prepared for that,” he posited, in a classic case of victim blaming.
MacArthur later Tweeted a vague non-apology over his remarks, and took to his AM640 radio show the following week for a discussion on the topic that was, according to Beaulieu who wrote a guest column for Torontoist, heavily screened and ignored female comics, featuring just one male comic with a reputation for sexist behaviour in the comedy community.
Coupled with the recent spike in “FHRITP” verbal harassment of women in public, MacArthur’s sexist viewpoint, which was ignored at Global TV, speaks to the much higher degree of difficulty women in entertainment and the media—especially in comedy, where harassment is so often erroneously conflated with free-speech issues—face in building careers and expressing themselves. It’s a massive hurdle that men can still, for the most part, seemingly ignore. It is, without a doubt, a major factor in preventing true equality in the industry. One only needs to look at the initial lineup of this fall’s JFL42 comedy festival, which announced just one female to seven male top-billed headliners (they’ve since announced two more female headliners) to see this. By contrast, the grassroots Toronto Fringe Festival—with participants selected via a blind lottery system—boasts 70 of 141 shows written or co-written by women this year. So it clearly isn’t the case that there aren’t as many women as men interested in performing and writing in comedy.
Even the concept of a “women in comedy” feature such as this can be argued to be detrimental to showbiz equality, as musician Neko Case recently explained in a (very) long form essay on “Women in ______“. But until such time as it’s not unusual for there to be as many women as men on a comedy bill, or on a television show’s writing staff, a “Local People Who Make Us Laugh” feature just isn’t necessary the way LLWMUL is, to address that imbalance.
So, here are five very funny women who other women (and men) should admire and emulate—and most of all, read their writing and watch their shows. Trust us: you’ll be doing yourself a favour.
Aisha Alfa describes herself as “an Afro-ed Nigerian-Canadian Winnipegger,” who made the move to Toronto to pursue comedy professionally about two years ago. A former competitive soccer player, she first took up standup as a personal challenge in 2010 in Winnipeg, and quickly developed a passion for doing all sorts of things miked, including acting, hosting, and motivational speaking. Locally, she’s twice headlined Zabrina Chevannes’s Things Black Girls Say showcase, as well as Andrew Johnston’s Bitch Salad show, and appears all over town at standup showcases. She’s a finalist for CBC Punchline’s Stand Up and Pitch: The Comedy Content Search with fellow stand-up Nile Seguin (the two have debated each other on CBC’s The Debaters), as well as a finalist for Just For Laugh’s Homegrown Comedy competition at the festival this summer. She’ll also be visiting home in July to again host the Winnipeg Folk Festival.
Comedy, for Alfa, “is me making myself vulnerable on stage, and watching a vulnerable reaction to what I put out there. I’ll be doing comedy in the nude at Bare Oaks naturist resort on June 27, and I feel like things are coming full circle: I get ‘naked’ on stage by being vulnerable regularly with my stand up comedy, and now I’m actually doing it! Nightmare juice or, perhaps, a super liberating experience.”
Although vulnerability is a key aspect for Alfa in her stage performances, that doesn’t extend to ignoring harassment. “I have always felt that if you don’t put up with bullshit, people stop serving it to you pretty quickly!” (This comes from a woman who played on an all-male soccer league in Korea, at the time as the only female player in that country.) “Women in male-dominated industries need to stand up and say something, and not feel ashamed when they have a problem.” Alfa heard about Jen Grant’s experience before most people: “I did a show with her a few days after that incident, and heard how horrible it had been for her. She is a strong woman, and a great comic; I would never second guess her choice to leave the stage.” For Alfa, “my motto is be undeniable, and everyone will have to accept you, respect you, and listen to what you have to say!”
As for women in Toronto Aisha admires, she’s met quite a number of them in the comedy scene since moving here.”I’m obsessed with Kate Davis, Martha Chaves, Dawn Whitwell, Allie Price, Kayla Lorette, Ann Pornel, Jacki Pirico, Zabrina Chavennes, Jess Beaulieu, Nelu Handa, Carolyn Sterling, Christina Walkinshaw, Adrienne Fish, Camille Cote, Heidi Brander…this list could go on and on!”
Aisha will host Catch 23 Improv this Friday July 3 at Comedy Bar; she also hosts ‘Fro One Night Only every second Friday of the month there. You can currently see her on MTV Canada as Ms. Grell in Degrassi: The Next Generation, and online and on Global TV in The Second City Project.
For many emerging comedians, joining Second City Toronto’s Mainstage revue cast is the live-performance pinnacle, the best gig in Canadian showbiz to have as a live sketch and improv performer. Ashley Botting’s reached that pinnacle twice. She first joined the Mainstage cast in 2008, but left after two revues, which she candidly revealed was “Second City’s decision” in a recent NOW Magazine interview. Earlier this month, Botting wrapped her second stint in the Mainstage cast, but this time, she’s going out on top, after rave reviews.
In between, Botting honed her skills as an improviser and sketch comic, as well as a columnist, writing on occasion for publications like NOW Magazine and the Toronto Star. She also racked up Dora and Canadian Comedy awards, most notably as a performer in “Show-Stopping Number,” a fully improvised musical produced by Bad Dog Theatre. Botting is one of Toronto’s best practitioners of musical improv, an especially challenging improv format that calls on a performer to write and sing songs on the fly.
Even at the often risqué “Bonspiel” improv show Botting is a co-creator and core cast member of (she returned to the show this past weekend after her Second City hiatus), she’s always been able to “sass” better than any audience member who might try to cross the line. At Bonspiel, which we consider one of the city’s best regular bar improv shows, the crowds have always appreciated the mix of “blue” improv and salacious guests without overstepping the boundaries. “I’ve been pretty lucky in this regard,” admits Botting. “And at Second City, if we got sassed too hard, we could get people thrown out. It’s our house; the audience is a guest.” Credit to that organization, which has learned how to deal with guests who cross the line, mostly by giving its performers free rein to shut hecklers down however they deem fit.
There are three women Botting chose to cite as creative women she admires in Toronto. The first: Sarah Polley. “She’s a creative machine. Actor to director to writer to documentary film maker? What can’t she do?” The second is Trish Lindström, who recently won a Dora Award (and a Toronto Theatre Critics Award) for her starring role in the just-closed musical Once. “She’s a creative force. A photographer, a yoga teacher, a dancer, a singer, an actor, a visual artist, and just an incredible human.” And third, Anna Maria Tremonti, longtime host of CBC Radio One’s The Current. “She can discuss ANYTHING, and holds down the fort on her own show.”
Botting has resumed regular performances with Bonspiel, every last Sunday of the month at No One Writes To The Colonel. In mid-July, she’ll be performing in Studio 180’s Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish, as part of Panamania, the arts and culture program for the Pan Am Games.
There are surprisingly few performers in Toronto who perform regularly in both the comedy and theatre scenes. Aurora Browne is one of those few. This past weekend, she wrapped two shows with seminal indie theatre company Videocabaret at the Young Centre, where the company has become partners with Soulpepper, the resident company there. Browne played a variety of roles in the “Trudeaumania” double bill, but most memorably, she was both a flighty and free-spirited Maggie Trudeau and a pugnacious Jean Chrétien in Trudeau and Levesque.
Browne fell for theatre at a young age, performing in community productions in her hometown of Thunder Bay, but after graduating from York University, she found herself drawn to comedy. “I moved here to go to theatre school,” she recalls, “and came to comedy and improv late in the game, yet it’s been almost the complete focus of my adult professional life.” Classes at Second City eventually lead to roles in five Mainstage revues, and post-Second City, Browne found steady work in Canadian television, appearing on The Gavin Crawford Show, The Holmes Show, and CTV’s Comedy Inc. (Her most recent onscreen appearance was a cameo as an ex of Jay Baruchel’s on FX’s Man Seeking Woman.)
Browne’s also been busy of late with her own TV projects, working on a series entitled Baroness Von Sketch with co-creators Carolyn Taylor, Jenn Whalen, and Meredith MacNeill; it’s due to air in 2016 on CBC. (The show’s writing team includes fellow LLWMUL Monica Heisey, profiled below.) She’s also received funding for a webseries she’s co-created with Nadine Djoury entitled Newborn Moms. (Browne has a son with husband Kris Siddiqi, a fellow Second City alumni and NOW Magazine‘s Best Male Improviser of 2014.)
Without recounting any particular experiences, Browne describes the discrimination she’s faced in her 20-odd-year career as a “bewildering” experience. “I think, ‘Oh, wow, this is sexism! It’s happening right in front of me! It’s happening TO me!’ I long for the day when these discussions aren’t necessary, but in the meantime I fiercely support the right for females everywhere to be free of this dumb phenomenon. Comedy is tough enough.”
The women Browne wants to highlight, besides the women she’s currently working on projects with, include Soulpepper executive director Leslie Lester: “I am beyond admiring of Leslie; I seriously don’t know how she does it all.” Also Dawn Whitwell, creator of the popular Comedy Girl women-only standup classes: “Dawn is fostering a whole new crop of standups, and is a wonderful person at the same time.”
Monica Heisey first came to our attention as a member of the all-female improv troupe Hawkins. Her fellow alumnae—Jess Bryson, Tess Degenstein, Liz Johnston, and Alice Moran—are all featured players at Bad Dog Theatre. Heisey still occasionally performs—she more than held her own with some of Toronto’s best female improvisers recently, including Carolyn Taylor and Kayla Lorette, in Bad Dog’s Cult Wayward serial—but it’s her writing, for publications as diverse as The Hairpin, She Does The City, Playboy, Gawker, and many, many more, that’s become the best outlet for her sense of humour.
Heisey just wrapped writing duties on CBC’s upcoming Baroness Von Sketch show (see Aurora Browne’s profile above), and is now making the move to New York, where she’ll begin a new job as an editor on Vice‘s Broadly project. She’s also begun contributing work to such high-profile outlets as The New Yorker, Cosmopolitan, and the Guardian, where a recent article she wrote praising Amy Schumer’s feminism but criticizing her “blind spot” for racial issues has not gone unnoticed by the comedy star. She’ll be in New York just in time for the American publication of her book I Can’t Believe it’s Not Better, a wry collection of anecdotes and meditations on female friendship, maturity, and comfort food. (We interviewed her last month when it hit Canadian stands.) Between the book, the many writing jobs, and a recent marriage (to Bad Dog Theatre’s Alex Tindal), Heisey has had a hectic year to date. “I am tired,” she deadpans.
Harassment and sexism are issues Heisey’s frequently tackled in her writing, and she takes a macro view to the phenomenon as it relates to women in comedy and the public eye. “It’s easy to consider the issue of sexism in comedy as a threat from the outside, a bunch of drunken louts yelling, ‘Show us your tits!’ to a female comedian just trying to get through a corporate gig. I don’t mean at all to minimize how horrible an experience that is, but those jerks are just the most visible part of a much larger, more systemic issue.”
“The worst harassment, the most cutting misogyny I’ve experienced in the industry, has been from bosses and acquaintances, co-workers and friends of friends. A victim-blaming doofus on TV is upsetting, but the continued, unchallenged presence of people in the comedy community who we all know are sexists at best, abusers at worst, feels much more damaging in the long term. If we want to combat sexism in comedy or anywhere else, I think we need to start where it’s closest to us; a bunch of funny, angry tweets to Jeff MacArthur doesn’t do as much as taking that guy you know aside and talking to him about why his ‘fat chicks give the best head’ joke is lazy and terrible.”
Heisey gave as much thought to the many Toronto women she admires: “My favourite place to write is The Hairpin; its editors, Haley Mlotek and Alex Molotkow, give me life.
“Anne T. Donahue and Amanda Brooke Perrin [co-hosts of the Women at Work web series] hosted a reading I did at Indigo a few weeks ago, and absolutely brought the house down. Those two are literally perfect, and their level of hustle is both terrifying and motivating.
“Anna Fitzpatrick is a local writer whose prose is so smart and so funny, and the goddamn New Yorker agrees with me, so you have to as well.
“Tess Degenstein and Hannah Spear are not only hilarious geniuses, but watching them produce and star in Trout Stanley was so inspiring, and a great reminder that sometimes if you want to do work you like, you have to make it yourself.
“Robby Hoffman makes me laugh very hard. I think I’m starting to freak Jackie Pirico out with how often I tell her I’m obsessed with her, but honestly, she’s one of the funniest people I’ve ever seen. Catherine McCormick is the woman who got me into performing stand up in the first place and is probably the only reason I still do it. Her thigh-gap joke remains one of the funniest things I’ve ever heard.
“Carolyn Taylor and Dawn Whitwell are like my comedy camp counsellors: just so much cooler than me, and so funny and so supportive of women.
“Ally Pankiw and Nev Todorovic [filmmakers with The Young Astronauts] are collectively the most impressive people I know. The stuff they’re making is just unbelievable, and they create so much work for Toronto’s creative community that showcases them at their best.
“I have a from-afar talent crush on [performance artist] Bridget Moser, and I think she knows, because we keep locking eyes across juice bars and stuff. Maybe she’ll read this and make the next move.”
I Can’t Believe It’s Not Better is available in Canadian bookstores and online now.
Gwynne Phillips is one-half of the sketch duo The Templeton Philharmonic, with Briana Templeton. (“See what we did there?” cracks Phillips.) The two have been Toronto’s most consistently inventive sketch duo of late, impressing audiences outside of Toronto comedy circles with their theatrically inspired shows at the Fringe and Next Stage Festivals. (They’ll be remounting their site-specific show An Evening In July, a Grey Gardens–inspired ghost story that roams the grounds of the Music Gallery, in August as part of the SummerWorks performance festival.) The pair have both performed in such character-driven shows as Rapp Battlez and Henri Fabergé’s Heligoland Follies, and have a CBC web series, Womanish, one of the first series developed for the Punchline program.
Phillips also impressed us with her turn last year in Night of the Living Dead Live, but her passion is clearly for the projects she creates with Templeton, whom she describes as her “super brilliant and super weird platonic life partner.” “If there is any advice I could give up-and-coming comedians/actors,” says Phillips, “it’s to create your own work! It is most rewarding, and will save your sanity as a performer in a highly competitive industry.”
Without dwelling on it, Phillips’ opinion on the harassment women face on stage is clear enough. “It’s absolutely unacceptable. It makes my blood boil, and it needs to stop. Oh, and Jeff MacArthur should have been fired for his comments. Or sent back to 1950 in a time machine, from whence he came.”
She’s much happier going on at length about the women she admires. “I’m always blown away by the work of The Sufferettes; Ladystache; Kathleen Phillips; Deb DiGiovanni; Evany Rosen; Emma Hunter; and Laura Cilevitz. Also the great and cool things The Crimson Wave and Severely Jazzed are doing. Oh, and super creative babes Hannah Puley and Maylee Todd!”
The Templeton Philharmonic’s An Evening In July runs August 6-16 as part of the SummerWorks Performance Festival.
Special thanks to the Young Centre for the use of the rehearsal hall.