They're not comics. Why are they producing some of Toronto's best sketch comedy?
How does one make comedy without being a comedian?
At the Toronto Sketch Comedy Festival, which opened this week and runs until Mar. 13, many of the festival’s veteran and capable producing team are former or current comedians, presenting nightly showcases of funny people from across the country (especially from Toronto).
But then there are the rarities: people who produce the acts but aren’t comics themselves. What fuels them to do what most would consider the “grunt work” of getting comedy shows up and running? There’s a common thread, of course—a love for comedy—but that passion manifests in different ways.
Here, we celebrate five of the rarities at this year’s festival and beyond.
Ashley Gray and Rebecca Raftus don’t appear in this pilot trailer for a web series—but they produced it.
Ashley Gray and Rebecca Raftus were studying television writing and producing when they were first introduced to the comics of Laugh Sabbath. “It was [filmmaker] Jared Sales, who was doing Righteous Wednesdays,” recalls Raftus of her introduction to members of the collective. The then-roommates began going to Laugh Sabbath at the Rivoli weekly, becoming “obsessed,” as Gray puts it. “It was Levi MacDougall [currently a CONAN staff writer] who said, ‘Please help us,'” says Raftus. “They’d had Leslie Gottleib as their producer, but she was getting busy at work, and they needed someone to manage the door, do listings, that sort of thing, so they could focus on comedy.”
That was seven years ago, the pair estimates. Laugh Sabbath, now every Thursday at Comedy Bar, is celebrating its ten-year anniversary with a slate of reunion shows at TOsketchfest, bringing back seminal troupes like Knock Knock! (Who’s There?) Comedy! and The Distractions, plus a gala show bringing alumni and current collective members together.
And the weekly shows have never been stronger. “We’ve been selling out for the past year, every Thursday,” marvels Raftus. “It’s incredible.” Gray adds: “We started as fans, just ripping tickets, and now, we’re booking, and producing, with Jackie Pirico.”
The pair also hopes to bring back video shorts, which alumni like Nathan Fielder and Katie Crown [The Kroll Show] used to film often for Laugh Sabbath. “[Video production] was the big reason for starting the NXNE/Laugh Sabbath comedy shorts festival,” says Gray. Exporting Laugh Sabbath’s live show talent onto screens is something the producers hope to do more of in the future, noting that many members already work steadily in television. “We’re close to a cohesive idea that everyone can take part in,” says Raftus. “It’s just a matter of funding, and scheduling.”
Most comedy—stand-up, sketch, and improv—is primarily verbal. But Robin Henderson has carved a niche for herself, working with comics to teach them dance and physicality. “When I moved to Montreal [in 2004], I started hanging around Theatre St. Catherine and Mainline Theatre,” she says. It was there that she began meeting stand-up comic and improvisors. “I was absorbing the philosophy of their work—the ‘yes, and’ of improvisers, especially—and that collided with what I was doing, in dance and musical theatre. It made me want to put the weirdo ideas in my head on the stage.” Prior to Montreal, Henderson had worked in the U.K. in BBC television, and at various musical festivals. “I learned that I loved live audiences, and the visceral experience of them reacting to the show.”
It was in Montreal that Henderson developed Dance Animal, one of our favourite shows at the 2010 Fringe Festival when it made its Toronto debut. The show encouraged performers from all sorts of backgrounds to develop animal avatars who expressed their character through comedic dance, which is still exceedingly rare in Henderson’s view. “A lot of comedic dance is just bad dance, which is funny for just a few seconds, and then it’s the audience laughing at you, not with you,” she says. “Dance Animal uses good dance techniques as comedic strategies.”
Henderson made the move to Toronto, where she currently teaches a class called “Jazz Hands” to Second City’s students, after a decade in Montreal, where, according to her, “much of the anglophone media has been decimated, and it was them that really supported Dance Animal and brought it attention.” Last year at TOsketchfest, she presented The Glimmer Twins (Ann Pornel and Josh Murray), one of our favourite surprises of the festival; this year, she’s back with Lipschtick. The show is normally eight comedians competing over three rounds, with one winner; but for TOsketchfest, it’s a showcase of the top routines of the past year, including “beat boxers, crump dancers, and magicians. It’s not lip-sync karaoke; we look for character, storyline, and strong physicality,” she adds.
Henderson is also holding auditions for a new iteration of Dance Animal, which is confirmed for the 2016 Toronto Fringe Festival. “Many choreographers see comics as out of shape, awkward, even afraid of dance, but I see advantages. Anyone can learn to dance—they just need to be motivated.” For comics, that motivation is learning to tell jokes physically. “Comedians can do something that most trained dancers can’t: use their face and personality to show character.”
The Alt.Dot.Comedy Lounge at the Rivoli on Monday nights is arguably Toronto’s best-known stand-up showcase—and one of its longest running. Morgan Flood was involved with it for over a dozen years, running the “room” from 2008 onwards. But last year, he left his long-time employers Diamondfield Entertainment to set up his own company, which now produces a weekly Tuesday night at the Drake Underground.
“I started working in film and TV production after university,” Flood says, “but after three or four years, I wanted out. The hours were a grind, and I didn’t really want to do anything on the production side. My last job ended my relationship with my girlfriend, and in my last month of the contract, I started looking at buying a one way ticket to Costa Rica, to live on the beach for a while.” Instead, late one night, he found an online listing for a management company specializing in comedy—Diamondfield. “I sent my resume in, had an interview, started with them a few days after that. That was thirteen years ago.”
Flood was instrumental in heightening the Alt.Dot’s profile, and turning the show into a podcast for SiriusXM. Now, for his new Comedy Underground show, he’s using his contacts and experience to create a show he describes as “a cut above”: “We can showcase great comics who, say, have families, so they can’t hustle as much as they used to, or comics who are out every night and can’t promote specific shows.” (Busy stand-ups burn through supportive friends pretty quickly.)
There are a number of reasons why Flood prefers working with comics over other people in the entertainment business: “There’s no one way of doing things. Comics can skip so many industry levels, because they can create on their own terms, which actors really can’t.” As for himself? “I love the entrepreneurial aspect of the industry; you get to wear a bunch of different hats.”
Alan Kliffer certainly identifies as a performer. He’s a busy one, in fact, shooting an episode of FX’s The Strain this month, and with theatre work lined up into the summer. But with comedy, and specifically improv, he’s chosen to focus on producing (much like Julie Dumais of Bad Dog Theatre), and helping the often maligned art form into traditional theatre spaces. “My company’s mandate is to create high-quality improvised theatre,” he says. Indeed, we’ve written about his shows: Mixed Company, which pairs improvisers with TV and film actors and is produced on a monthly basis at Comedy Bar, and One Night Only, which just wrapped a successful run at Factory Theatre. “What was great about One Night Only was that the theatre community came out to see the shows,” says Kliffer—they even had one patron return to see the different-every-night improvised musical eight times.
Kliffer has his hands in a lot of pies. He’s an instructor at the Randolph Academy, but he also works as an MC and host for dance competitions, including Thunderstruck Canada Dance, Dancefest Canada, and Breakthrough Dance Challenge. All three strike us as similar to the Canadian Improv Games, where Kliffer first found his love for improv, as a 15-year-old in Manitoba. At 16, he produced his first sketch-comedy show—and hasn’t stopped. At 17, he was already assistant instructing classes on the advice of Scott Montgomery (whose troupe Falcon Powder is in TOsketchfest’s Featured Series).
Kliffer will miss much of TOsketchfest while MCing for Thumderstruck in Winnipeg. But Mixed Company, which had an edition on February 29, will be back again soon and so will One Night Only, which Kliffer hopes will return in September.
Ian Atlas vividly remembers the first time he performed stand-up at an open mic night in Vancouver. “It was my 25th birthday, and I thought, ‘If I don’t try this, I’ll always wonder’.” Then, in 2008, he moved to Toronto and started an open mic night (at the Hole In The Wall, in the Junction) within a month of his arrival.
Eventually, Atlas realized that, while he loved comedy, performing stand-up himself wasn’t the crucial part of that passion. “It was the centre of my social life—I didn’t know anyone when I moved here—and I was running three open mics. But after three months of not writing and constantly giving up my own spots, I realized I didn’t miss it.” He jokes (of course), “Toronto’s not poorer for losing me as a performer; there’s no shortage of mediocre white male comics in the scene.”
Atlas and his company, Empire Comedy Live, have become one of the best and busiest independent promoters, bringing in comedic talent from outside of Toronto (and matching it with local acts).
Atlas (who also worked for Diamondfield Entertainment for several years) and partner Rob Mailloux brought in lots of stand-ups, such as Doug Benson, Maria Bamford, and Todd Glass “on the side” from their other jobs. Even after splitting, the two found a healthy balance: “Rob would get the ‘dark’ comics, and ‘nerdy’ comics would fall on my side of the ledger: Chris Hardwick, Jimmy Pardo, Janeane Garafolo.”
Part of the appeal, Atlas believes, is his preference for booking comics such as Jackie Kashian (who just finished five nights at Comedy Bar) into multi-show stands at smaller clubs, instead of the “big payday” one show stands at larger theatre spaces. This puts him (and occasionally comics) at odds with their booking agents. “Wyatt Cenac actually changed agencies because of that, and once he did, we had him here in two weeks,” Atlas says. The multi-show stands also allows Atlas to book numerous local support acts (many of whom have competed in his annual Comedy Brawl) who are eager to share bills with their favourite out-of-town performers. “It’s important to find ones who complement the guest performer,” he says of showcasing local talent.
Atlas probably isn’t going to get rich booking acts into Comedy Bar and other intimate venues, but he doesn’t seem to care much. “I’ve never been happier,” he says. “I used to work as a engineer—I was the project manager for a waste water firm, pulling in $75,000 to $80,000 a year—and I was miserable. I was doing what I thought I was supposed to do, instead of what I wanted.”
The Toronto Sketch Comedy Festival runs until Mar. 13.
A previous version of this story misspelled Ashley Gray’s name. Torontoist regrets the error.