Our sixth-annual profile of talented female performers and writers in Toronto who don't always get the attention they deserve.
A veteran stand-up comic, and an emerging one; a puppeteer (and emerging improviser); a character comic and singer, and a sketch writer, performer, and impresario. There’s a wide variety of talent in this year’s edition of Local Ladies Who Make Us Laugh (#LLWMUL on Twitter), and while they perform all over the city (and the country, and the continent, and the world) they all seem to converge at Comedy Bar (and its sister venue, Bad Dog Comedy Theatre), where we caught up with them.
Past editions of LLWMUL have focused on the staggering inequality in comedy for women. While that may continue to be the case in television and film, and perhaps nationally and internationally, it’s getting progressively better in Toronto. Bad Dog Comedy Theatre currently has more female producers and leaders than male. At the upcoming Toronto Fringe Festival, as pointed out in a Facebook post by local theatre producer Derrick Chua, three-fifths of shows were written or co-created by women, making the hashtag #FringeFemmeTO more of a celebration than a redress. And savvy local comic Natalie Norman published a list of local female stand-ups (primarily for bookers and producers to peruse) that grew to 160 names.
There may come a time, soon, when features like this are redundant, and comedy fans will wonder why any of this preamble is noteworthy, because gender equality has become the norm in comedy. For now, let’s focus on the five women below, who are breaking ground with their talents, and who have other women to name that they think are doing the same.
Aisha Brown calls herself a “late bloomer.” “Before comedy I’d tried many things that I never really excelled at, and that never really stuck. Among my countless dead end customer service jobs, I was also the worst dancer in an all-ladies Hip Hop dance crew called Black Magic; I was a make-up artist at a Sears chain; I went to college for business admin, and then years later received my diploma in the social service worker program at Centennial College. I also worked as a campaign director for a non-profit organization, and volunteer-taught a fake Zumba class at the YMCA called Arriba.”
It was about three years ago that Brown, currently in her mid-30s, tried stand-up as a means of combatting depression and anxiety (she has a terrific spoken word bit in her act entitled “Anxiety Hawk”). But it took being fired from her day job last year to make her realize it was a calling. “The easy answer as to why I was terminated is that for the first time in my life, I was using up all of my creative energy for something that I loved,” she says. “Being fired was the luckiest break I have ever had. It forced me to acknowledge that I wanted a career in comedy.”
In the past year, that career began blowing up. Brown has released an album with hip-hop/comedy collective Runnin At The Mouth called Wit’ My Woes. She has headlined at Crimson Wave, Things Black Girls Say, and Kenny Robinson’s Nubian Disciples show at Yuks Yuk’s. She appeared at JFL42 and Field Trip, and had her first article published for CBC’s Punchline. She’s taping her first TV set at Just For Laughs next month, appearing on Andrew Johnston’s Bitch Salad: Pride Edition (with fellow LLWMUL alumna Jackie Pirico and Sara Hennessey), and recording her first solo comedy album at Top Shelf Comedy in the east end.
Brown’s work is inspired by other funny women. “The very first two comics who I saw and fell in love with were Zabrina Chevannes and Sandra Battaglini,” she says. (Both women were part of LLWMUL’s 2012 edition.) “They have never wavered from being at the top of my list, and are both hilarious and humble, with a killer work ethic. I also have to mention Dena Jackson, who started with me [in comedy], and is insanely funny, in a way that I can’t be. She’s so driven and capable; I adore her personally and on stage.”
Bitch Salad: Pride 2016 Edition, with special guest Guy Branum, takes place Friday July 1 at Buddies In Bad Times Theatre; Aisha’s comedy EP taping will be July 8 at Top Shelf Comedy, in the Beach.
Jocelyn Geddie has, for the past six years, been the head writer of The Sketchersons, Comedy Bar’s flagship sketch troupe that writes and performs a new show every week called Sunday Night Live. Her final show was this past Sunday, where Toronto’s sketch community feted her long and often bewigged run. Her influence on the show, and on Toronto’s sketch community in general, can’t be overstated: during her tenure, the other women on the show began performing as a satellite troupe, winning awards at sketch festivals in Montreal and Boston, and will appear this fall at JFL42 in Toronto under their new moniker, The Flirty Boys.
Geddie clearly loved her Sketchersons gig—she was the first female showrunner in the Sketchersons’ 12-year history, and one of its longest-serving. But she’s increasingly busy as a TV writer—a business that desperately needs to hire more women—working on a diverse range of shows, including Nelvana’s upcoming Mysticons, an action cartoon aimed at girls six and up (2013 LLWMUL Evany Rosen is confirmed to voice one of the titular warriors.) Geddie will also continue to produce and appear in several shows at Bad Dog Comedy Theatre, including Tales From the Black, “a sci-fi/fantasy/horror storytelling show that I co-host and produce,” and True Blue, an improvised police procedural, which she will be producing and appearing in at the Toronto Fringe. “After a sold-out run at Bad Dog, we’re delighted to be a late addition to the Festival,” she says.
Geddie had many women she wanted to laud, including Allison Hogg, who’s replacing her as the Sketchersons’ head writer (“she’s an incredibly deft and precise comedian-actress, who illuminates any stage she’s on”), and the other ladies of the Sketchersons “who are each and every one ass-kicking writers and performers”; Steph Kaliner, one of her co-writers on Mysticons (“one of the funniest and smartest people working in comedy and television—she inspires me with her kindness, intelligence, and wit”); Ashley Comeau, “a hugely inspiring hero to me, who is joyful on stage and off”; past LLWMUL alumna Hannah Spear and Sara Hennessey, and “all the women who are LLWMUL this year!”
A puppeteer, actor, writer, producer, improviser, and a puppetry teacher, Kaitlin Morrow is a George Brown theatre school graduate, but has only in the past year re-settled in Toronto since her school days. She’s co-created five original shows with action-oriented improv and theatre company Sex T-Rex, thrillingly original collective creations that have consistently earned full marks from Torontoist at the Toronto Fringe Festival. Two of those shows, Watch Out, Wildcat! (in which Morrow plays the title character) and Swordplay: A Play of Swords, were recently remounted in repertory at the Storefront Theatre. Their newest, Wasteland, a post-apocalyptic adventure, just won awards at the Montreal Fringe, and will debut here in July at the Toronto Fringe.
While Morrow is a long-time member of Sex T-Rex, who perform improv throughout the year, she’d been noticeably absent for those shows, busy touring in the U.S. and internationally, and in TV and film, as an actor and puppeteer. She has also put her puppetry skills to good use locally with Shakespeare in The Ruff, in a memorable turn as a butt-talking porter, and as a mute boy and assorted animals in Jason Maghanoy’s Hangman at Storefront Theatre. It’s only in the past few months that she’s begun improvising with Sex T-Rex, who are now Artists in Residence at Bad Dog Comedy Theatre, in shows such as D&D Live! and Any Given Thursday. Her performance skills proved to be transferable, as she’s held her own improvising with veterans in an art form that often takes years to acclimatize to.
Some of Morrow’s most admired women in Toronto: Bad Dog regulars Alice Moran (“Damn—among the funniest performers I know, and also an extremely sharp writer; she is largely the reason I got into doing improv in the first place”) and Liz Johnston (“I’ve been watching her improv for years, and she’s always stood out to me…she’s a delight, a hilarious delight”), as well as Bad Dog’s artistic director Julie Dumais (“She gave us a home at Bad Dog and has been such a strong supporter over the years—I don’t know where I’d/we’d be without her”); Gillian English, whose award-winning solo show Bitter Shrew is a late addition to the Toronto Fringe (“Gill’s brave and personal stories are not only important, but also gut-bustingly hilarious”); and Ingrid Hansen, a fellow puppeteer and theatre creator, whose Snack Music recently played the Toronto Festival of Clowns (“Her work is always mind-blowing and It makes me laugh and cry at the same time”).
Jackie Pirico developed a passion for comedy while working as a waitress at Montreal’s Comedy Nest to pay for her degree in linguistics at Concordia. Before moving to Toronto, she “identified as a musician.” “I’d play open mics around Montreal, singing and playing guitar. I’d busk on the streets and in the subways, to turn it into some money.” She eventually discovered that the comedy chops she’d developed as a busker and at occasional open mic sets at the comedy club were her strongest draw as a performer. “I felt I could be more unique and noticeable with comedy than I could with music. I could better distinguish myself.” (Music remains a strong part of her performance repertoire, such as in this short she co-stars in with Rodrigo Stoll.)
“Not long after landing in Toronto to pursue stand-up, the producers of Laugh Sabbath took notice of me and had me guest host a few times,” recounts Pirico. That led to an offer to join the collective as a host and eventual co-producer. Pirico’s oddball show concepts, such as a roast of dogs, have helped revitalize the collective; she also often appears as truly weird characters on other host’s shows, such as a kid softball player ghost in Marty Topps’ latest song cycle.
Recently, Pirico also wrapped filming on Pavan Moondi and Brian Robertson’s (Diamond Tongues) upcoming indie film feature Sundowners, with Laugh Sabbath alumni Nick Flanagan, fellow Toronto actress Cara Gee, and musicians Luke LaLonde (Born Ruffians) and Nick Thorburn (Islands). “It was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life, and has made me very eager to move my career toward film and television as well as stage,” she says. She’ll be returning to Montreal this summer to tape her first Just For Laughs special, along with Aisha Brown (she’s also doing a West Coast stand-up tour this summer with Brown and Dena Jackson).
Pirico gave shout outs to her fellow Laugh Sabbath co-producers Ashley Gray and Rebecca Raftus (“Not only do they keep everything going behind the scenes, but their ideas for show concepts and storylines are hilarious…they have such amazing senses of humour, and I’m thrilled to get to to produce with them every month”), and to character comics (and Laugh Sabbath alumnae) Sara Hennessey, Kathleen Phillips, and Katie Crown: “it’s their magnitude of talent, and their career paths, that I aspire to have. I’m so proud to be part of an institution that has exhibited and fostered so much female production and talent for so long!”
Jackie joins Aisha Brown on Andrew Johnston’s Bitch Salad: Pride 2016 Edition, with special guest Guy Branum, on July 1 at Buddies In Bad Times Theatre. She appears most Thursdays at Laugh Sabbath at Comedy Bar.
DeAnne Smith is a veteran stand-up with credits on just about every festival and showcase of note in Canada, the U.S., and Australia, including NBC’s Last Comic Standing, CBS’s The Late Late Show, and CBC’s The Debaters, where she’s a regular. But it’s only in the past year or so we’ve been able to claim her as a Toronto-based talent. “I moved to Canada—from Mexico, though I’m a U.S. citizen—about ten years ago. I was accepted into the creative writing masters program (with a focus on poetry) at Concordia University, but deferred for a year while I tried my hand at stand-up. I fell in love with comedy and have never looked back.”
Smith isn’t the first queer comic profiled as a LLWMUL (2015’s Aisha Alfa, for instance, who now splits her time between Toronto and LA has become a featured vlogger for Queer Comics), but she’s certainly the most loud and proud lesbian to date. Her act, which crackles with impish energy, frequently involves her teasing the straight men in the audience over how much more “mad puss” she “crushes” then they do. Her sets at JFL42 were among the best we saw at that festival last year, and we’ve been glad to see how quickly she’s put down roots in Toronto, including her monthly show Salomon and Smith Kick It! at Bad Dog Comedy Theatre (with Jess Salomon), the weekly Happiest Hour Comedy on Tuesdays at Orchard Bar (with a collective of other stand-ups), and guesting on numerous other local showcases. She’s touring to Seattle, Halifax, Helsinki, and further this summer; she has a new album, Tell It To My Balls, slated for release in August; and she’ll be appearing for the third year in a row on JFL42 in September.
Asked for the women she’s a fan of in Toronto, Smith lists nearly a dozen, including Ify Chiwetelu (“[She’s] absolutely hilarious, with a powerful stand up presence that belies the relatively short amount of time she’s been doing comedy…and she’s killer at improv”); Chantel Marostica (“[she’s] in this year’s Just for Laughs’s Homegrown competition, is such an original writer and dynamic performer who is always a joy to watch, and she’s been honing her comedic voice for a while—it shows”); and Candice Gregoris (“She opened for me last time I headlined Underground Comedy, and she tore the roof off the place…so, so funny”). “And of course, Sandra Battaglini is a goddamn hurricane of hilarity. Do I have to stop? There are so many more!”
This story has been updated to clarify that Jocelyn Geddie is not part of The Flirty Boys troupe.
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