The Toronto Comedy Brawl is in the middle of a growth spurt. Despite humble beginnings, Ian Atlas’ amateur competition has grown from 64 participants to, this year, a few hundred.
The Comedy Brawl pits amateur stand-up comics against one another in a round-robin tournament. Each night features eight performers, each of whom does a five-minute standup set. At the end, each audience member votes for his or her three favourite comics. The four highest-scoring comedians from each night move onto the next round, until one winner is chosen on the final night.
This year, the first round features 26 shows and over 300 comedians, a number that will be pared down as the tournament progresses.
Atlas, who has worked in comedy production since he came to Toronto, originally started the brawl as a way to keep attendance up at his open-mic shows over the slow months. “Summer is a time where no one wants to go inside to do things,” he said, “so I started the brawl to [prevent myself from] losing the rooms and my livelihood.”
Atlas’ motivations were not all financial, however. He carefully crafted the rules of the brawl to make things entertaining for all involved. “I tried to weed out all the little things I don’t like about comedy contests and make it as fun as possible,” he said. Among other things, he wanted to eliminate the need to have audiences vote by applause. “You’ll inevitably…have someone just be standing there in near silence,” he said. “It’s demoralizing.” To combat this, Atlas devised the event’s ballot system. Each first-place vote from an audience member gets a comedian ten points, while second place gets them five, and third place gets them three. The top four comics, as determined by number of points, advance to the following round.
This year, because of its large number of participants, the Comedy Brawl is likely to run until autumn. The first few rounds will take place in the basement of the Crown and Tiger bar, on College Street, while the later rounds, in past years, have taken place at venues like the Rivoli or Absolute Comedy.
Atlas credits the brawl’s growing success to word of mouth. After the first year, over 100 comedians approached him asking for a spot in the following year’s tournament.
While the early rounds of the show—which typically pack close to 100 audience members in the Crown and Tiger’s cramped basement—are not glamorous affairs, they’re still great places to perform and watch up-and-coming comedians, said Atlas. “Every show has a pro host and closer, so the audience gets a little treat. It’s a nice bonus. We’ve been really privileged to have some amazing pros come by and do a spot.”
Some of the Comedy Brawl’s guest closers have included Sean Cullen, of Air Farce and The Ellen Show fame; Debra DiGiovanni, frequent host of Much Music’s Video on Trial; and Arthur Simeon and Nile Seguin, both of whom are Just For Laughs veterans. “Once, two years ago, by sheer dumb luck, we had both Todd Glass [featured on Last Comic Standing] and Hannibal Buress [writer for Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock] show up,” Atlas said. “We ended up doing a second show where they both did 30-minute sets. We invited everyone in the audience to stay for the second show.”
Nile Seguin, who closed for the 2012 finals, got involved simply because Atlas had asked him to. “Nine others had turned him down. One of them was a mime,” Seguin laughed. “I hadn’t been involved in prior years so I had no idea what to expect. I kind of hoped for more actual fighting. Way too civilized.”
The brawl provides audiences with sneak peeks at Toronto’s up-and-coming comics. Diana Bailey performed in the tournament last year, made it to the final eight, and has since opened for Maria Bamford. “I know it sounds cheesy, but I met so many talented people and made so many friends,” Bailey explains. “I would meet headlining comedians that I loved and they would say ‘I’ve heard of you.’ And to me that was the coolest thing in the world.”
Bobby Knauff, the winner of the 2012 Comedy Brawl, enjoyed similar success after the competition. “After certain rounds of the brawl, people would add me on Facebook or Twitter.” He began to notice Comedy Brawl attendees in audiences at his other shows.
Although registration is now closed and the first round (known as the “gauntlet round”) began on March 25, there’s still a waiting list in case any brawlers drop out.
Atlas urges everyone to attend a brawl, because it’s a cheap way to see both amateur and professional talent. “People come to see it then think, ‘Hey, I want to give this a try.’ I think everyone should do stand-up comedy at least once…It’s never as scary as you think it’s going to be.”
Images courtesy of Sharilyn Johnson.
This article originally stated that the Comedy Brawl is in its fourth year, when in fact it’s in its fifth year.