The recent decision by the BC Human Rights Commission to award money to an insulted comedy patron seems like a scary precedent. After all, being a comedian does not guarantee a decent income. It doesn’t guarantee any degree of respect from society at large or even the entertainment industry. The one thing that it should guarantee is a license, a license to say whatever one wishes, regardless of social convention. The court jester was free to insult the king and nobles without fear of punishment because of this license. It is amazing to think that medieval society was more enlightened than the current state of Canada.
The counter argument is that the license can be revoked if the comedian fails to elicit laughs. Some people argue that Guy Earle is not really a comedian and was simply harassing a lesbian couple because their public display of affection angered him. The mere fact that he was on stage presented as a comedian should protect him from any legal proceedings. If he’s not funny, he should be fired, pilloried, blacklisted and never booked by anyone again. This effectively revokes his license. I think this rule should apply to any comic who isn’t funny, offensive or not. If nobody’s laughing, get off the stage. If Guy Earle assaulted or attacked the women, that is a matter for the law. It is not a matter of comedy vs. human rights. It is a matter of this asshole vs. that asshole.
However, there is no reason for the Human Right tribunal to involve itself in any case of comedy offending a citizen. Any decent joke is upsetting to someone in some circumstance. The idea of a comedy show is that anything goes. Patrons are free to attend or not. Patrons who do attend are free to leave if they don’t like it. Audiences are not captive and can vote with their dollars.
It should go without saying that a comedy venue is a sacred space. Sacred in the sense that nothing is sacred. Preventing comedians from offending in a comedy venue is equivalent to blacking out portions of the good book in a house of worship because somebody who is not part of the congregation dislikes it. If the Human Rights Commission is saying that this principle of freedom to offend is not understood as implicit, then comedy shows need to take a cue from other litigation-sensitive businesses. In the same way that candy companies are forced to print labels warning that their products may have come in contact with peanuts or other nuts, comedy shows will get in the habit of posting a warning notice. It will likely say that the show may contain material that will be offensive to some sensibilities. The venue and the performers cannot be held responsible for any damage to the feelings, morals, or egos of anyone who enters the premises. By crossing the threshold, you, the patron, agree to give up any right to pursue legal action for compensation for any offense. It seems strange that people in the 21st century need to have this spelled out but, if the courts and tribunals are so ignorant of a convention that reaches back to, at least, ancient Greece, then it is up to the comedy community to make it absolutely clear.
Thursday night I appeared in the “Comedy of Cultures” show at the Sudbury LOL festival. It is the first year of the event but is being run by the folks who have run the film festival there for 19 years. It was a spectacular experience. If only all gigs were run like this, comics would be the happiest people on earth. The people running it were so deferential. They treated us as talent instead of product. A generous spread was laid out backstage. The show itself, held at the Fraser auditorium, drew about 500 people who loved it. Debra DiGiovanni, Ben Mathai, Angelo Tsarouchas, Frank Spadone and myself all killed. We got a standing ovation when we came out for our curtain call. After the show, the organizers took us to a pub for food and drinks which they also paid for. Then we returned to our hotel and talked into the night about the spectacular treatment and warm reception. I know I speak for everybody there when I say thank you Sudbury and the organizers of LOL. This will become one of the gigs comics vie to get.
I went to the ACC and stood by the stage for Russell’s 2nd sold-out show at the ACC. As I approached the venue, a couple of young guys approached. I figured they were scalpers looking to sell seats. They were, in fact, looking to buy tickets. Once inside, I got a bracelet and was led to the area beside the stage where a bunch of other comics were already gathered. Russell was already into his routine. His act works much like Cosby’s. It’s very narrative and personal in style. The jokes come as parts of the stories and it flows very naturally. What i really watched was the audience. I have never seen 15,000 people watching a comic. They loved him; not in the “this guy’s funny” way but in a “he speaks fo0r me” way. It felt more like a Billy graham religious event than a comedy show. The adoration was palpable. They figuratively carried him on their shoulders with their response. He is not an entertainer but a hero to his audience. He takes his responsibility seriously. After a 2 and a quarter hour show (!), he signed autographs and posed for photos for over 2 hours more. A crowd of well-wishers flooded the hallways of the ACC. I got 2 minutes to say hi, tell him it was amazing and get a quick hug. It felt like an audience with the pope, his time is so precious. After that, he was whisked to a private plane to head to Vancouver for his next arena show. Every person he dealt with was treated with respect and kindness. I was incredibly impressed. I couldn’t do it. Not that the mob is after me but I know I wouldn’t have the energy or patience to deal with that level of popularity. It is a job. And Russell does it in a way that only someone who loves the work and the fans can.
Like many comedians, I have a number of problems with LCS. I share the usual issues that people have. A general discomfort with competition in the arts is one. After all, it isn’t sports in which a quantitative measure determines precisely who is superior in a given discipline. In the arts, there are too many factors that determine the value of one’s work. There is also room for many different views and interpretations. Another issue is that it is more reality show than talent contest which means many deserving comics are left out of the mix because finding the most “interesting” personalities is more of an issue than finding the best acts. Imagine if better athletes were cut from sports teams to make room for lesser talents who happen to have more telegenic personalities. The other issue is that, by definition, TV talent shows tend to reward the mainstream over the cutting edge. I think of Steve Shuster’s joke about Star Search as the only place where Quarterflash beats The Rolling Stones.
My issue with LCS above the other types of contest is the way in which contestants are treated. Based on the accounts of friends who attended the audition in Montreal and accounts I’ve read of other cities, I can see the producers are trying to replicate the American Idol model. However, there are some significant differences between the two shows’ contestants. Idol wannabes are a mix of singers and the delusional. The throng that crowds their auditions is made up of a small percentage of legitimate talent and a mass of fame hungry dreamers taking a shot at stardom. LCS contestants are, by and large, working comics. Granted, they may be at varying stages of development but they almost all have some experience. A “singer” goes in and sings any song by anyone. A comic, by definition, writes the material and performs it. That leaves out someone who wants to take a stab at it with no ability. You couldn’t go in and do Bill Cosby’s Noah routine no matter how you interpret it. To treat comedians trying out for LCS like the crazy losers who try out for Idol is a slap in the face. It also has the counter-productive effect of making a lot of top talent refuse to participate because they don’t want to be treated so disrespectfully. I also think of Ant, one of this year’s judges, who has taken on the Simon Cowell role to the nth degree. He is critiquing contestants in the bitchiest fashion. What he is missing is that, because these are working comics, he may well be on the road with some of them after his LCS gig ends (and it will). I would not want to endure the chilly reception he’s going to get from all those he dissed when he encounters them again while gigging.
I am not embittered. After 29 years as a comic, I have developed a thick skin and maintained a positive attitude. I did not try out for LCS so I have no axe to grind. However, comedians endure enough disrespect from the public at large and the general show business community. A show that purports to be about promoting comedians would do better to treat the talent as talent. It would make the entire enterprise at least appear legitimate.
I was funny last night. To me. I was at Boyd’s gig having a good time and being my usual quippy self. I always say that comedian is not so much a job as a personality disorder. I have more jokes I do in real life than in my act. For example, when I go to a restaurant and the waitress asks if she can offer me a drink, I always reply, “Would you stop hitting on me. I came in to relax – be professional.”
So – back to last night. I was on the patio with Tim Nutt and met a new comic. New in the sense that she has recently moved here from
Vancouver. She said, “Can I ask you guys a question? I live right near here…” I cut her off. “Well, maybe Tim’ll go with you. I’m seeing somebody.” Ho ho. She smiled and continued. “I wanted to know if I’d be safe walking home in this area.” I looked her up and down, assessing her attractiveness and then said, “Yeah, you’ll be all right.” I thought it was quick and clever but it probably came across as insulting. Now, this woman doesn’t know me and may have been hurt. Although I never would have said it if I didn’t think she was attractive, it was pretty insensitive.
I tend to be of the philosophy that I’m only rude to my friends. It’s a way of indicating comfort and closeness that I can rib them. This woman was not someone I knew though. She may have taken offence. I hope we meet again so I can apologize and assure her that it was not meant as a personal attack but just the funniest response I could think of at the time. Once I get to know her and she me, I’m sure she’ll take my kidding in stride but, as a relative stranger, she may take it to heart. I hope she doesn’t. I really am not an asshole – just a comedian.
I headlined this past weekend at The Laugh Resort. I really don’t enjoy it as much as MCing. I like having the fresh crowd to play with. Although I do fewer bits of my act when I MC, I do so much more ad-libbing than I do when I headline. I can spritz a bit when I headline but I always feel like there’s a responsibility to show the act. Also, by that point in the show, they’ve been played with by the MC enough. So I do the bits. I’m perfectly proud of my act. There are almost no bits left that I don’’t enjoy doing and I keep adding stuff but I’ve heard it and know what’s coming. I love the free flow of the MC job. When I surprise myself with a quick ad-lib, I am hearing it at the same time as the audience. It’s work but, at that moment, I’m also a spectator enjoying the show. I also feel good setting the table and making the whole feel of the show. It’s a responsibility I enjoy. I am happy to get a big laugh and hand it over to the next act on a high note. That old cliche of the audience member telling the MC he should do comedy is true and some people don’t like the perceived lower status of the MC but I kind of enjoy the challenge of disproving their notion of my role as filler. Some people just don’t enjoy interacting with the audience. Although, I’ve seen a lot of comics who thought they weren’t strong off the cuff who were brilliant when forced to ad-lib. Some comics look at MCing the way some civilians look at stand-up. “Ooh that must be the scariest thing to do.” Which is sort of funny in itself.
Last night at The Laugh Resort was fantastic. We had two packed shows filled with enthusiastic fans. Fraser Young headlined and was his usual hilarious self. I did my regular audience bantering to open the shows. I had one of those moments where I was able to salvage what might have been a disaster. I’m referring to a moment in conversation where something incredibly uncomfortable happens – something that threatens to suck all the fun out of the room. Those are the moments that truly test ad-libbing ability. I had one a few months ago. I did my usual “Who’s from out of town?” shtick. A woman raised her hand and when I asked what brought her to Toronto, she said she was here for an operation. A pall fell over the room as the discomfort washed over everyone. Suddenly, from comedy to sadness in an instant. Fortunately, I saved it by quipping, “Don’t be ridiculous; they’re big enough.” A huge laugh from everyone, including her and I was able to move on without any awkwardness. Last night’s was similar. Asking a woman what she does for a living, she told me she works with terminally ill children. A pause while the crowd went silent in discomfort. I told her I thought it sounded like hard work. Some audience members applauded her. I turned it around by pretending to get angry at them for clapping about children dying. I then apologized to the woman for their insensitivity. Again, everybody laughed, including her. Phew. Those are the moments when thinking quickly can truly save the show. It’s not the ability to think of something witty for a positive situation that mark a professional but the ability to wring laughter from a potential disaster that make us most valuable.
Are there rules in comedy? If you look at live stand-up, it’s got one rule. If it gets laughs, it’s comedy. It’s pass/fail because, unlike other art forms, there’s a specific and spontaneous physiological response to indicate the success of a joke. A song ends and people applaud but it’s a conditioned societal response not a physical reaction. But it’s a tricky switch to flick that laughter switch. I liken it to the inability to tickle onesself. If you know what’s coming, you put the safety on the laughter switch. A comedy act is like judo. The audience’s minds were going one way and you flipped them unexpectedly. The laughs come because the surprise flips the switch.
That’s why jokes change over time and so much that was funny in a context loses its laugh over time. Hearing routines from a burlesque show in the 1920s, one is rarely made to laugh. That is not so long ago in a historical context. Cultural shifts have completely changed the things we find amusing. Place is crucial too. It’s hard to imagine an act that would succeed in every venue. A lot of cruise ship acts would die at Spirits while a lot of New Yorkers can’t play Tennessee.
Sometimes a joke is a lack of a joke because that tricks an audience expecting a punchline. The classic “Why did the chicken cross the road?” riddle is already written for an audience of people used to hearing clever twists. A long time ago, the listener was already sophisticated enough in the ways of jokes that he was surprised by the non-joke, “To get to the other side.” If you think about it as the earliest non-joke, it’s clear why it’s still known since it would have been a groundbreaking concept.
That’s also why there’s always room for new comedy. Every humour convention that gets established sets up the switch on it for the audience that now expects that type of joke. Andy Kindler made fun of Jeff Foxworthy saying, “If you’re uncomfortable around minorities, you might be a redneck.” Hilarious and only possible because Foxworthy established the convention. Since comedy is all about the unexpected, it will always have to respond to whatever the world has established as convention.
Just home from the Winnipeg Comedy Festival. It is my favourite gig by far. All the people are nice. The festival is always full of old friends I don’t see enough of and someone I’ve heard of for a while and never seen or met and someone new I’ve never heard of who’s really funny. There’s a party every night in the hotel with fancy catering and a cash bar (with plenty of tickets provided for performers) so you feel special but it’s way more relaxed than the Just For Laughs (which provides next to nothing in the food/drink department.)
The shows themselves were a lot of fun. Even the gala, which I was dreading, turned out well. The bits, most of which were untried, went over well and it really helped to do a full runthrough at the rehearsal in front of Anton Leo. Anton is head of CBC TV comedy and a wonderful guy whom I’ve known for many years. One of the highlights of the festival for me is getting to hang out with Anton late into the night and laugh with fellow comics. I really trust him to tell me his honest opinion and we trimmed the fat together after hearing the stuff out loud. I used a teleprompter for the first time in my life and performed the routine by reading a series of bullet points. I still found the right wording for the bits in the moment but, with an untried routine, I wanted to be sure I wouldn’t get lost. Hilariously, the changes never made it to the computer due to some glitch. So a bullet came up for a bit I knew we’d cut. It was no big deal but shows that you can’t put all your faith in the machinery to do the work. You might be called upon to think at any time. The upshot is everybody enjoyed it and there’s enough good laughs to cobble together something good for TV.
I also did a show with my brother, celebrated writer David Rakoff. We did it at the Gas Station Theatre, a venue that holds 200 about 60% full. Nice crowd but more mature than my usual. I did 30. We had an intermission. David read a couple of essays from his first book, “Fraud”. After that we took questions from the audience. That part was a blast. We were really rolling and laughing.
I also took part in “Master Debaters”, a radio pilot for CBC in which comedians are assigned sides of a proposition and have to debate until the audience declares one the winner. I decided to play it like pro wrestling since the point is to get laughs and make a show as opposed to engage in serious advocacy. I went for boos. When I lost and the winner said the audience voted with their hearts, I said, “That’s what people without minds do.” Everybody was hilarious – Glen Foster, Irwin Barker, Trevor Boris, Brad Muise, Bruce Clark, Deborah Kimmett, Al Rae. Everybody was hilarious. The crowd was so into it. Irwin made a joke about Toronto needing the army to clear their snow. I said that it was necessary because, what the rest of Canada doesn’t understand, is that in Toronto we have place to go! The Winnipeg audience booed me like a pro wrestler. It was so much fun! I think it’s a great show for CBC and a perfect use of the talents of stand-ups.
All in all, the atmosphere Al Rae has created is so congenial that it’s more like a holiday than work. I hope I can go again sometime.
I’m going to the festival tomorrow. Gonna be a busy few days. 1st day I am doing a radio interview for CBC with my brother. We’ll be interviewed by a local host, Margaux Watts. My brother’s reputation as a humorous writer got him a gig reading at the fest. Although not a stand-up per se, he is a funny as anyone I know. The interviewer from a magazine asked me which of us is funnier and I answered that I’m the funniest guy in the world but my brother is the funniest in our family. We have never worked together before since our metiers rarely meet and our galas are on different nights but we are doing a special “Meet the Rakoffs” evening where I’ll open with some stand-up, he’ll read something and we’ll answer questions. I believe that last sentence is gramatically correct in spite of its length but I won’t bet on it.
Friday afternoon, I have a rehearsal for a new CBC radio pilot called “Master Debators” in which comedians comically debate assigned topics. We’ll do the show in front of an audience the next day at 2PM.
Friday night I perform my gala set at the Pantages for CBC television. In the meantime, I’ve been unable to effectively rehearse my gala set in front of an audience because it’s not written for a stand-up situation. When I talk it out, I can see it working but it’s too much like an essay on a topic than just a routine. I already feel like I’m colouring outside the lines of the assignment with the bits I’m doing now let alone integrating even more speciously connected material. The theatre soft seat setting add an element of patience you don’t get in the club. There’s an expectation in stand-up of economy of language to speed to the laugh. In a theatre setting, the audience is more likely to give some attention to what you have to say as long as the jokes are good when you get there. At least, that’s my hope. I promise to be straight with any readers of this as to how it went when it’s all over. At this point, however, I think it’s strong enough and on theme enough that it will be a successfully completed assignment and more importantly, get some laughs.
Saturday afternoon I do the radio pilot and then at 10:00 PM, I MC a best of the fest. That’s a nother name for a show that’s likely to be a blast with some of the best comics all having fun on stage.
My show schedule for the festival is as follows:
Meet the Rakoffs
Thursday, April 6th at 8:00 PM
Gas Station Theatre
Friday, April 7th at 7:30 PM
Pantages Playhouse Theatre
Saturday, April 8th at 2:00 PM
Gas Station Theatre
Best of the Fest
Saturday, April 8th at 10:00 PM
Gas Station Theatre
Wish me luck! I’ll update when I return.