I read an article this week by Globe and Mail arts critic Kate Taylor which was hopefully enlightening for all and certainly sobering as a Canadian entertainer (and I wasn’t even drunk when I read it).
The performing arts sector has lost more money as a percentage of GDP due to the pandemic than any other industry in Canada except for the airline industry. With the important difference being that the airline industry is still holding on to several thousands of dollars in people’s paid fares for trips that didn’t happen and if they are FORCED to pay that money back, they will most certainly be bailed out by the government. Performing artists have no such cash cushion and no such government genie waiting to grant wishes for cash. This despite the fact that most people pass the hours during long flights being entertained by… performing artists.
I really do feel for my friends in music, theatre, screen acting and all their associated support fields. But I feel more for my fellow comedians.
You see, the Canada Council for the Arts, mentioned in the Globe article as a lifeline for some artists, doesn’t recognize comedy as a performing art. Therefore that lifeline is dead to comedians. Which is weird because there are very few art forms more lively than live comedy. And in terms of quality, Canadian comedians more than hold their own with any country in the world, as evidenced by the fact that Canada’s ‘Just For Laughs’ is the world’s largest standup comedy festival and homegrown talents are often the standout performers on JFL international galas. Although the hosts of those galas are usually Americans, which is another issue for another article.
This pandemic has been tough on everyone (except Jeff Bezos) but it has been completely cataclysmic for standup comedians. While some individual performers have organizations that will lobby for support on their behalf (such as musicians in symphony orchestras) comedians do not (my trombone playing isn’t strong enough) and even if we did, there is no support stream to be applied to.
This is a slap in the face in the best of times. In no-live show pandemic times, it’s a galloping kick to the genitals.
Sure live music is great to enjoy. Live theatre can be transformational. Ballet is a great opportunity for normal sized people to see how they might be able to move if they had cut back on their caloric intake as children. But live comedy, at its finest, is what moves with the times. Something breaking in the news during the day can be incorporated into a standup comedian’s set that night. The best standups react to what happens in a room during a show. Comedians can and do challenge the status quo, in real time, better than any other live art form.
So why the hell doesn’t Canada recognize it as a live art form?
And why, with each subsequent new stream of assistance (such as the Government of Ontario’s announcement Friday of $2.5 million in grants for musicians through the Unison Benevolent Fund), are comedians left out? Just because we often perform in front of brick walls doesn’t mean we don’t want to be invited inside the house sometimes.
My fellow comedian and force of nature Sandra Battaglini began to address this issue when she founded the Canadian Association for Standup Comedians (CASC) in 2017. Sandra and her small but mighty team made huge strides, providing organization where none had been before and, among many other things, protecting Canadian comedians’ digital royalty payments amidst a takeover of the former Sirius XM channel “Canada Laughs” by Just For Laughs. (I should note here that Sound Exchange, the organization paying out those royalties, is as close as Canadian comedians get to support for their work when they can’t do live shows. And it’s AMERICAN. So, thank you for that America. It almost makes up for a bunch of other stuff). The CASC is doing what it can but the question remains, why are Canadian comedians, who are enjoyed by so many fans here and around the world, ignored by our own country when it comes to financial support? And what can we as Canadian comedians and you as a comedy supporter do about it?
Well, many comedians have taken to producing their own online shows, with a lineup similar to what you might see at a comedy club. These shows are an important placeholder until live shows can start again, but they are different in 2 important ways:
1) Asking a professional standup comedian to perform, alone in a room to a computer screen, is like asking a surgeon to perform surgery in the dark with a butter knife.
2) Comedians who already weren’t being paid much for live shows are making amounts for online shows so low (…HOW LOW ARE THEY?) They’re so low they make the minimum wage that many essential workers are being paid seem FAIR.
Still these online shows are, technically, better than nothing.
And this is where you come in. As a supporter of Canadian comedy, you can buy tickets to ‘attend’ these shows and please tell one, two or ideally two hundred of your closest friends to buy tickets as well. You can follow one of Canada’s greatest champions of Canadian comedians, Ben Miner, as he lets you know what shows are happening and who to watch for in Canadian comedy (he also gives good fitness tips having recently transformed himself from overweight into an extremely fit person. Something else that makes him stand out from many other standups. Including the schlub that’s writing this article) Finally, you can get your local MP (who is likely around your locality more than usual these days) involved in the effort to have Canadian comedians recognized as artists.
Of course, you can also purchase some of the many fantastic digital comedy collections (formerly known as ‘albums’), including this year’s 5 Juno nominees, a category at the annual music awards that was recently reinvigorated thanks in large part to the effort of comedians Mark Forward and Graham Clark. And I’ve also listed a few other links to online comedy shows below which I can guarantee you will enjoy, or you can have a free galloping kick at my groin (once social distancing protocols deem that action ‘safe’ of course)
Until then, thanks for reading this and for your continued support of Canadian comedy. I can honestly say, I wish YOU were in charge of government funding.