In the heady days of the 1990s – when Nortel shares were trading at $100, our only fear was Y2K and a Canadian hockey team would occasionally win the Stanley Cup – Canadian comedy was in its golden age.
Skilled comedians were in demand everywhere, applying their finely honed talents to projects like Clinton/Lewinsky, Airbus and APEC pepper spray. Comedy clubs were springing up on almost every street corner in Canada. (Even Ajax had one. Ajax, for God’s sake!) Canada’s airwaves were filled with comedy shows.
Thousands of skilled comedians could actually make a good living plying their trade in Canada then, but that was the 1990s. Sadly, in 2013, the golden age of Canadian comedy has suffered the same fate as Napster, oxygen bars and the Ottawa Rough Riders.
Those clubs on every street corner? Nearly all gone, replaced by Starbucks, where the only comedy on display is listening to a customer try to order a “Grande, quad, nonfat, extra shot, one-pump, no-whip mocha.” On Canadian radio and TV, comedy has all but disappeared, replaced by popular reality content like The Sight-Impaired Big Game Hunting Challenge (Thursdays at 9 on BLINK) and Apprentice Cattle Renderers Gone Wild (Tuesdays at 10 on GLUT).
So, what happened? Where did all our comedy go and why? Well, it began to disappear at the beginning of the 21st century, when skilled comedians, tempted by careers as Keg servers or Wal-Mart greeters, left the comedy business and moved on to the more lucrative fields of sandwich-board advertising and call centres.
The Comedy Board of Canada released some sobering statistics this week. It points out that a growing shortage of skilled Canadian comedians is forcing employers to look outside Canada for help. The shortage is especially acute in the federal and provincial political sectors, where Senate scandals, charters of values and crack-smoking mayors have created so much potential comedy work that they have overwhelmed the country’s few remaining skilled comedians. There is just too much folly for these weary survivors to deal with.
Another factor in the shortage is technical schools, which were once charged with turning out skilled comedians but have now changed their programs to reflect the times and are teaching courses like “Spokespersons 101” and “World Vision Mall Marketing” instead of comedy.
As Canadian comedy employers scramble to fill skilled jobs, they have increasingly turned to the federal government’s Temporary Foreign Comedian Program, which has brought mixed results. The most notable failure was a B.C. company that brought in 20 skilled Chinese comedians under the program to provide much-needed parody and satire about Enbridge’s Northern Gateway project.
The skilled Chinese comedians complained of poor living conditions, meagre pay and audiences that didn’t understand their jokes, for example: “The smog in Beijing was so bad today the human organ harvesters couldn’t tell the kidneys from the lungs,” and “A Politburo member, a neo-Maoist and a gradualist walk into a bar … shoot me if you’ve heard this one.”
Meanwhile, Canada’s remaining comedy clubs face shrinking audiences and the appearance of too many unskilled comedians, whose limited skills only allow them to ask, “Anyone here from out of town?” and belittle proud communities like Moose Jaw, Dildo and Wawa.
Marc Harbinger, owner of Chortles, the once-iconic comedy chain, says most customers now don’t even bother listening to the comedians on stage. Instead, they amuse themselves on their iPhones watching YouTube videos, usually involving Grumpy Cat. But when it was suggested to him that skilled comedy is dying in Canada, Mr. Harbinger bristled. (Although without a skilled comedian around, no one knew what a person actually looks like when they are bristling.)
Are skilled comedians a thing of the past in Canada? Well, if the funniest one-liner of the year was, “Do I seem like I smoke marijuana?” then, sadly, yes, it’s over. And so, farewell, or as we like to say, “That’s my time. You guys have been great!”
Bob Robertson is a skilled Canadian comedian living in British Columbia.