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Comedy impresario Mark Breslin invokes the language of a military commander trying to rally the troops behind his next attack on the Western Front.

Breslin, who built the Yuk Yuk's comedy empire over the past 32 years from a single underground club in Toronto, is in the midst of a revolt, which has seen the owners of his Alberta franchises defect to become his competitors under the newly minted banner, The Laugh Shop.

First he turned to the courts - so far, without resolution - and then to his Rolodex.

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Breslin's latest salvo, a memo that has been circulating by e-mail this winter, and addressed "to all comics," outlines his attempt to bring a "diplomatic resolution" to the situation involving the owners of the Calgary and Edmonton clubs: Bill Robinson, and his successor, Chrysi Rubin. "As of now, Bill and his daughter Chrysi, acting like common thieves, have stolen our two clubs," he wrote.

Breslin suggested that comics should "refuse to work" with the "rogue clubs," urging loyalty to the Yuk Yuk's brand. "We spent 20 years developing them out West, and I'm asking you to respect this," he wrote.

The memo got under the skin of some comics, who saw it as a veiled threat to their Yuk Yuk's livelihoods. For Robinson and Rubin, it was a call to arms. They have shot back with a $1.5-million lawsuit, filed last week in Ontario Superior Court, accusing Breslin, his partner Jeff Silverman, and their Toronto-based chain of defamation and "interference with economic relations."

"My reputation isn't something I take lightly," said Robinson, over the telephone from Arizona, where he had hoped to ease into retirement on the golf course instead of waging war with the Napoleon of the comedy world.

The allegations have not been proven in court. No statement of defence has been filed.

In an interview, Silverman said simply: "We're going to be responding in kind, and right now we have no comment."

Robinson, a 62-year-old chartered accountant, got into the funny business accidentally. While working on a Calgary restaurant receivership in the mid-1980s, he sought the advice of local comic Herb Dixon, who was gaining a reputation as the king of sound effects.

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"He said, 'Why don't you try comedy in this room?' I said, 'Why not?' " Robinson recalls. He opened Snickers in the defunct restaurant. It made money, and soon Robinson set his sights on Edmonton.

Around the same time, Yuk Yuk's, which likes to crow about launching the careers of Jim Carrey, Howie Mandel and Norm Macdonald, was looking to expand westward. Robinson struck a deal to open a Yuk Yuk's franchise in Edmonton in 1985. A year later, he dumped Snickers, and opened a Yuk Yuk's in Calgary.

"I looked at it as something to do for a couple of years, but I fell in love with the industry," Robinson says, "notwithstanding the Mark Breslins and Jeff Silvermans."

Breslin opened his first Yuk Yuk's club in 1976. Silverman came on board a decade later, became partner, and is now president of the chain of 14 clubs - the world's largest collection of comedy venues, which is looking to expand to 10 more Canadian cities, including replacement franchises in Calgary and Edmonton.

But it hasn't been all laughs in the Yuk Yuk's world.

Disputes broke out in the 1980s when comedians complained they had to be booked through Funny Business, the talent agency set up by Breslin to service his clubs and touring shows. Comics complained that if they found gigs through other agencies, or performed at outside venues, they weren't welcome at Yuk Yuk's.

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The federal Competition Bureau stepped in to investigate, and concluded in 1991 that Breslin's empire controlled the supply of standup comedy and engaged in anti-competitive acts that could lessen the competition for standup-comedy services.

Breslin somehow claimed it a "clear victory for our system," but promised to stop doing the things the comics groused about, and thereby avoided a full-blown hearing before the Competition Tribunal, which could have resulted in fines or seen his businesses broken up. The Laugh Shop's lawsuit alleges that Yuk Yuk's is not living up to its 1991 pledge.

Comics often refuse to put their names to comments about Breslin's management style, but are quick to say they don't want to get on his bad side any more than they want to deliver a bad joke. Andrew Clark, who wrote Stand and Deliver: Inside Canadian Comedy, described him as a hot-headed businessman with a "cobra's charm."

Last year, the relationship between Yuk Yuk's head office and its Alberta business interests became strained. Judy Sims, who had worked with Robinson in Alberta's first Yuk Yuk's franchises since day one, turned her talents to the booking-agency business and, in 2001, became Breslin's Calgary-based head of Funny Business. But last year, fed up with the arrangement, she set up her own shop, Callback Corporate Entertainment, on April Fool's Day. Some Yuk Yuk's comics went with her.

The news spread like wildfire in the industry. Under the subject line, "Western separation - it's real!!" a member of the OttawaComedy.com website wrote: "Best of luck to our Western compadres and congrats on your newfound freedom."

Meanwhile, Robinson and Rubin didn't like the way their licensing agreements were working. They severed ties with head office and started booking their own shows - all while continuing to operate under the Yuk Yuk's name.

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It was an arrangement that never made sense to Wayne Laski, Yuk Yuk's long-time lawyer. "It's like buying a McDonald's and saying, 'My mom makes a great hot dog,' and adding it to the menu," he says.

Head office fired back last summer with its own pair of lawsuits filed in Ontario Superior Court.

Sims is accused of allegedly stealing Yuk Yuk's business, client files and comic contracts, and is being sued for $2-million. Robinson and Rubin are also being sued for $2-million, and stand accused of allegedly infringing trademarks.

"The conduct of the defendants towards [Yuk Yuk's International]has been reckless, deliberate, malicious, vicious, callous, reprehensible, shocking and high-handed and in complete and total disregard for the plaintiff's rights and reputation," the lawsuits in both cases claim.

None of those allegations has been proven in court. No statements of defence have been filed.

But lawyer Erik Penz, who represents Sims, says he has filed motions to have the case moved to Alberta. "Judy denies the allegations vigorously in the statement of claim," Penz added.

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In an interview before the defamation suit was filed, Silverman said he couldn't understand why anyone would abandon a proven multimillion-dollar business model backed by a well-known brand with support from head office. "Everybody in the business," he said, "is laughing at them."

On New Year's Day, the Yuk Yuk's clubs in Alberta officially reopened as The Laugh Shop, but the transition hasn't been easy.

On a recent Friday at its Calgary location, in a hotel in the southeastern part of the city, the new exterior sign didn't quite mask the old logo. At the business office, a piece of paper with the new name taped to the door barely covered the nail holes left behind. New tickets had arrived from the printer, but the new phone number was wrong, requiring a white label to be slapped on top.

But Rubin, who tagged along to the comedy clubs with her dad from the time she was a girl, bubbled with optimism. The 38-year-old married mother of two worked her way into the business manning the phones, the box office, and waiting tables and bartending, before studying psychology and sociology at university.

"I'm a control freak," she said, pausing to add, "with a good sense of humour." When she took over last year, Rubin saw more potential for the business than what the deal with Toronto was offering. She figured she knew the clientele better than the faraway head office.

Later that night, Herb Dixon, the man of a million sound effects who helped coax Rubin's father into the comedy scene, is headlining. Dan Quinn, who has been kicking around the club for 14 years, is the emcee, and also testing out his own material. His bit dubbed "vagina cop," lamenting the ever-present good girl who prevents her friends from leaving the bar with random men, whips the tipsy crowd into a lather of laughter.

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"Thanks for coming to Yuk ..., " he finishes, before realizing his mistake. He turns to look at The Laugh Shop sign hanging on the brick wall behind him. The audience makes that wincing, embarrassed-for-the-performer sound.

"... The Laugh Shop," he finally says, and then confesses: "After 14 years, it's hard."

It wasn't really the punchline he was looking for.

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