In comedy, to “punch up” has a couple of meanings.
One is to punch up a set, making it funnier by adding more jokes.
The other is about how a comic handles power imbalances: To punch up is to find fault with those in power; to punch down is to mock those who are already marginalized.
A new group of stand-up comedians is aiming to move beyond jokes and into action. They are punching up at the government, which refuses to give arts grants to stand-up shows, and at the comedy industry, which they say exploits the joke writers, making it hard for them to earn a living off their craft.
But some comedians are accusing the organization of punching down, too, on those in the community who disagree with them.
All of which leaves the newly formed Canadian Association of Stand-Up Comedians (CASC) with a unique mission: How to help build a bright future for this country’s funniest people – without becoming a punchline.
Stand-up is comedy in its purest form: one person with a microphone on a stage, with only their jokes, personality and wit to tame and entertain an audience. It’s personal: Most comedians are performing as themselves – or a slightly heightened version of themselves – talking about things that matter to them. And stand-up is so popular you can find it at open mics in the back rooms of restaurants, basement clubs, stadiums and, in ever-increasing amounts, your Netflix queue.
But despite all that, it’s rarely taken seriously, either as an art form or as a business. That’s made it hard to earn a living as a full-time comic.
Sandra Battaglini, a Toronto comic who has been performing for more than a dozen years, said she was getting frustrated with the fact that there were problems with the industry and no one was doing anything about them. Those complaints included how difficult it was to get government funding for comedy projects and to get work outside Canada’s small domestic industry.
“Stand-ups are the best complainers in the world, but will they get up and do something about it?” Ms. Battaglini said in an interview.
So, in 2016, she wrote an open letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Things snowballed from there. The letter led to a meeting with her local Liberal MP, Julie Dabrusin of Davenport. Then she and a few friends in the industry started the CASC – now 684 members strong – pooled their money and solicited donations. They hired lobbyists to advocate for them on Parliament Hill.
The push culminated in Ms. Dabrusin tabling a petition, signed by nearly 4,000 Canadians, in the House of Commons in September.
“It was amazing. I cried,” Ms. Battaglini said, who watched the tabling with a group of other stand-ups from the House’s public galleries.
CASC’s lobbying has been pushing two main issues. The first is that the Canada Council for the Arts, the country’s largest granting agency, does not recognize stand-up comedy as an art form. The Council gave out $202-million in grants to more than 2,000 artists in 2017-18, and comics say they should have a slice of that.
So far, the council is not budging. They say comedians are free to apply for grants if they also practise other disciplines – such as circus performing, dance or theatre – but that their funding model was recently revamped and they don’t want to make any more changes for the time being. (It’s worth noting that the Department of Canadian Heritage has given money to some festivals, such as Just For Laughs).
The other issue is reciprocity with the United States. Canadian comics say that because the domestic industry is relatively small, once they get to a certain point in their career, the only way to get more work is to move outside the country.
U.S. artists face few barriers to working in Canada, but for Canadian artists who want to work in the U.S., it’s a lot harder. Work visas cost thousands of dollars and require reams of recommendation letters to back them up. They hoped the Canadian government could help them talk to the Americans.
Debra DiGiovanni managed to get a U.S. permit to work as an entertainer only with the backing of the television network NBC, so she could appear on the show Last Comic Standing in 2007. After renewing those permits a few times – which only allow her to work in entertainment, not in any other industry – she recently decided to apply for permanent residency. That process has dragged on for more than a year with no resolution in sight.
“It feels like one of those obstacle courses,” Ms. DiGiovanni said. “And it just feels like it could be a little shorter. You know what I mean? Instead of running those tires for six miles, two miles, would that be enough?”
Comedy isn’t the only industry that’s complained about labour mobility between Canada and the U.S. In its lobbying, CASC hoped to convince the Canadian government to get stand-ups added to the list of jobs that face fewer barriers in the North American free-trade agreement, a list that already runs from dentists to land surveyors. But when a new trade deal was unveiled Oct. 1, unfortunately, the chapter on labour mobility remained untouched.
But it’s not only the government that makes it hard to earn a living solely doing comedy, the industry plays a role, too.
On its own, stand-up doesn’t pay a lot. For instance, a comic headlining a single show at a Yuk Yuk’s comedy club might earn $150. Corporate gigs can range from $200 to $1,000, or more, but are hard to come by.
So most stand-ups have day jobs.
Ted Morris has one of the more unusual ones: he’s a veterinarian. He’s been juggling the two careers for more than a decade. Sometimes they collide in a positive way: someone will hear him at a club or on the radio and then join his clinic because, he says, they tell him he sounds honest.
Sometimes, though, it doesn’t work out in his favour.
“There was one time I was telling jokes about euthanasia, and looked down, and saw a client in the audience,” Mr. Morris said. “It was that same day I was counselling her about euthanizing her, like, 24-year-old dog. And I was telling all these jokes about killing cats, I looked down, and I was like: ‘Oh no.’"
For those few comics who do make a living only telling jokes, it’s mostly a life on the road.
Courtney Gilmour, a rising star in the comedy scene, won Just For Laughs’ Homegrown Comics Competition in 2017, which meant more travel. “This year I was really ready to go on the road and challenge myself big time,” she said.
Gavin Stephens, a 24-year veteran of the stage and screen, says he still hits the road a lot, but, for him, it’s not the same as it used to be.
“When you’re first starting out, it’s the greatest thing ever,” he said. “You can sleep on people’s couches. Then you get to my age, and you’re like, all right, this is a job. I mean, it’s a fun job, but it’s still a job."
Building a career on the road – and, for that matter, in most comedy clubs – is also a lot more challenging depending on who you are.
Ms. Gilmour said touring brought her to a comedy scene that was quite different to what she had become used to in downtown Toronto.
“It wasn’t until travelling and being on the road that I realized: oh my god. I’m just with guys,” she said.
Mr. Stephens said there can be a lot fewer opportunities for performers of colour like him.
“A lot of bookers are like, no, we play to small towns,” he said. “And small towns want to see a white dude on stage. Someone who looks like them."
He said it can affect both the amount of work an artist gets, but also what they can joke about.
"We have to translate our voice for those audiences, but the white guys don't have to translate their voices to our audiences,” he said.
A lot of comics are sent on the road because of Yuk Yuk’s.
It’s impossible to have a conversation with a stand-up about their industry and not, eventually, talk about Yuk Yuk’s. The company, which has been around since 1976, is often described by comics as having a near-monopoly on the supply of work, with its chain of 15 clubs across the country and a side agency, Funny Business Inc., which books comics for corporate gigs that range from conventions to bar mitzvahs. The only comedy institution that competes with it on a national scale is the annual Just For Laughs Comedy Festival in Montreal. Other clubs are independents, such as Rumor’s in Winnipeg, or small chains, like Absolute Comedy in Ontario.
Comics who have worked for Yuk Yuk’s say they are grateful for the gigs, but take issue with the company’s non-compete policy, which limits the work comics can do outside Yuk Yuk’s.
“We create opportunities for people, but we don't want them to play our direct competitors,” said Mark Breslin, founder of Yuk Yuk’s.
Some comics wondered whether the work they get through the clubs is even enough. Mr. Breslin said his company directs $2-million to its comedians every year – which, if divided equally among Yuk Yuk’s’ 150-person roster, is $13,333 each.
"One of the tragedies of show business is that it’s a game of musical chairs,” Mr. Breslin said. “And there’s always too many talented people for the number of chairs available.”
He said that of the 150 comics his company works with, less than half support themselves only through stand-up comedy. Many supplement their income by finding other work through writing or acting. And most wonder about how to become the next Russell Peters or Jim Carrey – two international stars who first came through Yuk Yuk’s.
“One per cent of the people involved make 99 per cent of the income,” Mr. Breslin said.
CASC has started to look beyond lobbying. This fall, it’s organized events to raise awareness of how comics aren’t always paid fairly by their bookers and other labour practices in the industry.
“It’s so weird that comedians are the last ones to get paid,” Ms. Battaglini said. She was formerly on the Yuk Yuk’s roster, but said she left because of the company’s non-compete clause.
But some comics in the tight-knit stand-up community have been concerned about how the association can sometimes throw its own weight around.
In the summer, CASC announced it would throw a fundraising event that featured stand-ups telling jokes in designer clothing. Ms. Battaglini said they got the idea for the show from a fashion advocate who approached them with it.
But the format sounded familiar to Isabel Zaw-Tun and Lucy Gervais, two newer comics who run a similar monthly show called Hack Couture at Toronto’s Comedy Bar. They said people at CASC were aware of their show and its format, including Ms. Battaglini.
Ms. Zaw-Tun and Ms. Gervais said they approached Ms. Battaglini and CASC privately to see if their own show had inspired the fundraiser. Ms. Battaglini said it didn’t, but CASC then posted a private e-mail from Ms. Zaw-Tun and Ms. Gervais to a 4,000-person Facebook group for comedians, which the Hack Couture producers said violated their privacy and opened them up to bullying from other comics.
“It was essentially like they threw us to the wolves because they didn't like what we were saying,” Ms. Gervais said.
Ms. Zaw-Tun said it set a poor precedent for how the association responds to criticism.
“The union just feels like another Yuk Yuk’s … It’s not an improvement on anything,” Ms. Zaw-Tun said.
Ms. Battaglini said the association could have handled the disagreement better. “It probably wasn’t the best thing that we did … We took it personally.”
For Mr. Stephens, who’s been working as a stand-up comedian since the mid-1990s, the real reason to get grants and benefits is to shift the balance of power from the behind-the-scenes producers to the artists.
“With most stand-ups, it’s the ability to determine when and where you work and who you work for. That’s the goal,” he said.
But change in the industry is slow. If things are going to improve, he said, it’s up to comics to punch up to those in power to make it happen.
“The industry needs to grow up,” he said. “The comics need to grow up. We need to start facing these things as adults and taking responsibility.”