Matt O’Brien has been performing stand-up comedy in front of crowds for more than a decade. But this past summer, he found himself delivering his punchlines to a sea of cars. The 35-year-old Canadian from London, Ont., was performing at a drive-in comedy show organized by The Drive-In Experience Ottawa and Yuk Yuk’s Comedy Club. It was mid-July and the city had entered Stage 3 of Ontario’s COVID-19 regional reopening plan. After months of lockdown, more than 100 cars had pulled up for the event.
O’Brien and the other comics on the lineup were projected on big screens placed on either side of the stage. Instead of applause and laughter, however, their jokes were greeted by car honks. It was a surreal experience, O’Brien recalls. “I remember coming off-stage and thinking, ‘I don’t want to get used to this.’”
It’s a sentiment shared by Yuk Yuk’s founder Mark Breslin. “It’s maddening for the comics,” he says, conceding these are strange times for stand-up comedians in Canada.
“There’s no question that what’s happened to the comedy industry in this country has been devastating and disastrous,” he says. For most of the past year, as venues shut their doors and gatherings of all sorts were put on pause, comics have been unable to work the way they’ve always worked – in front of a live audience, microphone in hand.
While last summer’s drive-in comedy shows were a short-lived experiment (though some promoters are planning such shows again this year depending on local restrictions), the other alternative has proven more enduring: online comedy shows. Yuk Yuk’s pivoted from operating 11 comedy clubs across the country to pitching virtual shows to the corporate set. Breslin says close to 1,000 companies have hired comics on his roster to perform for their employees on Zoom, to help build team spirit in today’s remote work environment.
But not every comic is cut out for that kind of gig. Shannon Laverty has been doing stand-up comedy for 31 years and has performed alongside veteran comics such as Russell Peters and Louis C.K. She also performed at a few drive-in shows last summer, and remembers hoping that at least a few of the cars parked near the stage would have their windows rolled down.
“Fortunately, there were four women in a Jeep that didn’t have a roof on it,” she says, “and I was like, ‘That’s it! You’re gonna be my laughter gauge!’”
But Laverty just can’t bring herself to perform online.
“I do a lot of crowd work,” she says, explaining that Zoom shows are devoid of the interactivity that is so crucial to her style of comedy.
Out of the 150 comics on his roster, Breslin says only 30 or so have been adept at doing virtual sets. “In Zoom shows, you don’t hear the response of the audience,” he says, adding, “You can see them smiling, and that helps a bit.”
What helped tide them over while their usual bookings were cancelled, many Canadian comics say, was the CERB (Canadian Emergency Relief Benefit) payments issued during the early part of the pandemic (now continued in the form of the Canada Recovery Benefit).
“I have to say, the federal government has to be congratulated for CERB, because that’s keeping comics alive,” Breslin says. “But what is keeping my franchisees alive? Nothing. Maybe if they get rent reduction – but if they’re completely closed, rent reduction only helps a certain amount.”
The pandemic has crippled comedy clubs across the country. Yuk Yuk’s comedy club in Ottawa, for instance, had to temporarily shift to a new location last month after its lease owner, Hooley’s Pub, went out of business. Long-standing Vancouver arts and comedy club Kino Cafe, which hosted a weekly show where many well-known Canadian stand-up comedians (including Graham Clark and Ivan Decker) honed their craft, is now for sale.
While the turbulence of the pandemic has forced some in the comedy industry to adapt and others to fold, it’s also prompted some comics to step back and reframe their work.
Byron Bertram began his career 25 years ago as a street comic, and had worked his way to Los Angeles by the time the pandemic unfolded last March.
“I came back to Vancouver,” he says, “and realized this is like a passive-aggressive apocalypse!”
Since all his planned gigs were cancelled, Bertram began posting videos on his YouTube channel, crafting characters and experimenting with impressions. He also finished the first draft of a book about his experiences as a street performer.
Even though the pandemic affected him financially, Bertram recognizes that in some ways, it has helped as well. “Creatively, it forced me to do some things that I definitely wouldn’t have done if everything was normal,” he says.
Regardless of how productive – or not – the past year-plus has been for them, comics across Canada are eager to get back on stage. However, thanks to a vaccine rollout that hasn’t gone quite according to plan, and with COVID cases still on the rise in many parts of the country, few believe comedy clubs will reopen soon.
Still, Breslin is getting ready to reunite hungry comedy audiences with their favourite comics. He’s working on organizing weekly outdoor shows over the course of the summer that can hold up to 100 seats while adhering to physical-distancing guidelines.
While most comics agree nothing can replace live stand-up comedy in a club setting, the pandemic has pushed the industry – much like the rest of the arts and culture sector – to innovate in order to survive, and in some cases even thrive.
Even endeavours that felt forced at first, such as virtual sets on the small screen and drive-in performances where comics couldn’t even hear the audience’s laugher, were quickly buoyed by that creative spirit, Breslin notes.
“I spoke to someone who wanted to do a drive-in show, and they wanted to put microphones in the cars,” Breslin recalls. When he responded it would be much too expensive, the reply was swift – and determined: “No, not as much as you think!”