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The exterior of The Second City performing arts and comedy theatre, in Toronto on July 10, 2019.

Tijana Martin

How did you start the COVID-19 pandemic, where did you start it, and with whom?

On stage at the Second City in Toronto, two epidemiologists are trying to get answers out of improv comedian Chris Wilson, who is playing a kind of patient zero in a very of-the-moment variation on a classic improv game where a criminal must guess the crime he is being accused of.

The interrogators ask questions that hint closer and closer to the answers they are looking for, until, finally, Wilson catches on and confesses: He caused the COVID-19 pandemic by licking everything at Disneyland with Kathy Griffin.

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The audience of just under 50 – the provincial government-mandated maximum for gatherings at the time of performance – emits an unusual sound in response: cheers and chuckles, slightly garbled and dampened by masks.

It’s true that we could all use a good laugh right now. But is it funny ha-ha, or just funny-weird to be going out with mouths and noses muffled, and sitting in physically distanced mini audiences while stand-ups and sketch comedians make fun of the dystopian world in which we now live?

In most Canadian cities, the first performing art to return to live shows in the usual sense – that is, indoors and with an in-person audience – has been comedy.

Chris Wilson, Andrew Bushell, Natalie Metcalfe, Tricia Black and Nkasi Ogbonnah at Second City in Toronto, in September, 2020. The audience is capped at just under 50, the provincial government-mandated maximum for gatherings at the time of performance.

James Elksnitis/Handout

Rick Bronson, owner-operator of a number of comedy clubs, got The Comic Strip at West Edmonton Mall up and running all the way back in May – and was promptly shut down by Alberta Health Services during a dispute over whether he operated a restaurant or a club. Bronson then reopened the Strip with the blessing of officials in June, the same month he reopened House of Comedy in New Westminster, B.C.

The Yuk Yuk’s chain of stand-up clubs has been running for a couple of months now in Edmonton, Calgary and Ottawa, and, this past weekend, its Toronto franchise reopened, after having received a dispensation that allows up to 100 audience members in at a time.

It joined a slowly sputtering-back comedy scene in Canada’s largest city that also includes the Comedy Bar, which reopened last month to 44 guests a show, and Second City, which reopened earlier this month with an improv show titled Safer, Shorter and Still So Funny.

But walking into a comedy venue is not the escape from the cares and concerns of the outside world that it once was, I found at Second City. There was a list of questions from the bouncer at the door about symptoms and recent travel. (At Yuk Yuk’s in Toronto, chain CEO Mark Breslin tells me, you also get your forehead zapped and temperature taken.) Then, of course, I had to wear a mask as I made my way to my seat at a table, now carefully spaced eight feet away from any other table.

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After that, health and safety was balanced with the need for food and beverage revenue, as you take your mask off to eat or drink.

The Second City HVAC system has, too, been tweaked so that it is no longer recycling part of its air, Second City Toronto executive producer Gary Rideout Jr. told me – something I had never thought much about before, but which helped me relax.

Having done so, Wilson, Andrew Bushell, Natalie Metcalfe, Tricia Black and Nkasi Ogbonnah, the current cast, did make me laugh – the pointed Bushell and quick-witted Metcalfe doing so most reliably.

These five performers – who will soon be joined by a sixth – are getting COVID-19 tests every week, and while they don’t wears masks on stage, they are limiting – but not eliminating – their physical interactions on stage. The resulting body language and blocking often suggested adolescents on a first date.

It’s apparent from what’s on stage that Second City got this improv show up really quickly. The performers rehearsed for a week with director Ashley Botting over Zoom – and then the first time they physically performed side-by-side was opening night on Sept. 3. Their comic chemistry is a work in progress.

The relatively quick return of comedy shouldn’t be taken as a sign that the form is more resilient than other performing arts.

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Second City Toronto has, through an unusual arrangement with Canadian Actors Equity Association, hired its current cast as employees, so it can pay them in part through the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy.

But like most stage artists, comedians and stand-ups are usually employed as independent contractors and so many have been dependent on the Canada Emergency Response Benefit and are eyeing its transition into a new modified employment insurance nervously.

The comedy clubs and theatres that comics work in are in an even more tenuous situation – and, unlike many dance, theatre and even circus companies, are mostly ineligible for public arts funding.

Ticket revenue (and beer and snack sales) is needed to pay the landlord, which is no doubt why many are up and running despite the risk that provincial health officials might change the rules for gatherings at any given moment.

Indeed, House of Comedy just had to move start times for sets earlier to respond to a new restriction in B.C. that liquor sales must end by 10 p.m. – and all the reopened comedy clubs in Ontario were carefully watching to see what Doug Ford said about gatherings this week as COVID-19 cases rose again.

Smaller outfits, meanwhile, have simply dropped like flies this summer. Montreal Improv announced it was closing permanently in July. The Improv Embassy in Ottawa announced it was going on “hiatus” in August. And, just this weekend, Vancouver TheatreSports on Granville Island announced it was going into “hibernation” for what it called “the foreseeable future.”

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The comedy carnage in Toronto has been the most pronounced – with several venues and bars known for stand-up nights closing before, on Friday, the news came that Bad Dog, a pillar of the comedy community, would be leaving its physical space near the Comedy Bar, opened only six years ago.

Bad Dog, which operates as a not-for-profit, is still giving classes and performing online and hopes are that it will, sometime in the future, be able to rent a new location – one more accessible if less charming than its current, cramped second-floor digs.

But newly appointed artistic and managing director Coko Galore says the comedy theatre is not pulling in enough revenue/donations online under its currently digital-only circumstances. “We have to push our online platform a little bit harder,” Galore says. “We’re not closing yet – but if we don’t do that then we would have to close.” Some clubs may be open again, but the overall state of comedy in Canada is no laughing matter.

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