Toronto is one of the most diverse cities in the world, but you wouldn't know it if you went to see stand-up comedy. From large venues such as Yuk Yuk's down to the smallest open-mic nights, comedy in Canada's largest city can still be overwhelmingly straight, white and male. Feminist-centric shows, shows featuring people of colour and LGBTQ comedy shows have all launched in recent years. But this month will mark a major milestone for stand-up comedy in Canada with The Ethnic Rainbow, the first and only show that features LGBTQ comedians of colour.
"Most shows are just straight white dudes. If there's a comedian of colour, usually they'll only have one at a time," says Brandon Ash-Mohammed, who is producing the show at Comedy Bar on Feb. 25. "I was like, 'I need to make a space for people like me.'"
Anasimone George, one of the comedians performing at The Ethnic Rainbow show, has been so scarred by open-mic nights that she'll never go in to a basement ever again.
"Let me explain an open mic to you in a nutshell. It's a basement full of a bunch of dude comics and a shitty light and a shitty bar," she says. "If you're a woman of colour, or you're just a woman, and you walk in to a random-ass open mic it's going to be a bunch of bros that are all friends with each other. They will look at you and be like, 'Why are you here?'"
Now imagine being not only a person of colour but also LGBTQ, and you can picture how confident you'd feel taking the mic in bro town. Sure, you could try adapting your material to play to your audience.
"But if you want to stay true to yourself, you're just not going to get laughs," George says.
She knows queer comics who have been told by audience members, "I'm glad you don't do a lot of gay stuff," she says.
And yet "a lot of gay stuff," as it were, is actually crushing it in Toronto these days.
Shade, a monthly showcase that George launched last year for comedians of colour, LGBTQ and female comics, has sold out every show except one – Father's Day last year.
The feminist, LGBTQ-positive show Crimson Wave, which explicitly prohibits rape jokes, also attracts sellout crowds to its monthly performances at the Comedy Bar.
Yet, while more stages are opening for people of colour and comedians who identify as LGBTQ, life as a stand-up who is both can be especially difficult, says Ash-Mohammed, who has been doing stand-up in Toronto for the past eight years.
"I'm an LGBT person of colour. And I noticed that I wasn't getting booked on the gay shows and I wasn't getting booked on the person-of-colour shows. I've kind of experienced racism from the white, gay shows and I've experienced homophobia from the person-of-colour shows," he says.
The Ethnic Rainbow will feature George and fellow comedians Brendan D'Souza, Meg MacKay, Tamara Shevon, Celeste Yim and headliner Martha Chaves, who has been dubbed "the grand dame of Canadian comedy."
Their material covers everything from living in China as a black woman to experiencing winter in Canada to discovering their sexuality. Expect D'Souza to tell a joke about performing a sexual act, the details of which are hysterical but certainly cannot be printed in a family newspaper. The joke is "raunchy," but "vaguely political because it [deals] with my experiences as a person of colour," he says. "That's the kind of material I want to be writing."
Or take this joke from Shevon, for example: "I have become a winter person just because, not even going to lie, white people ruined summer for me. You guys do this thing where it hits 27 degrees and you're like 'Okay! I'm going tanning outside! Be back in 10 hours!' Then you get back and you're so excited that you come up to me showing your arm saying 'Tamara! Oh my god! Lift your sleeve up! Lift it up! We're getting so close!' Like, please don't treat me like a Colour Your World swatch."
Yim will be dropping this joke on audiences: "My name is Celeste, but doesn't my face just scream Soo-Yonge? The two most significant identifiers of the Asian-Canadian identity are having a mediocre white boyfriend and having an aggressively European name. I look less like a 'Celeste' and more like a 'her English is pretty good.'"
For some of the comedians performing in The Ethnic Rainbow, the fact that this is the first show of its kind is both reason for celebration and a source of frustration, as are similar shows.
"I feel like it should just be at a point where you don't have to have a place where you have to be like, 'Hey guys, we're safe here,' which is kind of what I'm not really a fan of in the Toronto scene right now," Shevon says. "I feel like you should go anywhere and be able to tell your truth about something and people should be able to be open minded. You shouldn't have to go to Church Street to a specific show just to feel like you can be accepted for saying the things you're saying."
Yim says her material at the show will probably include "a lot of yelling" and she is only half-joking. "It's frustrating to me to even have to have these kinds of shows because it sort of posits that the community is needing these kind of shows and these spaces aren't just the norm. While it's empowering, it can also be really frustrating," she says.
No doubt it is, but Toronto's comedy scene is beginning to better reflect the wide range of comedy in the city thanks to shows such as Shade, Crimson Wave and now Ethnic Rainbow, says Andrew Clark, director of the comedy program at Humber College, in Toronto.
"You're seeing more and more people from different backgrounds who weren't getting into comedy either because they didn't feel welcomed or just weren't doing it. And now, you're starting to see [that] and it's in part because of these nights," he says.
As important as The Ethnic Rainbow may be for the comedians, and as much as it may encourage other LGBTQ people of colour to one day take the stage, its biggest impact may be on attracting an audience that has otherwise shunned stand-up because it hasn't reflected their own lives and experiences.
"It draws out a new kind of audience that would maybe not typically go to comedy shows, or be interested or feel comfortable going to comedy shows," says Justine Mark, who is co-producing The Ethnic Rainbow. "There's a desire for this. There's a thirst for different voices. My Toronto is a diverse Toronto and I want our shows to be reflective of that."
And make no mistake, Ash-Mohammed says: This is a night of comedy for everyone, whatever your gender, sexuality or ethnicity.
So what does he hope audiences get from the show?
"That there is a different perspective," he says. "I think that a lot of people, when they see LGBT people of colour, they only see them as one or the other, so they only see them as gay people or black people. And I'm also hoping that they can see that we can be funny and amazing."