Have I heard any good jokes lately? Why, yes, I have. Even better, I've heard a swell audio book on the subject. HarperCollins's The Yuk Yuk's Guide to Canadian Stand-Up is by Mark Breslin, the laugh-biz impresario who easily chronicles the history of the comedy-club empire he rules, beginning with Yuk Yuk's humble origins in a Toronto basement in 1974, a time when the Canadian standup scene was pretty much a joke.
As Breslin points out (in a box set, of a booklet and five CDs), this country's tee-hee tradition was actually based in sketch comedy - from the troupes Spring Thaw to Wayne and Shuster to the Royal Canadian Air Farce and Second City. Standup, ladies and germs, was American-made. "Canadians celebrate community," explains Breslin, his book's articulate narrator. "Americans venerate the individual."
" You stand on a stage, alone, with only a microphone and your ideas. The stage is small, and there are four strong lights in your eyes. You can barely see theaudience - which is a good thing."
Hello? Is this microphone working? Breslin's is. He starts with a well-conceived monologue that defines the plight and character of a modern standup artist, before moving to the history of Yuk Yuk's, his chain of 16 laugh halls. Getting the spotlight are the comedians who worked Breslin's stages, presented in a chronological order that illustrates the apparently lock-step progression of Yuk Yuk's and the Canadian standup scene.
Breslin has a way with descriptions. He encapsulates each of 34 Canadian comics meticulously and with reverence, quickly pointing out their unique traits and their place in hardy-har-har history. Take Kenny Robinson - please. Breslin thumbnails the pioneer of multiracial comedy as a "larger-than-life character in a chrome-yellow suit" whose "frank diatribes on sex and politics have lit up the Canadian scene like no other." First-generation Canadian standup Gary David, who worked peeler bars before the invention of the modern Canadian comedy club, was a "rotund veteran with a chipped tooth and the saddest eyes in the biz."
" You were probably fat as a kid or too thin or ignored, or got too much attention, not enough love, or some unique combination of all of the above. You were probably unhappy or at least bored, and you liked that sound of laughter. Soon it became oxygen, and you couldn't live without it. You are a standup comic."
The CDs are grouped by comedic generations, featuring live clips from all the artists. Disc One, entitled The Roots , gathers, among others, the inventive Dave Broadfoot, the urbane David Steinberg, the outrageous La Troupe Grotesque, and Don Harron as the language-mangling hayseed Charlie Farquharson.
Disc Two has the stars of the 1980s, when Canadian standup came of age. Let's hear a big round of applause for Howie Mandel, Jim Carrey, Norm Macdonald, Sean Cullen and Mike Bullard, whose interactive abilities with an audience are in evidence here.
A full two discs are given over to younger comics (many of whom you can still see in clubs today), and a fifth (described as the "funniest 50 minutes ever") is straight live comedy from the likes of Sam Kinison, Glen Foster, Larry Horowitz, Mike MacDonald and others. I'm not sure it's the funniest 50 minutes ever - and I'm positive it's more than 50 minutes (54:58, actually).
"You can be like a drunk at the bar, except that the audience is captive and you're getting paid. And in a way, you are changing the world, if only a little. Because your job is to diagnose, not to cure. "
If nothing else, Breslin, who has been described as a Napoleonic, hot-headed businessman with a "cobra's charm," proves the adage that in comedy, timing is everything. He got in the funny business on the ground floor in the 1970s and built an empire. To his credit, with The Yuk Yuk's Guide to Canadian Stand-Up, Breslin commendably acknowledges the comedians who made it happen for him.