Comedian. Impresario. Mentor. Auntie. Born Feb. 1, 1967, in Montreal; died Dec. 1, 2016, in Toronto, of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis; age 49.
Jo-Anna Downey – a hero to the Toronto stand-up community – was too young to die. Born and raised in Montreal, she graduated from Concordia University with a degree in history. In 1991, she followed her parents to Toronto, and this is where she discovered her talent.
Jo-Anna was always funny but fell into stand-up by chance. A musician invited her to an open mic night at Spirits pub on Church Street. He would play music before the comedians performed and suggested she try stand-up. Jo-Anna quickly fell in love with the charge only laughter can give. One night, the regular emcee did not show up and the show was going to be cancelled. So Jo-Anna stepped in, becoming the regular host from then on. She turned the Spirits Wednesday Comedy Night into an institution that's still running 20 years later.
Jo-Anna spoke to her audience like they were her personal friends listening to her making fun of people they all knew. Long before she was diagnosed with ALS in 2012, she was considered a brave figure for her open and exposed comedy style that let the audience into her life.
As well as headlining at clubs across Canada, Jo-Anna won the Phil Hartman Award for outstanding lifetime contribution in 2012 at the Canadian Comedy Awards.
Those of us who knew her backstage called her Mama. Often, before the show she'd tell waiting comics: "I have nothing new; be ready to come on." Then she would spin a 25-minute routine out of a four-minute encounter she'd had on the way to the club.
Like the old-timey, bawdy saloon hostesses of Western cinema, Jo-Anna had a unique ability to be welcoming and insulting in one breath. As an emcee, she welcomed amateurs and wannabes, seasoned professionals and visiting legends to her stage with the same effusive dismissiveness. She even famously told Robin Williams to wrap up his long set so others could perform. Her style endeared her to everyone.
Anyone who saw Jo-Anna perform knew she loved to talk about her nieces, Nicole and Hannah. Nicole, now 12, remembers when Auntie Joey used to pick her up from school. Once, in kindergarten, Jo-Anna deadpanned: "Do I have to take the one I dropped off?" The teacher was not amused. Jo-Anna's brother, Andrew (Nicole's dad), added that Jo-Anna would ask the kids in the schoolyard if they had learned their ABCs. Then proceeded to sing the alphabet song and mess up the order. They laughed hysterically, corrected her every time and then asked her to do it again. "That always won over the kids," he said.
Mostly though we remember Jo's laugh. It was a loud, enthusiastic bark that cut through the din of a packed house in which everyone was laughing. It also filled the silence after a failed joke, breaking the tension and generating its own laughter amongst an uncomfortable crowd. Jo-Anna's laugh will never be heard again, but it will never be forgotten.
Simon Rakoff is a friend and colleague of Jo-Anna's.