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Toronto The comedy ceiling: Toronto’s comics of colour are ready for their close-up

Zabrina Chevannes is often the only non-white comic on a bill, so she started her own monthly showcase at Comedy Bar.

Glenn Lowson/The Globe and Mail

Toronto stand-up Daniel Woodrow used to bill himself as "The World's Whitest Black Comedian." Raised by white parents in suburban Ottawa, the biracial comic once premised much of his routine on his conspicuous lack of street cred, sporting cardigans on stage and sheepishly confessing that he could neither sink a jumpshot nor relate to the lyrical stylings of rapper Lil Wayne.

Lately, though, Mr. Woodrow has largely excised those bits from his act. He's discovered that the material – his spin on the "white people be like …" trope popularized by black comics in the nineties – isn't the obvious punchline fodder it used to be. "Everyone is becoming more blended, everyone listens to hip hop," he explains. "That's the way comedy is going; it's now about being relatable to a worldwide audience."

Torontonians need look no further than this year's JFL 42 comedy festival to witness what Mr. Woodrow describes. This weekend, festival-goers can catch a headlining set at the Sony Centre from Trevor Noah, the South African comic who inherits The Daily Show chair from Jon Stewart beginning Monday. And next Saturday, Hannibal Buress closes out the festival, a fair honour for the African-American alt-comic who called out Bill Cosby and scored his own TV show this year. Known primarily for his dryly offbeat demeanour, Mr. Buress's routines tend to touch on race only obliquely.

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"I feel like I'm the same way with my comedy," says Mr. Woodrow. "I want to be viewed as just a comedian who happens to be black."

It's a sentiment shared by many of Toronto's up-and-coming comedians of colour, who are eager to follow in Mr. Buress's footsteps and upend notions that they represent an exotic or "urban" niche. The broader Canadian entertainment establishment, however, has so far seemingly missed the memo: There is a young, hungry, diverse comedy scene in Toronto ready for its close-up.

"Canada, unfortunately, in terms of mainstream comedy stages and in terms of television, is pretty old-fashioned and regressive," says the comedian Mark James Heath.

Mr. Heath, who, like Mr. Buress, originally hails from Chicago, is a regular performer at Yuk Yuk's as well as independent Bloor West venue Comedy Bar, where he hosts a monthly hip-hop-themed showcase called Runnin' at the Mouth. He first emerged in the early aughts, playing African-American-dominated rooms on his hometown's South Side before relocating to Toronto in 2009, via an unfulfilling stint in Los Angeles. A passionate and socially engaged student of his craft, Mr. Heath has observed shifts in the comedic landscapes on both sides of the border with interest.

About his adopted homeland, he is blunt: "The Canadian entertainment industry doesn't really reflect the diversity that is actually here, let alone here in Toronto."

Take Frankie Agyemang, for instance, known to local stand-up audiences as Trixx. Despite the success of his self-produced theatre gigs and his decade's worth of experience as a regular headliner of Kenny Robinson's Nubian Show – the monthly Yuk Yuk's-hosted showcase that, in April, celebrated its 20th anniversary as the undisputed proving ground for emerging Canadian performers of colour – his one and only invitation to perform at a major Canadian comedy festival, Montreal's Just For Laughs, came just last year.

"When you look at the comedy festivals in this country, when you look at the comedy clubs, when you look at the Comedy Network, black comics don't get the opportunities that white comics get," Mr. Agyemang says. "As a black comedian, you have to get to a level where you're undeniable before they'll feature you here."

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Chris Robinson, also a Nubian Show regular, believes there persists a perception among promoters that general audiences would find it redundant for a lineup to feature more than one black performer. Mr. Robinson feels he's faced resistance from larger clubs because, as a "Young, Cool Black Guy," it's presumed that he'll tell the same kinds of jokes as the other "Young, Cool Black Guy" already on the roster. "They're happy to have 100 middle-aged white guys," Robinson says, "but two Young, Cool Black Guys is too many."

"I hear the same thing about women," says Yuk Yuk's CEO Mark Breslin, the Canadian comedy legend who transformed his Toronto club into a national chain, when asked to address the lack of diversity on the country's mainstream comedy stages. "People ask why I don't put two women on the same show. But what I try to do, because these aren't alternative shows, where people are really open to anything, is make them as variety-friendly as possible. In other words, I wouldn't feature two comics who did one-liners, nor would I put two dirty comics on the same bill."

Pressed as to whether women and people of colour ought to be viewed as generic categories, akin to satirists or prop comics, Mr. Breslin defers to his customers. "I'm doing this for my audience," he explains. "If my audience sees people who look alike, then they're going to think that the comedy is all alike. I've got to make the show work visually, I've got to make it work thematically, I've got to make it work in all kinds of ways."

A Bell Media representative offered the following statement regarding the diversity of the Comedy Network's programming: "We totally agree that Canadian comedy needs to be more diverse. Bell Media welcomes the opportunity to work with comedians and actors from all backgrounds." Beyond the Comedy Network, the company points to a new "multichannel network" called Much Digital Studios as a sign of more inclusive digital content in the country. "Comedians such as Jus Reign [a popular Guelph-born Sikh comic] and collective 4 Y'All Entertainment [from Brampton] were among the first group of creators signed to Much Digital Studios," the statement said.

For Zabrina Chevannes, the solution to the dilemma of being pigeonholed by promoters was to launch her own monthly showcase at Comedy Bar, called Things Black Girls Say. She too had become accustomed to being the only non-white comic on a bill, but quickly discovered that audiences at Toronto's independent clubs were eager for more. Things Black Girls Say, which started last December, is her attempt to not only provide a spotlight for women of colour, but also to demonstrate that significant diversity exists within what some presume to be a homogeneous group.

"My goal is to break stereotypes and the response from audience members – young, old, black, white – has been great," she says. "From the first time that I did the show, it's been sold out."

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The independent producer Derryck Birch has adopted a similarly inclusive ethos, and has earned a reputation for assembling highly diverse bills. A long-time comedy fan, Mr. Birch began booking shows early last year under the banner of Deez Laughs, seeking greater exposure for his favourite comics, non-white and white alike.

"I noticed there were many funny non-white comedians who weren't getting the kind of stage time others were getting, and I definitely wanted to help them," says Mr. Birch. "But I also wanted to introduce funny white performers to diverse crowds that I knew would love their style of humour. I'm not interested in being seen simply as a black guy who does black shows."

A recent Birch-produced gig featured Darrin Rose, host of the Comedy Network's Match Game, alongside performers of six different ethnicities, including host Norman Alconcel, a.k.a. Big Norm, a fast-rising comic of Filipino descent whose facility for pan-cultural mockery is both reminiscent of Russell Peters and quintessentially Torontonian.

Thanks in large part to the popularity of rap superstar Drake, Mr. Heath says, his American friends are looking to Toronto as a vibrant and progressive cultural hub, and feels local comedians are poised to reap the benefits. "Between what Derryck is doing, what Zabrina is doing, the Nubian Show being here for 20 years, independent people are coming together to build something substantial," he says.

And Mr. Heath himself hopes to make a significant contribution to those efforts when, with Mr. Breslin's backing, he embarks on a nationwide tour with his Runnin' at the Mouth showcase. In November, Mr. Heath, along with fellow Yuk Yuk's performers Marito Lopez and Keith Pedro, will visit St. John's, Halifax and Moncton on the first leg of an endeavour that both he and Mr. Breslin hope will demonstrate an unmet demand for diverse comic voices beyond the Greater Toronto Area.

Mr. Breslin concedes the project is something of a gamble for him, but insists he's always been open to new ventures: "In the 40-year history of Yuk Yuk's, we've tried every possible idea to satisfy audiences and to keep people coming through the doors. These guys are Yuk Yuk's people and we believe in them, so we'll see what happens."

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Whatever the fate of the tour, Mr. Heath believes that the growing diversity within his adoptive city's stand-up scene is such that it will soon exert a global pull.

"People will come from all over the world and will say, 'We're in Toronto, we have to see some comedy.'"

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