Shticks and Giggles: a laugh-lover’s guide to the city’s explosive comedy scene

Shticks and Giggles: a laugh-lover’s guide to the city’s explosive comedy scene
Comedy Bar at Bloor and Ossington is the city’s undisputed hub of hilarity

Shticks and Giggles
Comedy Bar at Bloor and Ossington is the city’s undisputed hub of hilarity.

Toronto’s JFL42 comedy fest returns this month for its third annual 10-day laugh riot. For the uninitiated, the “JFL” part stands for Just for Laughs, and the “42” refers to the number of acts on the lineup, which this year includes Lena Dunham, Amy Schumer, Seth Meyers and a handful of local comedians. If, like most of us, you require comic relief all year round, this is a great moment to live in Toronto: the city’s indigenous comedy scene has flourished of late. We’re currently flush with neurotic kibitzers, daffy sketch troupes and enough nostalgically divey comedy clubs to fill an entire season of Louie. Here, a guide to navigating all the funny.

JFL42: Jokers Wild
JFL42: The Riot Acts
JFL42: The Dot-Com Boom
JFL42: College Humour
JFL42: Funny Farms
JFL42: City Snickers

Jokers Wild: The city’s stand-up scene is teeming with talent. Here, Toronto’s five funniest people—and their best one-liners

JFL42: Jokers Wild
From left: Jen Grant (Image: Leif Norman), Matt O’Brien (Image: courtesy Matt O’Brien), David Dineen-Porter (Image: courtesy David Dineen-Porter), Graham Kay and Rebecca Kohler (Images: Leif Norman)
Jen Grant

The tart-tongued Grant covers the standard lady-comic calamities—men, sex, aging—with a wry edge: she riffs on hating children and hating her friends. A couple of years ago, she achieved the comedy brass ring, opening for Louis CK. Tell us a joke: “I don’t want kids. I think I get that from my mom.”

Matt O’Brien

Like your funniest friend at the bar, O’Brien is an off-the-cuff storyteller with a manic, Kramer-esque energy. Catch him this year at JFL42. Tell us a joke: “Name your dog ‘Burrito.’ When you yell for it in the park, the best-case scenario is that it shows up. Worst-case: someone throws you a burrito.”

David Dineen-Porter

Strange, theatrical stand-up is Dineen-­Porter’s ­specialty: his best bit is a seven-minute ­PowerPoint presentation that lampoons the bluster of ­business-speak. Tell us a joke: “Serious ­question: why are there those rare M&Ms with the one long hair coming out of them? I’ve only found one in my whole life.”

Graham Kay

Kay plays a straight man so persnickety he circles back to silly. He takes swings at his lesbian haircut and his girlfriend’s snotty cat, Handsome. Tell us a joke: “I’m doing the long-distance thing with my girlfriend, which is a lot easier these days with Skype. For free, I can see her slowly falling out of love with me.”

Rebecca Kohler

Like Sarah Silverman, Kohler cloaks brilliant social criticism in the guise of brash ignorance, simultaneously skewering both oblivious bigots and the PC police. Tell us a joke: “Some men are afraid they’ll be replaced by vibrators, but if I were a man, I’d be more worried about ­Netflix.”

The Riot Acts: A who’s who of Toronto’s zany sketch scene

JFL42: Ladystache
For Amy Schumer fans

Allison Hogg and Steph Tolev have the dirtiest mouths in town. They’re known for their gross-out sketches (involving puppets and sex toys) and oddball celeb impressions (like Björk leading a campfire sing-along).

JFL42: Tony Ho
For Mr. Show fans
Tony Ho

Roger Bainbridge, Adam Niebergall and Miguel Rivas specialize in deliciously disturbing black humour. To wit: Peak Falls, their bizarro Twin Peaks parody, about a small town plagued by a psychotic demon.

JFL42: Templeton Philharmonic
For AbFab fans
Templeton Philharmonic

Gwynne Phillips and Briana Templeton create surreal Brit-inspired sketches—they recently staged an interactive play about two eccentric sisters that felt like a loopier Grey Gardens.

JFL42: The Sketchersons
For SNL fans
The Sketchersons

The 14-member crew writes and performs a rambunctious new Sunday Night Live revue every week at Comedy Bar, spoofing everyday absurdities, pop culture, politics and Matthew McConaughey.

JFL42: The Imponderables
For Kids in the Hall fans
The Imponderables

These four dopey guys scheme and squabble like undergrad roommates. Their hit web series, Bill and Sons Towing (co-starring theatre heavyweight Nicholas Campbell), is a feast of high-energy slapstick.

The Dot-Com Boom: Three ways to enjoy Toronto comedy from the comfort of your smartphone

The Podcast

Paul Bates, Nug Nahrgang and Lee Smart co-host a biweekly improv podcast that satirizes the schlocky sci-fi radio shows of the ’50s. It’s unique, hilarious and totally bonkers.

The Twitter account

Jason Richards, a Toronto TV producer, updates Seinfeld scenarios with weird misspellings and deranged modern twists. Sample tweet: “Elane make $1 bilion from kickstarter for Big Salad.”

The YouTube channel

Local filmmaker Corey Vidal has earned hundreds of thousands of subscribers for his infectiously nerdy sketches, which spoof subjects like Star Wars and Justin Bieber.

College Humour: Andrew Clark, director of Humber College’s comedy program, on how to teach funny

What does a comedy class look like? Do you have students bringing whoopee cushions? Improv classes are conducted much like Upright Citizens Brigade or Second City. In sketch students write sketches, study structure and performance. Stand-up training involves doing material in front of the group and learning about joke structure, punch ups, stuff like that. If anyone brought in a whoopee cushion, I might have to Taser them.

JFL42: College Humour
(Image: courtesy Andrew Clark)

So how do you teach someone to be funny? You can’t make somebody who’s not funny funny, in the same way you can’t turn someone with a terrible voice into a good singer, but you can make a funny person even funnier.

Who are your most successful alumni? One grad, Rebecca Addelman, is now a writer for New Girl on Fox. And Nathan Fielder’s show, Nathan for You, just had its second season. It’s a huge hit.

Have you ever had to sit a student down and say, “Look, you’re not funny. It’s not going to happen for you”? A lot of people think they can just come in and put on a funny nose. But we audition. We treat it like the business, which is fairly competitive and cutthroat.

Do comedy clubs put any stock in comedy degrees? A few years ago, I’d have said no. But now a lot of headliners are Humber grads. The guys who started Comedy Bar all went to Humber, though they were cut after a year. We think that’s great. There’s nothing a comic likes more than thinking someone has wronged them. That’s Christmas for a comedian.

Funny Farms: The city’s top comedy clubs

JFL42: Funny Farms
Comedy Bar
945 Bloor St. W., 416-551-6540

The epicentre of Toronto’s comedy scene is a basement dive in Wallace-Emerson. This is where you’ll find big stars doing intimate sets after their stadium shows.

Black Swan Comedy
154 Danforth Ave., 416-903-5388

The homey Danforth pub produces the city’s best improv. Among the regular shows are 200% Vodka, a Thursday-night improv battle; Acoustic Comedy, a showcase of guitar-twanging parody performances; and Murder at the Burlesque, a weekly improvised murder mystery with professional dancers.

Absolute Comedy
2335 Yonge St., 416-486-7700

A show at the Yonge-and-Eg club feels a lot like one of Jerry’s gigs on Seinfeld: there’s a kitschy dinner menu, cheap booze and terrific headliners. The best night to go is Wednesday, when the club runs its popular Pro/Am show, a grab bag of amateurs and professional comics each doing tight five-minute sets—a slot on the bill is one of the city’s most coveted gigs.

City Snickers: A brief history of hilarity in Toronto

JFL42: City Snickers
(Images: Getty Images except Wayne and Shuster via Wikimedia Commons)

1946 Johnny Wayne and Frank Shuster debut their namesake CBC show and become the city’s first sketch stars.

1973 The Second City opens downtown, attracting comics like Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner and John Candy.

1975 Lorne Michaels creates Saturday Night Live, starring Radner, Aykroyd, Chevy Chase and John Belushi.

1976 Yuk Yuk’s opens in the 519 Community Centre basement. Howie Mandel and Jim Carrey make their debuts on its stage.

SCTV debuts, with Eugene Levy, Harold Ramis, Catherine O’Hara et al.

1987 Mike Myers premieres “Wayne’s Power Minute” on the CBC variety show It’s Only Rock and Roll.

1988 The Kids in the Hall debut their sketch show. Lorne Michaels produces.

1996 The Sketchersons premiere their weekly Sunday Night Live revue at the Rivoli.

2006 Russell Peters becomes a viral sensation when a video of his act blows up on YouTube.

2012 The first year of JFL42 features headliners like Louis CK and Patton Oswalt.


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