Learning to kill

Open-mic comedy night regulars Paul Warford, host Sherri Levesque, Matthew Esteves, Mikaela Dyke, Andrew Ivimey, and Tim Ronan.

Comic theatre may very well have been around in Newfoundland forever, but stand-up comedy—that peculiar blend of theatre, storytelling, and, often, brick walls—has never quite been able to make a regular go of it here in town. Which is funny, because we have plenty of people here with theatre and storytelling experience, and we have plenty of brick walls.

There have a been scattered few comedy nights with stand-up over the years, and people have performed stand-up in town at variety shows alongside other comedy improv or sketch comedy acts, but up until recently there was no place for budding comedians to give it a real shot and to learn by doing. (Or learn by dying.)

That is, until a regular open-mic comedy night sparked up last June at the then-newly-opened Victory Tavern. Hosted by fresh-from-a-CBC-comedy-workshop Sherri Levesque, the night quickly gained a following, and now, one year later, it’s still going strong. Amateur stand-up performers are finally able to take a shot at honing their craft right here at home.

It’s a simple, but essential ingredient in building the local scene.

By Elling Lien

Last spring, as part of CBC’s Laugh NL—a search for local comedy talent—Sherri Levesque submitted a recording of a comedy routine and she won time in a multi-day comedy writing workshop hosted by Al Rae, artistic director of the CBC Winnipeg Comedy Festival.

“I heard about it through the web and I taped my piece and sent it in with crossed fingers,” she says, “and I won.”

But when the workshop was finished, there was nowhere else to go.

“I knew Theresa, who was just opening up The Victory,” says Levesque. “She thought it would be a great venue for a comedy night, and approached me to set it up. So I did.”

Levesque put a call out for funny people to come out and test their wits. Paul Warford and Tim Ronan were there that first night. Now they’re long-time regulars.

“I saw a poster in Hava Java and I was looking for an avenue to get sex in this town,” Warford says. “Of course it hasn’t worked yet.”

Says Ronan, “I heard about it because a friend of mine was too chicken shit to do it himself and it was my first time doing stand-up. I’d been doing improv for a long time, but I always wanted to do stand-up because ever since I was a kid, making people laugh was the only way I could make people like me.”

This year the St. John’s Comedy Festival (June 18-22) will be celebrating its second year, and its rapid growth demonstrates the city has an increasing hunger for comedy. With a stable training ground like the Victory open-mic comedy night in place, this city’s stand-up future is bright.

Peter Soucy, head organizer for the Comedy Fest, says stand-up comedy is a very specific form usually found in big cities, and it’s hard to keep a club going on comedy.

“Stand-up comes from large cities with lots of customers for comedy clubs and such—not something we’ve ever had here in the province,” he says. “I think it took a period of exposure to stand-up through television for performers in this province to warm to it and make it their own.”

He says there’s been a change in the past twenty years.

“It’s only the present generation that has embraced it—the Johnny Harris and Mark Critch generation. Cathy Jones is the only one from the first wave of professional comedians who’s doing it now,” he says. He lists Shaun Majumder, Trent McLellan, and Ian Peet as other important talents.

“It’s interesting to note that the young guys from here who are developing stand-up profiles and fans have done it elsewhere, not at home,” Soucy says. For a person looking to make a living from comedy, he says it means leaving the province to do it. “Outside the Comedy festival,” he says, “there are very few stages here.”

Open-mics gives safe and friendly places for people to try it out.

Matthew Esteves, Andrew Ivimey, and Mikaela Dyke have become regulars at the Victory open-mic.

“There’s no cover, so you can suck all you want,” says Esteves, another regular. “You’re not wasting anyone’s money.”

It’s hard for stand-up comedian to develop a routine when there are a lot of regulars who might remember the jokes.

“I really like it when the regulars tell the same jokes on two different occasions, tailoring it differently, throwing in a different word here and there,” Ivimey says. “It will always get a different laugh.”

“It’s a good way to get feedback,” he says.

“Also, you’ll notice you can tell the same joke on two different nights and they might find it funny, they might not,” says Ivimey. “As it grows we are getting different crowds seeing us every time.”

There’s a difference between being funny and knowing how to make someone laugh, says Ronan.

“You get some people in there who think they are hilarious who get up on stage and start, but want to stop immediately,” he says. “You can tell they’re the funny guy in their group, and they think that’s going to translate, but it doesn’t.”

What if the person is good at improv comedy, as in theatresports? In comedy improv, the funny stuff comes from playing off other people, they say.

“When you’re doing stand-up, the people you’re playing off is your audience.”
But that doesn’t mean the acts are improvised.

“We practice a lot,” says Warford. “It’s not something you can go up and just do.”

Ivimey says there’s a strange balance between practice and running with the moment.

“If I have two days off before stand-up night, I’m over-prepared, and I’m over-analyzing my jokes, and I’m scared shitless when I get on stage,” he says.

“But if I have Saturday off and a busy Sunday, by Sunday night I’m prepared, but it’s not on my mind.”

Levesque’s preparation, on the other hand, is to live hard, and be adventurous, in the hope that it will give her material to work with up on stage.

“I put myself in crazy situations in the hope of something to talk about the following Sunday.”

One essential ingredient in making the night a success is veteran professional stand-up comedian George Price. Originally from Toronto, he has worked in the business for decades, and he gives advice and support, and keeps the crowd in its place. Sometimes he jumps in if people are heckling too hard, or heckles if the comedian hasn’t done his or her homework.

“He’s been fantastic,” Ivimey says. “If you’re not listening to George, then you’re losing half the benefit of coming down here for comedy night.”

Why do they keep coming back? Although the reward for performing is a free drink, stand-up comedy for these folks is a rush that money can’t buy. It’s like flying by the power of your own mind.

“It’s instant gratification,” Dyke says. “You know you’re doing well in comedy because people laugh. It’s immediate.”

“I realize it conveniently cuts out the middle man,” says Ivimey. “If I was doing comedy somewhere where I was being paid, I’d take that money and convert it into a drink, whereas here it saves a step… an arm movement. They just pay me with a drink.”

The Victory’s open-mic comedy night happens every second Sunday. The next night is June 8th. 10pm. Free. To read more of our interview, visit thescope.ca

The St. John’s Comedy Festival (which also features an open mic night) is taking place from June 18-22. More info at stjohnscomedyfest.ca