LOL All the Way to the Bankruptcy
This is what I love about comedians. A comic will tell another comic about the gig they just did that was the worst show. 4The crowd had 18 people in the audience. They were spread out across a 200-seat venue. (Note: This was in the Before Times when you would hate to do shows like this, instead of wanting them to be like this now.) The microphone muted if you took it out of the stand. It screeched if you left it in the stand. The management wouldn’t turn off the Jays game even though they were losing 72-4 in the 6th, because “my customers will get mad and leave if I do”. Someone tried to shoot a rat as it ran across the stage area. So much respect for performers. The comic will go through every detail of this nightmare. Then there’s a pause, and the second comic will ask “Who books that?”
In the same manner that fish enjoy a little bit of water once or twice, comics like stage time. It’s necessary for their craft to advance, to test jokes, to figure out where new jokes suck so you can fix them, so they don’t suck. Comics will do anything for stage time. And the sad part is, people in power know this. Here is an example of this happening:
Awesome! Great news!
It’s a comedy contest!
Okay, if you must.
There’s going to be prize money!
Yabba Dabba Doo!
The winner gets to donate it to a charity of their choice!
Jesus Christ on a bike. This would be horrible any time, but especially now, this is particularly galling and egregious. But Canadian comedians are so desperate right now, let’s look at this from their points of desperation.
Desperation Point #1: It’s a TV Show
The forthcoming Amazon series is called LOL: Last One Laughing Canada based on a Japanese show format “Hitoshi Matsumoto Presents Documental”. I don’t care if it’s based off “Mord, Hun Skrev” the Danish version of “Murder, She Wrote”, Canada needs more stand-up comedy on its networks. If you’re a Canadian comedian and not lucky enough to be performing as part of one of Canada’s comedy festivals, you are not on TV. Canada’s one dedicated comedy channel airs nothing but “Big Bang Theory” 24-hours a day and I truly wish that I were writing that as a joke. As a result, Canadian comics will take any screen time possible.
Desperation Point #2: It’s a Contest
Comedy contests, as a whole, suck. They suck as a format. They suck as a competition. The judging sucks. They just suck. Now, it is at this point that I have to say that I’m not saying this because I’m bitter that I’ve never won one. I have. Back in the day I was declared the ‘Top New Comic’ in all of Canada. This was at a time when there were three new comics in Canada. On the night that I won, one of the other comics was sick and the other thought the contest was on Friday.
But still, comedy contests suck. They take the most subjective art form and put it to a decision like “Who is better?” Is Kyle Kinane better than Tig Notaro or Tiffany Haddish?” Try that for any other artform.
Who’s the better musician? Clint Black, Chopin or Cardi B?
See? Stupid question. The answer is Cake.
As long as comedy has been an art form, there’s been contests trying to pit one self-loathing insecure comedian against another, ensuring that at the end, someone’s self-esteem is going to be beaten out of them with a mic stand. Yes, there are shows like “American Idol”, “The X Factor” and “The Masked Singer” that pit singers against each other in increasingly gimmicky ways. But songs and singers are different. Most times the songs are not original works. The singers are being judged by their technical proficiency and emotive quality. Comedians tell jokes. About themselves. Personal stories and points of view. It’s one thing for a singer to say, “This song by Billie Eilish really speaks to me”. It’s completely another for a comedian to say, “These words speak to me because they are me.”
Add to this the fact that comedy audiences are fickle. Jokes that work at Absolute Comedy in Ottawa may not work in Comedy Bar in Toronto. Jokes that kill at Comedy Bar may be met with silence at a Legion in Barrie. Comedy is almost impossible to judge quantitatively as the parameters for success change at every performance whether you’re in the same venue or not. The exact same material that destroys at the 8pm show can be drowned out by cricket chirps at the 10:30pm. So even with all that being said, at the end of the contest, one of the comics is going home with a trophy. It’s meaningless.
Desperation Point #3: It’s a Chance for Recognition in Canada
Canadian comedy has no star system. If it did, Derek Edwards would be bigger than Howie Mandel, Brent Butt would be in his tenth season of hosting his Canadian late night talk show, Debra DiGiovanni and Nathan Macintosh would still be in Canada, and I’d still be in my basement doing Zoom shows. Canadian comics have no promotional network to get seen in Canada. Again, we’re competing with “Big Bang Theory” on a loop. There’s only so many clubs and mics that you can do, so when the number of venues is exceeded by ambition, comics leave. They go to the US, UK, Australia, places where comedians are not only desired, but (somewhat comparatively) respected. The saddest part is that for a comedian to be recognized in Canada, they must succeed in the US. Someone else needs to vet the comic for us. Heck, the comic can even fail in the US. We somehow don’t care. Like a list of credits before a comic hits the stage, Canadian audiences need to feel a comfort that the person they’re watching did something somewhere else.
The LOL: Last One Laughing Canada host is Jay Baruchel and is the perfect choice for this. He’s a Canadian who no one heard of when he started out. He made it big in the States, stars in an Academy Award-winning movie and suddenly gets recognition in Canada as one of our own; enough recognition to be the face of a new Canadian television show. I don’t fault Jay for his success or his hosting position at all. He put in the work and it paid off. But it’s a perfect metaphor for the show, and Canadian comedy, that we as Canadians only ever get to see those performers who have done well elsewhere.
Desperation Point #4: Seriously? A Charity?
Normally, when you win a contest, you get to keep the prize. Not in LOL: Last One Laughing Canada. Here, you get to smile and hand over a giant novelty cheque to the Controller for the United Way. It sounds even more hilarious when you spell it out:
A comedian. Wins a contest. With prize money. And give the money. To a charity. After having not been able to perform or earn money for over a year because of a pandemic.
No wonder comedians are neurotic.
Comedians are expected to hand-over much needed money after not being able to earn a single dollar in venues this past year. Sure, why not? Why not have restaurants compete to win a cash prize, only to pass it over to the “Save our Covered Bridges” campaign? Granted, charities have been hit hard by the pandemic as well. But why are struggling comics forced to give up much needed cash? They’re handing the money past our grasp while saying “You guys are fine, right?” We’re not, and we’re not alone.
Almost everyone has been hit hard by this pandemic. You know who hasn’t? The people putting on this television show and handing out the prize money. Amazon reported 200% profits during the pandemic. Two hundred percent. Comics reported zero. I’m fairly sure Amazon, the Mom-and-Pop digital storefront that it is, would survive if they had to give comics hard earned money that they could keep.
Early on in my career I did many shows that did not pay. I considered it part of paying my dues and, per above, I was aching for stage time. These shows could have paid, but they chose not to for a variety of reasons. There was a consistent line that I was always told when the organization explained why I was not getting any money for my work. “We’re going to have industry people here. It will be good exposure for you.” Sadly, in Canada, it’s easy to die from exposure.
Don’t do the contest until you get to keep the money, because right now, every comedian in Canada is a worthy charity.
EDIT (Apr 23/21): Response to Jay Baruchel’s Post that Comics Will be Paid
Since the time of writing, Jay Baruchel has come forward and posted that indeed the comedians participating in the show are being paid. You can find his posting HERE. And thanks to Pat MacDonald to raising the issue on this.
This is a definite step forward and a relief to hear. But it speaks volumes to the expectation of the comedy community and the history of our treatment that we just assumed that comics were not being paid. It was not clear from the offing at all. My premise above still holds true. Comedians still need to be paid for their efforts and there needs to be more throughput of Canadian comedic talent on our television screens and broadcasts.
But a few questions remain:
How much will the comedians be paid for their work? Is this fair based on other comedy shows that have aired previously? What is the expected amount of time they will put forward and what is that compensation?
If a donation is being made, who gets the tax receipt? This sounds petty, but again, comedians have not been working for a year. A large donation tax receipt will help. Also, add to the fact that for the past few years Amazon has paid $0 in taxes. They can well afford it.
One last point: Thanks to Hart Shouldice for finding this added information from the Australian version of LOL:
Even from this brief description, including a description of a Big-Brother-style house (bleah.) it sounds like our Australian counterparts get to take home $100,000. No mention of a donation.
How come we’re so special?