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Class Struggle at the Comedy Club

Canadian comedians figured out how to engage in collective action — and just won a major victory.

Microphone on an empty stage, 2017. Pxhere

Unlike the traditional factory floor, the comedy club is not a natural incubator of working-class solidarity. Individual spots on a typical weekend show are specialized and hierarchical (starting at the “middle” or “feature” act, rising to the host or emcee, and culminating with the headliner); performers take the stage alone, kill or bomb alone; get sitcom deals or late-night spots in a zero-sum game played against their peers. If the French peasantry was a sack of potatoes, today’s stand-ups are a tray of individually impaled cocktail wieners, vying to get picked.

Despite these inauspicious conditions, however, this month Canada’s English-language stand-up comedians scored a major victory against one of the world’s biggest comedy brands, using collective action to preserve a royalty stream worth over a million dollars in a country where opportunities for comedic talent are scarce. An attempt was made by Just For Laughs — a festival and multimedia content corporation now nominally headed by comedian and television presenter Howie Mandel — to rebrand the CanadaLaughs SiriusXM satellite radio station, and replace royalty-generating, independently produced audio comedy with sound-only rips from a backlog of Just For Laughs television tapings featuring mostly Hollywood comedians. An instant backlash ensued.

Unlike the markets in densely populated, largely Anglophone countries like the United States and the United Kingdom, the comedy scene in Canada has always struggled against three main barriers to economic viability: a relatively small population, a landmass second only to Russia’s in physical size, and a long, culturally porous border shared with the country housing the international center of entertainment capitalism. Comedy club pay rates have been unchanged for decades, with headliners earning as little as $225 dollars for an in-town club set and having to find their own accommodations for off-nights on the road. Los Angeles, New York, and London have been the last best hopes for the few Canadian comics lucky enough to work there legally (or for the quieter, sneakier ones who couldn’t).

Historically, the best chance that a comedian had of earning a decent living in Canada was to be featured on one (or, preferably, all) of the country’s three televised comedy festivals: Winnipeg, Halifax, and, the most prestigious, Montreal — better known as Just For Laughs (JFL). JFL was the English-language wing of Juste Pour Rire, the Francophone clowning festival which grew up alongside Cirque Du Soleil as an example of how the cultural subsidies of robust Québecois social democracy could seed multibillion-dollar international behemoths of both transcendence and kitsch. The founder of Juste Pour Rire, Gilbert Rozon, has fairly recently been ousted amidst a litany of #MeToo allegations, which have led to criminal charges. But the JFL brand, particularly on the English-language side, is much bigger than an individual association with Rozon.

The closest analogue to the cultural significance of JFL for Canadian comedians is The Tonight Show; if you grew up in Canada, wanting to be a comedian, there was nothing else. And even if, like The Tonight Show, its biggest star-making days were years ago, the festival was still what you watch as a kid — it was Hockey Night in Canada for the unathletic, self-loathing, and acerbic.

But its currency wasn’t merely symbolic. If a comedian could raise their profile with enough of a splash at Just For Laughs, or else on another of the tiny handful of big-stage stand-up showcases in Canadian broadcasting, then they could raise their rates for private performances, known colloquially as “corporates” (the name is a bit misleadingly depressing; most of my “corporates,” for instance, are for teachers’ union conferences.)

Over the past few years, however, a significant new revenue stream — one coming eerily close to the perfect meritocracy of capitalist fancy — had emerged. Much-loved comedian (and semi-celebrity chef) Ben Miner had been programming an all-Canadian stand-up satellite channel out of Toronto. Through a nonprofit entity known as SoundExchange (which is not limited to either Canada or comedy), comedians were suddenly earning thousands of dollars a year, sometimes tens of thousands, from repeated plays on a station heard across the country.

The resulting boom in comedy album recordings was so enormous that in 2018 the Canadian equivalent of the Grammy Awards (the Junos) brought back the Best Comedy Album category for the first time since the early 1980s (I was lucky enough to have been nominated for the award its first year back; I lost it to an asshole friend of mine).

The news that JFL would be replacing our albums with old recordings of Ray Romano and Tim Allen didn’t just sting egos — it represented an immediate challenge to livelihoods across the industry, and the collective response from comedians was commensurate with the seriousness of the threat. Right away, memes and slogans were traded on private message threads for coordinated public posting; the hashtag #JustForMoney connected the disparate complaints of stand-ups across five and a half time zones.

Howie Mandel took to Facebook Live to make what came to be a widely ridiculed and failed attempt to put out the fire. On Twitter he insisted that “Canadian comedians” were “reacting to leaked misinformation.” Comedians received a mass email signed by “The Just For Laughs Radio Team,” attempting to calm the waters. As a former rank-and-file union organizer, it was the kind of letter from “management” with which I personally was all too familiar.

The pressure on JFL to reverse course mounted. A relatively new organization called the Canadian Association of Stand-up Comedians (CASC), founded in 2017 to lobby on behalf of comedians inside of Canada’s labyrinthine cultural funding bodies, held a town hall meeting at the much-loved independent comedy venue the Comedy Bar; the meeting was attended not only by community members but by national media. The half-week staring contest culminated in the closest thing possible to a comedy wildcat strike: the comedians slated to perform on a showcase for JFL — essentially a mass audition for spots at this summer’s festival — refused to participate.

“The show will go on but it won’t be affiliated with JFL. It will be one hell of a show!” wrote Edmonton headliner Kathleen McGee on Twitter. “Proud of the Edmonton comics that are standing for something.” Such JFL showcase spots are typically highly coveted; an individual’s rejecting one is virtually unheard of — a complete, artist-run shut-out was absolutely unprecedented. Showcasing comedians also tend to be those towards the beginning of their careers, with the very least leverage. It was a tremendous show not only of solidarity, but of guts.

On Wednesday afternoon, just four days after the story had broken, my wife phoned me: “You guys won.” I got online to see the statement posted by Bruce Hills, the president of Just For Laughs, assuring everyone that “[t]he new channel … will showcase 100 per cent Canadian content; All the content will be produced by Canadian artists independent of the Just For Laughs catalogue.” Hills went on to say, “We’ve listened carefully to the concerns of Canadian artists and regret the stress we have caused the comedy community … we will continue to engage directly with the industry and work with CASC to strengthen and advance Canadian comedy.”

It’s early days, but it appears that the bosses blinked first, and that by rallying together Canadian comedians managed to protect a very significant portion of their livelihoods. Though comedians tend towards the more cynical end of the emotive spectrum, more than one comic copped to getting teary-eyed by the unexpected victory. And it’s virtually impossible to imagine that things will ever be the same. Using the only-semi-facetious hashtag #PermanentRevolution, I asked on Instagram who was now ready to raise club headlining rates that hadn’t changed since the 1990s. Among the over a hundred likes garnered by the post was one from the official CASC account, which also commented, “We are keeping this ball rolling.”

That’s show business — always leave ‘em wanting more.