Sunday, May 26, 2019

Who’s laughing now? A look at the current state of Victoria’s comedy scene on campus and off

April 3, 2019 by Fred Cameron, features writer

A few months back I had the misfortune of waking up to a 4 am alarm so I could be ready for a 5 am taxi to the airport. I found that happy state where I’m so tired that nothing really matters and life’s trials can be pushed aside with a chuckle. The cab was right on time. I loaded my bags, sat in the back seat, and cracked wise about how overrated sleep is. I was prepared to sit through 20 minutes of awkward silence, but I was pleasantly surprised when the driver fired back without missing a beat. We riffed back and forth for a few minutes, and it felt like I was the straight guy in a comedy duo.

I recognized the driver’s voice, but I couldn’t place him. I watched the rearview mirror intently for a moment, barely able to make out his eyes in the darkness. He continued to deliver incredibly dry humour without cracking a smile. Then it hit me: it was local comedian Sean Proudlove behind the wheel.

I wanted to be sure, so I told him that he’s really good at this and asked, “Do you drive around doing a comedy podcast with guest hosts on the way to their destination?” He chuckled and confirmed that he does comedy on the side.

It planted a seed for a potential feature story; we exchanged contact information and I went on my way.

One of Victoria’s most well-known comics, Proudlove has been doing comedy, mostly in Vancouver, for over 20 years. He moved back to Victoria in time to watch the scene develop from almost nothing to where it’s at now.

“There are probably 100 comics now… Maybe not quite that many, but a lot more than when I started,” he says. “There was only one room, which was Ratfish, which was a little room in the lobby and a part of Hecklers. The scene slowly built from there. Ratfish is no longer, but it certainly changed the landscape of comedy in this town.”

Countless comedians got their start and honed their craft at Ratfish before its doors closed permanently in the spring of 2018. One of those comedians goes by the stage name Chelsea Lou.

“I started here in Victoria at the fabled Ratfish lounge, which I think the scene has suffered from the loss of,” says Lou, who goes by a stage name in order to keep a distance from her day job. “It was a comedy-dedicated room that you had to go out of your way to go to. It was a really good fuck-around room. It felt like you were talking to people in your home. There is nothing else like it. You can’t really do it in a coffee shop or a dive bar. It had its own intrinsic vibe. I got started at the open mics there.”

Local comedian Drew Farrance showed up for our interview in a Ratfish T-shirt.

“Ratfish was the grandfather of Victoria comedy,” says Farrance. “For a very long time that was the room you’d go to. As it started dying, other rooms started popping up.”

Victoria is an arts town. There are small pockets of culture all over the place if you take the time to find them, and the comedy scene is one of them. Despite the loss of Ratfish, there is live comedy somewhere in town every night of the week.

“It’s mostly amateurs and semi-pros,” says Proudlove. “There are a lot more than there used to be, but it’s not a big scene.”

It’s a small scene in a small town, but new comedians can benefit from that, says Lou.

“You get an attentive audience because it’s an arts town,” she says. “Starting out, I was one of the few female comedians, so I kind of got spots at shows that were looking for a little diversity, so I was the minority component at some shows. I was very lucky that people gave me a lot of chances early on.”

Lou acknowledges that open mics can be a hard sell and says that the local scene ebbs and flows.

“Everything comes and goes, but a lot of small rooms pop up,” she says. “When you’re starting out, stage time is key.”

Local comic and producer of the Bad Mama Jama Show Quincy Thomas says that things have picked up quite a bit since the fall, so he’s doing lots of shows lately. (The next Bad Mama Jama Show is happening on Saturday, April 6 at Vinyl Envy.)

“Things were slow for a while during the summer,” says Thomas. “It always is. We’re competing with the beaches, so it’s tough to get people out on the nice sunny days. But it’s a pretty good scene right now, so there are lots of chances to get up. There are a bunch of new rooms and new comics. It’s good to be a part of it.”

Farrance says there are a few things anyone who is considering going out to watch comedy for the first time should know.

“There’s a difference between a booked show and an open mic,” says Farrance. “At an open mic literally anyone can get up onstage and get the same three minutes that anyone else can. There is no quality control. But at the same time, it is the key feature of any comedy scene. If you have no open mics, you have no comedy scene, because no one can try out new material. If you don’t have that space where you can just do whatever the fuck you want, then you can’t grow a scene.”

The weekends belong to Victoria’s premier comedy venue, Hecklers, where touring comics are showcased on Friday and Saturday nights. On the local amateur circuit there are shows every night from Sunday to Thursday.

“Right now I think there are four regular amateur nights you can go to, and they vary in quality and room type,” says Proudlove. “Sült is kind of like a coffee shop because you can see everybody, and it’s quiet in a sense where people are there to watch and listen. Then Logan’s on Tuesday, where you’re performing before karaoke night, so the crowd will change over the night. Wednesday night you’ve got The Mint, which, for whatever reason, has been really good. It’s almost too easy, to be honest.”

Thomas says that there is a relatively new show on Thursday nights.

“St. Frank’s is running a show the first three Thursdays of the month, and then the fourth Thursday there is a show at Wheelie’s,” says Thomas. “Those are run by the same person, Dan Duvall.”

Camosun General Arts student (and Nexus contributing writer) Bo Essery is a newcomer to Victoria comedy stages; he’s been doing comedy for about two months. (He’s also the co-producer of the aforementioned Sült comedy night, dubbed the Sült Mine.) Any time you try something new, it can be a bit bumpy, Essery says.

“I really enjoy it. It’s obviously really nerve-wracking, but it’s getting easier every time,” says Essery. “I haven’t been heckled yet. I bombed maybe a couple times now, but that was definitely on me. It’s been working out really well so far. The other comedians have been really receptive to newcomers. It’s worked out exceptionally well for me, I would say.”

Camosun student Bo Essery gets some laughs onstage (photo by David Bruce).

Essery has been onstage about 20 times, so he says he’s still pretty fresh. He says that the exposure is helping his confidence develop beyond the stage.

“It is definitely giving me more confidence, and I’m noticing it on the street, or striking up a conversation on the bus or something,” says Essery. “It has helped me, and it’s getting easier every time I’m onstage as I get more comfortable.”

There are at least 30 to 40 people in the crowd on Mondays at Sült, says Essery.

“It always gets a good turnout and the audience is always fantastic,” Essery says. “It’s a nice restaurant, and they’re actually paying to get in, so you end up with an audience that’s a little more receptive to comedy.”

Everyone I talked to agrees on just how much fun the Sült Mine is. Lou says that Mondays at Sült have a different feel because you don’t know who will show up in the audience.

“It’s interesting because it’s not always a comedy audience,” she says. “If you can work with them, it proves something about your jokes.”

If you’re looking for open-mic comedy, Sült is the best room by far right now, says Farrance.

“Sült is so much fun,” says Farrance. “I don’t know why yet. I’m still trying to figure out why, but it’s much more fun than any other open mic. It is somehow such a warm audience, seemingly for no reason; I cannot explain why. It’s not a booked show, where you always get an audience that wants to be there. All the comics know that, so they’re doing their best material.”

The Camosun College Student Society (CCSS) has held comedy events on campus in the past, says CCSS clubs and events coordinator Tagg Kelt.

“We did about three shows that were fairly well attended,” he says. “The first one was the best attended, and then there was a decrease in the number of attendees, and the last one literally had three people at it.”

CCSS events are aimed at providing student entertainment, rather than making money, but it still comes down to a cost analysis, says Kelt.

“The comedy events did well in the past, but they also did poorly. I’d rather spend the money on events that we know would have a result, but if somebody came to me with a good strategy on getting people to come to a comedy show I would be on board for that. If somebody came to me and said, ‘I can guarantee 20 students would come to this comedy show,’ I’d be like, ‘Done!’ If you can guarantee 20 that means 30 will show.”

Off campus, there are a bunch of booked shows scattered throughout the calendar, but for years now, Phillips Comedy Night at the Mint has been the premier showcase of Victoria’s best amateur comics. The event, held every Wednesday, is co-produced by Farrance.

“We sort of showcase the best of [the local comics], and then people come from out of town and do headlining spots,” says Farrance. “I like to think of it as the pinnacle of our scene. You see the jokes evolve at the open mics, but you get to see them in pristine form at Phillips Comedy Night. It’s kind of like spring training and then the actual season… I’m not good at sports, so my metaphors aren’t great.”

Thomas says he loves performing at the Phillips Comedy Night.

“It’s probably one of the best amateur shows in town,” says Thomas. “It’s regularly sold out, so the comics have to bring their best show. It’s kind of like a showcase kind of thing.”

Essery recently performed at The Mint for the first time, and he says it’s a fantastic room.

“It’s probably the most receptive audience and the funnest room I’ve performed in so far,” says Essery. “Everybody is there to see comedy, and that definitely helps. There are no walk-ins checking to see what’s up. They always book phenomenal comics every week. The guys who run it are hilarious and just awesome dudes. It’s just an all-around great experience. The room itself has a fantastic vibe; it’s kind of like a speakeasy. It’s got a great vibe, and that helps out a lot.”

Essery thinks his first set at The Mint went well. He says he was sort of surprised, as it was “fairly explicit material.”

“It was great,” he says. “Everyone was laughing and I didn’t have any dead spots. I wish I would have recorded it because you have a different perspective when you’re up onstage because you’re caught in the moment. I’m still new, so I’m full of anxiety and adrenaline, and I’m just trying to get the words out.”

It seems like everyone has fun at The Mint on Wednesdays, both onstage and in the crowd, but there are some who say that laughs come a little bit too easily these days.

“Most people do well there,” says Proudlove. “It’s like a giant hug for your jokes.”

Lou agrees with the latter observation.

“Wednesday nights at The Mint, you always get a hot crowd, meaning they’ll laugh at anything, which is really great for the confidence, but it’s not always informative,” says Lou.

Proudlove says that when an amateur at the beginning of the night gets just as many laughs as he does at the end of the night, that’s a sign that it’s an easy audience. 

“They’re happy to be there and support comedy, which is great,” he says, “but they don’t give me the information I need to work on my jokes.”

I’ve been a fan of stand-up since I was a child, but never on a level that gave me an understanding of the science of it all. In an attempt to better understand the audience/comic relationship, I’ve been going out and sitting quietly in the corner at shows around town and observing the audience reaction. I got an unexpected lesson while at Logan’s one night.

At 8:02, two minutes after the show was scheduled to start, I was anxiously tapping my foot and looking at my watch when I heard a chorus of yells from the crowd around the pool table. I looked up to see several local comics trying to tell a crew of drunks, who looked like extras from Point Break, that they had to stop playing pool for an hour while the comics took to the stage. It didn’t go over well. I thought for a moment they were going to attack a few of the comedians, but luckily it didn’t escalate beyond yelling.

When the dust settled, the unruly patrons walked away and the host hit the stage, noticeably rattled by the whole ordeal. He did a great job working through it, but the room was silent for a minute or two. As heart rates steadied, the jokes were met with more laughs, and the comics got progressively more relaxed as the audience warmed up.

“I haven’t seen anything like that before,” says Farrance. “It was such a beautiful day, and they were day drinking the shit out of it. They didn’t realize that the comedy was happening, and they weren’t into it. That is one of the drawbacks of a free show.”

An experienced comic learns to compensate if an audience is cold at the beginning of the set, says Proudlove.

“You can do a show that’s doldrums off the top, and your job is to go up there and try to entertain them,” says Proudlove. “You know pretty quick if they’re gonna be into it or not. Once in a while you can turn around a crowd. If you’re on an all-amateur show and you step up and show a little bit of professionalism you’re probably gonna do better because you’ve gained those skills.”

The audience plays an incredibly important role at a comedy show, says Proudlove.

“We used to do two shows Friday and two shows Saturday, and sometimes one show would go better than the other,” says Proudlove. “If I tell the same jokes in the same order and one show is better than the other, it’s because of audience participation.”

One of the most interesting parts of comedy is the fact that anyone can be in an audience, says Farrance.

“It is totally unpredictable at a free show,” he says. “Even if you have a nominal fee to get in, you can sort of weed out the people who just stand back and watch. You get people who are like, ‘I want to see something funny. I’ll pay $5 to see that.’ So that’s why Logan’s can be really warm or really cold, because you never know who’s going to be in the crowd, or who’s going to be onstage.”

Thomas says that there’s nothing like having a whole crowd into what you’re saying.

“The energy you feel when everyone is on your side is amazing,” Thomas says. “It’s just so fun. And then all my best friends are out there, and I get to hang out and talk with comedians. That’s half the reason I’m doing stand-up. There are great people out there. It lets me get my ideas out. It kind of keeps me sane, now that I’m into it. When I have a bad day that’s where I need to be. It’s like free therapy.”

As a comic you can’t blame the audience, but they are a variable, and they are always going to be a variable, Proudlove says.

“What makes the best shows is an audience that’s in the right mood,” says Proudlove. “Maybe they’ve had the right number of drinks and they want to watch comedy. When you go to a show and the audience is hyped and they want to have a good time it makes a huge difference. The audience has a role to play. Sometimes you’ll hear them say, ‘This comic isn’t funny,’ but on the other hand you’ll hear the comedians say, ‘This audience is terrible.’”

So what’s the best comedy venue in Victoria? It’s not even close, says Proudlove.

“Hecklers is a professional room,” says Proudlove. “It’s literally one of the best places to play in Canada. You’ll hear that from all touring comics. Everyone wants to play it. It’s got an owner who cares about comedy, which is a rarity in this business. He makes the effort week to week to get audiences and it thrives. It should be the template, in any town, if you want to make comedy survive. There is no other room like it. It’s not even close. It’s the best place to play, hands down.”

Farrance agrees that Hecklers is the best venue but says that he would like to see more local comics getting a shot there.

“We’re all trying to get into that room,” he says. “Occasionally I do get spots there. In many ways I see Hecklers as being separate from the comedy scene. They don’t particularly give the local scene a chance to co-middle, even though it would very likely save them money. They are great shows. I’m not trying to take away from what they do, but I don’t see them as being a part of the Victoria comedy scene.” (Hecklers did not respond to a request for an interview.)

Comics in this town should consider themselves lucky, Proudlove says.

“If you’re an amateur comic with an interest in being good, you should be at Hecklers almost every weekend because it’s a free lesson,” says Proudlove. “If they’re not there they’re just spinning wheels. There are a lot of things you can see there that you won’t see in the rooms because we don’t have a lot of pros. It’s a chance to see people who are super skilled and see how they go about things.”

The best stage to watch is definitely Hecklers, says Thomas.

“They get professionals,” Thomas says. “From what I’ve heard from touring headliners who’ve done shows all over the world, it’s one of the best clubs in Canada. They just respect comedy there and want to have a good show. They do everything they can to keep it tightly run. They hire great staff, they keep hecklers quiet. That’s definitely my favourite club to watch at.”

Lou agrees with her peers, saying that Hecklers is her favourite because they really care about putting on a good show.

“I have hosted, and I’ve middled there, which is the feature act,” she says. “It’s fun to perform there because they change it up all the time.”

As for the man in the taxi who got me thinking about doing this story in the first place, he says he is probably finished with the grind of taking comedy on the road as a touring stand-up act.

“I could, if I really had to, travel and try to survive off stand-up, but I’m too old,” says Proudlove. “I want to sleep in my own bed. When I was young and staying in hotels on the road I thought it was great, but going on the road is tiring. I can’t do it anymore. I can do two weeks at the most.”

Strangely enough, working a normal job and telling jokes on the side is just as satisfying, says Proudlove.

“It’s still about the jokes,” Proudlove says. “I can write all I want. There is nothing stopping me. Some people love to tour, but for me it’s done. I’m not that guy anymore. The first couple of days are great, but then you’re hungover and travelling. I love performing. It’s all the other stuff in between that loses the thrill.”

Proudlove has plans to produce a record in the near future.

“I may put out a CD this year,” says Proudlove. “It’s tough to take material and freeze it on ice forever. That’s always daunting because you’re like, ‘Well, I could make this better.’ I want the jokes to be funny now and still be relevant in 10 years. I’ll try to figure out how to do that this year, or maybe next.”

Back at Camosun, after some thought on the matter, Kelt approached Essery with hopes of collaborating in the future. There is something in the works, says Kelt.

“I still have to arrange things with the cafeteria, but we’re hoping to do something every two weeks, or once a month maybe; we haven’t decided yet,” says Kelt. “Almost for certain, though, we will have something at CamFest, which will be the opening for what we’re hoping will be an ongoing daytime comedy series. We’ll see how it plays out. If people come, we’ll scale it up and have bigger shows later on. It will be fun; I’m hoping it works out.”

As of now, the plan is to do two 30-minute shows, which Essery says would probably be broken down into 10-minute sets, so at least six comics would be involved at CamFest. 

“I heard from Tagg, and he says we should go where the crowd is, rather than trying to bring people to the show, which actually makes a lot of sense,” says Essery. “He wants me to recruit comics. It will be in the middle of the day, so people are working, but I’m positive that I can get some interest from comics, because there will be a lot of people there. I’ll see if I can do a five-minute set, too.”

On campus and off, it’s always evolving, but there is a very healthy local comedy scene here in Victoria. The rooms seem to come and go, but there is an abundance of local talent that just keeps growing. It’s incredibly easy to hole up and turn on Netflix, but there’s nothing like sitting in the audience and taking part in live comedy.

“There are some good young comics here,” says Proudlove. “We’re doing alright. It’s about where it should be for a town our size. It’s never been easier to do stand-up because Victoria didn’t have a lot of options before, but they are there now. You’ve got a lot of options now, but the one thing that will never change is you have got to be funny. That’s the only thing I care about.”

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