Vancouver’s comedy scene branches out
As a wave of whacked-out theme nights proves, our comedy scene is moving beyond standup and improv into a twisted new world
Fifteen years ago, Sara Bynoe had the bright idea that our youthful inner turmoil is comedic. Distance from our raging teenage hormones makes them funny. All the gut-wrenching humanity we spilled into diaries and notebooks is, in time, pathetically hilarious. She just knew that getting performers to step away from a polished act or tried-and-true improv game to share entries from their shitty adolescent scribblings would kill.
And she was right. Her show Teen Angst, held bimonthly at the Cottage Bistro, has been a hit ever since. She tapped into a market for comedy that is not standup, not improv, not sketch and, to date, hasn’t run out of performers willing to open up and share their deepest, darkest, most cringeworthy secrets—their most embarrassing crushes and their most heart-ripping breakups.
“If you don’t see the humour in that, it’s not the show for you,” she told the Straight. “People are sharing such vulnerable things. It’s shocking what people wrote when they were teenagers.”
In 2010, she added to her producing credits by creating Say Wha?!, subtitled Readings of Deliciously Rotten Writing, another bimonthly gig at the bistro that taps into truly awful published prose. As bad as it is on the page, it’s good coming out of comedians’ mouths.
But is it real comedy? It most certainly is. People love to laugh and there are many routes to arrive at that destination. Is it traditional? It most certainly is not. It’s not what the average person envisions when they think of comedy. But regular shows would kill for these kinds of laughs.
These days, fans of hybrid comedy have any number of uniquely themed performances they can attend at venues around town, like Little Mountain Gallery (where actor-improviser Ryan Beil curates a hodgepodge of hilarity, spanning original song parodies, riffs on wrestling, head-to-head roasts, fake talk shows, knockoff British-style panel programs, and absurd tribunals), Hot Art Wet City (where comedian Alicia Tobin books such fare as audience draw-ins, crowd-sourced standup premises, and stories about adjusting to Vancouver living), the Rio Theatre (where you can see bad movies made great through hilarious commentary and a variety show to end all variety shows), the Cottage Bistro (where Bynoe presents her comedic readings), and the Fox Cabaret (for Beil’s high-concept hip-hop smackdown, Rapp Battlez).
That’s a whole whack of comedy happening in this city that’s not your standard fare. Standup, improv, and sketch shows aren’t slowing down, either, so why the demand for this kind of anything-goes, twisted specialty programming? There are any number of theories.
Chris James, who plays a jerkier version of himself as the host of his Talk Showcase at Little Mountain Gallery, has one. It’s a variation on why Vancouver comics are considered to be so good: because there’s no industry here. Performers are free to experiment and grow because there’s no pressure from execs.
“It probably has something to do with the fact we have zero other outlets here,” he says. “If I lived in Toronto and I wanted to be creative, I could write for a television show and have a different outlet, but here there’s nothing other than standup. So it makes sense to me that there’s a bunch of people trying to find other ways. I got into this not to just be a touring standup. It was to do all kinds of weird, creative things.”
But these types of offbeat comedy shows are thriving in other cities, too. Who else has an idea of why they’re so big here?
Patrick Maliha, of the Gentlemen Hecklers’ movie-roasting night at the Rio, offers: “I think there’s a lot of standup-comedy shows around town and there’s not a lot of money to be made. So because nobody’s making any money, we might as well not make money doing something fun, different, and exciting. Let’s just do the best show possible, put a lot of work into it, deliver as high-quality a product as we can, and not worry about the money.”
Bynoe probably nails it with the simplest explanation. “It’s easier to sell to an audience if you have a hook,” she says. “I think because people are onboard with the concept when they arrive at the venue, the energy of the room is much less judgier. People are not like, ‘Make me laugh.’ They’re like, ‘Oh yeah, this is fun.’ ”
That’s just it: these shows are fun. And different. Standup is standup and improv is improv and both are great, but there is a sameness to the shows (individual performers notwithstanding).
Alicia Tobin, who hosts Come Draw With Me, where she offers up witty commentary on dozens of bad audience-drawn doodles (and some pretty good ones, too), says: “There’s certainly enough open-mike nights in the city to ruin anybody’s opinion of what good comedy is, but I think it’s really balanced out by there being incredible comics doing their own thing. It’s doing something you really like and doing it well. If you’re a funny person, it’s going to be very funny.”
One of those funny people is Ryan Beil, who had already established his name for warped humour with his improv night Sunday Service at the Fox Cabaret, not to mention his career as an award-winning actor in movies, on TV, and in commercials (hello, A&W guy). The city’s reigning king of independent improv also launched his own version of Toronto’s Rap Battlez, the competition that finds participants taking on bizarre personas as they bust out rhymes: at the Fox Cabaret theme night, you might hear a soccer ball and a stop sign spitting dirty raps at each other.
When Beil took over the hole-in-the-wall Little Mountain Gallery at 26th Avenue and Main Street, he let it be known to the comedy community that this was a space for funny people doing out-of-the-ordinary funny things. Enter such deranged concepts as the Panel Show of 1000 Topics, in which a group of comedians tries to plow through that many subjects projected on a wall, and Weird Al Karaoke, where comics perform their own song parodies over a karaoke track.
“I wanted it to be not just normal comedy shows, not just standup nights,” he says. “So I just put the word out. As long as there’s kind of a shtick to it, if you want to try something a little bit different, there’s plenty of nights to have at it, so come get it.”
The tiny 60-seater hosts six of these out-there comedy nights. Most are monthly, so nobody will OD on their oddness. And Beil will keep them coming as long as he’s running the place.
“While I’m there, I don’t wanna just be some guy who cleans the toilets,” he says. “So I’m going to do my own work while I’m there as well and use the space while we got it. As long as I’m involved in that space, we’ll just keep throwing those ideas up against the wall.”