This column for Signal Toronto is inspired by Mark Wigmore’s new podcast, Art at the End of the World. The 10-part series investigates the careers of some this country’s most engaging personalities while seeking to reflect on what it is to be an artist during a time of massive cultural change.

This post is a first-person account by Mark that tracks his recent investigation into the history and popularity of the Toronto venue the Comedy Bar. Mark speaks with three Canadian comedians and Comedy Bar founder Gary Rideout to track the bar’s rise to prominence.

The Second City Mainstage alum Ann Pornel, actress and dancer Anjelica Scannura, and this week’s podcast guest (actor, writer and standup comedian) Chris Locke, all weigh in on why Comedy Bar is the ultimate comic clubhouse in the city.

Feb. 3, 2019

By Mark Wigmore

Last week, during a frigid Saturday night in downtown Toronto, I made my way to Comedy Bar with an old friend: noted photographer Dustin Rabin. I figured since my next podcast was scheduled to feature the seriously hilarious comedian Chris Locke, (who has made the cavernous location one of his prime performance haunts) it would be a great excuse to call up my old chum and do a little deep background research. I know, tough. But I also had to face the fact that I haven’t been a very good Toronto comedy fan. Descending the steps into this modern-day cultural landmark was a long time coming, and tragically overdue.

For over a decade, this comic-complex near Bloor West and Ossington has enjoyed a consistent buzz of hipness. As far as standup, sketch, and improv are concerned, Comedy Bar is where the cool kids hang out. That’s often perceived as a good thing, but certainly not without some baggage. The comfy laugh machine that is The Second City, the ingrained comic culture featured at Yuk Yuk’s and the midtown fixture of Absolute Comedy were all staples for this aging culture vulture, but Comedy Bar’s youthful ring had somehow been a deterrent. I had poked my head in over the years, but its edgy and indie reputation somehow made it feel like a gamble, and I had generally been hesitant to make a regular sojourn.

But over the last year, the consistent positivity emanating from Comedy Bar’s fans, patrons and talent pool have become unavoidable. Catching up with comedian Mark Little (known from his appearances in Cavendish, Mr. D, Picnicface), he reminded me of his love for the venue long before he was being nominated for Canadian Screen Awards and an appearance on Conan O’Brien. In 2018, Comedy Bar saw dozens of sold-out performances, and put out the welcome mat for voices and producers of all stripes. Beyond that, some of my favorite comedians were talking up the Comedy Bar as a place to experiment, hone, and create with the support of an adoring and giving audience.  I was overdue for an attitude adjustment. Too long had I sat by the sidelines, awkwardly trying to avoid getting to know the aging new kid on the block.

“Beyond that, we’re seeing a greater number of unique voices – far more women than 10 years ago and a greater diversity of voices from marginalized communities. There’s still work to do but it’s great to see, and it just makes for better and more interesting comedy.”

Comedy Bar founder Gary Rideout Jr. has watched as his idea for a new comedy space in Toronto has developed into something far beyond his expectations.  He spoke to me about the venue’s place in the Toronto scene 11 years after he opened the doors.

“The biggest surprise is how much the Toronto comedy community has evolved and embraced the venue. I had an idea and I thought it would work, but it has far surpassed what I originally envisioned. Comedy Bar’s schedule is made up of independent comedy producers. Every show is different and has something different to offer. There’s a mix of sketch, improv, and standup, sometimes all on the same show.”

Toronto’s cultural landscape is constantly transforming, and Comedy Bar has been there to support that change.  It’s been one of Toronto’s best spaces to showcase a new generation of voices and ideas.

“I think overall comedy is getting smarter, and faster,” explains Rideout. “You can go on Twitter to make a joke based on something that just happened in the world and 50 other people have made the same joke already, instantaneously. So you have to evolve, you have to figure out the second or third or 10th take on the joke. Beyond that, we’re seeing a greater number of unique voices – far more women than 10 years ago and a greater diversity of voices from marginalized communities. There’s still work to do but it’s great to see, and it just makes for better and more interesting comedy.”

Chris Locke
Chris Locke (photo credit Joe Fuda, courtesy of Chris Locke)

This week’s Art at the End of the World Podcast guest, Chris Locke, might be something of an elder statesman at Comedy Bar, performing there dozens of times over the last decade. Chris was named the city’s best standup comedian by Now Magazine and won Best Male Stand-Up at the Canadian Comedy Awards. He’s familiar from TV commercials, and enjoys a solid relationship with the American comedy site Funny Or Die. Recently, you may have seen him as a recurring cast member with CBC Television’s Mr. D and Baroness von Sketch. Most importantly, at least to me, Chris used to be my next-door neighbor when we were in our early 20s. We would talk about comedy albums and tell funny stories to each other on our shared porch until he broke up with his then-girlfriend, and literally ran away from our Parkdale apartment building. I wouldn’t see him face-to-face again for 15 years.

I kept an eye on him though. It wasn’t that hard. I watched him on TV and even went to take in a performance one night, unbeknownst to him. At some point, he started to promote his appearances at Comedy Bar. I knew he was an incredible talent, but not necessarily a fan of traditional standup tropes. My imagination was perhaps overstating how avant-garde his material might be in the experimental corridors of the Bar, but I knew if Chris was loving it that much, there must something uniquely quirky about it.

“The Comedy Bar is my home base in Toronto.”

Chris was in Mexico at the time of writing this piece, but when he wrote to me, he didn’t mince words. The space is definitely his jam.  

“It’s where I go, almost nightly if I can, to work on my standup when I’m in town. It’s perfect for comedy. Four shows a night and the bar is always packed with good cheer. Great staff. When I travel, even in the States, in L.A., American comics mention the Comedy Bar. I am so lucky, and Toronto is so lucky to have a venue like that.”

Chris Locke may have been enjoying the rays in Mexico (see his social media for some classic Chris pics), but Dustin and I were in Toronto. It was not bathing suit weather. After we arrived, we shed a couple bales of winter clothing (so fun to pack that around in a dark club). We found a table and enjoyed a round before our particular show was opened to attendees. There was no announcement, just a curtain that was suddenly, and inaudibly opened. It would be one of eight performances at Comedy Bar that day. With two rooms, the narrow and boxy mainstage, and an even more intimate Cabaret, dozens of comics can perform on any given evening. No wonder they love it. With that much turnaround, there’s seemingly room for everyone.

Gary Rideout Jr. has watched the evolution.

“I think it’s a for comics, by comics space. The community feels a sense of ownership, and they should. It’s our clubhouse, and our incubator, and our showcase space all at the same time.”

“I like how intimate it feels, regardless of how big or small your house is. You feel like you’re part of the most fun secret in Toronto, except it’s not a secret anymore and everyone knows what a great place Comedy Bar is.”  

Anjelica Scannura appreciates the supportive spirit that Comedy Bar offers. She’s been honing her act at the venue for years. The actress, world-famous flamenco and belly dancer, and the star of “Anjelica’s Dance Workout” and “Anjelica’s 22 Minute Workout” on ONE TV performs standup comedy on her free nights. We first met taking comedy courses at The Second City. Unlike most of our class, Anj actually started putting together her routine at indie comic rooms, pubs and clubs all over the GTA and beyond. Not an easy road, but it’s paid off, and Comedy Bar has welcomed her many times and typically offers a generous and enthusiastic Toronto audience. She too loves that there’s something for everyone, on and off the stage.

“It’s a hub where everyone is welcome and you have so many options as an audience member and a comic. It’s also a great place to gather with friends in the scene. Some of the shows are perennials, and some are new formats that are being tested out. There’s no other place in Toronto where you can get that much variety.”

Another one-time fixture at Comedy Bar is Ann Pornel, a talent usually associated with The Second City.

“I like how intimate it feels, regardless of how big or small your house is. You feel like you’re part of the most fun secret in Toronto, except it’s not a secret anymore and everyone knows what a great place Comedy Bar is.”  

Ann is becoming a familiar face within the comedy world. She was a mainstage cast member for several years with The Second City, and these days you can catch her segments on CBC Television’s This Hour Has 22 Minutes. Her social media accounts are a constant march of comedy commentary as well. Ann is seemingly fearless, and I have been a fan ever since I caught her first Second City Mainstage Revue. But regardless of her affiliation with Toronto’s sketch emporium on Mercer Street, Comedy Bar was undoubtedly her launch pad.

“It’s where I spent my formative years in comedy, watching shows and doing shows. Before the cabaret space became the cabaret space, it used to be a room painted in neon green where we would rehearse on Sundays for Sunday Night Live (a popular Comedy Bar show that continues to this day). It’s also the place that has caused the worst hangovers of my entire adult life, and I’m sure the same is true for most comedians in Toronto.”

For Ann, all the time working the rooms at Comedy Bar spurred on several unforgettable moments.

“I was a Sketcherson [of the sketch comedy troupe The Sketchersons] for a few years and got to do a show there every week, and every so often we’d have a bigger name host, and Kevin McDonald of the iconic [The] Kids in the Hall was one of them. I had a recurring sketch that was a talk show called ‘Wash Ya Ass’ and it had two characters airing out their grievances about the smelly people they encountered in their lives. I put Kevin McDonald in that sketch and basically got him to say ‘Wash ya ass’ over a dozen times in a three-minute sketch, which was a real dream that I didn’t even know I had.”

At one point, we hung on for dear life to our table, barely able to contain the tears from Brian Ward’s tale of a small child ‘hard-licking’ his first mint-chip ice cream cone only to lose the confection on the floor. Surprisingly, no Trump jokes.

Dustin and I were hoping to catch something special as well, even if it wasn’t a legendary Canadian sketch comedy troupe. We perused the mainstage seating and found that it was slim pickens. Even at 6:45 p.m. on a snowy Saturday, the place was three-quarters full. We squeezed between a pair of upbeat couples and got a feel for the space. It felt intimate, perhaps embarrassingly so. The evening featured half a dozen comics who showcased a veritable smorgasbord of topics, commentary, and daring comedic rabbit holes. Host Brian Ward explained how his much-younger girlfriend was the best he could offer to parents hopeful for a grandchild. Nile Séguin dug into “chicks who still are into dudes.” Tracy Hamilton pointed out that she has ‘resting customer service face’ and complained that most of her relationships with men have ended up in helping them to apply for a Health Card. Blayne Smith dove into his addiction issues and pointed out that after years of hard drugs, Advil becomes the equivalent of an M&M’s. There was an onslaught of cannabis humor, info-age angst, and flirty forays into how ‘woke’ we are becoming as a society.

At one point, we hung on for dear life to our table, barely able to contain the tears from Brian Ward’s tale of a small child ‘hard-licking’ his first mint-chip ice cream cone only to lose the confection on the floor. Surprisingly, no Trump jokes.

As we exited the mainstage room, we found a packed bar. Robby Hoffman’s ‘Taking Up Space’ feminist and LGBTQ Positive show was sold out and about to begin. At some point between the moments of elation and shame, I took a quick look at the performance calendar and made a mental note about a few upcoming events. Better late than not at all I suppose.

Gary Rideout Jr. has watched as his idea for a new comedy space has achieved rock star status. And he’s looking to the next chapter.

“I think Toronto is very healthy right now. All of the clubs are thriving, the indie scene is thriving. It would be a good time to increase prices so everyone can get paid more. We’re a very funny and very talented city. Everyone deserves it.”


Chris Locke appears at Comedy Bar on February 9 with Sean Cullen.

You can enjoy his appearances and writing on CBC’s Baroness von Sketch.

You can hear new episodes of Mark Wigmore’s podcast Art at the End of the World Mondays and Thursdays.

Listen and subscribe on iTunes, SoundCloud or Stitcher.


 

Mark Wigmore is a passionate media and broadcast professional. His career focus has been to cover and celebrate arts, entertainment and culture.

He is the host and producer of the podcast, Art at the End of the World.

Prior, he was the Senior Arts Editor and Morning Show Host at JAZZ.FM91 in Toronto. As well, he hosted and produced over 200 episodes of the station’s arts and entertainment-focused interview program, “Arts Toronto.” It featured movers and shakers from the worlds of music, film, theatre, visual arts, books, fashion and pop culture. Recent interviewees include Eugene and Dan Levy, Molly Parker, Ethan Hawke, Damien Chazelle, Emma Donoghue, New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik, Kiefer Sutherland, Tony Bennett, Measha Brueggergosman, Thomas King and Sonny Rollins.

Mark’s career path covering arts and culture includes working with CBC Music, CBC Radio One, 103.9 PROUD FM, News Talk 1010 CFRB, the Toronto Sun, AOL, and The Danforth Music Hall. He has also written for the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Sun, Tribute Magazine, the East York Mirror, and Chill Magazine.