The best medicine

Taking the temperature of Winnipeg comedy after a busy year

Tim Gray performing at the 2016 Winnipeg Comedy Festival.

Supplied photo

Winnipeg’s comedy scene was marked by profound change in 2018. Long-standing open mic nights ended, and festivals were shelved. Simultaneously, existing rooms have taken off, new venues have arrived, and many old staples are still going strong.

Local comedian John B Duff announced in July that he was ending his comedy open mic at The Cavern, which he booked and hosted for more than 12 years. The Oddblock Comedy Festival similarly announced that, after three successful summers, they would not return in 2018 (subsequent social media posts hinting at a potential return in 2019 suggest the cancellation may have become a temporary hiatus).

But despite these losses, mainstays like Rumor’s Comedy Club, the Park Theatre’s monthly comedy showcase (hosted and booked by Jared Story) and the Winnipeg Comedy Festival remain, and new comedy nights are springing up all over the city.

Local comedian Tim Gray started booking a monthly comedy night at Wee Johnny’s Irish Pub in 2015. In 2018, the venue exploded in popularity. It now hosts five comedy nights a week, including open mics, standup shows, improv and alternative comedy.

Gray says that booking comedy at Wee Johnny’s has completely turned the venue around.

“The bar was having trouble bringing people in, and the bands weren’t doing well,” Gray says of Wee Johnny’s pre-comedy. “I tell people now, if you’re looking to start a comedy room, find a business that isn’t doing well. If you put a comedy show in a busy room, then all of a sudden, you’re interrupting their dinner with fart jokes.”

Gray used a DIY approach to build an audience and community around Wee Johnny’s, which has developed alongside new comedy nights and/or open mics at the KNNDY, the Handsome Daughter, The Good Will, Le Garage and more.

“The scene … has grown and changed drastically since I started (doing comedy) in 2008,” Gray says. “Back then, there was one monthly show at the King’s Head, an occasional open mic at Rumor’s on a Monday, an open mic every two months at the Press Club … and occasional one-off shows at places like the Green Brier.”

Alongside new venues and events, many performers and promoters have been striving to make Winnipeg comedy more inclusive. Wee Johnny’s made headlines when they instituted an explicit anti-discrimination policy at comedy shows, but other events like WOKE Comedy Hour, the Women’s Open Mic and Queer and Present Danger are working to make comedy more accessible for marginalized performers and audiences.

Comedian Cory Falvo runs a comedy open mic at Garbonzo’s in the AnX on the University of Winnipeg (U of W)  campus every second Monday. They say including people of all genders, races and ages has been key in establishing comedy on the U of W campus.

“We can have the comedy and censorship debate some time,” Falvo says, “but ultimately, comedy should be a good time for everyone. We would trade one hundred comedians who rely on punching down for one person to attend my show who would normally avoid comedy.”

Falvo also plans to approach University of Winnipeg Students' Association workshops to organize comedy workshops for interested students.

Comedy shows occur nightly at Wee Johnny’s on Tuesday through Saturday. The next comedy night at Garbonzo’s in the AnX is Jan. 21.

Published in Volume 73, Number 13 of The Uniter (January 10, 2019)

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