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Culture Mar 15, 2019 9:00 AM EST

How social justice ruins the comedy scene

In comedy, “bombing” is when your jokes don’t land, and the crowd stares stone faced at whatever jokes you’re saying. The show I was at this night could probably be described as less of a comedy show, and more of a bomb-factory.

How social justice ruins the comedy scene
Roberto Wakerell-Cruz Montreal, QC

This article was published more than 1 year ago, information might not be up to date.

In the home of Just for Laughs, stand-up comedy lives for more just for two weeks in July. Montreal is home to a comedy scene that exists year round in the form of comedy clubs and showcases, theatre shows, and most importantly, indie shows.

Canada, in its perpetual underdog state from their perceived big brother to the South, is known for its sense of humour. It’s not just an delusion of grandeur that we have bestowed upon ourselves, but it’s a fairly frequently touted quip that Canadian stand-up crowds are buttery, that our celebrities are funny, and is unique our comedy in and of itself.

I wanted to speak to some comedians in the scene and get their thoughts on the state of the art, specifically in Canada. So on a weekday night, I went to an independent show to have a laugh.

The bar was half-packed. A lot of people were on their phones. There was this sort of weird energy in the room that made it almost too tense to laugh. This was clear to the comics too, who seemed to be nervously rushing through their sets, not really giving the audience too much time to laugh either.

In comedy, “bombing” is when your jokes don’t land, and the crowd stares stone faced at whatever jokes you’re saying. The show I was at this night could probably be described as less of a comedy show, and more of a bomb-factory.

This is not a reflection of the scene as a whole, as there are plenty of great shows around town. For whatever reason, I just happened to go to one that wasn’t at its best.

What comics are saying

After the gig, I went and chatted it up with a few of the comics on the state of comedy.. Unsurprisingly, every comic I talked to wanted to remain anonymous.

“It’s a tough time on stage. You bomb for years and think that you’ll finally be bulletproof, you get into your groove, then a night like tonight comes around and it’s hard to squeeze a laugh out of anyone… Brutal, pretty brutal.”

I wanted to know how comedians felt about the ability to say what they want on stage in the current political climate.

“You can pretty much say what you want, within reason. It still has to be funny. That’s the whole point of comedy. And like, you definitely have to know how to read a room. You need to sort of get a sense of which jokes will land where. There’s jokes that you definitely can’t say in some shows, and will totally be okay in the other.”

I asked another comic his thoughts on “safe space” rooms, where shows are tailored for a more politically correct crowd and stray far away from jokes about gender, sex, race, ethnicity, and topics of the like.

“It’s interesting. If there’s a market for it, then sure, go for it. But I sort of feel like those people are missing the point a bit. It’s the college crowd, eh? There’s jokes that aren’t even offensive, but because they say one of their “bad words” in it, it’s offensive. Comedy doesn’t feel as funny to me when it has trigger warnings. To each their own, huh?”

There was some sentiment that social justice was flat out damaging the scene, as well.

“SJW’s are horrible for the scene. But there’s nothing you can do about that. You sort of have to not care. If most of the crowd is laughing, then I’ve done my job,” said one comic who had just finished bombing for 7 minutes straight.

“There’s some people who don’t know how to handle hearing things they don’t like. For some, it’s water off of a ducks back. But some people really don’t handle it well, and those people tend to be the loudest.”

Open Mic-ers have a say

I went down to a well-known bar that has a long history of being a haven for writers, musicians, comedians, and alcoholics alike. This place is a staple that has maintained its charm over the decades.

Every Tuesday, a variety of artists meet and sign up for the open mic night, which consists mostly of comedians. Places like these are described as the trenches of comedy, where comics battle to maintain the attention of the crowd, and have only 5 minutes to win over an audience that can be totally inattentive.

“There’s been a lot of talk around town because some of the people who got Just For Laughs auditions aren’t even comedians. Everyone’s pissed because you have people who have been killing it all over town, or even play shows in Toronto, or Ottawa, and they get nothing because Just For Laughs needs to have enough funny women on the show,” said one man awaiting his turn on the mic.

“I get it’s about finding balance, but… I know people who book shows and say that they feel like they have to book a woman, otherwise they’ll be called sexist. Or if the show is too white, they’ll say it’s racist. It’s pretty bad here and in Toronto.”

I asked about the scene in Toronto, when I was informed about an incident surrounding a “White Guys Matter” comedy show. The show decided that instead of having an ethnically diverse lineup that included women (like most shows aim to do,) they would instead book only straight white males to take on religion, sexuality, sexism and “anything else your prime minister deems unworthy of humour.” The poster for the event rounded off with the tagline “Let’s Make Comedy Great Again!!”

A poster for the controversial comedy show that took place in April 2018

“The tides are sort of turning, though. There’s the safe space crowd, but most crowds are pretty capable of taking a joke. We’re all adults. People may get upset, but as long as your jokes aren’t just shitting on minorities, you’re probably fine.”

As an avid fan of comedy, I go to a lot of the shows around Montreal area. There are a number of fantastic shows occurring across town, most days of the week. If you want to support your local comedy scene, or support Canadian stand-up all together, you can click here.

What do you think? Let us know in the comments below.

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