How the owners of Comedy Bar transformed an Eritrean pool hall in Bloorcourt into the official clubhouse of the city’s smartest, freakiest, most innovative young comedians—and helped bring a neighbourhood to life.
On the south side of Bloor Street West, past the woman who plays her guitar in front of the LCBO at Ossington, past Long & McQuade, the sheesha lounge and the hardware stores, above a wide set of carpeted stairs, “COMEDY BAR” glows in red neon lights on top of a modest marquee. Down the stairs, a line of people snakes around an L-shaped bar, leading to a set of black curtains at the back of the room. On the left, a hand-drawn sign is taped to the wall, shouting in big block letters: “WELCOME SPACEMEN.”
The curtains pull back and the line slithers into the dark theatre for Sunday Night Live, a weekly show featuring Comedy Bar’s resident sketch* troupe, The Sketchersons, plus a guest host. This week’s guests are Ajay Fry and Teddy Wilson of the Space Channel show InnerSPACE—hence the welcome banner. The Sketchersons open the show by assuring the incoming “spacemen” that they will be welcomed to Comedy Bar, and Earth, and have nothing to fear.
Under the tutelage of head writer Jon Blair, the ensuing sketches are clever and well executed. The troupe writes for an audience of enthusiastic regulars, and the scenes flow seamlessly between topical and conceptual, never collapsing into self-indulgent frat-boy antics. One, starring Fry and Wilson, takes place at a cell-phone kiosk at the Dufferin Mall. During the weekly newscast (think SNL’s Weekend Update), Blair plays a thumb-waving Giorgio Mammoliti eagerly promoting his vision of turning the Toronto Island into “Hooker Island.” A Red Hot Chili Peppers tribute band interrupts halfway through the show to do a cover of “If You Have to Ask.” They cap off the show with another song, and the troupe comes out to bow and invite the audience to stay and get drunk. Monday’s a holiday, they remind everyone, so no excuses.
Modelled on the now-legendary L.A. troupe The Groundlings, The Sketchersons have developed something of a cult following since Comedy Bar opened four years ago. In a city where the comedy scene is dominated by franchises like Second City and Yuk Yuk’s, Comedy Bar is an underground oddity. From sketch to stand-up to improv to formats that verge on the indescribable (google “Egg Zeppelin”), the bar encourages performers to get freaky with format. One popular show, Mantown, described as an “improvised frat party,” features four male comics drinking beer and doing word-associations. In the improv competition Catch 23, teams of comics have 23 minutes over four rounds to win points from the audience and an “expert” judge. The catch: They don’t know how much time they’ve used up until the last round.
It’s not only local comics who hoist their freak flags on Comedy Bar’s marquee. The bar has brought in comedy-nerd favourites like Andy Kindler, whose annual “State of the Industry” speech at Montreal’s Just For Laughs festival is a favourite among comedians, and gonzo comic Neil Hamburger.
Located in a former Eritrean pool hall, Comedy Bar is the brainchild of Toronto comedian Gary Rideout Jr., 33, and his friend James Elksnitis, 31, formerly a Bay Street banker. When it opened in the spring of 2008, the Toronto Star called it an “unassuming joint in sleepy Bloor-Dovercourt village.” Four years later, thanks to this unassuming joint, Toronto’s comedy scene is waking up.
Unlike any other venue in Toronto, Comedy Bar has managed to harness a far-flung community of young comics who embrace a kind of spontaneous, chaotic energy in their performances. It opens its doors to Toronto’s orphaned independent talent, wandering the streets like vagrants looking for rooms to play and people to amuse. As comedian Pat Thornton puts it, “The community has a clubhouse now.”
THE GRID PODCAST: What makes Comedy Bar work? On the latest episode of The Grid Podcast, Lara Zarum talks with associate editor David Topping about the business of being funny 24/7. Listen here, or get it from iTunes.
For years, Canada’s comedy scene was ruled by sketch troupes. SCTV aired from 1976 to 1984 and introduced comics like John Candy, Eugene Levy, and Catherine O’Hara to the world. While the show was airing its last season, another troupe called The Kids in the Hall began to form in Toronto. Four years later, in 1988, The Kids in the Hall debuted on CBC in Canada and HBO in the U.S., remaining on the air until 1995. These shows became known for pushing the boundaries of televised comedy, producing myth-making segments like TKITH’s “Screw You Taxpayer!” skit and SCTV’s Bob & Doug McKenzie, created by Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas as a response to CBC’s request for more Canadian content.
It’s hard to pinpoint when sketch became the dominant mode for young comedy fans. It probably has something to do with alternative comedy’s colonization of the scene in the 1990s, the topic of a recent New York Times Magazine article written by Andrew Clark, director of the Humber School of Comedy and author of the 1997 book Stand and Deliver: Inside Canadian Comedy. The alt-comedy scene in the early ’90s, he writes, was “the equivalent of grunge,” a reaction to the mainstream stand-up scene with its drink minimums and emphasis on “crowd work.” It was also “tied much more closely to sketch comedy and character work.”
Sketch programs like HBO’s Mr. Show with David Cross and Bob Odenkirk, which aired from 1995 to 1998, and other ’90s comedy shows like In Living Color and MADtv, helped cement sketch as a format ripe for oddball experimentation. In the past few years, The Groundlings have achieved cult status among comedy fans, particularly since many of the major comedy stars of the moment—former SNL cast members like Will Ferrell, Kristen Wiig, and Maya Rudolph—got their start with the troupe.
In Canada, Clark says, “When The Kids in the Hall came off the air, there was this idea of who will be the next Kids in the Hall, that there was a lineage and that it would continue.” Instead, networks lost interest in sketch troupes. According to Clark, sketch migrated online and a “gold rush” of funny videos flooded the web. In Toronto, the tide picked up again with the rise of The Sketchersons in the mid-2000s. “The new paradigm is large sketch groups,” Clark says, “which I would liken to small production companies.”
The Sketchersons grew out of a small troupe called Todd’s Lunch, featuring Rideout Jr., Thornton, and Tal Zimerman. In 2004, after the trio went to L.A. and saw The Groundlings, they decided to form a larger troupe and add a live band. For years, The Sketchersons kicked around from room to room. They did their first few shows at the Rivoli, before moving to the Poor Alex Theatre in the Annex. When that closed in the summer of 2005, they moved to the Brunswick House, and then the Diesel Playhouse. In 2008, that too closed.
Jon Blair remembers feeling “like a man without a country” until Comedy Bar arrived on the scene. “Before the bar opened up, you were scrambling to get onstage wherever you could, and in a lot of places, people weren’t really expecting a comedy show.” Bars like the Rivoli or the Black Swan regularly host comedy nights, but they’re bars first and comedy clubs second. And Yuk Yuk’s and Absolute Comedy don’t leave much room for formats that fall outside of traditional stand-up. “Yuk’s has a lot of great comics, but only so many people are on the Yuk’s roster,” says Rideout Jr. “Second City’s great, but six people are employed there to do a show every night.”
Inessa Frantowski, an outgoing Second City cast member and one of The Sketchersons’ founding members, recalls the opening of Comedy Bar as a defining moment for both the troupe and Toronto’s independent comedy scene. “Comedy Bar allows people to create shows really affordably so you get all these people working together in a scene that I didn’t see working together before,” she says. The bar’s mandate is simple: Let the performers be the producers. Comedy Bar’s fees are low, just enough to cover box office and technical costs; everything else goes back to the comics.
Unlike Second City and Yuk Yuk’s, Comedy Bar allows any kind of comedy to grace its stage, especially now that they’ve opened a smaller cabaret space for comics to try out new concepts. In November 2010, on the main stage, the bar hosted Thornton’s second-annual 24-hour stand-up set for charity. During the set, comics wrote down jokes and passed them up for him to read; others were invited to submit through Twitter. Someone wrote a joke about Kevin Sorbo, the muscular, Fabio-haired star of the ’90s series Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. “It just spread to 18 hours of Kevin Sorbo jokes,” Rideout Jr. recalls. “And the evolution of the Kevin Sorbo jokes created this fake universe for him where he would, like, fight snakes to eat garbage and all this nonsense.” Within hours, Sorbo was the number one trending topic on Twitter in Canada. Rideout Jr. called Sorbo’s manager, one thing led to another, and, in August 2011, Comedy Bar hosted the Kevin Sorbo Garbage Weekend, starring Hercules himself.
TIMELINE: A brief history of Toronto comedy haunts, from SCTV to Comedy Bar
“I take 100 per cent credit for this neighbourhood,” Rideout Jr. quips. It’s a typical Saturday night in Bloorcourt, that stretch of Bloor Street between Ossington and Dufferin. Packs of twentysomethings parade past the bar clutching brown paper LCBO bags. People crowd onto the modest patio outside the churrasqueira across the street, beside a shiny skateboard shop that sticks out like a gold tooth among the Portuguese bakeries and butchers.
Inside the bar, sitting at a table, Rideout Jr. and Elksnitis outline the origin story. “It was either this or a strip club,” Rideout Jr. says. They were at a stag party in Woodbridge in 2005, cracking jokes about opening a strip club in Fort McMurray. “But then we were immediately, like, there probably already is one or if we opened it bikers would just come and take it from us,” Rideout Jr. admits. They decided a comedy club made more sense.
When they opened the bar, Rideout Jr. says, “I thought we were gonna have a black rectangle with a stage at one end and if there were no shows one night, that’s cool, too.” He soon realized the bar couldn’t support itself as a hangout spot alone; he needed to keep it packed with events to sustain it as a business. “In the beginning,” Elksnitis notes, “if we didn’t have a show, nobody was here. Now people come to Comedy Bar on a Friday because they know there will be a good show.”
Thornton believes the pressure to sustain a certain volume of business has resulted in an influx of creativity. “There are so many different shows going on, people get this sense of adventure,” he says. “There wasn’t that kind of sense of play before.” Sarah Hillier, who calls the bar her “second home,” is a member of both The Sketchersons and Second City’s touring company, and won best female improviser at last year’s Canadian Comedy Awards. Hillier appreciates how the bar encourages comics to play outside their comfort zones. She points to Rap Battlez, a monthly comedy/rap competition “that I think kind of brings everybody together,” she says. “You’ll see stand-ups there, you’ll see sketch performers, you’ll see improvisers, and they’re battling against each other and they’re all respecting each other.”
Recently, other comedy troupes in the city have joined the party. After closing their Danforth theatre in February 2011, the Bad Dog Theatre Company brought their improv and sketch shows to Comedy Bar. In February, Laugh Sabbath, a long-running weekly comedy series, moved from the Rivoli to Comedy Bar’s cabaret space, which opened in the fall of 2011. “There is a sense of community at Comedy Bar that doesn’t exist at other comedy venues,” Ashley Gray, the show’s producer, says.
In a city that can sometimes feel overwhelming in its sprawl, Rideout Jr. and Elksnitis have managed to create a ground zero for comedians and fans alike, a place teeming with new ideas, a place that’s always there for anything that might pop into a clever comedian’s twisted mind. The lesson seems pretty simple: If you’re not happy with what’s out there, build something new. “Obviously, I wouldn’t do this if I didn’t also get to be a performer,” Rideout Jr. says. “Is running the bar a lot of work? Yeah, but do I also get to perform and have fun in the shows with everyone? Yeah. Do I kind of get to do whatever I want on stage? Yeah. Does it sometimes go badly? Sure. Last night, my team won Catch 23, so I was on a high, then I went over to the smaller room and just tanked it. I have to do it again tonight. And it’s gonna be better tonight.”
Next page: Six sketchy nights—a Comedy Bar sampler
CORRECTION, MAY 31, 2012: The original version of this story, as it appeared in the May 31, 2012, print edition of The Grid, incorrectly described The Sketchersons as an “improv troupe.” They are, of course, a sketch-comedy troupe.