Montreal comics offer up alternative laughs in the name of diversity, inclusion
'If people feel respected and comfortable, they laugh harder,' says event founder
For comedian James Brown, attending and performing in mainstream comedy events hasn't always been a barrel of laughs.
The misogynistic, aggressive jokes that dotted the acts of some of the performers he shared a stage with crossed a line that often left Brown feeling more uncomfortable than entertained.
"I would perform at shows like that, and I didn't want my friends to come to them," the 22-year-old, who runs the events with his working partner John Michael Hanchar, said.
His solution was to create his own comedy event, Squad Laughs, that provides a safe space and promotes more diverse voices.
"We are trying to be funny, and there is nothing funny about someone feeling unsafe at our show," Brown said.
"If people feel respected and comfortable, they laugh harder."
'People are hungry for diversity'
Recent highly publicized misconduct allegations against key players in comedy have revealed an industry that is often fraught with sexism, homophobia and racism, Brown said.
Those allegations rocked the Montreal scene last fall when Just for Laughs co-founder Gilbert Rozon was accused of sexual misconduct. Rozon, who was also the annual festival's majority shareholder, stepped down as head of the event that put Montreal on the map as a comedy hotspot.
He has denied the allegations. A deal to sell JFL to American company ICM Partners is now pending.
The spotlight now shining on comedy's dark side has contributed to a shift in the scene, said Ben Sosa Wright, a comic who has performed at the bimonthly Squad Laughs events for a year.
"I think, now, people are just hungry for diversity and representation on stage," he said, adding that he's felt like the token gay comedian at some conventional shows.
Squad Laughs isn't the only show in town bringing in voices from outside the mainstream.
Diverse voices get people talking, comic says
Squad Laughs' mandate is to promote a representative lineup of diverse voices. For new performer Hannah Silver, those perspectives are inherently funnier.
"We grow up having to make light of our differences and how we're treated," Silver said.
But aiming for more diversity is not only beneficial to getting laughs and changing the culture — it has also contributed to the success of Brown's show, he said.
"People are catching on that having a more diverse lineup at comedy shows means a more diverse crowd will show up, and people will start talking," Wright said.