Canadian stand-up comedians just rallied against Just For Laughs — and won
The community came together to fight back when the company threatened to slash a main source of their income
Making it as a stand-up comedian is hard. Before getting booked, there are countless hours spent honing material, testing out your act at open mics and learning what does and doesn't work based on painful silences from the crowd. Even established comedians with credits on late night shows and big festivals hustle hard for paying gigs, piecing together a living by touring their acts and speaking at corporate functions, or supplementing their profession with stand-up adjacent work in writing and acting. In Canada pursuing a comedy career is even harder, due to a small entertainment industry and a spaced out population.
One consistent source of income for Canadian stand-ups was the SiriusXM channel Canada Laughs. The channel exclusively played original Canadian content, with the residuals from the station going directly back into the pockets of artists, many of whom produced those comedy albums themselves.
All of that was set to change this month when Just For Laughs — the monolithic company known best for their Montreal comedy festival — took over the SiriusXM Station, planning to rebrand Canada Laughs as Just for Laughs Radio, and with the name change. They also planned a shift in programing, moving on from purely CanCon material and replacing it with a blend of stand-up recorded at Just For Laughs festivals, events and galas — meaning the residuals comedians relied on would now be going to a large corporation as opposed to individual artists. For comics, that news was devastating.
"Canada Laughs made being a comedian in Canada something you might actually make money at," Marilla Wex told CBC Arts. Wex is best known for playing a fictional version of herself on The Beaverton. "I think this country perhaps doesn't understand what it takes to do stand-up comedy — how most of us have at least one or two joe-jobs and are run ragged trying to make ends meet."
Wex is one of many comedians who were extremely vocal about how the Just for Laughs decision would affect their livelihood. While the stand-up scene is notoriously fickle, in a rare act of solidarity, funny people rallied together to voice their concerns. Comedians took to social media being forthright and honest about what losing the residuals would mean both personally and for the comedy community at large.
"This affects me A LOT. I made about $1000 monthly," comedian Steph Tolev told CBC Arts when the news first broke. Tolev cut her teeth in the Toronto comedy scene before moving to Los Angeles to pursue her career. "I had two albums in rotation: one was my stand-up and one was with [sketch troupe] ladystache. This money was used for my rent, insurance and bills."
Amanda Brooke Perrin, who had previously performed with Just for Laughs and had her hit comedy album AKA Randy played on the channel, also expressed concern.
"I can't stop thinking about the hundreds of comedians and friends who almost lost their main source of income overnight, without any warning," Perrin said earlier this week after the announced changes. "This is rent money. Money supporting families. Money that assured us all that we weren't just crazy and chasing our dream was worth it."
The criticism from comics — particularly from Sandra Battaglini of the Canadian Association of Stand-up Comedians — lead to an onslaught of negative press for Just for Laughs. Media outlets from across North America ran with the story, coming down particularly hard against company co-owner Howie Mandel. Mandel, best known as the host for box guessing game show Deal or No Deal, tried to assuage concerns about the channel during an update on Facebook Live, but the video did little to calm naysayers who continued to push for the return to the previous format.
Late Wednesday evening, Just for Laughs gave into the requests.
"We've listened carefully to the concerns of Canadian artists and regret the stress we have caused the comedy community," said Just For Laughs president Bruce Hills in a press release. We are invested in the growth of Canada's comedy industry and are working to include even more Canadian talent in all our initiatives."
The press release also explained that SiriusXM 168 (previously Canada Laughs) will be called Just For Laughs Canada and showcase 100 per cent Canadian content. All the content will be produced by Canadian artists independent of the Just For Laughs catalogue, and Canadian artists will be eligible for the same royalties as under the previous channel.
While the situation was obviously challenging, some comedians are applauding the efforts of the comedy community at large in standing up for themselves. They're pointing to what can happen when people work as a unit.
"Our job is talking and when we heard we were losing our voices on Canada Laughs the community bonded together in a way I've never seen before, " said comedian Michelle Shaughnessy. "Just for Laughs did the right thing — [but this] showed me that as a community, we can stand up for what we believe in and we can accomplish great things together."