Comedy

Canadian comics on whether moving south of the border is crucial for a successful comedy career

Howie Mandel, Lauren Ash and more Canadian comics talk success and where it’s at.

Howie Mandel, Lauren Ash and more Canadian comics talk success and where it’s at.

(Comedian Lauren Ash in CBC Comedy series Next Up.)

From Jim Carrey and Samantha Bee to Howie Mandel and Lauren Ash, Canada has produced some of the biggest names in comedy. And although Toronto and Vancouver have the largest comedy communities in Canada, with many comedians moving there to make it, a great deal of them eventually end up moving to 'the land of opportunities' — traversing to the Big Apple or the City of Angels to make an internationally known name for themselves.

One of the best known Canadian comedians from Toronto who's had a number of his own shows including the famed Deal or no Deal — currently a judge on America's Got Talent Howie Mandel explains that when he was starting out, "if you wanted to have any international success, you had to come to LA and NY."

(Howie Mandel in CBC Comedy series Next Up.)

"As luck would have it, when I was out in California, on other business, I went to the Comedy Store to do what I did at Yuk Yuk's and I got seen and got offered a TV show," remembers Mandel. 

Lauren Ash of NBC's Superstore has also had great success on both sides of the border — having won many awards including two Canadian Comedy Awards for Best Female Improviser, played various roles on Scare Tactics and appeared in Academy Award-nominated movie for Best Adapted Screenplay, The Disaster Artist.

There's always that siren song call from America for actors, I think, in Canada. You never want to not go and not try.- Lauren Ash

Moving to the US presents opportunities, but also challenges

Whether it's being noticed and instantaneously securing a gig or a show, networking or learning from seasoned and famous peers, the path to success south of the border varies from comedian to comedian.

For a Juno winner for Best Comedy Album of the Year, Ivan Decker, relocating resulted in an appearance on Conan — which he says was "a very important milestone in my career trajectory."

(Ivan Decker in CBC Comedy's Next Up.)

Toronto's Nikki Bon — who went into acting and never thought she would end up a standup comedian — has had a chance to make friends with famous comics in LA. 

"It's amazing to feel like you're on the same level," she says, "and they have advice to give, and you just watch their process." 

Shaun Majumder who also came up in comedy through Toronto mentions that just by performing in LA, your chances of getting noticed are much higher because of who may be in the audience.

The grind is very tough according to many comedians but Bon says: "It's what pushes you. There's a lot of drive out here [in LA] and opportunity."

Small comedy industry catalyzes strong foundations

While the comedy scene in the US may be much bigger than in Canada, so is the competition, and Juno winner Dave Merheje seems to have reaped career-defining benefits from coming up in a smaller comedy community/industry.

(Dave Merheje in Next Up.)
Canada helped me find my voice because I was able to get on stage so much.- Dave Merheje

Standup comic Rebecca Kohler — who wrote for some of CBC's hit shows: Workin' Moms, Schitt's Creek, Kim's Convenience and This Hour Has 22 Minutes — says that you also get to do a lot of headlining in Canada as opposed to in LA or NY which enables a strong foundation for any comic.

"It's definitely a good place to start and to grow ... but the opportunities are fewer."

The tides are changing

The digital/social media era is remodeling the craft of making people laugh. 

Mandel thinks it's because of "the advent of digital streaming and YouTube..."

"You may not even have to go to a club to become famous," he says. "You can sit in your room in your underpants and if you do something brilliant, the world is going to know and give you a brand deal and make you a star." 

"If I was starting out today, I probably would be still talking to you from Toronto."

Comedian and producer of Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, Allana Harkin, agrees: "I don't think you need to leave Canada." 

(Allana Harkin on Next Up.)
I'm always finding ways to go back to Canada.- Allana Harkin

However, there is one big difference between the US and Canada, according to Harkin: a perception of limited slots when you go to pitch in Canada, which ultimately begets "more nos."

"There's kind of a ceiling, this is what we all know," adds Ash.

"It [also] depends on what you want to do and what you want to create," continues Harkin.

And when creating comedy, Mandel is of the mind that "If you're a blank slate and you just live it and do it, and own it, you'll sell it."

Though Bojack Horseman writer Jonny Sun ended up moving to LA because of the offer to write on the show, which he says, "you can't say no to," he also agrees that social media is changing things and explains that it's created two different paths for comedy: the traditional TV/film and entertainment side, and the now more easily noticed independent work online.

(Jonny Sun on Next Up.)

The best advice that Mandel says he can give is: "Just do it! Because thought is going to hold you back. And thought is going to give you fear. And thought is every reason not to try something."

In episode two of Next Up, "Moving Down South," Canadian comedians talk more about whether 'the land of opportunities' is where you need to be to become internationally known.

Watch more Next Up episodes and extended interviews on CBC Comedy YouTube page.

About the Author

Vanja Mutabdzija Jaksic is a producer, journalist and a perpetual optimist who loves a good show/film, breathes music, writes poetry, and dabbles in tech and innovative ways of storytelling (including through XR/VR/AR/MR). You can find her stories at cbc.ca/television and cbc.ca/comedy or follow her on Twitter and Instagram: @neptunes_blues.

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