Comedy talent nurtured at long-running open mic, Calgary's Comedy Monday Night
Standup comedian likens it to a classroom, gym or dungeon
This is a column from Marito Lopez, a standup comedian originally from El Salvador who moved to Canada as a child and grew up in Calgary. He's been featured on CBC Radio's Laugh Out Loud, and has previously written about his Latinx journey for CBC Comedy.
My first time on stage seems like yesterday. I had just dropped out of college (I was kicked out), and on the brink of a breakdown and full of stress. Standup comedy was my next step … naturally.
I had heard about Calgary's Comedy Monday Night — which is now at Broken City — through Facebook, as friends of friends posted about an open mic. I didn't even know comedy existed in Canada!
Despite everything going on in my life, I shot a message to James Moore, the producer of the open mic show, and he responded right away, inviting me to come watch and chat beforehand.
I showed up.
He was a super tall white dude with thick, grey hair and the intense eyes of an eagle.
He intimidated me.
I watched the live show. I stood against some graffiti-covered wall, sipping beer from an icy pint glass, with all the nerves in the world. It seemed unreal to me, like an adult talent show. Regular-looking people wearing regular coats and pants, walking on stage, telling their bad jokes, and the audience was laughing.
Far from Hollywood.
How did this exist?
I didn't even go up that night. But the void I lived with my whole life was suddenly stocked with euphoria and warmth. Wait until they see me, I thought.
I didn't come back the following Monday; I practised for a whole month. When I finally felt ready, I messaged Moore again. He gave me a spot.
Before I went up, James pulled me to the side.
"It's your first time," said Moore. "Having fun is the best you can do. But you only have five minutes."
"Do not go over your time. Otherwise, I won't book you again for a while. Remember, this show won't make you into a star. Get that out of your head. This job takes time and dedication. You're nobody! Not yet."
I arrogantly thought, "OK, old man. I'm the next Chris Rock!"
The host called my name. I strutted toward the stage. The second I snatched the mic, it broke from the wire in my hands.
I froze and the spotlight blinded me.
My friends nervously swallowed their drinks.
Somehow, like a mother lifting a car to save her trapped baby, I popped the mic back in. I started telling my first joke, which was about me dying and speaking Spanish to an English-speaking God.
I must've been possessed by a divine spirit, because I was too frightened to do it on my own.
And I killed.
Moore hit me with the flashlight from the sound booth, I wrapped it up, and the crowd lost their minds.
I never killed like that again.
'Come train in our gym'
Trent McClellan, who is a regular cast member on This Hour Has 22 Minutes, says he owes his entire career to the pivotal stage-time Moore provided.
"Every Monday was like school," recalls McClellan. "But this school was also paying my bills!"
Watching BIPOC comedians like McClellan command the stage and prevail in an industry dominated by white males empowered me to turn joke-telling into a full-time job.
McClellan says Jocko Alston, the African American and French Canadian comedic poet who passed away in 2010, provided him with his own hope for advancement. In that case, Jocko was like my comedy ancestor. That's dope!
Comedians who got their start at Comedy Monday Night (CMN) are programmed to arrive at shows half an hour early, stick to their allotted time, respect the light, practise proper mic technique, and honouring hosting duties. Moore drills that into you!
"I came into comedy dumb as an ox," said Brittany Lyseng, "But James and CMN prepared me for a comedy career. He taught me discipline and structure. He was instrumental to my success!"
Lyseng, who is one of my favourite headliners, went from the blue collar world of fixing elevators to becoming a regular on Just For Laughs, CBC's The Debaters, and producing a phenomenal debut album, Going Up.
"After my first time on stage, I didn't think about quitting my job," Brittany recalls. "But I did think: 'Wow! How do I make this my life?'"
You hear that?
Forget "comedy classes."
Move to Calgary and study in our classroom.
Do reps in our gym.
Develop in our dungeon.
He went out and got it
Comedy Monday Night, which started in 2005, is more than Canada's longest running open mic, and more than a show; It was our Harvard, our Yale, and McGill.
Moore, who began performing at 44, says he started the show to help Calgary and the Prairies lift themselves out from under the colossal shadows of Vancouver and Toronto. Before CMN, Calgary's only show for aspiring comedians was amateur night at Yuk Yuk's on Tuesdays, and stage time was scarce.
"You were lucky to do a spot every three months. Especially for an old fart like me! I got the bug real bad! That wasn't enough for me," Moore said laughing.
So what did he do? He went out and got it.
He started an open mic for stageless comedians at the basement of a bar called Dickens. The show grew too big, as every comedian in Alberta came for a spot, and eventually moved it to Broken City, a venue with ancient wooden floors, walls soaked in booze, and a history of live music.
"I only started the show for guys like me, who wanted to tell jokes but they couldn't," said Moore.
"But at Broken City, a shift happened. I slowly stopped hosting. I booked fewer comics. I stopped booking myself. I got a budget for the show. I wanted to pay comics. Pay hosts. Pay headliners. Put asses in seats. Make it an actual show! That became my obligation!"
Despite always having a paying audience, Moore has never made a single cent from a CMN show. Revenue from the show goes back to paying comics, buying print advertising, creating merchandise like CMN notebooks, pens, coffee mugs, T-shirts, sweaters, jackets, etc.
CMN has also been a strong supporter of charities, too, including the Calgary Drop-In Centre, The Jo-Anna Downey Fund, Inn From The Cold, the Epilepsy Association of Calgary, and so much more in the spirit of giving back.
It's appropriate for a show built on giving a chance to new comics, including gifting first-timers with their own CMN notebook and pen.
The first time I got mine, I felt like a real comedian.
"I believe what I'm doing makes a difference," said Moore.
"At a grassroots level. CMN is a crash course. Calgary comics learn basic etiquette, so they can go anywhere, and be accepted and respected as professionals."
I was in a Vancouver bar earlier this year, and I ran into my boy Chris Griffin, one of the show's finest graduates. He was wearing a CMN letterman jacket, 973 kilometres away from home.
The sight of my fellow alumni and our Bat Signal stitched to his back summoned an unexplainable glow in my heart.
Comedy is always there. It always will be.
Thank you, James Moore.
Thank you, Broken City.
And thank you to all the CMNs across the country, including Kenny Robinson's Nubian Night, Little Mountain Gallery, Kino, and Caveman Cafe in Vancouver, The Rivoli, The Underground, and The Comedy Bar in Toronto, The Handsome Daughter in Winnipeg and all the comedy clubs in the country.
Without you, this wouldn't exist.
See you on the other side ❤️️❤️️❤️️.