Comedy

Comedy during and after COVID-19: Canadian comedians share 'grandiose' plans

Comics tell us what they’ve been up to since, and what they plan to do post, pandemic.

"Nothing will be the same after we come out of this."

Comedy seems to have taken on a new shape since the pandemic reared its ugly head, with comedians performing standup from home and finding innovative ways to do what they do best. Some have taken this opportunity to assess their past acts, write new books or standup shows while others may have decided to start an online comedy religion.

Here's what these 14 Canadian comedians say they've been up to during the pandemic and what their plans are for after it's all settled.

Kevin McDonald

Kevin McDonald is a Canadian actor, voice actor and a comedy icon. He is a member of a popular comedy troupe Kids in the Hall which became a CBC series in the late ‘80s. He’s also appeared in shows that defined the ‘90s such as Friends, Seinfeld and That ‘70s Show. His latest Winnipeg Comedy Festival special, “Square Pegs,” airs August 9th on CBC Television. (LEIF NORMAN)

I've done some online talk shows and I've done my charity thing but mostly I'm concentrating on writing.

The Kids in the Hall, we were supposed to start shooting a few weeks ago but since we can't and all the sketches are done, we've been re-writing for five weeks so there's been a lot of writing since February for me.

We're either making the sketches tight and perfect or we're draining the life out of them. I'm also writing a movie and I'm thinking of writing a book of short stories but I'd like to have my movie ready by the time [COVID-19 situation] is over.

Right now Amazon is saying we're going to shoot early next year. Hopefully that'll be the case, you never know. But I'm lucky that I have something waiting and then after that I'll try to sell my movie script that I'm writing now.

Pete Johansson

Pete Johansson is a comedian, writer, actor and podcaster with a number of notable televised and radio appearances — from Just for Laughs, Comedy Central's Premium Blend to CBC's Comics! and two episodes of The Debaters, one of which was nominated for a CSA. He also has a special on Netflix called You Might Also Enjoy Pete Johansson, and has recently released a comedy album, The Adventures of Passive Agressive Suicide Boy. You can watch his Winnipeg Comedy Festival standup, airing August 9th, and his Ha!lifax ComedyFest performances, premiering August 16th, on CBC Television. (Photo by David Cyr )

I took a step back from performing [standup] full time, about two years ago, to go back to university. I'm in my third year now and I'm going to get my degree in cog sci psychology and then I'm probably going to get my masters after that in cog sci AI.

My whole goal is I wanted to understand more how we think, how we function, how we adapt and what comedy means to it. And then I'd like to sort of take some of the higher concept things that scare people and make people nervous about the future and I want to bridge them in a sort of a comedic way — to help people not be afraid of some of the useful tools that we're learning about consciousness itself, the idea of the mind. Because there's lots of people out there that are sort of explaining these things, but they're doing in a real serious, sort of, mean way — in a way that's sort of like isolating or not broad scope. 

Whereas I, kind of, think that people like to learn about these things in a funnier, more approachable way of how it can improve their lives and how we don't have to be terrified of a lot of the things that are happening — that the world is moving towards a better understanding of ourselves. 

I'd like to maybe get people to laugh away a little bit of that fear that's sort of paralyzing us as a society.- Pete Johansson

There's all these opportunities to do something a little more transformative. And as I look at comedy, especially during COVID-19 right now, I look at people going to Zoom and using different mediums for expressing comedy. I think that I too would like to sort of evolve into maybe slightly evolved format from just straight standup into something a little more complex and engaging.

Jessica Holmes

Jessica Holmes is a comedian, actress, author of Depression: The Comedy and mental health advocate, best known for her role in CBC's Royal Canadian Air Farce.

I've been creating comedy videos for my own sanity at this time — it's only 20% Céline. 

As a touring speaker, it will be a while before I'll be back on the road in theatres/convention centres. It was a tough pill to swallow at first, but now I'm enjoying being a full time mom, and doing the odd virtual show. The trick to those ones is, you really have to picture the audience at home. I miss you live audience! 

And my plan is just to keep taking care of my and my kids' mental health, one day at a time.

Nick Reynoldson 

Nick Reynoldson is a comedian, actor and writer from Scarborough, Ontario. He was a runner-up at SiriusXM’s Top Comic competition and has headlined and appeared in major festivals such as Just For Laughs, the Winnipeg Comedy Festival, NXNE and Kevin Hart’s LOL Network. (Photo by Ryan Bolton.)

I have done a few shows on Zoom from the comfort of my kitchen. Even though I feel the Zoom comedy shows are missing a lot of the heart and soul that makes live standup comedy so special, it's hard to argue with talking smack in your boxers, six feet from your bed. 

Of course, I too have grandiose plans for post COVID-19. Just like everyone else I have been quietly working and constantly bettering myself in quarantine. I, in no way, have been ignoring all responsibilities and day-drinking to curb the crippling anxiety of a global pandemic and the fact my job doesn't exist at the moment. I also have been painting.

Mark Critch

Mark Critch is one of the most recognizable faces in Canadian comedy, best known for his work on CBC’s This Hour Has 22 Minutes. He’s also written a book, Son of A Critch, and appeared in the CBC series Republic of Doyle and at countless comedy festivals including JFL, Winnipeg and Ha!ifax. (CBC)

Yeah, I've done a bunch of stuff for different charities and things like that. I made a little short video for a performance for a local creative food sharing association here [in NL]. And also did a little short video for my friend Alan Doyle, fundraising for A Dollar A Day [Foundation]. It's a mental health charity. I think it's been a really great opportunity, actually, to use comedy and music to raise a lot of money for different charities and stuff. 

And then, I've been able to do some of these performances with all kinds of different artists from all across the country because, you know, we're all in our old little bubbles together. But because of Zoom and Facebook Live, we can come together. And because people are all in the same boat.

I [also] put out a book. I did a book reading and had a big audience on Facebook Live for that through the National Arts Centre.

Book two. I made a deal with the Penguin Canada and so I have to write my second book. So that's what I've been doing. Quarantine is actually pretty good for writing a book. It takes away all your excuses to put it off.

Garrett Jamieson

Garrett Jamieson is a comedian and one of the founding members of the award winning sketch troupe The BOOM in which he worked with Canadian comedians Scott Thompson, Nikki Payne and Colin Mochrie. He’s also been featured on CBC’s The Ron James Show, at NXNE, the Odd Block Festival, JFL 42 and has opened up on tour for Juno Award-winning metal band, KEN mode. (Photo courtesy of garrettjamieson.com)

I have performed from home and it's a nightmare telling jokes to a camera. Not one comic is enjoying themselves. They die a little bit every time they tell a joke in that medium. One could argue smoking is actually healthier. I don't ever plan on doing it again, however if someone were to spontaneously ask me, I would say, "Yes please, I love performing." Coincidently, I have quit smoking and started joking. The way I smoke and joke are exactly the same: no filter, one right after the other, and on fire. Also, a friendly warning, if you do watch me doing standup online, be careful — if you take in my second-hand jokes, they can kill. I bought that joke at a second-hand store. You're probably dying of laughter by now. I'll stop... I'm kidding. I can't stop (just like smoking).

I am in the midst of starting an online comedy religion called The God Of Comedy. It'll be a comedy church show live every Sunday where performers (comedy monks) praise the god of comedy and give humorous anecdotes and in turn the audience feels closer to the god of comedy. I'm doing this for tax reasons. This show will be way funnier than Peter Popoff's because we'll be telling the truth. The truth is funny. But, if all this fails, I do have an album coming out at the end of summer called Born Crying Die Laughing, with myself and the band Sprattacus. It's psychedelic music standup comedy that works out your diaphragm. It'll be the hottest audio workout you can get this summer. Perfect for all the people who put on weight a.k.a "The COVID-19." Look for it on Comedy Records.

Martha Chaves

Martha Chaves is a comedian, actress, activist and playwright who’s performed on major stages including JFL, Ha!ifax and the Winnipeg Comedy Festivals. She won the Canadian Comedy Award for Best Standup Comic of 2017 and is a frequent performer and guest on CBC Radio’s The Debaters, Because News and Laugh Out Loud. (CBC)

Yes, I have done some performances from home. I have even managed to perform at a festival! I did We're Funny That Way for CBC Gem. That one was interesting because my wife and I had to allow Tom, a CBC technician, to enter our quarantined quarters to help with the filming. I am a germaphobe on the best of days, now imagine during the 'rona! But I love comedy and performing so much, that I had no qualms with letting Tom in. After, of course, he was disinfected, masked and gloved, as if he was about to perform brain surgery. Tom's know-how made the taping turn out splendid.

I have also done other online shows, like CBC's Because News, in which I am a regular panel member. I am getting used to it, and I lament that before COVID-19, I dissed YouTube stars for being fluffy. I thought it was easy to talk to nobody from your basement. On top of it, I had to stop my boycott of Amazon because they had to provide me with all the equipment for my makeshift recording studio. Oh, I have everything! Ring light to make me pretty, microphones, even puppets, in case I need to become a prop-act — the works! 

My first plan [for post-pandemic] is to survive — so far, so good — and I am writing a lot of new jokes. Nothing will be the same after we come out of this. Hopefully! My act is going through major renovations. It's like COVID-19 is the Property Brothers. Only not as cute. 

I am also writing Pandemia Bohemia, a one-person show about my adventures and observations during this challenging time. I feel like Albert Camus writing The Plague but from a funny lesbian perspective. I even made a parody of John Denver's Leaving On A Jet Plane. I can't sing, but still. I'm not leaving on a jet plane. Incidentally, on the 26th of August, I am scheduled to perform at The Winnipeg Comedy Festival on a gala about traveling, which I hope resumes soon. I will also be recording my second comedy album with Howl and Roar.

Jay & Eytan

Jay Wells L’Ecuyer and Eytan Millstone are award-winning filmmakers and a comedy duo based in Brooklyn, New York, originally from Toronto. The pair have written and performed live sketches with Canadian greats, Colin Mochrie and Scott Thompson. Two of their sketch comedy albums reached No. 1 on the iTunes Canada Comedy charts. They’ve also been featured on the front page of Funny Or Die and College Humor. (Shawn McPherson)

As a comedy duo, performing "together" from our own homes felt a bit off. As much as we miss the stage, we luckily have another creative outlet with our series, YouTube Comment Theater, where we perform dramatic re-enactments of YouTube comments. We found some great COVID-19-related comment threads and got creative with quarantine filming in our separate apartments. 

We've always tried to balance our love of live comedy and comedic filmmaking. Having written and directed a few short films, we've been using this time away from the stage to sink our teeth into a full-length feature. It'd be impossible to film properly right now with the restrictions, but we can write and start pre-production while we wait to get back out there. 

Trent McClellan

Trent McClellan is a Canadian household name: a standup comedian, writer, podcaster and actor, best known for his work on CBC’s 22 Minutes. He was also a panelist on Canada Reads and has performed on the Just for Laughs, Ha!ifax ComedyFest and Winnipeg Comedy Festival stages. (CBC)

I've done a few things online in terms of hosting. I hosted a virtual pub night for the local soccer team and I hosted a few other little things online. I focused a lot on my podcast [The Generators] and I'm just filling up that library with good episodes and stuff.

I've taken this pause as kind of a bring-everything-back-to-the-warehouse workshop, kind of a retooling of sorts approach to my past work by asking those big questions as opposed to just going on autopilot that we all often do. The big thing I've been doing is kind of going, 'OK, well, when we get a chance to perform live again' — which I'm hoping we will be able to do — 'what do I want to do? What do I want to say? What did I want to fix about how I was doing standup before? What kind of comedian do I want to be?'

At the end of the day, you have to be authentic to yourself. Something that I'm amazed that a lot of people, especially in the comedy world, don't talk about, is happiness. They talk about success: I've got this festival, I got the show and whatever. It's like, 'Yeah, but are you happy?' Comedy comes with a real backpack of challenges from anxiety to job insecurities so I think being happy is the ticket to success. 

I think that's been one of the spinoffs of this whole pause of society, giving us that ability to quiet all the noise and ask ourselves those questions.

Many comedians are going to saturate every show with comments about COVID-19. But I go like, 'Nah, I'm not going down that road because that's going to be beaten to death a month after shows start back up again.'

Meg MacKay

Meg MacKay, who hails from Prince Edward Island, is a standup comedy performer with appearances at JFL42, OFF-JFL, Toronto Sketchfest and Halifax Pop Explosion. (Provided by Meg MacKay)

Live performances from home can be quite challenging. Especially given my current situation, where I've had to leave Toronto to look after family members who live in a very remote area, with limited internet and cellphone coverage. 

I've found that treating the performance like a YouTube video (that you can't edit) or like you're doing a live sketch is a lot more helpful. As a standup I rely on a lot of crowd interaction/energy so losing that means that the material has to change out of necessity. I've also used the lack of stable internet connection to my advantage in performance. 

Fortunately, this has given me the time and opportunity to collaborate with another comedian who I admire greatly, but we'd always been too busy to work on something concrete. We'll hopefully have something completed in the next six months — I'm aiming for early/mid-2021.

Clare Belford

Clare Belford is a Toronto-based, Edmonton-born comedian who’s performed at clubs and festivals throughout North America including JFL 42, OFF JFL, SheDot Festival, Field Trip Festival and is regularly featured on Sirius XM. (Courtesy of clarebelford.com)

I did a handful of shows over Zoom early in the pandemic, but it's been a while now. They make me feel insane — sitting in a chat room with five other comics, just trying not to look at myself. It definitely doesn't feel all that much like doing standup, it feels more like delivering a eulogy to standup. Like, 'we've all gathered here today to pay our respects to my joke about dating…'

Honestly, I don't really have any major creative projects on the go as of now. I kept hearing a lot of folks saying, 'it's OK if you aren't productive in quarantine,' and I really took that to heart I guess. I have saved all of the thirst traps I've taken over the course of the pandemic to a private folder called "Quaran T'n A" so maybe I'll release that in a nice photo-journal. Black and white probably.

Dena Jackson

Dena Jackson is a Toronto-based comedian, speaker, writer and host of the Ego Podcast whose writing has been featured on CBC Comedy and the Beaverton. She’s delivered several talks for university and corporate audiences, including a TEDx focused on mental health and mindfulness, and has performed at numerous festivals including JFL42.

I learned very early on during this pandemic that online comedy shows are not for me. While I completely support anyone performing in them 'cause we all need an outlet, I feel that standup comedy is a live art. If I can't connect with my audience's laughter (or lack thereof), I find it impossible to read the room — which to me is an integral part of standup comedy. 

I also do public speaking and I've been giving online talks during isolation. Giving a talk is different from doing your comedy act because you're not working for laughs, you're speaking to a group, so the pressure is off in that way. If I'm being honest, I like the online talks better than doing live talks in some ways because you can still be interactive and encourage your audience to ask questions in an online forum.

I love hearing that so many other artists are getting creative and working on new projects. I love seeing what comedians are doing these days too. I'm noticing my peers painting, working on scripts, poetry, podcasts and lots of videos about 2020 life. Comedians and artists are the best at commenting on life in general and I love seeing how they put it all together so that we can laugh no matter how hard things might be. 

I've been working on a fiction novel and it's something I started 13 years ago and finally committed to finishing. I had to adjust my writing style for it (as comedy writing is succinct and to the point) but I'm really enjoying working on this book.

Mark DeBonis

Mark DeBonis is a comedian and actor who’s been featured in Just For Laughs, CBC’s Accent on Toronto, The Debaters and Picture Day (available on CBC Gem). He won the 2011 Great Canadian Laugh Off, the 2010 Canadian Comedy Award and was a 2009 Tim Sims Award nominee and a finalist on Sirius XM’s Top Comic. (Courtesy of markdebonis.com)

I have not done any stand up since COVID-19 hit. There's something about a zoomed-in head that's really unappealing to me but I have been working on my Zoltar impressions in the event that I need to talk to the Power Rangers. Also, I'm aware that that's possibly a "deep" reference. 

Other than the impression work, I have been working on some scripts/writing packages and have actually filmed a Social Distance short film that's been accepted in some isolation festivals. I'm trying to stay positive during this time and focusing on growing other skills.

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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