Why comedy in the North is subverting expectations
'There’s no fresh fruit ... It’s expensive. But it’s funny.'
It's easy to forget that there's more to Canadian comedy than what is concentrated in the big cities such as Toronto, Vancouver, Winnipeg, etc. Smaller cities and communities in Canada have thriving comedy scenes too, and here's a look at one in the North that celebrates their spirit.
When Richard Eden (president of the Yukon Comedy Festival) moved from Windsor to Whitehorse, on a whim, he didn't know what to expect.
"I was going to investigate the comedy scene," he says, "so I went out to one of the comedy shows and was blown away."
Eden reached out to comedian George Maratos (vice president of the festival), and soon after the dynamic duo created a scene with Maratos providing the comedic input for the festival and Eden organizing and marketing it.
"To have somebody come up who's new to Yukon, see our potential and go, 'No, you guys are funny enough, let's build a festival!,' that was very incredible," says comedian and writer Jenny Hamilton.
So, what is it about the North that inspires comedy and makes the community subvert expectation?
Must be something in the cold air
The weather conditions are not the greatest in the North and when you add Polar nights and days to the mix, it can be pretty confusing for the body and mind but it also presents an opportunity, according to some comedians.
American actor and comedian, Jon Gabrus — best known for his work on Guy Code, the podcast Comedy Bang! Bang!, and his Brooklyn Nine-Nine appearance — thinks the North is a good comedy breeding ground for that same reason.
"They say like gallows humour, and I know that's being hyperbolic but in reference to Yukon, it's like if you choose to live up here and it's freezing for nine months out of the year and it's sunny for 23 hours in a day for a month out of the year, of course that mindset lends itself to comedy."
Comedian Steph Aube says that the air hurts your face and fruit and vegetables are a commodity, adding: "There's no fresh fruit, our vegetables that we have in the ground in the summer are root vegetables. It's expensive. But it's funny."
"You kind of have to have a sense of humour in a place where it gets to -40 [degrees celsius]," says comedian James Boyle laughingly as he explains that when you step outside and a door handle on your car gets frozen and breaks off, "you have to have a sense of humour about that."
Humour is healing
Mental health and depression are an issue in the North and John Helmkay, founder of the First Arctic Comedy Festival, says that comedians there often use humour and laughter for healing.
Comedian Oshea Jephson echoes the notion that comedy up North is critical and that "going out to comedy gigs is the best medicine."
"Depression and drug abuse, alcohol abuse is a big thing in the North. If we can get together as a group and make people laugh, it lightens the load and brings the community together," says Hamilton.
Hungry audiences but limited stage time
As Eden puts it: "People are hungry for any sort of comedic talent that you can bring out."
"They're rooting for you. They'll let you know if you suck, though. They will," adds Hamilton.
And while there is an appetite and also an opportunity for longer stage time for comedians, those who are looking to make comedy a career may not feel it's enough to perform once a month for 10 minutes.
Being on stage often is where comedians find practice but could that limited practice time be the key to their funny? Are we more creative as a result?
Comedian Gavin Clarkson confirms: "The Yukon has produced some amazing standup comedians that have managed to take that limited stage time and become amazing on stage and very great joke writers."
"So, take our scene seriously because comedy is universal," adds Maratos.
This year's Yukon Comedy Festival, which was set for April second to fifth, has been cancelled "due to concerns and unknowns regarding the coronavirus (COVID-19)," according to an official statement released by Eden on March 13th.