Montreal comics offer up alternative laughs in the name of diversity, inclusion

The spotlight shining on comedy's dark side has created a demand for more voices and a more respectful brand of humour, one comic says.

'If people feel respected and comfortable, they laugh harder,' says event founder

Squad Laughs has been active for two years now, but recent events left comedy fans looking more and more for voices outside the mainstream, comic Ben Sosa Wright said. (Submitted by Ben Sosa Wright)

For comedian James Brown, attending and performing in mainstream comedy events hasn't always been a barrel of laughs.

The misogynistic, aggressive jokes that dotted the acts of some of the performers he shared a stage with crossed a line that often left Brown feeling more uncomfortable than entertained.

"I would perform at shows like that, and I didn't want my friends to come to them," the 22-year-old, who runs the events with his working partner John Michael Hanchar, said. 

His solution was to create his own comedy event, Squad Laughs, that provides a safe space and promotes more diverse voices. 

"We are trying to be funny, and there is nothing funny about someone feeling unsafe at our show," Brown said.

"If people feel respected and comfortable, they laugh harder."

'People are hungry for diversity'

Recent highly publicized misconduct allegations against key players in comedy have revealed an industry that is often fraught with sexism, homophobia and racism, Brown said. 

Those allegations rocked the Montreal scene last fall when Just for Laughs co-founder Gilbert Rozon was accused of sexual misconduct. Rozon, who was also the annual festival's majority shareholder, stepped down as head of the event that put Montreal on the map as a comedy hotspot.

He has denied the allegations. A deal to sell JFL to American company ICM Partners is now pending.

Just for Laughs founder Gilbert Rozon resigned following allegations of sexual assault and misconduct. (Radio-Canada)

The spotlight now shining on comedy's dark side has contributed to a shift in the scene, said Ben Sosa Wright, a comic who has performed at the bimonthly Squad Laughs events for a year.

"I think, now, people are just hungry for diversity and representation on stage," he said, adding that he's felt like the token gay comedian at some conventional shows.

Squad Laughs isn't the only show in town bringing in voices from outside the mainstream.

Trannavision, in which a Montreal comedian provides live commentary on a famous film, and Stand Back, a monthly feminist and LGBTQ comedy hour, both showcase a medley of perspectives.

Diverse voices get people talking, comic says

Squad Laughs' mandate is to promote a representative lineup of diverse voices. For new performer Hannah Silver, those perspectives are inherently funnier.

"We grow up having to make light of our differences and how we're treated," Silver said.

But aiming for more diversity is not only beneficial to getting laughs and changing the culture — it has also contributed to the success of Brown's show, he said.

Squad Laughs founder James Brown, left, created the event to provide a safe space and promote more diverse voices. (Submitted by James Brown)

"People are catching on that having a more diverse lineup at comedy shows means a more diverse crowd will show up, and people will start talking," Wright said.