Nfld. & Labrador

Nothing to laugh at: Here's how the comedy industry has been sidelined by COVID

"We have one of the hardest-working, hungriest standup scenes in Canada," says Mike Hammond, just one of several dozen comedians whose livelihood has had to change.

'We have one of the hardest working, hungriest standup scenes in Canada'

Mike Hammond is a standup comedian, and Newfoundland and Labrador's representative on the Canadian Association of Stand-up Comedians. (Submitted by Mike Hammond)

Here's something that's not particularly funny: the bubbling comedy scene in St. John's and the rest of N.L. had the fizz shaken out of it by the pandemic in March, just when it seemed to be finding its groove. 

Comedian Mike Hammond said several dozen people are working in the comedy scene, which is "an anomaly in the performing arts" because it lacks the infrastructure found in other cities and provinces. 

"We don't have any professional venues, and we don't have any professional producers or agents. But we have one of the hardest-working, hungriest standup scenes in Canada," Hammond said in an interview. 

The industry in Newfoundland and Labrador is driven by open-mic nights and some festivals around the region, which have seen growth in recent years.

Newfoundland has some of the best talent in Canada; it's just that no one knows about us yet.- Mike Hammond

Hammond said the province's variety when it comes to comedians is its strong suit.

"You could have a Matt Wright who's been on Just for Laughs three or four ​times … or you could see someone who's starting brand new," he said.

"It's a real mixed bag, but it's always an interesting show. Newfoundland has some of the best talent in Canada; it's just that no one knows about us yet."

Performing, with no audience feedback 

Standup comedians rely on an audience when they perform to test what works and what doesn't. But without large (or even small) public gatherings allowed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, some have tried different avenues to make things work.

"I've done a couple online shows where you could see people but couldn't hear them, which was jarring at the very least," Hammond told CBC Radio's Weekend AM.

"There's something about the audience's energy — if the audience is not into it, you're not into it. That kind of instant notification that you're doing well is very refreshing.… When it's silent, you're kind of just like talking into a vacuum."

Open-mic nights are a big driver for the comedy industry in St. John's. (Submitted)

Although they haven't been able to take the stage during the pandemic, comedians are always keeping busy, Hammond said. Some have been podcasting, while others are using the downtime for bigger projects like movies and other longer works.

"We have a lot of people doing a lot of things that may not be 'standup proper,' but in these times where you kind of need an audible audience, a lot of the comedians are hunkered down writing, waiting for the day that it opens up again," he said. "But there's also a lot of great online content coming out."

No stimulus money going to comedians, Hammond

As comedians deal with the loss of work like many people across the country, Hammond said the industry can't get the same support from the federal government that other artists can.

As it stands right now on the federal level, standup comedy is not recognized as an art form in Canada, he said. "All the stimulus money that they're putting toward the arts, which is amazing, which theatre artists and film and writers, they'll be able to get much needed funding. And what comedians are saying are, 'Please consider us too.'

Federal stimulus funding is available for artists and performers, but Hammond says comedy isn't viewed as an art form when applying for funding. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

"We are just as much art, we are just as much a contributor to the economy. And right now, we don't have opportunities."

Hammond said the province has been supportive of the industry through organizations like ArtsNL. However, comedians would have to apply under the theatre category.

"We do have to try and convince them it's theatre enough in order to be funded. And the jurors aren't comedians, so we have different professional standards."

Under current public health plans, performance spaces will not be allowed to open until Newfoundland and Labrador runs down through its alert level system. It moved into Alert Level 4 on May 11, and is not expected to move into Alert Level 3 until June 8. 

That means comedy venues will be some of the last places to reopen, leaving comedians unable to perform in front of an audience for an indefinite period of time.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Weekend AM

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