Day 6

No laughing matter: Canadian standup comedians demand more respect

Comedy album of the year is back at the Junos and standup comedians are using the occasion to lobby Ottawa to be recognized as artists.
(Sandra Battaglini)
Listen8:35

After 33 years, the comedy album of the year category is making its return to the Junos this weekend. 

It's a small win in an ongoing battle for Canadian comedians to be fully recognized as artists, which also ties in with their efforts to have access to government funding. 

The Canadian Association of Stand-up Comedians (CASC) was formed in 2017. The group is lobbying to have the Canada Arts Council's definition of performance arts changed to include standup comedy. 

Right now, standup comedians are unable to receive funding under the council's grant programming, which amounted to $144.8 million in 2016.

Sandra Battaglini is a comedian and one of the people behind CASC. She wrote an open letter to Justin Trudeau last year calling on him to take action.

Battaglini talked to Day 6 host Brent Bambury about the continued efforts by comedians to be taken seriously by the government, and why it's so hard for them to get across the border.

Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas, a.k.a brothers Bob and Doug McKenzie. The comedy duo won the last Juno awarded for best comedy album in 1984. (CBC Still Photo Collection/McKenzie Brothers Merchandising)

Brent Bambury: It's been 33 years since the Junos awarded a comedy album — it went to Bob and Doug McKenzie. What does it mean that this weekend the Junos are bringing back that award?

Sandra Battaglini: I mean, when it was announced that it was going to be a category it really felt like: 'Okay, we're finally getting some recognition that we feel we deserve, we need for our industry.'

There's not the respect for the art form, which is insane when it's one of our greatest legacies as a country.- Sandra Battaglini

You're trying to get standup comedians to be classified as artists. Why is that important?

Sandra Battaglini performs her comedy routine. (Sandra Battaglini)
It's important because it allows comedians, or will allow comedians, to apply for funding to travel to write comedy albums. Shows that have been happening for a long time, like independent shows, can apply for funding to pay comics. 

We have no support. There's nothing for us. A lot of comedians have applied for grants — I've applied for grants over the years — and we get denied.

We're told that the Canada Arts Council funds comedy only if you define yourself as a theatre artist, and my argument has been: standup is the most immediate art form there is. It's like literally real-time commentary on Canadian life — like this is Cancon! There's nothing more Canadian content than a standup comedian going up that night when something has happened during the day.

So you wrote this open letter to Prime Minister Trudeau, and in that letter you contrast how American standup comedians come to Canada and then how Canadian standup comedians try to go to the United States. What is the difference?

When we want to go to the States and perform we need an L-1 visa, which costs like five, ten thousand dollars. And when an American comedian comes up here they don't have to pay anything. In fact, they maybe have to have a letter with them. That's the difference.

A lot of comedians just go down and they sneak across the border and they don't say what they're going to do. But if their name is being advertised at a show in the States and somebody at the border sees, they could get in a lot of trouble. So, this is what happens in our country.

There's not the respect for the art form, which is insane when it's one of our greatest legacies as a country.

Battaglini says that American comedians can come into the country without difficulty, but that Canadians trying to get into the U.S. have to dish out thousands of dollars for a visa. (Liam Maloney/CBC)

Did Justin Trudeau respond? Did he write you back?

Julie Dabrusin is the MP for Toronto-Danforth. (Yvonne Bambrick/Liberal.ca)
No. That's over a year and a half ago, so we're still waiting.

I mean honestly, when I wrote the letter I was like: 'I just have to write it to him and just let him know what's going on.'

It was when I messaged my MP, Julie Dabrusin, for Toronto Danforth. When I met with her, then it started to feel like maybe something can change. She was so supportive from the beginning, and then the letter kept getting shared. There was traction around it, and it was recommended we form an association so that it's not just me lobbying the government.

This is our version of a lobby group to promote our interests and to create more prosperity for our community.

And reciprocity. I mean, if you see there are two different systems at place and one of them is discriminatory towards Canadian comics, then you have to push for that to be changed?

Heavily discriminated. This is just a little tidbit: when an American comic crosses the border, sometimes they have a letter that quotes a section of the Immigration Act — R186.

In that section it outlines the kinds of performers who can cross the border. You know, it almost reads like a joke. It's like: rodeo clowns, jugglers, you can come to Canada to perform. This is not just Americans, this is anybody in the world — you can come to Canada for a night, a weekend.

If you're here for two weeks, or if you're here for a month working on an opera, or whatever, then you do need a work permit. But nowhere in there do they say standup comedian. They say performance artist. So our government considers our foreign standups, but not us.

(Sandra Battaglini)

Did it feel funny to write a letter to the prime minister?

It really did and it took me months to write it. I wrote a follow up piece in October — took me months and months to write it. It's called Article 605, where I discuss the section in the Free Trade Agreement where Canada handed our sovereignty of our oil to the Americans.

When NAFTA was started being renegotiated, and I found this out, they tried the same thing with Mexico and Mexico was like: "No way." And Canada didn't do that.

And then I was like wait a minute, we were doing all this and you still want to tax our comedians? It just kind of gets the blood boiling.

What signs have you seen that Justin Trudeau appreciates comedy?

None.

I mean, I guess when he dressed up [in India.] The pictures from India for sure, outside of that — none.

A year and a half later, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has yet to respond to her letter, says Battaglini. (Adnan Abidi/Reuters)

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. To hear our full interview with Sandra Battaglini, download our podcast or click 'Listen' above.