Mark McKinney arrived in Calgary from St. John’s in the early ’80s with little experience in comedy — beyond some he’d done for Memorial University’s radio station — and few plans for acquiring more. He and a friend were just “trying to find funny people,” he says, when they stumbled upon Loose Moose Theatre a few months after McKinney moved to town.
Loose Moose had given birth to Theatresports — the brand of improv that would inspire shows such as Whose Line is it Anyway? — just a few years before McKinney’s arrival, but he didn’t go there expecting to find the launching pad for a career. And yet it proved to be precisely that.
Just a week after discovering Loose Moose, McKinney was onstage, performing as part of a team called the “Steel Belted Refugees.” He went on to form a Loose Moose troupe called “The Audience,” and within a year, the shows were selling out. Just a year and a half after its inception, the troupe played two back-to-back sold-out shows at a 500-seat University of Calgary theatre.
The rest is better known history. McKinney moved to Toronto in 1983, accompanied by Audience castmate Bruce McCulloch, where the two helped found Kids in the Hall. He felt he’d come as far as he could in Calgary, he says now, and doesn’t regret the move, but he doesn’t think he would have found his earlier success anywhere else.
“It’s hard to describe to people, but there’s this cool sort of western attitude, openness, ‘can-do-it-ness,’ for lack of a better word, that applies both in the oilpatch and in dance,” he says, laughing. “It’s kind of like this ‘whatever’ spirit.”
This spirit undoubtedly influenced FUBAR, the 2002 Calgary-centric mockumentary — inspired by a Loose Moose routine — that became a cult hit in spite of its shoestring budget. And while they’re not a comedy troupe, McKinney believes it’s no coincidence the world-renowned One Yellow Rabbit theatre company got its start around the same time as the Audience.
Both were products, he says, of the creative freedom Calgary offers, something he doubts he’d have experienced working in a bigger city. Because it’s relatively isolated from the rest of North America it’s a place where people have to make — and actively seek — their own fun.
“There’s been two places where I’ve experienced an audience that just was so hungry for stuff..... One of them was New York, and the other one was Calgary,” says McKinney.
SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE
Judging by the number of options available today, Calgarians’ hunger for comedy has only grown in the decades since McKinney cut his teeth here. There are, of course, the three major clubs: the Laugh Shop, Yuk Yuk’s and the Comedy Cave. But Evan Wilson, who’s hosted CJSW’s weekly comedy show Am I Right? since 2008, says there’s an equally vibrant scene to be found by “turning over the rocks.”
“Besides the places that are running on the weekend — the Comedy Cave runs every night of the week — there are shows that are put on by the comics pretty much every night in town. You could probably go see live comedy for $5 every night.”
The quantity of comedy options in Calgary, Wilson says, has grown considerably since he started the show. It’s less clear how much the quality of local comedy has changed from four, or 30, years ago. Asked whether a local audience would find the same shtick as funny now as it did back then, McKinney isn’t sure.
“I don’t know,” he says. “I’m sure tastes have evolved somewhat.”
On a recent visit to the Oak Tree Tavern’s open mic night on a Wednesday evening, “somewhat” seems to be the operative word. The opening comic makes predictable cracks about Calgary men being “more manlier” than their Toronto counterparts, and Calgary women being more attractive than those in Quebec, in a not-so-subtle attempt to assure listeners that “I like Calgary.”
For his part, Wilson truly does like Calgary’s comedy scene, though not because he thinks the material here is much different from anywhere else.
“Sometimes it’s jokes about Calgary, but nobody goes out of their way to be a really Calgary-centric comedian,” he says. “I mean sometimes you hear people talk [about] Edmonton as a reference of a place that’s not good, or Red Deer as a reference to a place that’s a dump or something like that. But if they were in Ontario, they would be saying Mississauga and Ajax, or something like that. It comes up, but I think that’s just because that’s how you get the crowd’s attention.”
So does anything distinguish Calgary’s comedy scene? Wilson notes that some local comics like to take their shirts off onstage, but beyond that he isn’t sure, although he doesn’t think that’s a negative. Indeed, it’s a plus that no particular kind of comedy has come to dominate Calgary yet because it means the city still offers something for everyone, he says.
“You have people that kind of get up and tell stories, and then you have people that will do one-liners, and then you have people that are pretty absurd, you have people that are pretty filthy, you have people that are pretty political, and everybody is trying to carve out their own kind of voice.”
Back at the Oak Tree, filth seems to bind the comics more than it differentiates them. But there’s still variety, from the Russell Peters-style ethnic humour of Noor Kidwai, to Doug Mutai’s George Carlin-like wordplay on a cop asking someone how fast he was going after pulling him over for speeding backwards (“Do you mean how fast I was coming from?” he quips).
If McKinney’s experience holds true, a Calgary comic can still find opportunities here. But as he discovered, there were limits to the stardom an up-and-comer could achieve, and Wilson believes these limits still exist. Still, he argues, Calgary’s a decent springboard.
“It really, I think, is a place where if you want to stay here and make a living, yeah, you can do that, but if you want to use this as a place to figure out who you are, what you do, and then move on to a Vancouver or a Toronto, where there is more opportunity, it’s a good place to do it.”
WAY THE COOKIE CRUMBLES
Chris Gordon, one of the local comics who sometimes performs sans shirt, agrees with this assessment. It’s true there’s less opportunity here, he says, but he argues Calgary’s comic scene isn’t just a smaller version of Toronto’s. Indeed, he’s found comics here are more willing to push the limits with their acts, perhaps rebelling against the expectations of a more conservative city.
“Something you’re not allowed to do, you always want to try and do,” he says. “I feel like maybe that was a benefit. Like why not try and get it done where it might be the hardest to do it?”
Playing with comedy conventions was a staple of the now-defunct Talk Show Thursdays at Broken City, a cabaret-style show Gordon co-created. The show sometimes surprised visiting comics from bigger cities, Gordon recalls. He thinks they may have envisioned Calgary comedy as featuring Jeff Foxworthy-style redneck jokes, rather than “crazy mayhem” they’d expect to find on their own turf.
“Toronto comics and stuff would come through, or Vancouver [comics], and be like ‘Why isn’t this in Toronto? How is this here?”
Gordon, however, isn’t planning to stay in Calgary forever. The bright lights of bigger cities beckon, much as they did for McKinney, and he hopes to one day move to Los Angeles.
But even the best location will only take comedians so far. Calgary may provide them with artistic freedom, but they have to seize that opportunity. And while moving to a bigger city might increase one’s profile, it doesn’t guarantee success. In fact, says Gordon, there’s really no such thing for comics, no matter where they are or how good their material is.
“In the beginning, I think a lot of people think, ‘Well I’m funny, and if I’m funny once onstage in front of people, all of a sudden fame and fortune and money’s going to rain.’ You realize pretty quickly, once you start getting involved in comedy and stuff, that it’s a long process like anything else.”
If Calgary’s comedy history was a baseball player it might be Dwight Evans. Never heard of him? That’s the point. Comedy keeps a relatively low profile here, but like the underrated Evans — the only major league player to hit at least 20 home runs every season in the ’80s — it’s due more to a lack of publicity than a lack of talent.
That’s the thinking, at least, behind the YYComedy festival, which will showcase an all-star team of homegrown comedians over seven days next month. Local comedian Cory Mack approached Harry Doupe, who hails from Toronto, with the idea after last year’s Canadian Comedy Awards, which they both worked on, and he jumped at the chance to bolster Calgary comedy’s profile. The wealth of comic talent that Calgary has nurtured, says Doupe, the festival’s producer, may surprise many Calgarians.
Going back to the baseball analogy, Doupe says this city is not unlike the underrated Evans. “You look... and go, ‘Holy cow, look at this guy’s stats.’ And that’s what Calgary’s like — so much good stuff that you never take the time to look at it all at once.”
The original inspiration for the festival, Doupe says, came from Calgary’s designation as a Canadian Cultural Capital for 2012, which netted YYComedy a $20,000 grant (other sponsors include Tourism Calgary and the Calgary Fringe Festival). The fact that 2012 also marks 25 years for Yuk Yuk’s Calgary and 35 years for Loose Moose Theatre gave the idea additional heft.
A reunion of Loose Moose alumni alone would present a formidable lineup, says Doupe, and several of them, including the Kids in the Hall’s McKinney and McCulloch, will share the stage at the festival’s gala. Loose Moose grads Peter Oldring and Pat Kelly are also scheduled for a rare live taping of their CBC radio news satire This is That. And a trio of former troupe members will improvise a 90-minute play based on dialogue submitted by the audience at the “Tongue in Cheek” event.
But the festival isn’t just a celebration of Loose Moose or indeed, Doupe stresses, any particular troupe or club. The Improv Guild, he notes, is also getting in on the act, and normal rivals Yuk Yuk’s and the Laugh Shop are coming together under YYComedy’s banner, presenting special lineups of Calgary comedians. It’s a reflection, he says, of a Calgary-centric festival’s broad appeal.
“No city ever has a festival that just celebrates its own comedy like this is doing, and so everyone’s been very supportive, saying ‘whatever you need me to do, whatever I can do.’”
Doupe hopes the festival may become an annual event, but if it does, it won’t be an exercise in navel-gazing — organizers will also look elsewhere for talent. But for now, Doupe just wants YYComedy to alert Calgarians to how much talent exists in their own backyard.