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A New Wave of Comedy Grows in Vancouver

The jokes land from fresh angles, punching up instead of down.

Adele Barclay 28 Oct

Adèle Barclay is the author of If I Were in a Cage I’d Reach Out for You, winner of the 2017 Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize, and the new Renaissance Normcore.

There’s a new wave of stand-up comedy in Vancouver that is indie, fierce and teeters on that fine line between laughing and crying. It’s also decidedly not white, straight and dude-centred.

In the past two years, shows like Fox Hole Comedy, Millennial Line, Yellow Fever and Lil Comedy have emerged in Vancouver. In response to the homogeny of the local scene, these shows are dedicated to making space for queer and BIPOC comics to perform, and changing the tenor of comedy in this city.

It couldn’t come at a better time.

Comedy is in the midst of a jagged cultural reckoning. Comedian Shane Gillis was hired, then immediately fired from SNL for racist jokes. Todd Phillips [director of Joker] told Vanity Fair he quit making comedies because of woke culture. Dave Chappelle, a sublime critic of white supremacy, derided trans people and survivors of sexual abuse in his latest Netflix special. (The trans comedian referenced in Chapelle’s routine recently committed suicide.) All of this points to mainstream comedy’s inability to grapple with power and accountability.

In marked contrast, the new wave of Vancouver comedians is committed to examining, with insight and inclusivity, power and how it manifests in our communities. Making fun of ethnic minorities used to be standard material. Vancouver’s new wave tends to make fun of folks oblivious they’re marinating in privilege.

Local comic Desmond Williams has a bit where he declares his love for sensory deprivation float tanks because it’s the one place in Vancouver where he can take a break from white people.

‘A show you don’t have to dissociate through’

When Jackie Hoffart took over programming the Fox Hole Comedy in September 2017, it was an opportunity to remedy some of the troubling issues she’d noticed. “I found most open mics and a lot of booked shows to be challenging to attend because of how rampant misogyny, transphobia, ableism and racism are in the material of the average amateur,” says Hoffart.

“I was also continually disappointed by booked shows that featured (and this hasn’t changed much since) predominantly straight white male comedians. There definitely are funny ones out there, don’t get me wrong, but they are massively over-represented.”

Hoffart had been attending comedy nights and performing for a few years before she started producing Fox Hole Comedy, a weekly show that features eight comics. In opening up the stage to new talented comics, a whole new world of funny stuff emerged.

“Realizing this is as much a ‘pipeline issue’ as anything else, I saw inheriting the show as an opportunity to push back on this dynamic — to actively seek out, book and support the development of all of the comedians who are structurally disadvantaged in the system, as it is,” explains Hoffart.

Hoffart applies a few different lenses to create the alchemy that is Fox Hole Comedy. She books only one white cis-gender straight male and has challenged herself to make sure the lineup isn’t mostly white. She also looks for a mixture of experience levels, booking novices and professionals alike, and is keen to invite genre-bending comics, like a musical comedian, in order to keep everyone on their toes.

Jackie Hoffart programs Fox Hole Comedy, performing there, too. Her goal: ‘seek out, book and support the development of all of the comedians who are structurally disadvantaged in the system.’

While Fox Hole Comedy faces trolls, the survival of these kinds of shows is also endangered by Vancouver’s ongoing gentrification. The cost of booking venues is skyrocketing, making Fox Hole’s long-term viability tenuous. Still, Hoffart’s approach is having a ripple effect. Local comedians Tin Lorica and Savannah Erasmus performed at the Fox Hole before they started producing Millennial Line last year.

The first time I saw Erasmus perform, she embarked on a catalogue of dick jokes like you’d find at a typical dude-laden open mic but replaced each cock reference with “my pussy.” Her charm and keen voice stretching each syllable with savvy sarcasm. The list was hilarious.

Every month, Lorica and Erasmus host poets and comedians at Red Gate, a venue renowned for its DIY art and music vibe. In addition to embracing millennial angst, they showcase performers who are queer and people of colour.

“I think as being a queer Filipinx and non-binary comic, and Savannah being an Indigenous female comic, we have fun and feel satisfied and proud in representing ourselves on the stage with our silly jokes, and in how we punch each other up but also give permission to make fun of ourselves in a way that doesn’t leave us feeling empty inside after a show,” explains Lorica.

Speaking to their audience

Lorica and Erasmus recently added a segment to Millennial Line called “Shit Talking in Each Other’s Languages” where they teach the audience phrases in Tagalog and Cree to poke fun at white people.

“Personally, the most satisfying thing about running Millennial Line is the amount of people of colour, those who are younger than us especially, tell us how much they enjoy mine and Savannah’s comedy because they didn’t know ‘it could be like that,’” says Lorica.

“Like comedy could look different from how they’ve grown up seeing it on TV. How something that I’ll talk about as a queer person or as a Filipinx person or even as a coffee bitch (I’m a barista) reflects their own lives, etc., and how much they enjoy kinds of comedy that don’t punch down at marginalized folks and also the whole making fun of white people thing. It’s quite healing.”

When I attended the first Millennial Line show in July 2018, I recall the hosts pitching the event as “a show you don’t have to dissociate through.” It was a relief to encounter a lineup of queer and BIPOC artists. But what’s most striking about shows like Fox Hole and Millennial Line is that the comedians aren’t speaking on behalf of anyone — they’re speaking to their audience.

When Lorica flatly notes how white art school kids get sangria-drunk, fill a sombrero with chips and call it a “Mexican Party,” the exasperation resonates strongly with the Millennial Line crowd. Seeing a millennial BIPOC queer comic perform for a mostly millennial BIPOC queer audience is low-key mind-blowing. The humour lands without the comic needing to explain or pander, and the dynamic between audience and performer is palatably different than a regular comedy night.

As mainstream comedy stumbles through big cultural conversations, bemoaning the idea that it’s no longer culturally acceptable to champion mean-spirited jokes that punch down, in Vancouver local comedians are pushing back. Here, women, queer and BIPOC comics go for laughs while opening up the parameters of what’s funny. It’s comedy worth crawling out of our basement suites to hear. After all, they can’t renovict our laughter... can they?  [Tyee]

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