An Oral History of Toronto’s Comedy Bar
This week marks the 10th anniversary of the Toronto comedy institution. We spoke to the people about its troubled opening, Kevin Sorbo and about that infamous Louis C.K. appearance.
Image of Comedy Bar via Facebook | All body photos by Sharilyn Johns
This month, Comedy Bar marks 10 years of being Toronto’s comedy clubhouse. It’s where new performers find their voice, alt-comedy heroes drop in, and Colin Mochrie is the subject of women’s washroom graffiti (in one stall: “he’s the best guy!”).
Comedy Bar was born out of necessity. In the mid-2000s, sketch troupe The Sketchersons were moving their weekly Sunday Night Live show from venue to venue: first the Poor Alex, followed by the Brunswick House, and the Diesel Playhouse. Another move was likely iminent, as the Diesel’s days seemed numbered.
Why rent another stage when they could have their own? Sketchersons cast member and producer Gary Rideout Jr. believed the Toronto market could support a venue dedicated to independently-produced comedy and serve as the troupe’s permanent home. He teamed up with his friend James Elksnitis, and sought a location.
Mark Andrada, Sketchersons technical director 2004-2015, and Comedy Bar technical director since 2008: Gary told me that he was going to open Comedy Bar and I told him he was dumb. Number one, there's no way that's going to work, and number two, you're killing your own career.
Pat Thornton, founding cast member and former head writer of the Sketchersons: I just said it was crazy, and it’s going to eat his whole life. Now he’s a legend, so I’m happy to be wrong about that. Not that it didn’t eat his life.
An Eritrean restaurant and pool hall near Ossington Station fit the bill. Rideout and Elksnitis bought the business in October of 2007, and it came with some surprises.
Andrada: The night Gary got the keys, we came in expecting it to be empty, but they left all the booze. We had a few of those paper-on-the-doors free booze parties because we had to get “rid of it.” I'm using air quotes. I don't know if we really had to get rid of it.
Gary Rideout Jr., co-owner of Comedy Bar and founding cast member/producer of The Sketchersons: There was a weird room with a mattress in it. I think they were doing some prostitution in there. When we went to throw out the mattress, there was a huge scimitar under it. We found all kinds of crazy shit.
Comedy Bar was supposed to open by Christmas 2007, but as Rideout discovered, “everything was illegal” about the space. Regardless, he and Elksnitis were confident the bar would be up to code long before its first big booking: the May 2008 Combustion Festival, produced by improv collective PROJECTproject. Just one week out from the festival, however, the bar was far from ready.
Rideout: Our contractor was like, “there's no way, it's not safe.” And I was like, “well, then this week instead of continuing work on whatever jobs, we're going to have to re-prioritize the order of what we work on to make it safe.”
Julie Dumais Osborne, founder of PROJECTproject : There was no theatre two days before guests were coming to town. So many of the Sketchersons were doing the manual labour of pulling that space together. Feeding drywall to the drywallers. We were painting the day before.
Rideout: We built the stage that day. Everybody who was here getting ready for that first Combustion signed the floor underneath.
Andrada: I teched the shows from a folding table, because there was no booth yet. The Sunday Night Live news desk was the bar. We were serving shit out of coolers because we didn't have fridges.
Rideout: We just filled the room with folding chairs and pulled off some shows. It was kind of inspiring halfway through a long renovation, when it was hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel, to have this busy festival bring in some money.
After a 55-week renovation, the space was completely remodeled -- almost.
Jenna Warriner, bartender since 2010: There’s still a mural behind the [main stage] curtains, from the bar it used to be.
Andrada: Gary was going to paint over that, and I fought him so hard. I still occasionally message the Sketchersons, because they keep hitting it with the news desk. I just love it. I think it's really important that a space remembers where it came from. It's also so ridiculous, there's all these places where you can see mistakes.
Comedy Bar officially opened Nov. 7, 2008, and the Sketchersons performed their first show after an 11-month hiatus.
Thornton: When we first started doing Sunday Night Live there, I remember feeling like we had a home. Like, this place is ours.
Competitive improv show Catch 23 moved in to occupy the Monday slot, PROJECTProject took Wednesday nights, and monthly shows included the still-running Mantown and Perfect 10. To fill the calendar, Rideout rented the stage to anyone, including a burlesque troupe and a rap group.
Rideout: It was a mix of every kind of weird thing at the beginning. We did the Festival of New Formats the January after that to find a bunch of new shows. That's how Frenzy [Freddie and Miguel Rivas] came up with Rapp Battlez.
In May of 2009, Andy Kindler became Comedy Bar’s first out-of-town headliner, and one of many recognizable names to host the new incarnation of Sunday Night Live.
Andy Kindler, comedian: It was nerve wracking, but it was really fun. It was as close as I would ever get to being in a sketch group.
Jon Blair, former cast member and head writer of The Sketchersons: Ben Mulroney was a big one for me. He was super game for everything. Bret Hart did the show a number of times, and those were always really fun shows.
Andrada: Every time Bret Hart comes by, everybody's so happy to see him. When he put Gary in a sharpshooter in the middle of Rapp Battlez, this place came unglued.
Rideout: Greg Proops had maybe 45 minutes between the end of his podcast recording and the start of Sunday Night Live. He came off stage, looked at each script once—literally flipped through them—and knew them.
Jocelyn Geddie, former cast member/head writer/producer of The Sketchersons: We’re all sweating bullets. He proceeds to go out on stage and obliterate. Was word-perfect on absolutely everything.
Greg Proops, comedian: I’m a pretty quick study. It was great, because I got to do everything that weekend. One show was a sketch show, one show was a podcast, two stand-up shows, and there was an improv show. It was a little overwhelming and a little exhausting.
Rideout: I always love when we can get people coming in to be involved in things like Catch or Sunday Night Live. It endears them to our community a little bit more. You get to see another side of them, and see them do something different than in all the other markets they play.
One comedian who didn’t endear himself was Saturday Night Live alum Tim Meadows, brought in to celebrate Comedy Bar’s first anniversary.
Andrada: He was straight up a dick. He didn't want to meet anybody. He didn't want any pictures. Which is fine. The real thing that I thought was a bit of a jerk move was him canceling one of the shows, and showing up at Second City and doing a set for free. I think Gary produced that out of pocket. That's a real slap in the face to a guy who's trying to make his money back on you.
Rideout: Instead of participating in our shows like Catch 23 and Mantown, he just wanted to do his own isolated sets with his troupe. We didn't find out until it was time to do the show. I think there was a miscommunication with his management. I don’t put that on him. But the improv community was so pumped for that weekend, and it was sort of a letdown.
From 2008-2013, Thornton performed an annual 24 hour stand-up show as a fundraiser for the Stephen Lewis Foundation. Comedy Bar’s most unlikely celebrity guest appearance originated from the overnight silliness.
Thornton: I knew I didn’t have more than an hour of material at the time, so I just asked people to come write jokes. But they’re not comprehensible; everything is a joke on a joke on a joke. You’d call back to something from three hours ago, and everyone would start crying laughing.
Rideout: I don’t know who made the first Kevin Sorbo joke, but we started creating this world and plot based on him. Then he responded, because he was trending #7 in the world [on Twitter]. He was like, “what? I live in a garbage can and I eat snakes? What is this about?” It was so nonsensical. Then he came here and did improv with us. We called it Kevin Sorbo’s Garbage Weekend.
Kevin Sorbo, actor, Hercules : The fans were great and I had a blast. I certainly didn't hold my own against the improv team there, but people were kind to let me go up on stage and make a fool of myself.
Comedy Bar was a natural fit for JFL42’s Alternative Show, held there from 2012-2014 before moving to larger venues. Andy Kindler hosted and curated the late night line-up, featuring a mix of American friends like Paul F. Tompkins, Tig Notaro, and Marc Maron, and his local favourites including Pat Thornton, Sean Cullen, Sara Hennessey, Tim Gilbert, and Mark Forward. With no venue-imposed curfew, shows ran into the wee hours.
Rideout: It was the best. Todd Glass and James Adomian and Andy would all be doing impressions of each other, running out and playing on multiple microphones and fucking around. The whole point of it being here was that this is a clubhouse of like-minded people who like that kind of comedy. That has more value than just having a list of names on a piece of paper and everyone does a set. That happens at the other hundred shows. If your last show of the night can have drop-ins, everyone will come by.
Aziz Ansari, Wanda Sykes and W. Kamau Bell were among the drop-ins those three years, but the most memorable surprise was Louis C.K. Each summer at the Montreal edition of Just for Laughs, Kindler roasts the comedy industry in his State of the Industry Address. His harsh criticism of C.K. in 2012 earned him blowback from the industry and mutual comedy friends, but no word from C.K. until he showed up at the Alternative Show two months later.
Kindler: I hadn't heard from him. I was hoping never to see him in real life.
Dawn Petticrew, bartender since 2008: He walked in wearing a hat and sunglasses. He ordered a gin and tonic. I actually charged him for it, and took his money. He immediately went backstage.
Kindler: I was just like, “hey Louis,” I was just being as nice as I can be. I'll never forget, he shushed Tim Gilbert. Tim said something, was kidding around, and Louis goes, “shh.” You could just see the microcosm of how this guy ran his life. I do think now, when you look back at all the things he's done, he was coming in to manipulate me or put a power move on me.
Andrada: I tweeted it out. People were literally running from every direction from both sides of Bloor, and from the subway entrance on Delaware.
Petticrew: Like 25 people ran in wearing pyjamas, because they actually were awake and saw that tweet.
Andrada: The guys sitting in front of me when Louis C.K. came out hugged each other, and were jumping up and down together. Grown men, like the Leafs had won the Cup.
Rideout: It was fuckin’ cool at the time. That stature of a comedian versus this stature of a venue. But if he walked in today, I would make him walk back out.
Comedy Bar has hosted stand-ups with sizable followings like Janeane Garofalo, Wyatt Cenac, Doug Benson, and Jimmy Pardo. Sometimes, the names are bigger than the venue.
Rideout: For Noel Fielding, there were people lined up outside with cardboard signs they'd made, and they'd driven 14 or 15 hours from places in the States to come see him. Jim Jefferies, from when we booked him to when he got here, blew up enough that he would never play a place this size again. Eddie Izzard, two shows sold in about half an hour. People like Maria Bamford, we can't have here now, because she can play a way bigger space.
Maria Bamford, comedian: Oh, he can have me back any time! I love Comedy Bar. Everyone listens really well. And my stuff is very wordy, so I appreciate it. I’ll let him know.
Since these interviews, Bamford and Rideout have been discussing a 2019 return.
When stand-up Todd Glass is booked, patrons experience a very different Comedy Bar. His DIY makeover of the space gets more elaborate each time he visits, and the staff indulges him.
Warriner: We have a “Todd Glass box” in the back. We save all his shit so we don’t have to go source it every year.
Rideout: He puts gels on all the regular lighting around the bar. He cuts off all the sunlight coming in through the front windows even though the show is at night. He opens his suitcase, and has extra curtains that he’s brought.
Warriner: This year, there was a full tray of wine glasses in the hallway of his hotel. He stole them, brought them to the bar, and just told us we could keep them.
Todd Glass, comedian: I love that they let me do it. The sea of candles on all the tables, and it's all blue down the hallways. I love gelling everything like a thick blue. The minute people open the front door, they walk down the stairs like, “wow, this isn't the real world.”
Rideout: We've given him his run of the place and we're used to it by now. But all that energy and time, he could just be writing jokes. I'm being a jerk so he'll contact me after he's read this.
In 2012, a rehearsal room and corner lounge area were converted into the intimate Cabaret Room. “The Cab” became home to shows with small, loyal audiences like Laugh Sabbath, Dawn Patrol, Weird Al Karaoke, and Crimson Wave.
Andrada: That corner was a magnet for nonsense, because it was so perfectly hidden when you're at the bar. There are a lot of stories of local comedians doing things with people that they shouldn't have been doing them with.
Rideout: Great veteran comics wanted to run a room every Tuesday night in the main space, and nobody would be there. In the Cab I can take those kinds of risks, because if 10 or 15 people are in there, it still feels good. 10 or 15 quickly becomes 25 or 35 or 45, because it feels good at 15. It actually affected our survival. It literally changed everything.
Chris Gethard, comedian: It’s small and intimate and very, very addictive. Every single person in that room, you can make direct eye contact with them. And the crowds that Comedy Bar attracts, they just really care. You can feel them wanting you to push it, wanting you to put the pedal to the floor and give them a show.
Post-show hangouts are almost as part of the culture of Comedy Bar as the shows themselves, and “last call” doesn’t necessarily mean “go home.”
Andrada: We used to throw laser dance parties every single night. Just for whoever was here.
Warriner: One time it was Dawn, myself, Mark, [improvisors] Rob Norman and maybe Adam Cawley, and my mother and my great aunt Bunny. She’s like 70. Mark threw us a private party, blaring music, fog, lasers, dancing on the literal bar. And then Gary walks in the door. We’d gotten a noise complaint. He’s like, “if you guys get a noise complaint and the bar’s full, that’s one thing. But if it’s a private party for your old great aunt and your mom, you can’t do that.”
Rideout: The staff is so good, and a lot of them have been with us a long time, which I think is a testament to how the environment here is. From a staff side, but also from the comics.
Warriner: If there’s an issue and we need to boot somebody, half of that job is controlling the stand-ups who feel like their home has been compromised.
Petticrew: If I’m kicking somebody out, I turn around and there’s eight people standing around me just waiting. Not going to hurt anyone, just as emotional support.
Warriner: One time there were people being a mess. And Gary walked up, was like, “yo, this place sucks, let’s go to [nearby bar] Hurricanes,” walked them all to Hurricanes, bought them a round, and left.
These days, there’s no shortage of comedians wanting to run a show at Comedy Bar. It’s low-risk for producers, who pay a $60-$125 rental fee to cover tech and box office staff and keep 100% of the ticket revenue. Rideout manages the programming, and since Comedy Bar relies heavily on bar sales, he has to ensure shows get people in the door while also giving new performers a chance to grow.
Rideout: Young people are going to keep wanting to start doing comedy, and they have to get their stage time to get good. Certain shows eventually run their course, and I need new shows to come in and replace those. I need to be cultivating those in a way that has long-term goals in mind.
Geddie: Comedy Bar is a very safe place for performers, in particular young performers. I think Gary doesn’t care what kind of comedy you have. As long as you’re being true to it, he’s willing to give you the space to find that.
Glass: If you serve comedy and you treat it with respect and dignity, and you care about it, your audiences will care about it. And it's so noticeable.
Gethard: I started [in New York] at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre on 22nd St., which was an old strip club converted into a comedy space. It was really rough around the edges, but it had this very visceral energy. When I first walked into Comedy Bar, just walking into the empty space, is I think the first time I felt that energy somewhere else. You can feel in the bones of this place that the people who are fuelling it have built something cool. I don't throw that comparison around lightly.
Kindler: I think whenever you come up in comedy, you feel that zeitgeist-y thing of “we're all part of something.” Whenever you start, you could have that same feeling. So it's not like people who start today missed the good times.
Andrada: I made the mistake recently of being like, “I miss that feeling of community. That era of Sketchersons. That's gone.” As soon as it came out of my mouth I went, “no it's not.” It's still here. It's just that other people have also started their own thing.
Thornton: I feel like Gary built this place for all of us, and in no time, this place was for people he never even knew.
Follow Sharilyn Johnson on Twitter.
Sign up for the VICE Canada Newsletter to get the best of VICE Canada delivered to your inbox.