The Jokes Are Coming From Inside the House: Canadian Comics Embrace the Apartment Show

We all know Canadians are hilarious, but our funniest compatriots are often driven to the States in search of success. <i>Live @ The Apt</i> is one show that's trying to change that.

Mar 3 2015, 3:45pm

Screenshot via YouTube

The "brain drain" of Canadian comedy talent lured to the US in search of laughs and a decent paycheck is a longstanding free-trade beef that this country has had with our neighbour to the south. But for every Mike Myers or Jim Carrey or Samantha Bee or Catherine O'Hara or Will Arnett (etc., you get the picture), there are hundreds, if not thousands, of funny folks who are stuck grinding out jokes in (and about) the frozen tundra in which they live. For many of them, "making it" in the US is what legitimizes you—not only in the eyes of American audiences, agents and bookers, but in the eyes of the Canadian public as well.

"I got into a festival in the States a few years ago and it felt like the comedy equivalent of getting my braces off," said Katie-Ellen Humphries, a Vancouver-based stand-up.

"And you got back and your teeth were all slimy?" interjected fellow VanCity funnyman Ivan Decker.

"Well, there's that."

In an effort to gain more exposure on their home turf, Decker, 29, and Humphries, 32, recently performed in some dude's Vancouver apartment, alongside Graham Clarke (HBO's Funny As Hell) and host Matthew Clarke (Convos With My 2-Year-Old). And there are plans to roll out to more random apartments with new talent in other major Canadian cities soon under the banner of Live @ The Apt (Canada), a live show and web series filmed in—you guessed it—people's apartments.

While it may seem like the Canadian comedy scene has sunk so low that comedians have resorted to performing in friends-of-friends' (sometimes) crummy apartments to get a leg up, people are digging the concept—and it just might help put more Canuck comedy on the map. Or, at least, on a map that extends below the border.

"It's about giving people a platform and an opportunity," said the show's creator and executive producer Drew Miller, a 27-year-old Montreal native who started Live @ The Apt in his East Village fifth-floor walk-up in 2013. "We managed to get about 30 to 40 people. It was an experiment, but it worked. So we kept going."

Nearly two years later, Live @ The Apt has followed Miller to a new pad in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Barring a few noise complaints and comics occasionally making cracks at crowds that resembled the cast of HBO's Girls, Miller has managed to take Live @ The Apt beyond his personal digs and all over New York City—from rooftop patios to Chinatown lofts, borrowing spaces or renting them from AirBnB.

Audiences have grown (sometimes to upwards of 100 people), a waitlist has formed, and bigger-name performers, like Hannibal Buress and Saturday Night Live's Sasheer Zamata, have started turning up. YouTube views are also rising by impressive measures, like literally by 1,000 per cent, as Miller says, pointing to a video of The Lucas Brothers, which shot up to over 28,000 views after the pair appeared in the movie 22 Jump Street.

It ain't Madison Square Garden, though. Comedian Sabrina Jalees called performing at Live @ The Apt a "safety hazard" while Liza Treyger referenced "subtle hints of pubic hair on the toilet seat." But when the stage is beside a refrigerator, doors are accessed by buzzing an intercom, the sign is cardboard, and the beer is free, every venue feels as intimate as home.

And home is exactly where Miller wanted to take the project next. "I know the deal. It's really hard to get here. It has nothing to do with talent. It's just a matter of location. You shouldn't have to friggin' have a mom who's from America just to break out," he said of the show's Canadian debut. Miller's own mother is American. "It shouldn't come down to whether you have connections in government."

It's hardly surprising that underground initiatives like Live @ The Apt have popped up in Canada. First, the O-1 (extraordinary ability) VISA comedians require to work in the US can take several months and thousands of dollars to obtain. Meanwhile, in Canada, networks come down to two main players: Bell Media and CBC, neither of which produce much successful original comedic programming. For instance, a quick perusal of the Bell-owned Comedy Network (the Canadian version of Comedy Central) website reveals that of the 53 shows currently on their roster, around ten are Canadian. That's less than 20 percent.

Among those original shows is Corner Gas, which has been hailed the most successful Canadian TV series in recent times—comedic or otherwise—drawing an average of one million viewers per episode. It even recently spawned its own feature film. Even then, two thirds of the movie's $8.5-million budget had to come from government support to make it feasible.

By comparison, American sitcom The Big Bang Theory—Canada's most-watched series for several years running—attracts 20 million US viewers per episode and pays its three main actors $1 million per episode for seasons that average 20 episodes. Three episodes of the three actors just standing there and you'd have yourself the Corner Gas movie and then some.

It's not that Canada doesn't have comedic roots. It does, particularly in the sketch comedy genre. This Hour Has 22 Minutes is still ticking and has been for 22 seasons. But revisiting the glory days of Kids in the Hall are unlikely, considering the budget cuts CBC has been enduring for years.

Not that those classics ever came close to reaching Big Bang Theory-level viewership. That would require getting to a point wherein 57 percent of the population considered "Chicken Cannon" a can't-miss.

"To get reach across Canada it's just very different because most of the media Canadians consume is American," said Decker. "Canadian networks don't have the budget to take as many risks so everything produced in Canada seems to be quite safe." He noted some local clubs book American acts simply because that's what sells. And who's to blame?

The comedy economy is similar outside the TV industry, too.

There's just one major festival in Canada, Just For Laughs, featuring only a single event aimed at nurturing Canadian stand-up, "The Homegrown Comic Competition." Popularity-wise, that show pales in comparison to its non-Canadian counterpart, "New Faces."

And, in terms of clubs, there are merely two directions to choose, separated by a thick loyalty-driven divider: sign with Yuk Yuk's or perform at independent clubs. But not both. That's fine if you live in a metropolis like Toronto or Vancouver, where Humphries said "there are anywhere from one to four independent stand-up shows in bars and theatres around town every weeknight, plus club shows Tuesday through Saturday."

It's not so fine if you live in, say, Lethridge, Alberta, where Decker said, "You'll only have the opportunity to get on stage about once a week max... It would be like going to the gym once a month and expecting huge muscles." On the bright side, you'd have easy access to the oil rig camps in Alberta, and up north, there are popular performance spots for some Canadian comics, according to Decker.

As any indie-rock band will tell you, even touring this vast expanse we call Canada poses significant challenges. Jameson Parker, Live @ The Apt's lead Canadian producer, said: "You almost wish there were the same rules as with music where on the radio you have to play [a certain amount of CRTC mandated] Canadian content."

The question is: Should Canada strive to cultivate its own solid comedic infrastructure built to retain talent? Or should we accept that talent is a Canadian export? As Miller put it: "If it's a choice between the NBA and the development league, you're going to choose the NBA—no matter how horrible it seems."

But there is hope. Miller explained that through Live @ The Apt he's not just jumping aboard the shifting-to-digital media landscape, he's leveraging it so that comedy of all origins comes out on top. For example, he's creating comedy content made specifically for the web rather than ripped from TV and put online like a lot of other stuff out there. Which means even up-and-comers who aren't big enough to warrant their own television spots have not only an outlet but also quality clips. He's taking advantage of the freedom to feature as many diverse voices as possible. And, most of all, in a predominantly virtual world, he's factoring in nostalgia for that feeling of looking around a room like, "Woah. We're all in this together, sharing a unique experience no one else will ever have."

"When I came up with the idea I was going to a host music shows, actually. For some reason, no one had ever applied the DIY edge of concerts to comedy shows and it baffled me. Why can I go see a band play at a loft in Bushwick yet comedy was always in the same club or the same bar with the standard two-drink minimum? It was cheesy," he said, calling Live @ The Apt half-comedy show, half-house party, also stressing that it's free. "We've gotten hundreds of emails from people telling us they saw our videos on YouTube and they'd love to see a show when they are in NYC. That's what sets us apart from being just a web series."

Maybe that's why Live @ The Apt has worked so far. It sits in a sort-of sweet spot between being a hip, alt, word-of-mouth-only event and being totally accessible to anyone with a computer at the same time.

Live @ The Apt's Canadian expansion comes on the heels of SNL's 40th anniversary special, the most watched prime-time telecast in 10 years, prompting questions like: Where would comedy be if SNL founder Lorne Michaels had run out of packing tape and been like, "Guess I'll stay in Toronto"?

"The godfather of American comedy is Canadian and nobody talks about that," Miller told me. If Miller has his way, Live @ The Apt will change that for the next generation of comics. One crummy apartment at a time.

Follow Ilana Belfer on Twitter.

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