Just For Laughs' SiriusXM Deal Is Screwing Over Canadian Comedians
Howie Mandel is taking food out of the mouths of comedians. It’s not funny!
Images courtesy Howie Mandel / Facebook Live
NOTE: After this story was published, Just for Laughs and Sirius XM announced Wednesday evening that the channel would return to 100% Canadian content. "We’ve listened carefully to the concerns of Canadian artists and regret the stress we have caused the comedy community. We are invested in the growth of Canada’s comedy industry and are working to include even more Canadian talent in all our initiatives," JFL president Bruce Hills said in a statement.
It’s hard making a living as Canadian comedian.
I mean, it’s not the hardest thing.
In this world of surreal and discordant miseries where spiritually deadening and precarious service jobs jut up against rapidly disappearing blue collar jobs that leave destroyed bodies and opioid addictions in their wake, the plight of us love-starved, barbed-witted narcissists can seem unworthy of the average person’s concerns.
But let’s give it a shot, shall we?
There are a handful of TV writing jobs in Canada. (I currently populate one of those jobs for which I am incredibly grateful and pay tribute every night to a shrine of Rick Mercer, Canadian god of mirth and merriment, in hopes of retaining it). These shows are ignored by a huge chunk of the population and a major portion of the people who do watch, seem it do it for the sole purpose of being able to run out into the night, naked save for a yellow vest, screaming about defunding the CBC.
Outside of the ignominious lottery that is our entertainment industry, comedians can tour. Canada is a runt of a country. A miniscule population and couple of major cities are spread out over a massive, foreboding landscape, sharing a water-thin culture composed of a handful of hallmarks like yelling at hockey-playing teens over the holidays instead of talking to your family and putting the cheese on the fries before the gravy.
This means that majority of the touring market—outside of college gigs and corporates—is composed of places with names like Horseradish, Nova Scotia and Branglebrook, BC (note: any resemblance to actual place names is purely coincidental) where comedians ply their wares with shoddy, malfunctioning mics plugged into guitar amps in ballrooms and golf course lounges for audiences composed of women who consider black licorice decadent and men who have whispered their most secret desires into a running four-wheeler.
Sometimes the gigs are great and fun, sometimes they are dreadful, but they all leave you with the bitter knowledge that while other countries foster and develop their talent, the only star system Canada has is that you can usually sell out a show in a town where you can see the stars at night. Being a comedian in Canada can feel like you are drowning in your own dream; that all the fun, community and creativity you experienced were mere tricks of the light, designed to trap you in a purgatory made up of apathetic audiences and minimal opportunities.
But in 2005 there was a sliver of hope.
Satellite Radio. That constant companion of drivers of upgraded rental cars and men building decks.
Specifically Canada Laughs, a channel on Sirius XM radio devoted exclusively to Canadian comedy. Suddenly there was a venue for our material outside of the clubs and scattered television spots. Comedians began receiving royalties from their plays thanks to SoundExchange, a collective rights management organization.
And the cheques were pretty good.
For me the money provided breathing room. Suddenly I was able to do the things that my friends around me who had decent, regular jobs were able to do without a second thought. Go on a fancy date, fix my laptop, rent a car and visit home. Really what these cheques provided was a sense of dignity. They were evidence that my labours were not in vain. They were evidence that I wasn’t a degenerate alcoholic gazing over a failed life with visions and fantasies that would never arrive. Or maybe I still was, but at least this degenerate alcoholic could now afford a cool haircut.
Many of my colleagues did much more important things with this money. They used the money to invest in themselves; either by using it to move to the States in hopes of furthering their career or using it for projects here in Canada. They paid down debt and got some retirement savings in order. They bought asthma medicine and food for their kids. Most of all it gave them a sense of security and order to their lives, it allowed them to be brave in their creativity and choices knowing there could be something to fall back on.
And a quick note: this is how I think Canadian content regulations should work. The CRTC forced Sirius XM to play Canadian content and this was the result: a growing industry, a proliferation of great independent albums, an increasing awareness of Canadian stand-up, and money in the pocket of artists.
There was always a feeling though that it was too good to be true. Every time I talked to a comic friend about it we’d end up on that conclusion. We felt like bandits who had one night accidently stumbled upon a huge score while out taking a piss. Eventually the powers of fate and misfortune would correct this mistake, snap back into order and return us to our lowly state of affairs.
It was just a question of what shape those powers would take? What would they look like?
Howie Goddamn Mandel. Fucking Bobby’s World man! The inflated glove wearer; the germaphobe; the deal-or-no-deal-er; and one of the new owners of the Just For Laughs festival who, as it turns out, was approached by Sirius XM months ago to transform the Canada Laughs station into Just For Laughs radio. The deal is best summed up here but basically involves replacing independent content from our albums with archived Just For Laughs galas by some Canadians but also American heavy hitters like Jerry Seinfeld or Jeff Foxworthy.
“The content that will be played will fluctuate based on the quality of what’s available,” Just for Laughs president Bruce Hills said, according to the Globe and Mail.
He added that JFL was tasked by Sirius XM to find a bigger audience—and I don’t need my own lack of self-esteem to tell you that that really means that big, established mainstream comics are going to prioritized over us scrappy up-and-coming comics.
That doesn’t seem promising for independent Canadian comics and with that, our dreams of having some extra cash in our pocket feels dead.
Reaction was swift. I came home Saturday night to find my social media alight with my peers’ terror and anger.
It caused enough of a stir that Lord Howard took to Facebook Live on Sunday to assure everyone there was a misunderstanding and things were fine, in fact things were better than fine they were great. Because nothing says ‘things are fine’ like a rushed Facebook Live video.
“They came to us. They said ‘could you help us with the Canadian comedy’ and we said yes, because that’s what we do,” Mandel told us. “There is a thirst for being traditionally Canadian but our partners in Australia and our partners in America and our partners in Britain...so you’ll hear some of that content.
“If anything this is going to strengthen the reach of Canadian comedy.”
I don’t know what Howie thought the above video would accomplish but it certainly failed to land among most comics. As thousands of comedians watched this man pad around his luxurious mansion, compulsively rubbing his head while he sputtered half-truths and nonsense with all the believability and integrity of a man who whose pyramid scheme is collapsing and people are calling asking where their money is, we realized we had a target for our ire. Fucking Bobby’s World’s man.
Many Canadian comedians are pissed. We’ve basically been laid-off—at the very least, we’ve had out hours drastically reduced. Brutally and without warning. Screwed over by companies that are obligated to support Canadian artists and that have gotten fat off grants, subsidies and tax breaks.
And beneath the outrage there is something else, something worse: genuine hurt. This is the plight of the Canadian entertainer. To be second-class in our own country. To feel more like a burden or annoying obligation to our industries. The feeling that the deck is stacked against us, that it doesn’t matter how talented we are, how hard we work or how good we get, at the end of the day we are nothing more than a nuisance that will be tossed aside the second a YouTube comedian or a classic and exquisite Jeff Foxworthy bit comes along.
But, why should you care?
Because this story isn’t unique to us. This is a Canadian story. One of my friends asked: why would these two companies do this, didn’t they know what happened? All I could answer was, “I don’t think they give a shit.” JFL and Sirius XM are acting according to the unspoken rules of Canada’s extraction-style economy. Where every sector of society is dominated by a handful of monopolistic companies who see it as their privilege and duty to squeeze everything there is to squeeze out of a place and its people until there is nothing left to squeeze. Ask a Sears worker or Oshawa.
A slight difference is the people getting fucked over this time are good at social media and have friends in America. Because that’s another reason why you should be paying attention to this story: the response. I had never seen anything like it. Sure, there were the jokes and links being shared but comedians also turned into muckrakers, lawyers and activists: calling their MPs and MPPs, researching the legal obligations of the grants JFL gets, creating petitions, hunting down sources that might know more. Actual organizing happened.
Comedians in Edmonton led by Kathleen McGee and Lisa Baker boycotted a Just For Laughs showcase, a major sacrifice for considering how few opportunities we see in a year, with other shows to follow suit. The Canadian Association of Stand-Up Comedians, a lobbying organization founded by Sandra Battaglini—our Dolores Huerta—has emerged as an effective and smart force, organizing a town hall and keeping our messaging and objectives clear. You should care about this all because comedians are learning a lesson that everyone in class struggle continuously has to relearn: they need us more than we need them.
And if you do care I’d suggest reading this statement from CASC detailing why this decision is so disappointing and, most importantly, check out some Canadian comics. Start with Keith Pedro, Lisa Baker, Steph Tolev, Michelle Shaughnessy, Chris Locke, Chris Robinson, Nigel Grinstead, Daniel Woodrow, and Andrew Johnston who all sent me their thoughts and feelings and are some of the best stand-ups in the world. Find them and buy their albums, or at least stream them like four thousand times.
Also apologies to anybody that shares a personal connection with an all-terrain vehicle. My uncles would never take me out on rides on theirs and it’s something I still need to unpack with my therapist.
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