All posts by Victoria Banderob

Dinosaurs of comedy

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]f I rode the subway  and joked loudly about the appearance of the people around me, I would probably make my fellow commuters extremely uncomfortable and be berated for it. Yet, if I made the same jokes as a comedian does on stage in front of an audience, my position might protect me from reprimand.

The freedom enjoyed by comedians, however, may be changing. Social expectations are constantly in flux, and comedy is not immune to their ebb and flow. University and college campuses are one of the first frontiers on which comedians are battling the changing expectations of their work.

The problem comedy faces at universities, according to famous comedians including Jerry Seinfeld and Louis C.K., is the increasing political correctness of student crowds. Audiences becoming increasingly intolerant of jokes that target or offend marginalized populations. Diversity and cultural acceptance are at the heart of many student spaces. In response to this, some comedians may choose not to perform for audiences they expect will react negatively.

Celeste Yim is a student at the University of Toronto and a comedian who performs on campus and in comedy clubs around the city. She has felt the “sting of alienation” within comedy circles as a woman of colour that calls out comedians she considers to be offensive. “I don’t know how I could say that I’m offended by something … [and] somebody with a different experience… can refute that. That’s invalid.”

The line between a joke being funny and offensive is difficult to define, if it exists at all. Are jokes about gay people always homophobic? Are jokes about Chinese people always racist? These questions must be asked, especially as high profile comedians claim that the field is contingent upon jokes that deal with these topics.

Audiences provide de facto feedback on these issues through their reactions at shows. The presence or absence of laughs can tell comedians a lot about what their audiences are looking for and the changing attitudes that surround their craft.

“It just comes down to knowing your audience, knowing who you’re talking to, and who wants to hear what stuff,” says Jordan Foisy, a comic who performs in a weekly comedy show called Chuckle Co. at The Comedy Bar in Toronto.

“It just comes down to knowing your audience, knowing who you’re talking to, and who wants to hear what stuff.”

“People who are most upset about the new [politically correct] culture don’t even want to listen to why people are saying that something offends them. [They say] just don’t worry about it, instead of being, like, oh maybe I should take a second and be empathetic to another person that’s telling me what I’m saying is hurtful,” says Foisy.

Foisy advocates for comedians to engage in critical reflection: “If I want to go forward from that, maybe they didn’t get the joke. Maybe there’s a way I can reword it so that it’s better for everyone. Or maybe I really believe in what I’m saying and I think it’s worth the discomfort, okay go forward. But if you’re not even going to take into consideration why what your joke is saying is upsetting to people now, then I think you’re a fucking dinosaur basically.”

Adding more voices

Foisy describes his work as relatively inoffensive, but he is acutely aware of the ongoing conversation about political correctness within comedy.

“What’s happening in terms of marginalized communities finally having a voice to say that they’re offended by a joke — it’s not PC [political correctness] police — it’s the fact that people of colour and women have Twitter now, and that they can ruin somebody’s career if somebody is a fucking racist piece of shit… And this is the first time in the history of the world that the audience has as much voice as the people telling the jokes,” says Foisy.

Jess Beaulieu is a co-host of The Crimson Wave, a weekly feminist comedy show at The Comedy Bar, and agrees that conversing about comedy is an opportunity to educate.

“You’re educating people in the process, with art. You’re educating men, you’re educating straight people, you’re educating white people, [and] you’re educating people who body shame. You’re like, ‘Oh, this is what you’re doing wrong, this is my experienc[e],’” says Beaulieu. The show is feminist-friendly; it invites women, as well as queer people, people of colour, and people of all sizes.

Beaulieu explains,“There is a demand for this kind of comedy, because feminists [in] particular, and women, queer people, anyone really belonging to a marginalized group, [have] been out-casted from the comedy community as an audience member, or as a community for years. And they aren’t able to even watch a show without being triggered, without being angry, without being offended, without being personally attacked.”

Comedy is seeing an increase in participation by women and people of colour. Some of the most successful comedians in America right now are women, including Amy Schumer, Amy Poehler, and Sarah Silverman. There is a growing number of comedy shows in Toronto that are run by women and that feature women, including The Crimson Wave, West End Girls, Open Gigi, White Girl Wasted, and Things Black Girls Say.

Beaulieu says this has caused a shift in dialogue. “I think that … women are in more leadership roles in comedy in this industry, in terms of hosting their own shows, producing their own shows, creating opportunities for themselves, and giving other women stage time, giving other women voices, giving other women platforms where they can share their comedy and their thoughts and opinions in a positive space that isn’t going to shit on them for saying that.”

Laura Wang/The Varsity
Laura Wang/The Varsity

As a young women and comedian, Yim is aware of the learning curve that comes with comedy performance.

“So many people who, in my mind, champion the best ideas of what comedy is supposed to be get it wrong. And they probably will get it wrong and will continue to get it wrong. Everybody makes mistakes and everybody is learning and changing, and especially with comedy, you know, some of the most famous comedians in the world, you watch their stand-up specials from two weeks ago and five years ago and their comedy is crazy different,” Yim says.

Navigating voices

Comedy as a genre is not homogenous; comedians tackle taboo topics and sensitive issues with various strategies.  The content of their performances is unlikely to be interpreted the same way by all audiences. Certain subjects will be considered taboo to some and acceptable to others. A comedian is an artist with a platform to address topics that make them tick — things that are important, powerful, or painful. Talking about these issues can challenge an audience and leave them uncomfortable. There is the hope that they learn something or feel a little less uncomfortable the next time the topic is broached. 

Beaulieu explains that some people are uncomfortable with what she covers in her feminist comedy shows. Regardless, her passion for sex education drives her to incorporate this topic into her work.

“What I’m doing is not controversial in the same sense as a white comedian going up on stage and using the N-word, or a man calling their girlfriend a bitch, or a whore, or whatever. That’s, to me, a very different kind of controversy,” says Beaulieu. I don’t even consider what I’m doing controversy, and the whole point of my comedy is to normalize this stuff, to take the controversy out of it, because periods should not be controversial, being bisexual should not be controversial, sex in general should not be controversial since most people in the world have it.”

Foisy agrees, “I love the idea of challenging the audience. I don’t want them to be comfortable the whole time, I want them to think about things, I want them to challenge their own preconception about themselves.”

Foisy thinks this requires knowing what your audience wants. “If you just think they’re idiots out of the gate, or vice-versa, you just think they’re uptight [political correctness] police out of the gate, then you’re not going to able to challenge them — they’re just going to tune you out,” he explains.

Satire is used by comedians to expose flaws or deficiencies in governments or people in power, sometimes with the goal of effecting change. But when misunderstood or used poorly, satire can just be harmful and offensive. Beaulieu does not encourage comedians to use satire as a way to broach sensitive topics, such as race or sexual identity.

“I don’t think a lot of audiences are smart enough to grasp satire… And there will also be people, even if they do understand it, they’ll laugh for the wrong reasons, and then we are still programming human beings to laugh at racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, ableist, body-shaming punch lines,” says Beaulieu.

American satirists are popular and sometimes use their popularity to make public statements aimed at inciting change. Stephen Colbert testified before the House Judiciary Subcommittee in 2010 with a sarcastic speech about the living conditions and lack of rights for migrant farm workers in the United States. In his speech, Colbert used racial slurs and other provocative methods to point out the American government’s indecencies toward migrants.

At the same time, Colbert was interested in using his voice to amplify the issues of a marginalized group. “I like talking about people who don’t have any power, and this seemed like one of the least powerful people in the United States are migrant workers who come and do our work, but don’t have any rights as a result,” he said in Congress.

Comedic methods like these can be rewarding, but they are also risky; Colbert’s speech could have been interpreted as a privileged man propagating racist discourse.

Beaulieu’s rule of thumb is to punch up and never down, in relation to your privilege and that of the group that you are talking about. A white comedian discussing the wrongdoings of white people is punching up. A female comedian talking about misogynistic men is punching up. A straight comedian mocking queer people would be punching down.

When it comes to sensitive topics, Beaulieu believes, “If you’re going to be criticizing a group of people, or even a political issue, or a world issue in general — it should always be punching up depending on what your identity is… that doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t talk about certain issues, but you have to be more careful with them if you are the oppressor in the subject that you’re tackling.”

Yim agrees, “I don’t think that there is anything we can’t touch, that comedy is excluded from. But I think it’s incredibl[y] important to be aware of your role in comedy, and to have a goal with that.”

“I don’t think that there is anything we can’t touch, that comedy is excluded from. But I think it’s incredibl[y] important to be aware of your role in comedy, and to have a goal with that.”

Yim will consider a few things when deciding whether a joke is worth the “currency” she has on stage. “Was that joke necessary, is it something we needed to draw attention to for this joke to work? Were people offended and did they express that? And was it funny? Remember why we’re here. Was that funny and was that worth it?”

Close to home

Local comedy shows are inexpensive spots for entertainment, often requesting as little as five dollars for a show featuring experienced comedians. Campus comedy troupes, such as the Trinity College Comedy Collective and the UC Follies Sketch Comedy Troupe, bring the art close to home.

The Trinity College Comedy Collective invites comedians from around the city to put on a show for students during exam season or other times of heightened stress.

Yim is the co-head writer for the UC Follies Sketch Troupe, a group of nine students who put on bi-monthly shows at local clubs in the city and smaller shows on campus.

Yim finds pleasure in working with diverse individuals in her comedy troupes, some with experience in comedy and some with no experience at all, who are just interested in laughing. “When you get a group of people telling these stories from different points of view, what could be more interesting than that? I just can’t think of anything else,” she says.

Like other student initiatives, student comedy can be defined by progressive attitudes. Young people may be the driving force behind a changing comedy scene that is becoming more diverse and accepting of marginalized populations and their involvement in the scene as performers and organizers of shows.

Both campus organizations represent an intersection of students and local comedy. This intersection of campus comedy with the Toronto comedy scene brings together different audiences and sparks ideas.

Yim says, “I would be more inclined to make a hesitantly less [politically correct] joke off-campus than I would on campus… For one, I would know the people I’m performing for, and I wouldn’t want to offend any of them… But more than that, the standards for progressiveness and liberalism and general decency are higher for me on campus, so I assume it would be for others on campus. There is a heightened sense of awareness when it comes to offending groups of people or certain people.”

Foisy believes that the difference in audiences between one place and the next, even within Toronto, keeps things exciting as comedy evolves in the city. “I would say when I started, it was like a lot of comedy scenes, where it didn’t really reflect the city it was in …. it was mostly white guys. And now it’s still mostly white guys, but I would say the proportion is less. I think there’s way more people and more of them are women and people of colour. And that’s rad too. It’s an exciting time to do comedy, it’s great, [and] people talk about it,” he says.

Check your coat, then check your privilege

Privilege and a sense of entitlement can give comedians the feeling that they can say whatever they want, wherever they want, because of the protection of freedom of speech.

Foisy feels, “Not enough comedians recognize that the world has changed underneath their feet … they’re just fucking like, ‘Oh, nobody likes my jokes anymore.’ And it’s like, ‘Well it’s not about your fucking jokes anymore, man, the world is changing.’”

He comments on how comedy as a vehicle for freedom of speech can become an excuse for saying offensive things: “Their jokes never back up how important they think what they’re saying is… it’s like, ‘OK, if that’s true, if what you’re saying is you need to be able to say all of this stuff that you want to say, then fucking how come I never hear you writing about free trade? Where is your joke about climate change or consumerism or systemic racism, or the influences of money on politics?’ All these big problems, and they don’t tell any jokes about that.”

Beaulieu recognizes that she has a responsibility to address societal problems in her comedy. “Everything I do has a political purpose behind it, that’s the kind of art that I create, so I do think that me talking about sexuality on stage, talking about menstruation, talking about women’s issues, writing about it, producing shows that are very inviting to women… [It] is a responsibility that I feel I do have, and I feel that every human being on this planet should also feel that same responsibility, to use their existence to better the world in some capacity, even if it’s on the more minor level,” she says.

Yim feels a sense of responsibility even for the minor effects comedy can have on individual lives. “In the grand scheme of things, even in the scheme of U of T, we’re not making huge ripples, but for every show we do, it’s that feeling that, ‘We did that, and that’s good that we did that.’ It always feels important. Even if somebody were to come watch one of our shows just once and laugh and continue on with their lives, what a special thing we got to do and share with them,” she explains.

Freedom of speech and empathy are not mutually exclusive. Empathy can help a comedian to check their privilege; free speech can help a comedian expose difficult truths. As some comedians are discovering, “punching up” punch lines that connect to the audience may be reinventing the nature of comedy.

Welcome to Toronto

Kensington

Walking through Kensington Market feels like walking through an urban museum. Brick walls are disguised as canvases with vibrant graffiti. People can be seen displaying their own works of art in the forms of tattoos and attire. Blue Banana provides the funkiest gifts for every person and every occasion; they sell everything from beautiful jewelry and funky socks, to kitchen gadgets, and a wide array of hot sauces. Get your caffeine fix, and get some studying in, at Pamenar with a vanilla latte — stick around on a Wednesday night for weekly trivia. Kensington also offers excellent brunch options like those served at Aunties and Uncles. The classic diner is strewn with vintage knick-knacks and serves up breakfast, brunch, and lunch depending on what time you drag yourself out of bed. The vintage trend continues throughout the market, with numerous vintage shops to rifle through, such as Courage My Love. While you’re there, browse the bikes at Bikes on Wheels, because you may need to hop on one to get to the rest of the places on this list — they’re faster than the TTC, and a lot more fun.

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Leslieville

Leslieville is a modest treasure in the east-end of the city, which has emerged recently as one of Toronto’s hippest neighbourhoods. Leslieville is a tight-knit community that specializes in a slow moving lifestyle. Drinking a perfectly pulled americano in one of the many independent café’s is a common pastime, and the leisurely pace of  Queen St. East allows you to take some time to enjoy the authenticity of the streets and storefronts. If you have ever wanted to star on Degrassi, alongside our best friend from the 6ix, Drake, head to De Grassi Street. While you’re there check out Bonjour Brioche, which serves breakfast, lunch and of course, brunch. There will most likely be a line out the door, but the buttery deliciousness of their flakey croissants is well worth the wait. After brunch, count on Desmond & Beatrice, or Bobbette & Belle, to whip up scrumptious baked goods and cupcakes that you’ll want to devour after documenting their cuteness with an Instagram post. With a full stomach and a happy heart, you can visit one of the many café’s that serve the locals. Te Aro is a modern coffeehouse lodged in a converted garage with a beautiful patio. The coffee beans they use are roasted on site, so your velvety smooth latte is sure to be fresh. Of course, Leslieville has more to offer than delicious food, including many vintage clothing shops and antique stores. Gadabout sells unique oddities, accessories, clothing and textiles. If you decide to visit Leslieville at night, they have loads of restaurants and bars that are sure to serve a good cocktail or local brew, including Hitch and Goods and Provisions.

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St. Lawrence Market

Wake up buttercup, there’s no better cure for last night’s shenanigans than to get up and explore an area of the city that is made for the morning — the Market Block. Established in 1803 at Front and Jarvis, St. Lawrence market is Toronto’s largest indoor market. It houses 120 vendors, merchants, and artisans who are passionate about the goods they are selling. Produce and meat are brought in fresh from Ontario farms, while the south market houses permanent meat, seafood, produce and restaurant stalls. The north market is open on Saturdays, and on Sundays for boutique selling. The south is open from Tuesday to Saturday. You’re going to work up an appetite fighting the crowds and practicing your restraint, so be sure to grab a peameal bacon sandwich at Carousel Bakery — a necessity now that you’re in Hogtown. If you’re up for an adventure, search out Anton Kozlik’s Canadian Mustard and giant pickles. The market block is also home to an antiques market that is only open on Sundays starting at dawn, so be sure to visit on a couple different occasions to experience it all.

Queen St. West

I’m talking way west. Queen St. West lost its edge when its storefronts became a copy of what you can see in the Eaton Center. The big box retailers took over and pushed the small guys out. But, if you work your way west of Bathurst, Queen West’s character has been retained with independent boutiques, unique restaurants, art galleries, and concert venues making Queen St. West the second hippest district in the world, according to  Vogue magazine. Trinity Bellwoods Park — which extends from Queen St. West to College St.  — welcomes hippies, hipster dog owners, and everyone in between. When you work up an appetite, Chippy’s Fish and Chips across the street serves up one badass Halibut. Keep heading west and you’ll find legendary boutique hotels, like The Drake and The Gladstone. The Drake is a one-stop culture haven that provides food during the day at multiple in-house restaurants, as well as nightlife and concerts after the sun goes down. Similarly, yet still uniquely, The Gladstone is adorned with art installations and hosts art exhibitions and small concerts. If shopping is your thing, set aside a whole day to wander the area (be sure to check out Philistine), and keep an eye on the time because it’s easy to lose track.

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Article and photos by Victoria Banderob.

“I wear a lot of hats”

In a narrow shop in Kensington Market crammed wall-to-wall with antique wares, a girl sits cross-legged on the floor, parka tossed aside, rifling through a basket of silver beads. Behind her, her friend tries on seven different suit-vests until he settles on his two favourite options. “Holy Cow” by The Band ripples through the speakers as they shop.

A variety of eclectic treasures have found their way to family-run vintage shop Courage My Love. A favourite among Torontonians, the store is known for its glass beads, nifty trinkets, exotic jewellery, and cheap vintage clothing and accessories. Cece Scriver of Courage My Love provided some insight into the appeal of vintage clothing, and why old, to her, is better than new.

 

The Varsity: What do you think lies at the heart of people’s love of vintage?
Cece Scriver:
Originality. The thing about vintage is that it’s not cookie-cutter. You have to know what you want and what you look good in. It’s individuality and originality.

 

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TV: Do you think old is better than new?

CS: Yes! The reason why we started our business was because, in 1975, we realized that recycling was good — making something once and wearing it five times, rather than making something once and then buying something new… [We] remade stuff so it was in fashion — so we’d take things that were out of fashion and turn them into in-fashion.

 

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TV: Is the authenticity of vintage being lost now that it’s trendy to buy new clothing that has been manufactured to look old?

CS: That’s when you know you have to change. If you don’t change, you’ll get stuck in a rut. Now, it’s harder to find actual vintage. We have had to always change with the times. My mom and I are good at figuring out what people want before they want it. We try to fill the niches that no one has.

 

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TV: Can you describe your favourite item of vintage clothing?

CS: I wear a lot of hats. I wear a lot of old men ‘40s hats. I collect [Afghan] Kuchi dresses as well, from the ’30s. I have, like, ten of them — they’re hard to find, and I love them. I never wear new stuff. Just my jeans… I won’t pay more than $20 for something. I will for a bottle of wine, though.

 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.