For the Canadian comedy scene, the lack of institutional support is no laughing matter


Between April 2019 and March 2020, the Canada Council for the Arts awarded a total of $ 263 million in grants to 2,138 organizations, 456 groups and 3,258 artists. Stand-up, sketch and improv comedians received none of these funds – unless they could qualify in another category. This, the Canadian comedy community notes, is no laughing matter.

Canadian comedians argue that the Canada Council for the Arts does not recognize comedy as an art form. The council, in turn, states that those who work in comedy can indeed apply for grants. It turns out that both points are true – and this is where the crux of the matter lies.

“Even though they say we can apply for grants, we can’t go beyond the portal,” says Toronto comic veteran Sandra Battaglini.

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When applying for an Arts Council grant online, artists must identify themselves as belonging to one of 11 practice areas including: Circus Arts, Dance, Deaf and Disabled Arts, Arts digital, inter-arts, literature, media arts, multidisciplinary activities. , music and sound, theater and the visual arts – leaving out many actors in the comedy world whose work may not fit into any of these categories.

In 2017 Battaglini formed the Canadian Association of Comedians (CCAC) with the goal of recognizing comedy as a distinct art form. Such a designation would allow hundreds of stand-up, improv and sketch comedians to receive grants to support their artistic endeavors.

Almost four years later, they are still fighting to be recognized.

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Battaglini says she and other CASC members have been invited to discussions on the issue – in one such exchange, she recalls, they were told that the Canada Council for the Arts ” don’t see standing comedy as art – they see it as entertainment, just like sports. “

According to a statement from the Canada Council for the Arts, although stand-up, improvisation and sketch comedy do not have a dedicated scope of practice under the Council, they can be included in a “broad definition of theater or literature ”. He added that the funding body also recognizes that many comedians “have professional training and experience as stage performers or literary writers.” Therefore, those working in the comedy field are “encouraged to register for a profile at any time.”

“But a lot of comedians don’t have training or don’t work in writing rooms,” notes Toronto actress Nour Hadidi. “Some actors can’t even afford to take a acting class.”

After nine years as a comic in Canada, Hadidi says she doesn’t understand why her art form needs to be lumped together with other categories. “Why do we have to keep fighting for this? What do they gain by not recognizing it? “

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Born and raised in Jordan, Hadidi graduated from McGill University with a finance degree and worked in the industry before starting stand-up comedy in 2012. It took her five years to quit her job later. by day, she recalls, adding that a grant would have helped make the transition much easier.

“I’m considered a successful actress in Canada now,” says Hadidi, who writes for television, performs stand-ups, appears on CBC Radio, does voiceover gigs and just booked her first TV role. “I do all of this, and [yet] I don’t know how I will make money in a year.

The lack of support for the Canadian comedy industry goes beyond grant funding. Jim Carrey, Norm Macdonald, and Russell Peters are just a few of the household names who got their start in Canada before heading south of the border to build their careers – which many local comics say could be their only real chance to break through.

However, this is not an easy step for most Canadian comedians. The CCAC has tried to pressure the federal government to make it easier for Canadian comics to work in the United States, but immigration and work visa processes can be complicated and costly – yet another obstacle for Canadian comedians faced with the inability to advance their careers at home. .

In the documentary Mayor of comedy, produced by Battaglini, immigration lawyer Tim Golden outlines the series of steps Canadian comics must go through in an attempt to be successful in the United States

Each comic must prove by documents such as press coverage that it is “in the top 1 to 2 percent” in its field. Otherwise, they can cite a major deal with an American company. They need a sponsor in the US who will petition on their behalf and who must prove that the comic has “a list of commitments,” such as bookings from clubs and festivals across the country. The whole process can cost a comic about $ 10,000 and take at least several months – not to mention all of these regulations change periodically.

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In contrast, American comics pay less than $ 200 for a work permit to perform at Canadian clubs and festivals, Battaglini says.

The issue of Canadian comics crossing the border was raised during the 2017 NAFTA negotiations. Government officials were keen to update the list of 60 occupations in which Canadians can more easily obtain work permits and qualifications. visas, and the hope was that the comics would be added to it.

But instead, the status quo was maintained. When Battaglini asked Global Affairs Canada why the government had not pushed the issue of labor mobility, she said she was told they did not want to raise the issue of labor mobility. cultural exemption.

The cultural exemption clause of NAFTA essentially protects the Canadian publishing, broadcasting and media industries from takeovers by American companies. For example, it protects CTV Comedy Channel, currently owned by Bell Media, against its acquisition by ViacomCBS, which operates Comedy Central.

In theory, the idea is for Bell Media and other Canadian media companies to broadcast local content. But a quick glance at the CTV Comedy Channel schedule on any given day reveals that the bulk of the programming consists of reruns of American sitcoms and talk shows, with some Corner gas and Just for Laughs thrown in.

Battaglini believes there is a simple reason there is so little local humorous content in Canada. When she presents ideas for sitcoms, she often hears that she should sell them in the United States, as it is cheaper for Canadian broadcasters to buy shows directly from their networks.

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While it’s undoubtedly cheaper to fill a TV show with hit sitcoms from the past, the benefits of producing original humorous content aren’t speculative. The Canadian Association of Media Producers reported in 2018 that Mr. D, the television series created by Canadian comedian Gerry Dee and produced by CBC, generated $ 126.5 million over its eight seasons – not to mention the creation of 1,425 jobs.

Toronto comic book veteran Jean Paul lists a series of now famous comedians who have left Canada over the years: “Catherine O’Hara, Martin Short, Jim Carrey, Mike Myers, Eugene Levy, John Candy, Will Arnett, Seth Rogen, Lorne Michaels… I wish we didn’t have to leave the country and everyone said, “Oh we lost another one!” He said.

Despite his frustration with the lack of support for his art form in Canada, Paul, who has spent 25 years as a stand-up comic and has performed all over the world, insists he will continue to develop his art at home. “Why do I have to leave to have some kind of legitimacy?” he asks.

Grants would help comics like Paul and Hadidi produce comedy albums – which not only provide a source of income, but help cultivate a fan base. In turn, this tracking often facilitates the spotlighting of television programs by Canadian broadcasters. When comedy clubs display recognizable names on their marquees, more and more fans flock to take the seats and in turn discover emerging comics.

Right now, none of this is happening in the Canadian arts ecosystem, forcing Hadidi to consider moving to New York or Los Angeles. She loves the diversity of Canada and believes that she can contribute to its growth, but she does not believe that the situation will change anytime soon.

“Just as musicians train every day, comedians take the stage every night,” she says. “But maybe the setting we’re playing in makes people think it’s less of an art form – the fact that it’s a bar and not an opera house?”

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For his part, Battaglini recalls asking members of the public at his shows five years ago to sign a petition to have comedy listed as a separate art form by the Canada Council for the Arts. Their response was always the same.

“‘What? It isn’t?’ Everyone thought comedy was [already] recognized.”

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