Assuming we accept that comedy is an important art form (see previous essays), the problems facing stand-up comedians become clear. Canada is a huge country with a relatively small population. Most of us live in a narrow strip stretching from East to West with enormous distances separating population centres. Stand-up is for the most part live performance with relatively short engagements. Unlike a play that can run for weeks or months, our gigs tend to run a week or two at most in a given venue. Smaller communities often only hire for one night before the comic moves on to the next place. This means that travel is a major expense. It is prohibitive for comedians to work large portions of the country because the cost of getting to the gig is almost equal to the pay rate.
It is almost impossible to make a living as a stand-up comedian in Canada. There are success stories but they are almost all people who have other sources of income. A television or radio show is a good living. Some comedians do corporate gigs, turning their routines into motivational or management seminars. Some teach comedy to hopeful newcomers to the comedy world. Other supplement their incomes with acting, voice work and writing or, more likely, a day job. However, it is almost impossible to make a living wage doing comedy even though our industry’s reputation is one of excellence around the world.
The only people actually making a good living from stand-up are bookers and club owners. There is money in employing and promoting the surplus of fantastic comedians this country has. The comedians themselves (ourselves) scrape by and are forced to cobble together a relatively low subsistence living no matter how good or experienced. Even people with decades of headlining and festival appearances are barely eking out a living.
Another obvious problem is the enormous shadow of the United States. Having the world’s leading culture exporter on our doorstep makes all Canadian artists struggle. It does not help that their comedians are free to cross our border to work here while we have to go through an expensive, time-consuming and difficult visa application process to work in the States. There are ten times the number of people living just to the South of us and we have no access to that market while our tiny population is open to their culture and artists. Canadian comedians have to go through so much effort, time and money to get papers to work in the US that they inevitably move there once permission is granted to pursue a career in the big time. Many of them find success there and in Britain but it means our country loses them.
These problems sound insurmountable but they are not. Canadian artists and our government’s heritage department can work in concert to make a career in stand-up in this country feasible. Government grants have been in place for decades to allow artists to make a living and continue to make the art that defines our culture. Stand-up has never been eligible for these funds because we are not considered artists. This is not a purposeful slight but a function of our community’s inaction. Nobody has ever approached the government to change this status. Tackling this is a major aim of our association. We have a petition in place that is gathering momentum and, more importantly, signatures to make the heritage ministry acknowledge our cultural importance and open up funding to our community.
The border issue is another area that the government can help with. NAFTA negotiations are in process and we have employed the services of a lobbying group to try and fix the inequity in the policies that allow foreign comedians to work here bureaucracy free while we have to jump through hoops and spend a fortune to work there. We are not looking to restrict their access to our market. It is good for our scene to welcome foreign acts and their perspectives here. Imagine if we had similar access to their clubs and festivals. So much of their country is far more accessible than ours. If we could cross for work easily, we would not have to move there to pursue our careers and could continue to live in Canada while expanding our fan base and improving our financial situation.
So, what can you do to help? We need signatures on the petition on this site. Contact friends and family. Tell them you need their help and get them to sign if they have not yet done so. We also need money to pay our lobbyists. These are professionals who are giving us a reduced rate to press the government on our behalf but it still costs. If you can, donate something to the cause. There are also going to be shows designed to raise awareness, signatures and donations. So get involved. It is not fair but it can be more so if we work together to make it better.
Written by Simon Rakoff