Winnipeg has one of the most diverse and pound-for-pound funniest comedy scenes in Canada. The problem is, it's in Winnipeg.
Over the past decade, and even more-so in the past five years, the comics in my desolate stomping ground have been growing into impressive and formidable comedy beasts. Winnipeg is no stranger to fostering rich and healthy arts communities. We have a world class ballet, the third largest Fringe festival in the world, and a legendary punk and metal scene. It's not surprising that we would eventually add a healthy crop of deliciously twisted comedians into that mix, too.
Sadly, Winnipeg is also a city that is far too accustom to apathy and self-defeat. If you don't believe that, you've clearly never been here. What that results in is an anomalous comedy scene that is often overlooked, written off, and underplayed by its own members.
There never really was a 'Winnipeg Comedy Scene' until enough comics came together, put their feet down, and adamantly declared that there was one. I'll credit the producers of the Free Laughs Series at the King's Head Pub (John B Duff, Steve Sim, Lee White, and Ryan McMahon) as its primary pioneers, as they were the first group that I was introduced to that genuinely took the initiative to do just that. They were the first to claim a space, put on consistently great shows, and demanded quality from the performers they booked. Open mics and shady one nighters were all I had experienced when I first started, but the shows put on at the King's Head were benchmarks for young comics in this city. Something to aspire towards. A reason to get better.
The scene as a whole took some time to get on its feet, but soon more showcases, booked shows, open mics, and all sorts of other alternative rooms started happening regularly, every night of the week. The crop of comedic talent grew over the years to not only accommodate them, but necessitate them.
The size and quality of what Winnipeg's comedy scene became was certainly not something the city was ready for. There is still only one full-time comedy club (Rumors), and save for the Exchange District, Wolseley, and the Village, live comedy has not exactly lit up around this city in a white-hot fury. With the population still resting comfortably under the 700,000 mark, and with few major cities close enough to make touring an easy option, we're kind of stuck in our own weird little comedy bubble.
Because of this, and for a plethora of other reasons that people more eloquent than me have already covered, comedians here often find ourselves insulated, removed, and feeling like the limitations of good ol' Winterpeg vastly outnumber its opportunities.
It's the classic small town performer lament. You work on your craft, start taking great pride in it, but off in the distance you see the ceiling of where you think your city will allow you to go. I'm certain that comics in similar cities feel the same pressures. You're never going to make a living doing it. You're lucky to ever get paid. You will never be recognized for it. Your friends and family will always consider it a distraction from your real job. Nobody takes it seriously.
So you give up.
You find excuses, get bitter, lose your passion, or become a jaded parody of yourself first, but anyone who stews in those feelings long enough eventually calls it quits.
In the eyes of most Winnipeg comics who stick with it, your options are limited. You can either treat it as a hobby, settle for what little reward or recognition you're offered, and/or only push yourself hard enough to satiate those feelings of inadequacy without getting too hopelessly optimistic. You can't dream too big out here, lest you get your idiot hopes up too high, only to be reminded that this ice fortress of a city was not built to accommodate your nonsense.
Some of us are going to leave. I don't begrudge anyone who does. All creative types get wanderlust. Many of my peers are making plans to get out and move to bigger cities. Ones where comics can make a good living doing what they do, where they may not have to toil in obscurity like they do here.
More stage time. More exposure. Bigger crowds. Employment in the industry. Writing jobs. Agents. Managers. Film and TV. Success. Fame. Money. As every comic here is aware, Winnipeg is not exactly in the position to support and nurture all of its misfits. It barely supports people with actual jobs, let alone ones in the arts.
Fine. That's fair. It's a valid point. To that argument, I'd like to present this retort...
So f***ing what?
I think it's important to know not only where the Winnipeg scene came from, but to understand why it exists in the first place. It has limitations that are unavoidable, but there is still something going on here that the people who helped shape it should be taking great pride in. We very rarely take stock of how cool it is that something as rich and vibrant as our comedy scene came almost entirely out of nowhere.
I don't hear it said often enough, so if someone needs to just come right out and say it, screw it, I guess it can be me. This city has an amazing comedy scene -- one that should be recognized and respected, not only by the rest of the country, but first and foremost by Winnipeggers and Winnipeg comedians themselves.
I'm consistently amazed by what my friends in the local comedy community have done. We've recorded specials, toured the country, and sold out theaters. We've made television shows, become radio hosts, and performed in international festivals. We've opened for and shared the bill with huge names in the comedy world and stood our ground. We've mounted one person shows, hosted events where nobody dared to before, and tested our limits. We went beyond what Winnipeg audiences were used to, and did more than anyone ever expected. And that's just in the world stand up. It would take even longer to go into the evolution of the local improv scene, featuring mindbogglingly talented men and women testing the limits of the form, gaining international acclaim for their skills, and developing original and groundbreaking new formats.
One need only look at the history of the Winnipeg Comedy Festival to see how far it's come in just a few short years. Back when it started in the early 2000s, the Festival featured very few actual residents of the city. Each year since its inception, more and more local comics were added to the festival, culminating this past year in several full shows comprised almost entirely of local talent. Last year featured more local acts than ever before, assuming roles not only in the Winnipeg Show, but in galas and featured events that years earlier were the exclusive domain of traveling headliners.
Still, the end seems neigh for some of us. Lately I've been getting the nagging sense that a lot of us are starting to resent this frosty little stab-chamber of ours. The rumblings of a massive comedian exodus are getting louder.
It was bound to happen. It happens in every small town with a burgeoning arts scene. Many of our best and brightest are going to say goodbye and leave this crap shack behind. It's inevitable.
I'm not saying this in lament towards my friends with the ambition to follow their dreams, or in some kind of pointed critique of the unknown gatekeepers of the comedy industry that Winnipeg was not able to provide them with what they needed to feel like a success.
I'm saying it because I hope we don't leave, for what I believe to be the wrong reasons.
If we leave, I don't want it to be in vain. I want us to leave for greater things, not for things we could have had here but are too apathetic or defeatist to facilitate. If we choose to leave, it should be towards opportunities afforded to us because of what we learned and created while we were here, not because we felt we were cheated out of those opportunities by staying behind.
A friend of mine who moved away a few years ago once told me that if the scene that exists now were around a few years ago, he never would have left. That's a sign that we are on the right track. I want that to be an even harder decision for comedians here in the future.
What do we as comics need to do to make sure that happens? Write. Create. Refine. Produce. Promote. Make every show count. Stop using your geography as an excuse to be mediocre. Don't tolerate laziness or hackery in your peers or in yourselves. Take risks. Ask for help. Do what nobody else is doing. Embrace failure. Lose sleep. Be ready. Push each other. Support each other. Surprise each other.
What do you as an audience member need to do? Keep showing up. That's it. If we do our jobs right, we won't need to tell you to do anything else.
I may not live here forever, but this will always be the city I started in. I'll never be able to break that tie entirely. I'll look back at my time spent in this city as being a small part of something very unique and special in the world of comedy. Very few saw it coming, except for those of us who were there from the beginning. It's only a matter of time before it's not a secret to anyone anymore.
We are good at this. Really good. It's high time we all stop being so damn humble about it. This s***ty little town that's buried under snow eight months out of the year finally did something right.
I'm excited to see what we do next. Don't say I didn't warn you.
J.D. Renaud is a writer, comedian, and producer from Oakville, Ontario, now living in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He runs and curates The Placeholder Show (www.theplaceholdershow.com), an up-and-coming comedy empire that features live sketch, improv, video programming, stand-up, and game shows. His one person show, Self-Destructivism, debuts this summer at the Winnipeg Fringe Festival. He is in this way too deep to go back now.
PS: I was going to make a big list of all the key players of the scene to end this off, but I knew that if I did that, I'd invariably leave someone out. Then they would get all butthurt and complain about it to me on Facebook or something. I don't need that in my life right now. So, instead, I'd like to give a special mention to a few of the great friends, supporters, producers, and well-wishers who have helped the scene over the years...
Brian Dougherty, Sandy Dougherty, Tyler Schultz, Al Rae, Craig J. Ward, April Dawn Plett, Eric VT Stewart, Sam Dixon, Tyson Caron, Janet Shum, Kate Schellenberg, Adam Morrison, Dave Shoor, Leif Norman, Matthew Rosenby, Andrea Sauve, Rumors Comedy Club, The Cheer, The Rose N Bee, The Cavern, Times Change(d), Frame Arts Warehouse, The King's Head Pub, The Gas Station Arts Centre, The Park Theatre, James Brown, Rusty Matyas, Yuri Kimura, Christine Balcaen, Marty Green, Maureen Scurfeild, Paul Little, and everyone who keeps showing up and gives a damn.
J.D. Renaud is a writer, comedian, producer, and visual artist originally from Oakville, Ontario. You can follow his weird thoughts on Twitter at @jdrenaud.