The city offers aspiring comedians year-round opportunities to hit the stage
Montreal’s comedy scene is widely known for its annual Just for Laughs festival which brings in major names from all over. For a couple of weeks in the summer, Montrealers fill venues like Club Soda, MTelus, and Salle Wilfred Pelletier with audiences eager to be doubled over in laughter.
This major festival deserves all the recognition it gets for being such a staple in the heart of Montreal, but the comedy scene has a year-round love affair with the city. While you might be quick to assume that the smaller size of Montreal compared to bigger cities like Toronto and New York would present less chances for performers to get up in front of the brick wall, it is in fact the opposite.
“There aren’t that many people to know [in a small community], so if you’re committed to doing stand-up, you’re going to get to know a lot of people quickly,” said Josh Shapiro, a stand-up comedian and show organizer.
The city is home to the Montreal Comedy Club, which has been supporting local comedians on various platforms and stages for over 25 years. They produce a wide range of shows throughout the city, and the sheer volume of them creates a wide net of opportunity for those looking to make a living in the industry.
“When we’re open, we’re open seven days a week. We cater to both the pros and the amateurs,” said Sid Khullar, the owner of Montreal Comedy Club.
And while the club is constantly producing and organizing new shows and festivals, they are also offering a service that connects private events with comedians. Corporations, birthday parties, and even municipal shows are often on the docket. If someone is looking for more clean humour for a corporate event or if a bachelorette party is looking for some dirty laughs, the club will work to set them up with just the right comedian, explained Khullar. With a pool of around 200 comedians to work with in the city, every week offers audiences a different lineup of performers.
Open mic nights open the door for many aspiring comics to get out there, and, within Montreal’s tight-knit community, these nights also help pave the way for them to make connections with other industry people.
Khullar was also the muscle behind the Montreal Comedy Series Festival which launched in the summer of 2020. Shapiro, who works with Khullar at the Comedy Club, explained how inclusive working within the community can be.
“[Khullar] is the one that is ‘in’ with us comedians. He knows who the open mic-ers are and that’s what’s great about the festival. He gets literally everybody on,” said Shapiro. “Everybody who is a regular open mic-er gets at least one show in the festival.”
It goes without saying that starting out in the comedy business can be extremely daunting, but the mutual respect that is shared among performers within the community often encourages newcomers to see it through. Elspeth Wright, a native New Brunswicker, started her career in Montreal.
“Grumpy’s was actually the first place I did stand-up,” she said. “It was fun because there were lots of comedians there to hang out and talk shop.”
The Bishop St. bar has become a sort of a rite of passage for all those looking to get a laugh in the city. Every Tuesday they will host their ‘Drop the Gloves' open-mic night which brings in many amateurs, and even at times seasoned professionals looking to try out new material.
While places like Grumpy’s and other local comedy hotspots such as Artloft had to close their doors for most of the pandemic, performers have found new ways to deliver laughs to people while holed up in their homes for the last two years.
Wright, like most other comedians from Montreal, noted how producing your own shows is the best way to make a living doing comedy in the city.
“I had a bit of trouble getting booked at the beginning just because I didn’t really know anyone or where to go,” she said. “I started producing my own show just because I wanted to have more stage time and to have shows that showcased the diversity in this city a little more. I think it really helped me get a lot of practice and become a better comedian.”
When we reopened, there were more shows than ever. There were more tourists at shows than people from Montreal. — Josh Shapiro
Just before the world was forced to shut down, Wright had started producing her show, Battle of Wits. But with the pandemic looming over us, she was quick to move her work online and now fans can enjoy her popular comedy game show as it is livestreamed on Instagram each Friday night at 8 p.m.
Supporting local artists and performers throughout each new wave of the pandemic is important, and those who opted for an online platform can easily be found on social media and YouTube. But there is no denying that the live show fuels the environment for almost any stand-up comedian. It is easy to pick out all the terrible things COVID-19 has thrusted on society, but in some instances, it may have helped bring to light other opportunities for up-and-coming comics.
Zak Kik, who has been in the industry for four years, has found success over a summer that was sandwiched between the third and fourth wave of the pandemic. Taking matters into his own hands, Zak started producing his own shows in the park, working entirely off donations.
“I couldn’t find a venue that wanted to do stand-up comedy,” he said referring to the challenges that health and safety restrictions imposed on the industry. “I made more money in those three months of doing stand-up than, like, ever.” The success of his shows in the park has him already planning to continue doing them in the upcoming summer.
The forced closures and restrictions created a boom in the world of comedy. When restrictions were lifted last spring, many Montrealers fled from their homes to venues to make up for all the lost time and lost laughs over the preceding winter. With spring just around the corner and the recent announcement of loosening of restrictions in Quebec, organizers are wasting no time getting the industry up and running again, fully expecting another boom of fans coming out to support local performers.
“When we reopened, there were more shows than ever. There were more tourists at shows than people from Montreal,” said Shapiro. “Everyone is so hungry to get back out. They were some of the best audiences I’ve ever seen.”
With things starting to reopen, Montreal Comedy Club already has shows lined up starting Jan. 31. Tickets are sold on their website.