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Liquor, Late Nights and Laughs

Exploring Calgary's Amateur Comedy

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Jeff Toth just finished his stand-up routine on stage and sat down across the table, looking a bit dejected. His set didn't quite take off the way he was hoping.

I'm sitting at the back of the room at the Elbow River Casino Yuk Yuk's watching local amateur comics strut their stuff. It's a charity show for the summer amateur program run by professional Calgary comics Marcus Beaubier and Donovan Deschner, the latter also sitting at my table.

He and Toth begin discussing in hushed voices what went wrong in the set. Toth asks me afterward if I still want to interview him even though he didn't kill on stage and I inform him that this is exactly what good stories are made of. Stories about people being good at everything all the time are impressive but boring.

I realized that perhaps comedians look for similar stories as well, but package them into short paragraphs with punch lines and then perform them on stage in front of an audience. One of us had the more difficult job, and it wasn't me.

That is not to say Toth didn't leave the crowd laughing, he just had to take a detour to get there.

He explained that since he had started off with topical humour, like current events jokes, the audience didn't catch on when he changed his tone to social satire. There was more methodology behind joke-telling than I realized.

"Because I was like, 'Here's some, ooh, weather jokes! Now, my thoughts on people.' It didn't really work out," he explains.

Toth has done stand-up comedy for about a year and developed a signature, heavily-scripted style to his routine.

"I guess what I go for specifically is social satire. I like to hit notes that are relatable, but also very critical. I also try to turn the gun on myself sometimes because my whole act is essentially about how no one is perfect and that does include me."

Do his scathing remarks on human nature ever turn audiences off his act?

"You saw some of that tonight, probably," Toth laughs.

The fifth-year University of Calgary communications and culture student got his start at Comedy Monday Night at Broken City.

"It's actually a great place to start," he says. "I would recommend to anyone that wants to get into it, that would be the place to go 'cause it's kind of a friendly atmosphere for first timers. It doesn't usually go well for first timers, I find, but at Broken City it seems to be quite a lot smoother than what other people say their first time is like."

Indeed, many awkward routines are performed at Comedy Monday Night, but never once have I witnessed a flying tomato.

"There's a certain realism to it," Deschner states. "Watching people live and die on stage is very poetic, in a way, and you are pleasantly surprised. You kind of risk more going to these shows, like you might not laugh, but when you do, and it happens at every show, the laughs are huge because you don't expect it, you don't see it coming."

When Yuk Yuk's considered putting amateur nights on hiatus due to low audience turnout during the summer, Deschner and fellow comic Beaubier started the summer amateur comedy program so young comics would still have a place to hone their skills.

Instead of performing every week, however, the program was more workshop-oriented with writing sessions, comic exercises and assignments. The amateur shows during the summer were fundraisers to keep the program going throughout the fall and the winter.

The idea of separating your regular self from your stage self permeates Deschner's advice for young comics ­-- a comedian's ego cannot get too inflated or bruised with good and bad shows. While the community is very supportive, he also says sometimes the biggest obstacle as an amateur comic is actually your own ego after even a few successful routines.

"I'm surprised these days at how soon these amateur comics have a massive ego about it and think they deserve to have this stage time, and that sort of attitude gets very quickly shut out of the industry, hopefully," Deschner says. "So I think that's the biggest stumbling block, just their own sense of entitlement."

"As for bombing," he continues, "that has to happen in order for the amateurs to get good. You learn a lot more when you bomb than when you do well. By knowing what not to do you're further ahead, so bombing is not even an obstacle, it's actually a help."

Katryna Chan, a fourth-year U of C communications and culture student, has done stand-up for about four years and performed at possibly every venue in Calgary. She says it's a good idea to go to a lot of shows, whether or not you're performing, to get an idea about what the audiences are like and glean advice from the more experienced performers.

"Because you have to go to a lot of shows it can cut into your social life cause there's a show almost every night in Calgary," she admits. "So you end up seeing the comedians a lot, which is fun, but your nights are pretty much occupied."

Other than watching different performers, Chan thinks it's never too early to start brainstorming material.

"A lot of comics carry around a book. So anytime you're having an interesting conversation and you say something particularity witty you jot it down," suggests Chan.

"If you notice something or even if something makes you angry, you write it down. You go back to your book when you've got time and you elaborate on it and just pick through it to find the funny parts."

Evan Wilson, host of CJSW's weekly comedy show Am I Right?? thinks local amateur comic Marito Lopez is a great example of what happens when an amateur keeps improving despite setbacks.

"He didn't really stand out when he started, but he goes on stage like four or five nights a week. I don't know what happened, but there's like a switch," he explains. "He rose to the top very quickly because he kept on getting out there. If he didn't get the reaction he wanted, it didn't stop him from getting out there."

Mike Tod, another fourth-year communications and culture student, has been doing stand-up since he was 14. He recently shifted his focus from performing to teaching other amateurs through the U of C Stand-Up Club he helped establish this year.

Many comedians feel Calgary is unique because it has a very supportive comedy community, more so than Vancouver or Toronto where the comedy scenes are more competitive and filled with cliques.

"The owner of Yuk Yuk's once said that comedy is a young man's game and I don't know if I necessarily agree with that. It does help though, in some regards," Deschner admits.

"When you're starting, your social life is kind of in shambles and if it's going to become something you want to do for a living, it's difficult to support a family on these sorts of incomes. So it's kind of that age where you're able to take the leap and take the risk and give it a try."

Comedy Monday Night
Broken City, 8:00 P.M. $5

Aww...Burn! Tuesday Comedy Show
The Auburn Saloon, 8:00 P.M. Free.

U of C Stand-Up Club
Starts Nov. 9, every second Tuesday
That Empty Space, 7:30 P.M. Free.

Wednesday Yuk Yuk's Amateur Night
Workshop: 6:30-7:30 P.M. Show: 8:00 P.M. $5

The Laugh Shop Amateur Night
Every second Thursday, 8:00 P.M. $10

Talk Show Thursdays at Broken City
Last Thursday every month, 8 P.M. $5

Going to Hell Sundays
Balance Lounge, 8:00 P.M. $5

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