TORONTO — Caught in the swirling winds of a dangerous snowstorm, comedian Michelle Shaughnessy was debating whether to risk spinning off the road for a paycheque.
It was almost Christmastime when the actress and writer was plowing down the highways of British Columbia with fellow standup comic John Perrotta at the wheel. As headliner of a comedy tour in 2012, her upcoming shows were supposed to cover expenses over the holidays, but as they pushed through whiteout conditions she began to wonder at what possible cost.
“How am I gonna survive Christmas without this gig money?” she remembers thinking as Perrotta pulled over and debated cancelling the final dates of the tour.
They ultimately decided to turn back, scrap those shows, and swallow the losses. In the Canadian comedy world, these desperate financial scenarios are all too common, Shaughnessy says, because standup comedians are frequently undercut in their value.
She points to the withering popularity of standup on Canadian television where decades ago CBC’s showcase “Comics!” shone bright in prime time. Cable channel the Comedy Network once stacked its schedule with homegrown comedians instead of “The Big Bang Theory” episodes.
The sting of changing broadcast priorities lingers in the pocketbooks of many comedians who say they count on royalty payments from their past sets on radio to make a living wage. Meanwhile, they’re pounding the pavement at comedy clubs that often underpay.
That’s why a partnership announced last week between Just For Laughs and Sirius XM Canada stoked fears that Canada’s standup circles were about to suffer another financial blow.
Plans to rebrand Canada Laughs under the Just For Laughs banner suggested homegrown comedians were about to be sidelined for more international stars. A swift backlash from comics led the companies to relent and promise they would continue to only showcase Canadians on the satellite channel.
But the spat revealed a surprisingly precarious local comedy industry where many rely on royalties from the Sirius channel for a significant chunk of their living expenses.
“As soon as I heard about it, my first thought was, ‘I’m going to have to be a waitress again,'” says Shaughnessy, who likened her annual income from the channel to a starting position in a full-time job.
“Some comics legitimately were like, ‘I won’t have rent money.'”
Sandra Battaglini, who heads the Canadian Association of Stand-up Comedians, says layers of structural problems throughout Canada’s comedy industry have resulted in many comics living on shoestring budgets.
In January, she posted a photograph on Facebook showing a crinkled $10 bill she was paid to perform in an “open spot” at a comedy club in Toronto. The show was sold out and tickets were $20 each, she said.
“I got paid half of one ticket sold,” she wrote. “When is our industry going to honour our work?”
Battaglini says that experience was only the tip of the iceberg for a career in Canadian comedy. She describes a “circle of entrapment” for local performers who face limited opportunities and need to travel to the U.S. or the United Kingdom to make a living.
She hopes the association for comics will be able to address many of these concerns.
Among her top goals is to have comedians recognized through arts funding, like most other major entertainment forms in the country, including film, TV, music and theatre. The money could go towards paying for the expenses of travelling across Canada, and the costs of applying for a visa to work stateside.
She believes Canadian comics are already at a disadvantage in their own country because Americans do not face the same bureaucratic red tape when they visit Canada for work.
Battaglini also has gripes with popular comedy chains who she says require performers to adhere to exclusivity agreements that prevent them from playing nearby clubs. The rule forces comics to proclaim loyalty while receiving little in return, she says.
“How can you pretend to have that jurisdiction over my work when you’re not paying me full-time wages?” she added.
Saskatchewan performer Kelly Taylor says he sometimes weighs the question himself as he pushes through tours of smaller cities across the country, clocking in countless hours on the road.
“I might as well have been a truck driver,” he jokes. “I’d probably get paid better. Then I wouldn’t have to tell jokes when I get there.”
After years of catering to university crowds, Taylor found a more lucrative niche in hockey jokes.
Most of his gigs are corporate events, which generally pay higher rates, and he’s even gone as far as to perform a set in the Philadelphia Flyers dressing room.
Some of those shows are unforgettable experiences, he says, but many simply pay the bills. Performing in Western Canada means he’s isolated from most comedy communities, and he admires other comics who are able to mingle with their own.
“Sometimes I’ll have a good paying weekend but creatively I’ll just feel like a sellout,” he says.
Taylor finds it heartening to see how the Just For Laughs controversy has united Canadian comics in support of their peers.
“As a comic you can go through these stages where you get treated as a piece of trash and you get these weird pockets where you get treated great,” he added.
“It’s good to see us all band together.”
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David Friend, The Canadian Press