What a difference a year makes. Twelve months after re-opening its doors to Montreal humour fans on Feb. 5, 2015, the ComedyWorks club on Bishop Street is as busy as ever, offering a mix of imported and home-grown talent and even burgers with fries.
That’s right, you can now order a burger with the works at the Works or the downstairs John Doe bar, with all the cheese you please taking centre stage in the venerated and renovated club.
Guiding the Works in its comic programming is Walter J. Lyng, who literally left his day job at The Suburban newspaper last year to help bring the crowds back to the storied 24-year-old comedic landmark.
A comedian himself, Lyng takes pride in the role that local comics have played in getting the club back on its feet, noting that one of its busiest weekends came from ladies’ favourite Andrew Searles’ packed five-show run of C’est moi, Papa Chocolat last September.
“It’s those local headliners that have produced the best weekends for us,” Lyng says, counting off a series of names of well-known Montreal-based jesters like Guido Cocomello, Massimo, Scott Carter, Kris Dulgar, Joey Elias, Darren Henwood, Franco Taddeo, Morgan O’Shea and Bruno Ly.
The club also hosted several thematic events like Ladies Night Every Night, a three-show, testosterone-free ensemble. Anybody who says women aren’t funny should have crawled off their Lazy Boys to check out many of the city’s best funny girls, including Bianca Yates, Emma Wilkie, Natalie Willet, Ellie MacDonald, Jacy Lafontaine, Mariam Khan, Sara Quinn and Erica Taddeo.
And two of Montreal’s lost girls are returning to town next week to host the Works’ Valentine’s Day show, as Eman El-Husseini and Jess Salomon offer romantic advice from the somewhat unique perspective of a same-sex, married, Jewish-Palestinian comedy couple, aided by the aforementioned Yates and Willet as “intimacy researchers.”
Also co-headlining during the club’s anniversary month will be Peter J. Radomski, a 12-year veteran of the local comedy scene and a regular at both ComedyWorks and the Comedy Nest in the Old Forum building. Radomski, who will share the stage Feb. 25-27 with New York comic Jimmy LeChase, says he’s delighted with the club’s success and is “grateful that the ComedyWorks is giving local comedians opportunities” to hone their craft.
“The Works has been good to us over the years,” Radomski explains. With Lyng booking on Bishop Street and comics David Acer and Phil Shuchat running the “competing” Nest, Radomski says the scene is stronger than ever. “The great thing is that when you have clubs that are run by comedians, they understand how comedians want to be treated.”
Radomski isn’t talking about the number or colour of jelly beans left in the comics’ Green Room, but about providing an atmosphere that nurtures the city’s comedy scene. An important part of that, he says, is recognizing that comedians need to get out on the ice as often as possible to test, stretch and even tear their comedic muscles. “Both clubs encourage comedians to work on their craft. Both are supportive of new ideas.”
The Works and the Nest contribute to that by eschewing what Radomski calls a “line in the sand” policy that prohibits club comics from performing in other venues. That’s the practice enforced by Mark Breslin’s Yuk Yuk’s franchises, which recently shuttered its third attempt at setting up shop in Montreal after just 15 months (though local impresario David Nankoff told The Gazette via email this week that it will be back “bigger and better” at an undisclosed date and location).
For club owners or promoters, “it’s in my interest to have you perform somewhere else,” says Radomski. “This line-in-the-sand philosophy is bad for comedy.”
“The big difference between when I started (in 2004) and now,” Radomski adds, “is there are certainly many more stages for people to perfect their craft.”
From Wilkie’s weekly pay-what-you-can show Mondays at the Blue Dog on St-Laurent to Serag Meletian and Cameron Phoenix’s Shut Up and Laugh Wednesdays at Burritoville to Jon Selig’s Comedy Abroad showcase every Sunday at the hostel-run M Bar, there is no shortage of smaller stages where you can get up close and personal with talented comedians from across the city and around the world.
Back at the Works, a younger influence is making itself felt through some innovative programming that includes an Arts and Laughs night every Tuesday. Run by Brunch Club promoter Sasha Manoli, A&L combines the “inner kindergartener’s” love of crafts with the comedian’s twisted sense of storytelling to produce one of the more unique comic experiences you’re likely to find in this or any other city.
Manoli also came up with the idea for the Feb. 14 How to Be Good at Love show and recruited Eman and Salomon to host. Freed from the Yuk Yuk’s restrictions after the latest closing, Salomon explains, “We’ve been wanting to work with Sasha for a while. She’s the one who came up with the format. Our idea was to have a line-up of comedy couples and she came up with the characters and sketch ideas. She’s an out-of-the-box producer that has a vision for her brand and the kind of audience she’s trying to cultivate.”
“Brunch Club’s innovative booking style is a breath of fresh air in the town,” Eman echoes. “New concepts like Arts and Laughs and the upcoming Valentine’s Day show (shameless plug) are still offering comedy but with a spin, encouraging comics to write new material and get out of their comfort zone. And the headliners she brings in are off the hook.”
Manoli’s philosophy, like Radomski’s, is that competition should be exclusively aimed at raising the quality of the art form. “The more competitive we get in Montreal with regards to quality and standards, the more everyone is going to reap the benefits.”
Her concept shows always employ local comics and provide an opportunity for them to write new material adapted specifically for that show. That doesn’t mean sacrificing quality on the “buy local” altar, she adds. “It’s about striking a balance. How do you make sure the scene locally is being challenged and growing?”
At the same time, Manoli wants to nurture a larger base of comedy “super fans” in the city. “The audience is always forefront in my mind,” she says. “It’s about delivering good art to a consumer that can appreciate it.”
The former Just for Laughs jill-of-all-trades says, “I’m cheerleading for the best-case-scenario in Montreal. I really want comedy as a whole — not just in this city but in Canada — to be bigger and better than it’s ever been, and I want that for the ComedyWorks and for the artists.”
Despite the Yuk Yuk’s closure, that’s what seems to be happening. The proliferation of stages, including multipurpose venues like Théâtre Sainte Catherine and the Wiggle Room, means live comedy is about as easy to find in this city as a fresh pothole.
And as for the downtown parking problem that former ComedyWorks owner Jimbo Skomorowski pinpointed as a major reason for shutting the club down, well that’s even easier to find now, says Lyng. The club promotes $5 indoor parking just a block away on MacKay below Ste-Catherine.
“Problem solved.” ■
To reserve tickets or get information on upcoming shows, go to the Comedyworks website or call 514-876-8777.