Chortle goes to Canada

Canada has produced some of the finest movie comedians of modern times - even if they are forever destined to be mistaken for Americans. Mike Myers, John Candy and Jim Carrey are just a few of the Canuk comics who plied their trade in the stand-up clubs north of the border before they hit the Hollywood big time.

So, as Chortle was in the neighbourhood, for our series on the New York comedy scene, we paid a flying visit to Toronto to discover what, comedically, is on offer on the shores of Lake Ontario.

First port of call was the Alt Dot Comedy Lounge, a weekly parade of stand-ups held in what Brits might call a pub theatre, though the bar was a lot plusher than your average UK pub - a recurring theme among North American comedy clubs.

It seemed a friendly enough place, the amiable host Pete Zeolancher, was celebrating both his 30th birthday and his return from a stint entertaining the troops in Afghanistan, and his conversational compering style set up a conducive mood for comedy.

However, that atmosphere was conclusively demolished by the night's second act, Jason Rouse - a thoroughly nasty piece of work, with an unredeemingly vile set. Not witty in any way, he is a gratuitously vulgar loudmouth who relies on nothing more than brainless shock value to elicit a reaction.

Although that reaction was, inexplicably, laughter among some - he also prompted several walkouts. And when the next comic started her set with an equally witless opener about vomit-covered underwear, Chortle's table followed, embarrassed that I had subjected my Torontonian friend to such an overtly offensive evening out.

This moronic stuff isn't edgy or dangerous, as its protagonists no doubt believe, but depressingly familiar. Relating sick scenarios without context or punchlines requires no art, skill or humour, just an absence of imagination.

Second stop was Second City. The Toronto branch of the acclaimed Chicago-based improv troupe holds daily shows in its lavish custom-designed Downtown home - and half-price tickets are often available in the TO TKTS booth in the city's Eaton shopping centre.

This couldn't be further from the filth at the Alt Dot. In fact, the first act of their current scripted show - Psychadelicatessen - was inoffensive to the point of blandness, with tired themes and predictable punchlines.

Things picked up considerably after the break, though, thanks to recurring characters and clever callbacks to earlier sketches. One of the lynchpins, an intergalactic alien warlord seeking asylum in Canada engagingly played by Paul Bates, proved an exceptionally rich source of humour. Not perhaps the most original of inspirations, but brilliantly executed.

The improv for which the troupe is famed came in the third third. The audience suggested one word - on this night 'friction' - from which the group improvised a scenario, until another performer intervened to launch another associated scene, and so on until a complete story unfolds.

It made for an impressive playlet, the off-the-cuff banter providing plenty of laughs, even if they were as fleeting as the material. However, the lack of any further audience input beyond that first word does breed doubts about spontaneity. I have no doubt the improv, was legit, but it would have been nice to see the talented team truly tested by unpredictable audience suggestions.

There are a handful of regular comedy nights in Toronto - including a couple of branches of the nationwide Yuk Yuks club - but Chortle's fleeting visit seemed to encompass the extremes of the spectrum. And some nights are more extreme than others.

Published: 26 Jul 2006

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