Comedy club owners: We wouldn't censor, BUT... | Gatekeepers speak on the state of the live industry at Just For Laughs

Comedy club owners: We wouldn't censor, BUT...

Gatekeepers speak on the state of the live industry at Just For Laughs

Comedy club owners say they would never tell a stand-up what to say on stage – but they might not employ them if they proved too offensive.

That was a consensus of a panel of ‘gatekeepers’ at Montreal’s Just For Laughs Festival this afternoon.

Rick Bronson of The Comic Strip in Canada said that edgy comedy – but also that he had to protect his business.

‘That risk, that stepping over that line, is what makes comedy comedy,’ he said. ‘I have a hard time as a club owner telling people what they can’t say.  

‘We don’t censor the comics but we have a business to protect. If someone’s turning people away or causing damage on social media that keeps people away [then we won’t book them]  Otherwise we won’t have rooms for comedians to play.’

Nick Kostis of Hilarities in Cleveland, Ohio, recalled how a particular comic turned the atmosphere toxic in one of his clubs.

‘He vilified an elderly man, a veteran, by talking about veterans in an antagonising way,’ he said. ‘He absolutely destroyed this family. ‘

And he said for all the talk of pushing boundaries ‘comedy is still about enjoyment. I’m not saying give the audience puff but leave them with their dignity – and maybe yours will be intact also.’

Wende Curtis, of Comedy Works in Colorado, said sometimes audiences had to take responsibility if the ended up watching a comedian they hated. ‘If it’s a big act [that offended them], they haven’t done their homework. Do you not do your homework when you see a movie?’

Eve Paras of Comedy Club on State in Wisconscin also cautioned that comics should get some experience under their belt before flirting with contentious subjects.

She said: ‘It’s hard for an open miccer to make fun of different races or genders. If you are going to do it you have to be an equal opportunities hater. If you’re just going to do jokes about women you’re going to be thought of as sexist.

‘But I think you need to be doing comedy for a while and earn trust from he audience before stepping over the line.’

And she added ‘it is up to us [as club owners] to do our homework’ when choosing acts, so as not to book someone inappropriate.

Speaking as part of the industry-centric ComedyPro strand of the festival, the gatekeepers also spoke about the boom in ‘identity comedy’  – and whether it had become too dominant.

Kostis said it was a reflection of society at large, explaining: ‘I feel like I’m a dinosaur. There was a time when comedy was more general, more broad. We weren’t so segmented. Now it’s the Me Generation. Everybody’s talking about them themselves’

Bronson said it was probably an inevitable trend as ‘comics write their best material when it’s what’s true to them. When you write something that’s specific to you, that’s where you find your identity.’

Curtis said it was still important that comics speak about who they are, especially if they are part of an under-represented group, as ‘we are still educating morons out there. 

‘I’m tired of talking about that stuff - if you didn’t get the memo you need to be educated,’ she said.  ‘There’s still a place for it, even though I hate it.’

When asked if the ever increasing ways to consume stand-up with every technological leap posed a threat to clubs,  Kostis said: ‘Everyone in this room was attracted to comedians because of the impact they have on people and when you a have a roomful of people that’s church. Man, is that exhilarating! 

‘Stand-up is all over television but it doesn’t compete and it doesn’t compare [with a live show]. It will not replaced shared human experience.’

Published: 25 Jul 2019

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