Splitsider’s Guide to Toronto’s Comedy Scene
Despite a sketch comedy history that rivals almost any city (SCTV, Kids in the Hall), and being the breeding grounds for a number of amazing standups, Toronto is rarely discussed among the big comedy cities of North America. But while most of the continent may know Toronto best for the shout outs it receives in Drake lyrics, the comedy scene in the city has taken off in recent years. From the birthplace of the Paul F. Tompkins 300, to turning WWE superstar Bret “the Hitman” Heart into an improv all star, to the explosion of original and alternative comedy shows springing up, Toronto has evolved into a phenomenal city to see and do comedy.
Best Weekly Shows
Arranged in chronological order, Mon.-Sun.
The Jokebox – Every Monday the folks at Impulsive entertainment do an impressive job of demonstrating that the variety show is alive and well. A new host takes over every week, and introduces the audience to a collection of stand ups, improv teams and sketch troupes. The variety of performers guarantees the audience a little bit of everything, and the uncertainty of what will come next adds a level of excitement not usually found at shows that are just stand up, sketch or improv.
Mondays, 8:00pm • $5 • Comedy Bar Mainstage, Bloor and Ossington
Altdot Comedy Lounge – Toronto’s answer to Luna Lounge and M Bar, the Altdot is where alternative comedy got its start in the city during the late 90s. Unlike those other locations however, the Altdot remains a vibrant force in the comedy scene to this day. Every week up-and-coming comics and a murders row of established drop ins head to the back room of the Riv on Queen West, and work their material in front of a packed (but often surprisingly tough) audience.
Mondays, 9:00pm • Donation • The Rivoli, Queen and Spadina
Chuckle Co. – Chuckle Co. offers audiences an incredibly innovate rotating series of shows. Hearing impaired comedian D.J. Demers’ “Deaf Jam Comedy” and the Jordan Foisy and Steve Patrick Adams co-hosted “Jukebox” are stand up showcases that always boast unbelievable lineups. Deborah Robinson’s “Happy Contest Fun Time” merges stand up with its natural compatriot: Japanese Game Shows, resulting in comics’ performances being judged by a group of Japanese school girls. Finally Joel Buxton’s “Stand Up In Character” has some of the best improv and sketch comedians in town doing stand up as famous people, both real and fictitious. Have you ever seen Abraham Lincoln do five minutes on John Wilkes Booth? Bet you want to now.
Wednesdays, 9:30pm • $5 • Comedy Bar Cab Space, Bloor and Ossington
Spirits – Audiences have flocked to this stand up show at the top of the Gay Village for years, mostly for the pleasure of watching host Jo-Anna Downey work. Downey, a living legend in Toronto, always managed to make sure the evening is both downright dirty and welcoming to all, and her show usually boasts a lineup of the best working comics in the country. Unfortunately Downey was recently forced to cede hosting duties due to suffering from the symptoms of Lou Gehrig’s Disease, but the show is still going strong.
Wednesdays, 9:00pm • Free • Spirits, Church and Bloor
Sunday Night Live – Toronto’s longest running sketch troupe “The Sketchersons” put on an all new Saturday Night Live style sketch show every week, complete with guest host and musical act. And unlike SNL, they don’t have the luxury of airing the dress rehearsal version of the sketch when things go haywire.
Sundays, 9:00pm • $10 • Comedy Bar Mainstage, Bloor and Ossington
Best Monthly or Irregular Shows
The Duel – Team captains Brian Ward and Chris Allin pick their squad of comedians, and face off against each other in an epic showdown in the Beaches. The audience votes, and whichever team loses, their captain is subject to a public act of humiliation on the spot (previous acts have included leg waxing, and parading around in a French maid’s outfit).
Second Friday of the month, 9:00pm • $5 • St Louis Bar and Grill, 1963 Queen East
Awkward – Comedians, actors and writers tell their most embarrassingly hilarious stories of break ups, sexual misadventures and social interactions gone awry, all for the audiences’ enjoyment (and occasional pity). There are no rules on content, except the stories told have to be true.
Second Friday of the month, 8:00pm • $5 • Comedy Bar Cab Space, Bloor and Ossington
One Hour Fun Hour – Once a month, co-hosts Alexander Saxton and Jacob Duarte Spiel gather a packed crowd of University of Toronto students into the dingy, putrid smelling and for some reason always moist basement of the Crown and Tiger bar, and proceed to give them one of the best comedy shows they will ever see. The crowd is up for anything, giving performers the opportunity to test out new bits, do longer pieces, and basically try things that may not fly in the clubs.
Usually first Saturday of the month, 8:00pm, • $5 • Crown & Tiger, College and Bathurst
Comedy Bar – Andy Kindler recently called it the “best comedy club in the world.” Bamford, Hardwick, Pardo and Izzard are just a few of the names that have played it in the last year, with Jen Kirkman and Greg Behrendt coming through this spring. You may have noticed how many of the best shows in the city take place in one of its two theater spaces. By welcoming both big name touring comics and innovative local producers, Comedy Bar has managed to establish itself at the apex of the Toronto comedy scene, possibly even inspiring some New York club owners to rip off its concept.
Seven Days a Week, First shows usually start at 8 pm • $free-$25 for big name shows • Bloor & Ossington
Yuk Yuks – The comedy open mic Mark Breslin started in the back of a Toronto Bar in 1976 has grown into a national chain of comedy clubs, with the downtown Toronto club the flagship spot. Yuks has helped developed legions of phenomenal Canadian comedians, including stars like Jim Carrey, Russell Peters, and Jon Dore. Indeed, while Comedy Bar has received kudos for exposing local audiences to famous American and international headliners, Yuk Yuks deserves credit for its tireless devotion to developing and promoting Canadian comics, ensuring Toronto audiences are kept aware of the incredible amount of talent residing in the city.
Tuesday – Sunday, 8 pm • $12-20 • 224 Richmond Street West
Second City – While the SCTV glory days may never return, Second City Toronto has been in the midst of a creative renaissance in the past few years. Its recent feature shows, a collection of sketches loosely organized around a specific theme, have been receiving rave reviews on the back of its casts’ sharp writing and versatile performance. But for those who like watching the sausage get made, the most exciting part of a visit will be the improv set after the sketch show, in which future standout sketches and characters can be born before your eyes.
Seven Days a Week, 8 pm • $24-29 • King & John
Absolute Comedy – The uptown Toronto branch of this Ottawa born club is probably the hottest room in the city, with a packed audience ready to laugh. Every comic’s dream room.
Wednesday – Sunday, 8 pm • $6-15 • Yonge & Eglinton
Toronto Comics You Should Know
Dave Merheje – Having seen the man perform live approximately 400 times, I’ve seen him tell the same joke maybe twice. With a Jimmy Pardo-esque ability to riff and play off the crowd, Dave can destroy while talking about anything, but his act is particularly strong when focused on his Lebanese heritage, and the impact being of Middle Eastern descent has on his day-to-day life.
K. Trevor Wilson – The man mountain of comedy, his stage presence and deep, booming voice capture the audience’s attention right off the bat. Their attention is always rewarded by K. Trev’s story telling ability, which can make the simplest of occurrences jaw droppingly funny.
Laurie Elliott – Sharp, charming and the perfect amount of dirty, Elliott is a master at getting the audience to fall in love with her even as she mocks herself and her flaws for their laughter.
Classes and Training
Second City offers a five level improvisation training course. Bad Dog Theater has been teaching new comedians how to do improv for over twenty years. But if you want a fancy(ish) degree along with your comedy skills, the worlds first college run comedy program is located at Humber College in the west end. Students devote two years to a full time program that includes courses on writing, standup, sketch, improv and acting. While results have been mixed (some graduates found the program very valuable, a number have called it a waste of time) it may be a good way to convince your family that a career in comedy is a real thing that you can study for.
Toronto usually has 2-3 mics going on every night. Some of the highlights include:
Tuesday: O Pun Mic Comedy, The Central, Bloor and Bathurst
Wednesday: Siren’s, Celt’s Pub, The Junction
Thursday: Corner Comedy, Not My Dog, Parkdale
Friday: Working Title Comedy, The Bar With No Name, Bloor and Keele
The comedy stages at music festivals like Canadian Music Fest and North By North East are quite good. The Toronto offshoot of Montreal’s legendary Just For Laughs festival has traditionally been hit or miss, but had great success last year using a model where audiences paid to see Louis CK, and then got access to up to 41 other acts for free. Toronto’s best festivals though are the homegrown ones. Sketchfest gives audience big names like Michael Ian Black to get them in the door, but also showcases the best sketch troupes from Toronto and the rest of Canada. The Dark Comedy Festival celebrates the personal, confessional and occasionally troubled elements of comedy, with comedians like Bamford and Peppitone doing material that may not do well in a JFL gala, but is beloved by those who want to do more than just laugh at a dick joke. And the I Heart Jokes festival is a celebration of all things Toronto comedy, with touring comics appearing in some of the city’s best regular shows, showcases for yet to break out local acts, and an absurdly wonderful awards show, in which the city’s comics give each other prizes for things like being the “best shit disturber” or having the worst substance abuse problem.
Todd Van Allen’s Comedy Above the Pub does a great job of exploring the ideas and impulses behind comedy, as well as other creative pursuits like acting, writing, and music, to get a sense of where the similarities lie. Matt O’Brien’s Rehash is a tongue in cheek look at the best of Twitter, and features interviews with prominent Tweeters that examines how they managed to come up with their tweets. The SeanPod, hosted by international treasure Sean Cullen, is a delightful burst of silliness, with occasional music and special guests.
The Shit Hawks is a hilarious series written/performed by Toronto comics about the ups and downs of a fictional band. Dad Drives features Mark Little of Picnicface playing a middle aged dad who likes to over share details of his sex life with his son, which is all you should need to know in order to watch. Space Janitors explores the question we were all asking: what would it be like to work as a janitor on an imperial starship-esque ship.
Toronto is the epicenter of the entire Canadian entertainment industry, which means there isn’t a whole lot going on. The only current stand up on TV can be found on Ichannel’s excellent No Kidding series, taped at Toronto’s LOT comedy club. Otherwise, if you like unintentional comedy, Degrassi is still on I think.
Things to Bookmark
Now Magazine has a comprehensive list of comedy shows going on in the city each night, as well as a lot of other info on things to do in Toronto.
For more of Splitsider’s local comedy guides, check out our guides to:
Luke Gordon Field is a writer and stand up living in Toronto. He is the head writer for The Beaverton, a Canadian satirical newspaper that is just like The Onion, but with a lot more jokes about curling and poutine. He tweets here.