Checking in on the State of Canadian Comedy with Mark Forward
Mark Forward has been performing standup comedy for two decades now, and he’s a bit of an anomaly in a number of ways. He’s a Canadian who doesn’t aspire to pack up and move to the United States to grow his career, instead choosing to remain in his native Toronto. From that base, he’s built a terrific resume, including multiple runs at the Just For Laughs and Edinburgh comedy festivals, roles on season 3 of FX’s Fargo (as deputy Donny Mashman), the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s hit series Mr. D, and Crave TV’s Letterkenny, as well as his own podcast and appearances on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson and Ferguson’s standup tour.
More recently, Forward gave a State of Canadian Comedy industry address at this year’s JFL fest in Montreal. And while the 43-year-old still has plenty left in the tank, his experience, drive, and passion for the business has made him a mentor of sorts to Toronto area comedians. He recently took time to discuss his unique path in comedy and the differences between Canada and the US when it comes to the business of the art.
The Just For Laughs “State of Comedy address” has been a fixture with Andy Kindler at that festival for decades now. Why did you think that this was the right time to put together a Canadian version?
I’ve always wanted to do it, but I think you had to be not at a certain level, but have a clout or experience. And I’m not worldly famous, but I have 20 years of experience, so it was the right time. And I’ve just been on a real kick of trying to get more attention for Canadians and Canadian entertainment.
On Twitter you’re one of Canada’s more outspoken comics. Was that always who you were, even as a person before you got into the business?
No. I do it, and I have regret, and then remember, “No, you’re right.” But I’d rather speak it than say nothing. And that’s what happens a lot. You should see my DMs after I say something. People are like, “Oh my God, thank you for saying that,” but it’s like, “I need your support. I need your public support.”
You’ve mentioned you’ve been in the business 20 years now. What’s the craziest thing Mark Forward thought 20 years ago that he now knows is bullshit?
I don’t know, that I’d be happy? [laughs] I never came in with a grandiose dream, so I’ve never had goals. I work hard and I work towards being good at what I do, but these things sort of come from hard work, I think. I could just be lucky, I don’t know. I never thought, “Hey, I want to be on Fargo one day.” That never would’ve crossed my mind. I had one goal when I started, and that was to get to Montreal [for Just For Laughs] and consistently go to Montreal. And I’ve done that, so now I can just die.
There have been so many ups and downs and changes in standup over the years. What do you think is behind the evolution of the art form?
I have no idea. I’m always of the mind that this is going to be the year people are just going to stop doing it. I don’t know why, but I’ve always had that fear that it’s going to go the way of the dodo, but it hasn’t. Different parts of it fade, and I don’t know if, because there’s more places to do it, the clubs aren’t the focal point anymore.
Is that mostly because of the rise of podcasts?
Yeah, podcasts, and alternative venues. There’s just so many more ways to get your stuff out there too.
In your JFL State of Canadian Comedy address, you mentioned Comedy Bar in Toronto.
Yeah, I love that place.
What separates it from other venues? Is it about [owner] Gary Rideout Jr.’s experience in the business and that he understands what talent needs?
I think what he does and did was that, number one, he kept it affordable, so that people can afford to do it. I always feel guilty when I rent his room, because the price, there’s just nowhere comparable. And then, to do it seven days a week, and then to expand because he felt the need for another room, and then to buy another place, it’s just amazing.
And I think it has to do with the quantity, too; you’re going to see some real garbage, but you’re going to see some people who are being allowed to try. Whereas coming up in Yuk Yuk’s, it was kind of like, “Go this route or…don’t.” If you love doing jokes in front of people in hockey jerseys in [Royal Canadian] Legion [Halls], then Yuk’s is for you. I mean, I learned a lot on those stages, but it wasn’t standup.
You touched on it a little bit, but let’s talk more about the affordability factor. You mentioned fans and comedians have more options with Comedy Bar — aren’t you also creating new generations of people who can enjoy comedy and who appreciate the art form when you make it easier for them to afford it?
Yeah, and also – you go back to the Carson days, and how many great comics didn’t have any opportunity? And now Netflix, I feel, is putting out a new special every week. I mean, I don’t think they’ll be able to sustain that. There’ll be some pretty crappy specials in 365 straight days of them. But now there’s just more opportunity to get out there and to fail out there. So I think more comics are able to get that opportunity now, which I think is good. But there’s two sides to that story: There’s also a lot more shitty comics out there.
One of the things that kind of struck me about your JFL address was how frustrating and difficult it is to get original and clever pieces to a larger audience in Canada. Do you think that’s why, once Canadians do get to the US, they have a relatively easier time finding outlets or opportunities – they’ve had to push harder to get seen?
Well, there’s just so many more opportunities there. I’ve always said, when you go to the States, it’s, “What do you got? Show us what you’ve got.” Whereas here, it’s more, “We are going to tell you what we can possibly do, maybe. And we probably won’t do it.” In America they want to make money, and they also have the cash to make flops and take risks. I understand that we don’t, but I wish that we took a little more risk. Because we always seem to have the cash to buy the American shows. And I understand buying those, and I understand they get the ratings, and I understand they bring in the advertisers. But maybe you could have a “We’re also going to do this, too” fund.
You’ve opened for Craig Ferguson, you’ve toured with him extensively traveling the world, you’ve done the Edinburgh festival, crisscrossed Canada. Are the differences in audiences from country to country or region to region really that pronounced? Or have technologies homogenized audience reaction?
It’s true, [technology] has brought it together a little bit more. When I started, you could go to Northern Ontario and have trouble. I mean, they didn’t have internet 20 years ago. So yeah, I think overall the world has been brought together, but are there differences in audiences? Absolutely. Totally. Like, UK crowds don’t clap. They just don’t. Do you know those comics that do that long speech where there’s nothing funny in it and then they end? Do you know those ones? They greet that with nothing.
Is that in Edinburgh?
Yeah. The first time I did Edinburgh I thought, “Is it me?” But no, they just don’t give up their claps over there. But overall? I’ve played at Australia, Scotland, I’ve played all over the States. People are the same.
You also had the chance this past year to work on Fargo with the great Carrie Coon. What was that experience like?
Working on something like Fargo was so great because they were all being creative, which really doesn’t happen a lot on Canadian sets. But on Fargo, there was a lot of, “What do you think you should do here?” Whereas on Canadian shows it’s like, “Walk over here, say that, turn around and walk over there.” So just working with those talented people and with that writing, oh my God.
There was one scene where when I was sitting with Shea [Wigham] and Carrie where I was basically watching TV. Like, “Oh my God, did you see that eye movement she made? That was amazing. Oh wait, it’s my line.” And oh my God, she’s the nicest person in the world. I don’t talk to anyone, and within 20 minutes of sitting in the room with her, she knew everything about me. And she keeps in touch. She’s really cool.
Who were your comedy idols growing up?
I was not one of those guys that had the big focus on listening to records growing up. I was a huge fan of movies – Strange Brew and that type of thing. You know, I watched that the other day, and not all of it holds up, but it still has its parts. And I remember watching Three’s Company and watching John Ritter do his thing as a kid, and I knew I just wanted something to do with that. But standup was never on my radar. I went the theatre route first.
You’ve never lived in the States in your career. Is there any desire for you to move there?
No, it’s not my place. This is my home, and I’ve been getting things I wanted to get here, so I have no interest. I probably could do more and make more money, but never wanted to.
You also mentioned in your JFL address the CBC, which has gotten some flak for some of the projects they’ve taken on. But as you said, over the years, you don’t see a lot of other networks investing in any comedy. The CBC does deserve some credit for that, right?
Oh for sure. Like I said in the speech, I commend them for making stuff, whether you like it or not, some of it successful. And it might not be stuff that I watch, but it’s successful, so you can’t knock it.
You have a Canadian hit on your hands with Letterkenny, but then the opposite of that was [Canadian cable specialty channel] Crave TV’s What Would Sal Do?, which I thought was great, but ended abruptly. What do you chalk that up to?
My God, did we get hammered on that thing.
Is that maybe the most frustrating part – where you know you’ve got something good and for whatever reason it’s not being embraced?
Yeah, to the point we were calling each other going, “Are we crazy? We thought this was good.” But I think it was marketed wrong. I wouldn’t have sold it to Letterkenny folk. As much as it’s crude and that sort of thing, I don’t think it’s for Letterkenny kind of people. And they gave it two weeks. So what can you do?
The crazy thing with Sal too is the second season is written. There’s eight episodes written and paid for. And I think we made it for something like $400,000. The whole thing was block-shot, we jumped through every hoop to get that thing made, and then they just went and bought other shows about somebody doing God’s work.
If you were talking to young standups or comedians, clearly being funny is a requisite for the job, but would you tell them you basically have to take a class in government funding and how it works to thrive or survive in Canadian comedy?
[laughs] Yeah, you have to know the best time to pitch, because you have to know the quarterly calendar and when they know how much money they have left at the end of the year.
Do you think in the next five years the business is going to be more fragmented than it is already?
I honestly don’t know. I mean, I love what they’re doing down in the States. Comedy Central was a dying network that had South Park and then they started making stuff. And people started watching, and then they got money to make more stuff. I don’t know what [Canada’s] Comedy Network is. I have no idea. And I don’t know why the people running it are the same people that were running it when I started standup 20 years ago.
It’s the same people doing comedy at the CBC and the same people doing comedy at the Comedy Network. I don’t know. When your baseball team is losing, don’t you fire the coach? All I’m doing is trying to do my part. I was sitting around bitching, so much so I did the speech thing, I got together with Ben Minor and Graham Clark to get the Juno back. And things that piss me off, I’m actually doing something about. That’s all I know. That was my New Year’s resolution two years ago.
Let’s talk about that – you, Ben, and Graham basically lobbied to get the Junos [Canada’s version of the Grammys] to bring back the Comedy Album of the Year award. Was that a big battle?
It took some egging on through Twitter, but that got us in the door. But I said that I wanted that to come back after New Year’s two years ago and just kept pushing, and they finally agreed to see a proposal.
And the thing is, once it’s on the Junos – I don’t know exactly how it works – but then we get considered as actual artists and we can apply for grants where we couldn’t before. Like, musicians with the Junos, they can apply for government grants, and now we can. So I just wanted to get that done and leave it with other people.
Now that you’re one of the most experienced comedians in Toronto, do you get younger comics coming up to you for guidance and advice?
Yeah, I’ll get emails and stuff and people asking me questions. I try not to give too much, because I didn’t like it when I was younger. And also, I find looking back that I wish I hadn’t been swayed in different directions, because then I started being a comic that I really wasn’t. So I give advice as much as I can, but I try not to be one of those guys that brings advice without asking, because by God, I came up with a lot of those arseholes.
How much has the Canadian comedy scene evolved in your time?
It’s weird, because there aren’t more gigs, but now there’s more opportunity. When I first started I used to be able to go out west and I was out there for eight weeks, but you can’t do that anymore. It’s just not there. I mean there was Yuk’s, and that was it. But there’s definitely more opportunity now and ways to get yourself out there.
Is there something you’d like the media to focus on that they don’t currently do when it comes to covering comedy?
I mentioned this in the address, but I filmed a special that’ll be out soon, and I wanted press and I had two outlets tell me I had to come up with a slant for the story. And I thought, “Me being a standup in Canada filming my first special – isn’t that a story?” Bill Burr comes to town and there’ll be ten stories about him coming and playing a festival. There’s never any stories about “how Bill deals with something” or that require a slant. So I would like a little bit of that.
Adam Proteau writes about entertainment, culture and sports; his work has appeared in outlets including The Hockey News, ESPN.com, The Toronto Star, Playbill.com, The Canadian Press, and TheGlobeAndMail.com.