It’s September 2021 and Janelle Niles is conducting a version of her Got Land? hosting gig over Zoom. She smiles wryly at the webcam, then starts the Indigenous comedy show by smudging with California white sage. Addressing her virtual audience of college students, she outlines the goals of the show. 

“We express solidarity with humour—and if you like what you see, we ask you to share and like our pages on social media,” she says. “And if you don’t like what you see, you can go smudge yourself.

The joke gets a few laughs. It’s hard to tell if it lands. That’s probably because of what Niles calls Zoom’s inherently “cringey” quality. 

Niles is part of a new generation of comedians who, on top of perfecting their craft, must put in thousands of hours building an online following. Contemporary artists are expected to maintain a flow of creative output, but also be “relatable” on multiple social media platforms—all in the middle of a pandemic that’s already hit creative communities particularly hard financially

Still, the latest crop of creatives who have made stand-up their chosen career are confronting equity issues around labour conditions, diversity and hypercompetition. They’re fearless, they’re funny, and they’re forging a new path in an industry that hasn’t historically been known for its inclusivity, or for benefiting from government support. Despite the impact of comedy as a ubiquitous artform in the 21st century, and the daunting influence of the American media empire on the culture of comedy in Canada, a lack of public funding is diluting the potential for a diverse flourishing of comedic virtuosity. In the face of this, comics are organizing to support each other, reinforce the dignity of their labour, and petition for a more equitable ecosystem.

Janelle Niles at the JFL Northwest Festival in Vancouver. Source: Janelle Niles Youtube

Inherently political

“Solidarity through humour” is the promise of the Got Land? Show, which aims to fashion a different future for comedy in Canada. Niles’s goal is to achieve greater grassroots control over the sites of cultural production: venues, shows, institutions and platforms. Rather than complaining about gatekeepers who decide who “makes it,” Niles is intent on changing the ownership structure itself. She is driven, she said, to support other BIPOC creatives—especially young Indigenous comedians.

It was her commitment to building solidarity that prompted Niles to take out the “go smudge yourself” bit. A Mi’kmaq two-spirit woman from Truro, Nova Scotia, Niles removed the joke from her set after people in her community took issue with the ceremonial practice being included in a show that involves alcohol.

It can be hard to show this kind of respect while maintaining the fluidity and transgression that fuel so much humour, but for Niles, some things are literally sacred. 

Niles says she was “born political,” not only because she is Black and Indigenous, but because her experiences opened her eyes to the persistence of profound imbalances of power. Against the prevailing lack of awareness, she says “it’s unfair not to let Canada know we’re still here.”

A town like Ottawa, where she is currently based, can be tough. There’s a palpable resistance to being challenged by an Indigenous woman with a microphone. Sometimes, she says, it feels as though “people took a module that day” on how to maintain a level of critical distance from the experiences she is relating in her routine, rather than affirming her jokes by laughing—jokes, she says, that are focused on “alleviating the trauma” of colonization. And thirty minutes outside of Ottawa, audiences give her the distinct impression they “believe in The Doctrine of Discovery.” But Niles doesn’t want to give up on any crowd. Reading the room, she deciphers a way to create the conditions for laughter. 

One of Niles’s tricks is to wear a carefully-chosen suit to fit the occasion. She has found that a potent way of reversing the racial hierarchies of settler culture is “wearing their clothes,” a kind of cultural appropriation in reverse. Retrofitting “modern European attire,” Niles flips through different identities in a variety of contexts: one makes her feel like a mob boss, one specifically honours her Black heritage, a green suit pays homage to the manga character Sailor Jupiter, while a newly acquired blue suit serves the purpose of taunting Johnny Depp in the wake of his high-profile trial. Regardless of the configuration, the suits seem to give her audiences the permission they need to comfortably laugh. 

And that comfort is key. To gauge the degree of permission available, Niles will pull out her “tester,” a joke designed to calibrate where the edge is located in a given set. Niles’s tester is so fast, if you blink you could miss it. She quips: “Steal my land and call me Rebecca.” It functions as a “tester” by flummoxing audiences that may not be aware of the historical truth of Pocahontas’s journey from the Powhatan people to capture by English colonists in the 17th century, and the imposition of the name “Rebecca” during her forced baptism. It takes a moment to apply the right amount of cultural and historical knowledge to get the joke. When it works, it can make fragile audiences crack.

Al Val performs for a CBC special in 2020. Photo: CBC Comedy

Playing with expectations

Despite the challenges of performing during the pandemic, comedian Al Val came out as transgender and emerged as a force in the Canadian comedy scene during COVID-19. (Val is set to co-headline Just for Laughs Toronto with Allie Pearse in the Fall, has just finished filming a reality show for OutTV, and performed non-stop during Pride Month.) Val’s tester is actually the legibility of her gender nonconforming identity. 

“I’m clockable… people know that I’m trans as I take the stage, and they trust that I’m going to address the elephant in the room,” she says. Val uses her captivating physicality to play with audiences’ expectations. Undulating like a belly dancer, Val jokes that she’s only just picked up these moves during her gender transition. She’ll sometimes stalk the stage in a disarming series of power poses, commanding her audience to “LAUGH!”

“Every joke is an opportunity to launch yourself courageously into the hope that it’s gonna pay off,” says Val. 

An opening joke Val has deployed recently is designed to break the tension, but also let the audience know that she plans to be radically honest. She wants to remind people that they don’t need to be anxious about what is “morally okay to laugh at,” that there is no need for “pity” or “coddling”—affective states that, she says, are antithetical to a good comedy show, and not conducive to recognizing trans as a legitimate social identity. 

Launching into her set, Val fires off a series of questions: 

“How was your lockdown?” she asks. “Anybody else change genders out of boredom? Anybody else find themselves in the throes of depression [and say] ‘you know what? You know who has it easy? Women!’” 

Like Niles, she is engaging with audiences that may not have spent time—in academic spaces, for example—thinking critically about inequality or about normative constraints of gender and race. In this way, comedy can be generative. Sharing laughter in public can feel like a group of complete strangers “are entering into an intimate relationship.” 

Val laments that she’s had to build a career in comedy mostly on her own. “Your attention is being pulled in so many different directions,” she says of independent comedy work—a direct effect of the absence of support for the specific art of comedy in Canada. 

“It’s unfortunate that in Canada there aren’t any agencies that represent live performance and comedians,” Val says. “It’s all on-camera work. And so comedians really have to truly do it all on their own.” 

The size of the market for comedy in Canada constrains how many comics can make a living. Most stand-up comics know each other, but they’re in intense competition. Niles believes that the “cutthroat” jockeying for stage time and other gigs limits the room for growth.  

For Niles, this has meant people will brashly claim to her face that she is only getting the amount of stage time she enjoys right now because she is a woman of colour performing at a time when a push for diversity has become “fashionable.”

Admonishing a performer like Niles because there is currently a modest opening within Canadian culture for people who aren’t white, cis men to take centre-stage not only ignores the caliber of her comedy—it disregards the importance of historical context and the ongoing struggle for equity and inclusion.

Avoiding being pigeonholed by a Canadian entertainment industry that tends to tokenize non-white performers requires constant effort. On his comedy album The Abyss Stares Back (2020), Monty Scott jokes that he has “the internationally swarthy look: you can’t tell exactly where I’m from, but you’re pretty sure it’s not from around here.” 

Scott’s mother is Guyanese, and he told me that he often feels that if you are a performer “who looks like an immigrant,” gatekeepers and audiences alike presume that the comedy you write will focus on racial difference, even if you grew up in a townhouse in Scarborough. He is hopeful that the Canadian Association of Stand-up Comedians (CASC), which he leads as organization president, can help the country reckon with the fact that a rich cross-cultural convergence exists in Canada, and that forms of prejudice persist that materially disadvantage BIPOC folks. 

Netflix has become a dominant player in Canada’s streaming market, accounting for an absolute majority of the audience. Photo: Derek Sutton

Always on an island

Scott also hopes that CASC can improve labour conditions for comedians. “We’re voiceless because we’ve always been pitted against each other,” he says. Comedic performers are “easy to exploit … because they’re alone, always on an island.” 

The situation started to change when actor and comic Sandra Battaglini initiated CASC in 2017 with the vision of organizing stand-up comedians. Today, CASC is pushing for better working conditions and fair pay for all comedians.

Many comedians, including Hannah Gadsby, have pointed out that comedy is now everywhere all the time. Professional comics are competing with each other, but also against an army of influencers devoted to manufacturing a never-ending torrent of silliness. Being a comedian, then, means living up to your audience’s demand for a unique angle on familiar social phenomena, while at the same time distinguishing yourself from the 24/7 production of amusing content on social media.

The world of social media can be, as Canadian philosopher Cressida Hayes put it, “exhausting, ego-driven … and abusively self-disciplining.” 

Comedians experience this sort of ego-driven exhaustion acutely. Cultivation of a unique persona in comedy predates the social media era, but it’s nearly impossible for aspiring comedians to escape the individual responsibility of finding your own voice or selling your singular hot take to the world.

Adding to the roster of challenges, joke theft—long the cardinal sin of comedy—has become common as meme culture on social media platforms overwhelms social sanctions and long-respected norms. The current trend, Val says, is to “literally plagiarize people’s jokes and pass them off as their own.” Whether the intention is benign—a sincere form of flattery from fans—or deliberately damaging, there is little recourse for creators. 

In what is sometimes referred to as the internet era’s “long tail,” a smaller piece of the market is available to a larger number of producers. While everyone can reach a critical mass of audience numbers, most will not. It’s tempting to think of social media as a meritocracy, but this assumption mostly compounds the stress of failing to find a following. 

The term “meritocracy” actually has its roots in comedy. Satirist Michael Young coined the term in 1958 to depict a dystopian society. Today, the concept is used—as Astra Taylor recently put it—to let an elite minority “believe it deserves its privilege.” Its original meaning lost, the language of meritocracy now serves to mask the unjust distribution of wealth and attention and hide the power of gatekeepers in a society structured by systemic inequality. 

Social media and streaming platforms alike are tightly controlled, governed by a handful of private companies. For culture workers in Canada, by many accounts the biggest threat to self-expression and collaboration is the level of control exercised by U.S.-based corporations. In Canada, the top ten most-visited websites are all based in the United States. 

Domestic streamers like Crave and Shomi can only orbit the massive gravity wells of Netflix or Amazon Prime. The legacy of Stephen Harper’s “New Media Exemption Order” is that these massive media companies are not required to contribute anything to the Canada Media Fund. They have zero legal responsibility to artists in Canada. The Trudeau government is attempting to tax some of the bigger players, but many believe Bill C-11 (currently under Senate review) will empower the largest corporate players at the expense of artists and independent producers.

Even for breakout talents, accessing the much-larger U.S. market can be elusive. Obtaining a work visa to perform in the United States is expensive and onerous. There is, Battaglini explains, almost no meaningful culture of creative reciprocity between the United States and Canada. If comics in Canada were able to go to the United States as easily as they come here, you could imagine what kind of notoriety Canadian comedians would have.” All the comics I spoke with are, understandably, doing everything they can to gain U.S. exposure.

CASC is exposing the extent to which the challenges that artists face are economic and structural. Comedians are at the mercy of a monopolistic market in Canada. While some public institutions—CBC, NFB, Sasktel—play a role, nearly three quarters of the network media economy is controlled by just five companies: Bell, Telus, Rogers, Shaw and Quebecor. 

Entrusting a handful of companies with the lion’s share of media power has backfired. Netflix now owns 51 percent of Canada’s streaming market. CRTC chair Ian Scott has speculated that Netflix is “probably the single largest contributor to the production sector” in Canada—a sector in which approximately 600,000 people work. 

A display at Drawn and Quarterly in Montreal. The graphic novel’s path from marginal curio to burgeoning art form could be a pathway for comedy to follow. Photo: Jennifer Yin

The ‘little sibling’ of the arts

Canadian grant support for comedians also lags behind other arts, which Val speculates is because “it’s got this little sibling relationship to drama and visual art.” 

A hopeful analogy for comedians is the emergence of the graphic novel as a medium of artistic expression—now supported by considerable grant funding from the Canada Council for the Arts. 

Andy Brown, the founder and publisher of Nova Scotia’s Conundrum Press, spoke with me about how, before literary graphic novelists like Art Spiegelman and Chris Oliveros adopted strategies for validating the medium, comics were seen as disposable, frivolous, and undeserving of a place in real bookstores and public libraries. Spiegelman was at the vanguard of seeing the potential for comic books to be long form, “re-readable,” and printed with a spine that would allow them to be intelligibly archived. The very notion of a “graphic novel” didn’t exist until the 1980s, when Spiegelman created Maus. the book that would revolutionize the medium. 

There are obvious parallels here with CASC’s ongoing struggle to get comedy recognized as an artistic category with the Canada Council. The official response is that letting comedians in would mean no longer being able to “draw the line” anywhere. 

Spiegelman urges us to recall that “when Maus was being made, being a comic book artist was not something you could say out loud. It was a dubious profession at best, and the only thing that people could think of was mutants in tights or something. There was no such thing as … a serious comic. It just wasn’t a category.” 

Spiegelman popularized the term “graphic novel” as a tactic of legitimation, so that cartoonists could hold their own among more august expressions of the literary imagination. 

At a press conference, Jérémy Gabriel reacts to the Supreme Court ruling in favour of comedian Mike Ward. Photo: Montreal Gazette

An alternate voice

With the relaxing of COVID restrictions, comedy venues are mostly back in full swing and it almost feels “like business as usual, but with a bit more of a boom,” says Val. More boom and no Zoom means comedy is experienced by people in close proximity sharing the socially contagious character of laughter. “We’re enjoying a nice little comedy renaissance,” Val says. 

That experience, in the words of humour theorist Guiselinde Kuipers, affords the opportunity to shift focus “from boundary-marking to solidarity and togetherness.” 

Though as recent comedy controversies make painfully clear, there’s nothing inevitable about that outcome. When it comes to the controversy surrounding Dave Chappelle’s The Closer and Ricky Gervais’s SuperNature, and Netflix’s unwavering support of these shows, Val said that she has a “nonchalant, indifferent blind trust” that “with more trans representation, these jokes will be a relic of the past.” 

She is focused on representing herself and “contributing an alternate voice to these rich fucking comedians who have … nothing to lose.” 

Like Niles, her desire stems from a combination of courageous sincerity, love of community, and a desire to “chip away at the shame.”

In Canada, the Supreme Court recently weighed in on the limits of exclusionary comedy—or lack thereof. Quebec comedian Mike Ward was exonerated in October 2021 after viciously mocking Jérémy Gabriel during more than 200 standup shows, in front of no less than 138,000 people. Gabriel has Treacher Collins syndrome, a genetic disorder associated with deformities of the eyes, ears, cheekbones and chin. While he was born deaf, Gabriel had a hearing aid implanted early in his life that not only gave him the ability to hear, but let him to learn to sing: a talent he has displayed at an array of events over the years. Ward ridiculed Gabriel’s physical appearance. His defense argued that the jokes were aimed at Gabriel’s fame, not his differences of ability. 

After winning the case, Ward was championed by like-minded comedians for having “saved comedy.” Such a decision effectively reinforces Chappelle’s caustic confession that “the funniest thing to say is mean … It’s a tough position to be in. So I say a lot of mean things, but you guys got to remember. I’m not saying it to be mean. I’m saying it because it’s funny.” 

Battaglini, Niles, Scott, and Val represent figures in Canadian comedy that are looking to redefine the artform as a mode of communication that can help audiences cope with a hard world, test established boundaries, and learn to respect the parts of social life that might be considered “vulgar.” 

“Many institutions are elitist, whereas comedy is not,” says Battaglini. “Comedy is for the people. It’s speaking the vernacular.” 

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