Four albums from the female-centric Howl & Roar record label bring more balance to my comedy coverage
A few weeks ago I wrote a roundup of five comedy albums released in 2020 by Toronto comics. I wasn’t happy with the fact that all the comics I reviewed were men, and I was understandably criticized online because of that. So after receiving and asking for suggestions, I began the new year by listening to a crop of comedy albums by Toronto women (one is a mixed duo). Sincere thanks to producer Susan Waycik for suggesting these titles and others.
All of them, it turns out, are on the Howl & Roar label, which has a kickass catalogue of both women and queer comics and is now permanently on my radar.
Michelle Shaughnessy’s Botoxic (Howl & Roar; rating: NNNNN) showcases a comic at the top of her game. The clever album title sums up her persona as a wisecracking woman who understands the implicit unfairness of the gender double standard but has learned how to beat the system, and look great while doing it.
Whether she’s pretending to have ADD to get an Adderall prescription, chronicling a trip to a discount nail salon in Chinatown for a Brazilian wax or recounting her strategies on keeping tabs on boyfriends/husbands, she’s confident, candid and in full control of every aspect of a joke.
Aspiring stand-ups could learn a lot from this album, especially in the way Shaughnessy enhances her stories with mock imitations, mini confessions (“I have a little touch of the crazy,” she says cleverly before one tale) and authentic visual details. Her vivid description of the Brazilian wax scene is a model of economy, and deservedly gets a huge response.
The way she sets up jokes is masterful. “My husband’s nice,” she tells us, with a touch of annoyance. “He’s just really stupid.”
And she’s completely comfortable interacting with the audience. Shaughnessy seems to be having as good a time as the crowd. She’s so confident, in fact, that she can even get away with giving us a sample of the first jokes she ever wrote. They’re not as sharp as her later material, but even in those early bits she’s smart, self-aware and fearless.
Like Shaughnessy, Rhiannon Archer has a knowing, savvy stand-up persona, but her writing in Baby Bruce (Howl & Roar; Rating: NNN) lacks sharpness.
That’s too bad. Archer is a gifted comic with good audience rapport, and some promising ideas and premises are scattered throughout the 35-minute album. The title indirectly references her relatively new status as a mom. She’s got two kids – one three years old, the other, at the time of the live taping, 10 months – and hence a lot of material concerns how that’s changed her life.
Archer is great at the casual zinger, such as when she recalls hating being pregnant because she “had to stop drinking… in public.” And I wish she had followed up on the observation that her three-year-old could be mean and filter-less (“I don’t know where he gets it from”). So much potential there.
The one great joke on the album concerns the fact that she’s grateful to be away from her kids’ noise; even if nobody laughs at her jokes, she appreciates the quiet.
But too many of her routines – about the paleo diet, gendered pronouns in French, surviving her Catholic school education – feel like sketches or outlines.
It can take years – sometimes decades – for stand-up comics to find their voice. Meg MacKay’s Probably A Witch (Howl & Roar; Rating: NN) demonstrates that the rising comic hasn’t yet found hers.
MacKay has mastered a comfortable, conversational tone in her act, which seems split between material about her gritty East Coast upbringing in PEI and the urban jungle she finds herself in now as a queer woman living in Toronto.
Somehow, the two halves never come together, and it’s hard to get a good sense of who, or what, MacKay is all about. The album’s throwaway title – inspired by one of her weakest jokes – doesn’t help matters. And some punchlines – such as the one about a story set at a Tragically Hip concert – simply don’t land.
MacKay seems more comfortable on urban turf, where savage observations about how the Pride parade has changed, or her unique response to being dumped, offer up a sense of her potential.
A smart, authentic bit involving a letter she wrote as a kid to Britney Spears is also promising, although any points she gains here are taken away by a terribly paced analysis of the musician’s 2007 meltdown.
The Toronto sketch comedy duo Definition of Knowledge gets bonus marks for recording an album. Unless a troupe’s work is very well written, produced or performed, sketch often doesn’t translate very well to audio.
Gentrify This’s (Howl & Roar; Rating: NN) conceit is amusing. DoK has been hired by various groups – everyone from a small-town festival to a high school assembly – to present their satiric slam poetry.
This gives comics Hannan Younis and Bryn Pottie the opportunity to send up different organizations. Funniest is the corporate sensitivity workshop, which has come about because of an offensive ad campaign that included “a colloquial term for a friend… but when you do a hard ‘r’ it doesn’t come across as kind.”
The album needs more of that kind of bite. Younis and Pottie’s actual poetry never comes together. Instead they awkwardly offer up material about race, gender and diversity but say nothing fresh, new or funny.
Whether they’re attempting a Freaky Friday scenario – in which the two switch bodies – or delivering a “Presto Manifesto” about the TTC or measuring every inch of a mule’s penis (an album low point), the two are only fitfully entertaining.
Slam poetry is great fodder for satire. But DoK has a way to go before they take home the crown.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this article’s introduction asked whether men were more aggressive at the promotion of acts and albums. NOW apologizes for any offence caused by this statement.