Toronto comics on punchlines and punching up in divisive times

Shane Gillis was hired and then immediately fired from SNL in September after footage surfaced showing the comic using racist.


Shane Gillis was hired and then immediately fired from SNL in September after footage surfaced showing the comic using racist and homophobic slurs. That whiplash moment pretty much sums up the state of comedy today.

There is a large vocal fan base who cite freedom of speech when defending the offensive humour Gillis might bring to the table. And then theres another vocal demographic who are fed up with offensive punch-down comedy. SNL couldnt decide which demographic to serve.

The debate around what and who deserves a platform has been raging around Louis C.K.s return to stand-up, Dave Chappelles transphobic material in his Netflix special Sticks And Stones, and even Don Cherry. Sure, the latter is not a comic, per se, but his You People comments inspired the same heated debate were seeing in comedy, which is ground zero for people who want to say and hear what they want.

While some comedy fans hang on to this old guard, theres a new generation of comics from marginalized backgrounds elbowing out space for themselves. Theyve found platforms in diverse showcases in Toronto like Shade, Crimson Wave Comedy and Queer And Present Danger.

In a round table with six Toronto comedians Aisha Brown, Ophira Calof, Ashley Cooper, Brandon Hackett, Thurka Gunaratnam and Tamara Shevon (full bios at end of article) at the NOW Magazine offices, we discussed the state of comedy today as well as the challenges ahead for new voices trying to be heard amidst the noise created by C.K. and Cherry.

Listen to the full podcast online or read a condensed and edited version below.

NOW: Theres a sea change happening in comedy, between Louis C.K. and Hannah Gadsby. Brandon, what does that look like from inside the comedy world?

Brandon Hackett: What I personally see happening is that were moving away from the prominence or centredness of straight white male voices who make jokes at the expense of marginalized people. Im witnessing a proliferation of comedy done by people of different walks of life and different sorts of marginalized identities. And I feel like the general vernacular around comedy and topics that you can sort of talk about is being expanded so broadly and so much that now its accessible to so many audiences.

NOW: Aisha, are you generally the only woman or the only person of colour on these big stages?

Aisha Brown: No. I think that were in a country that is majority white. But we live in Toronto, and Toronto is its own bubble. We are the most multicultural city in North America. So we have a different perspective.

The reality, though, is that the further up you go, the less diverse it is. At the entry level, were seeing a lot of change. But at the upper level, were not seeing as much. Until I started working in writers rooms, I didnt really get how white the industry is. I really appreciate working in those rooms, so dont take me out of them. But I do think theres still a lot of room to grow.

Ashley Cooper: Trans people only make up, like, one per cent of the population to begin with. There are just not a lot of us to go around.

Ophira Calof: I dont see myself represented pretty much anywhere. That also has to do with the fact that I cant physically get into a lot of rooms. I use a motorized wheelchair. Even just access to the scene is extremely limited, especially in a place like Toronto, where a lot of the infrastructure is older.

Tamara Shevon: You dont really see two coloured people on the same show. And if you do, theyre separated because its like, Oh, thats too much colour back-to-back. Being bisexual, a woman and a person of colour, somehow I tick all boxes at once. So they only need me on the show.

Thurka Gunaratnam: Yeah, theres a lot of tokenization.

NOW: Thurka, this is part of the reason, I think, why you started New Normal. Youre not the first one to create a platform specifically for diverse comic performers. Before you there was Shade, Yas Kween and ….

AB: Zabrina Douglas started Things Black Girls Say a few years back.

TG: Theres Coko and Daphney. A lot of women of colour, especially Black queer women, paved the way for a lot of comics in the city.

NOW: In terms of New Normal and its predecessors, what do they create in the way of supporting this comic ecosystem of marginalized voices?

TG: New Normal is inclusive. Its definitely a show that looks tokenized. When you look at the lineup, youre like, Wow, we check every box, from disabled to queer to trans to Tamil.

NOW: One of your policies is that comedy is always punching up, not punching down. How many of you have been part of a show where your demographic was part of someones joke?

AB: We talked a little bit about Gillis. I had a hard time giving him any benefit of the doubt. Because you know in his off time, when hes sitting on a podcast, hes saying some stuff. Hes saying things that he actually believes. So when he goes onstage and says something offensive, I know the ideology that fuels that joke. Its hard to take anything that that individual says as funny because you know the intention behind it.

OC: If somebody says a specific joke thats making fun of people with disabilities, it very much jostles me in the moment. But the bigger, broader issue for me is that its so pervasive in the culture. I have yet to do a show where I havent been asked afterward if my wheelchair is a prop. Ive been told many times that audience members are waiting for the joke to come in, when my disability becomes funny.

AC: I start literally every set I have ever performed coming out to the audience. Its built into my set so that people arent standing there waiting for me to address it. Part of that is to just get it out of the way. And part of it is to kind of take the power out of it. If Im declaring it off the top, you cant use it against me.

TG: Its really important to celebrate ourselves. I hope the audience that comes out to New Normal feels that way. Because sometimes when I talk about topics like mental health or wellness, people will come out and be like, Wow Ive never heard a Tamil person talk about wellness, or Ive never heard a Tamil woman talk about masturbation. I try really hard to keep my humour away from it being centred on being validated by cis straight people or men.

AB: I cant wait for the day that there is a white mans round table. Ive done a lot of interviews about being Black and a woman and not a lot of interviews about comedy. My boyfriend is a comic and a white man. Its so fucking funny that he never gets asked this shit. And Im always getting asked what my feelings are on Chappelle. I just kind of want to give my feelings on a dick joke, sometimes. I do a lot of dick jokes and they go unnoticed.

TS: If you watch any interview with any white comedian, its always the same question: Walk us through your joke process. And for a person of colour its like, How difficult is it for you to tell jokes? Its, whaaaat?

AB: Is it hard to joke about Trudeau doing Blackface because of all the pain that you felt?

BH: Im always grateful to be considered someone worth saying anything with regards to any one of the identities I represent, which is Black or queer. If Im asked questions about being queer, sometimes I have a weird feeling of not being queer enough to talk about it. I am cisgender. I can present as someone straight. Im sure that is something that has not inhibited me from getting certain types of jobs.

OC: One in four Ontarians have a disability, which is so many people. Yet Im often brought in to be the accessibility person, the disability community representative. While I have a couple of intersecting features to my disability, there are so many communities within disability that I cant speak to. I can speak to my own experiences, but I cant speak for this broad community. I cant speak for the deaf and hard-of-hearing community. Thats a huge gap in our comedy ecosystem. ASL interpretation and deaf performers are really not present. Any time I get put on the spot with a question for the entirety of the monolith of complex accessibility, I cant answer that.

NOW: You will say, I cant speak for this community or that community. Not all white people have a problem with that. I went to Louis C.K.s show and he had a whole thing where hes speaking on behalf of the disabled community. I didnt know how to feel about that one. Hes advocating on behalf of the disabled community. But hes making a whole bit out of it. Who can tell these jokes?

OC: Truthfully, Im not really interested in giving Louis C.K. the space to validate his joke or deconstruct it. Theres a big argument about representation in film in regard to folks with disabilities. You will say, Well, everyone should be able to play any character. But for me, for example, Im not gonna be hired to play anything other than a disabled character, because Im visibly disabled.

If the person and the lived experience thats being discussed the actual people who have it have no space, then I dont really think were at the point to deconstruct who else gets access to it.

NOW: Louis C.K. can tell that joke at Yuk Yuks. Is Yuk Yuks even accessible to you?

OC: No. It is not.

TS: Also, his joke wasnt even finished, which was the most offensive part. If youre going to make a joke about something you know nothing about, finish it. Ten minutes of working out this really offensive material and then youre like, Okay, well, that didnt land. Yeah, because its not done and youre not smart enough to make it done.

AB: No one who is offended by Louis C.K.s presence at Yuk Yuks is saying that the man doesnt have talent. But his presence there is for people who are like, Were sick of being told we cant say whatever we want.

Those are the people cheering him on. They dont really care if the joke is finished. They dont care if the joke is funny. They just like him as an emblem for the inappropriate shit that they want to be able to say. And thats the thing that bothers me. Youre not here as a fan of Louis C.K. Youre here as a fan of being a dick.

Just be honest about why you support that. Be honest about why you love Don Cherry. You love Don Cherry because hes saying the stuff that you want to be able to say.

Theres a difference between what we in this room hear when we hear the words You People positioned around Toronto immigrants. There is just one way to fucking take it.

AC: Its absurd and its wilful ignorance. Theres no grey area in how to interpret You people who come here. Thats just you wilfully turning a blind eye and ignoring whats right in front of you. Its because youve decided that you like this guy and will go to bat for him regardless.

AB: Everyones like, Well, you dont like what he says, just dont watch it. In fairness, Ive only ever watched hockey under duress. I date a white man and sometimes he makes me watch hockey and Im not happy about that.

But I know the stories of young, Brown and Black kids trying to enter hockey. It happens anywhere that you have group dynamics. The minority in that group gets picked on. But when you have somebody whos revered and respected and loved like Cherry, somebody at the top who says things that are repugnant and mean to young immigrants or people who look different or whatever, then youre creating this culture.

TS: When I went to Yuk Yuks for Louis C.K., he got a standing [ovation] before he even said anything.

AC: That doesnt surprise me at all, because the people who are going there, the people who are supporting Don Cherry and the people who are supporting Louis C.K., these people would show up to watch Brock Turner headline a fucking comedy show. Its not like its about the material. It never is. Its about a licence to hate. These [comedians] are basically just avatars to co-sign that behaviour.

NOW: In comments to my review of the Louis C.K. show, I felt a fraction of how passionate [the fans] get, how defensive they get, how my opinion or what I observe is a threat to them.

AB: Its more defensiveness. And that actually I do empathize with. Theres nothing worse than being called a name that hurts you or who you believe yourself to be. Especially if theres a kernel of truth to it, people thrash out against that even more.

You call somebody a racist and theyre wholly offended by it. Even though they may have said or done something racially insensitive. They feel like, Oh, forget you. Well, youre an idiot. And everything you stand for is wrong. You have to be wrong in order for me to be a good person.

A lot of people who are defending Don Cherry [are doing it] because they see themselves, or they see their dads, or they see their grandfathers in Don Cherry. And they dont like us calling Don Cherry a name because it offends them at their core of who they believe they are.

I have a pretty good idea who Don Cherry is. Hes a politician. Hes a person who can turn charisma on and off. I think, one-on-one, you could have a decent conversation with him.

But he is very Trumpian, too. He knows which choir to preach to. He knows what hes doing when hes saying people in small towns are more respectful of veterans than those Toronto immigrants. He knows what that means. We all know what it means. But again, people are hearing in that echoes of their family and theyre saying, dont cancel him because youre cancelling me or youre cancelling a loved one.

OC: Sometimes your existence taking up space also confronts that idea of who takes up space. With all of my shows, I work really hard to create a more accessible environment, so I make shows relaxed performances. I hire ASL interpreters and I hire audio describers and sometimes personal support workers to be on site to just create a space where more folks can be. And my community can come. Every single time I do, people get angry at me and say, Well, that cost a lot of money. Nobody else can do that like that. This isnt a sustainable thing. And it gets almost confrontational, which I think is just a defence mechanism.

TG: Why not celebrate the fact that youve created a space and ask questions. Hey, how could I do that myself?

OC: Its a lot of work. Its a lot of fundraising and sponsorship. And nobody really wants to confront doing the work.

NOW: Going back to people who want to protect the type of comedy they like… I dont know if you guys paid attention to Todd Phillips, the director of Joker. He previously made The Hangover movies. He said he had to get out of making comedies because he felt like theres no room for comedy anymore because everyone takes offence. Is it impossible to make comedy without offending people?

TS: I think my comedy offends people. I think everyones comedy will offend somebody in some way. To be honest, I enjoyed the Dave Chappelle special. I can separate, though, what I like about something and what I dont like about something. Im not going to be like, The whole specials bad because one parts really insensitive or stupid. Just the same way Im not going to say all of Louis C.K.s set was bad because it wasnt.

TG: I felt the same way about watching Chappelle. I could be, like, Thats funny until it got to that point. Or, I like how this has been packaged, but I dont agree with, like, five things, or I dont know if pedophilia is something I want to laugh about. We are very divisive. We are very, No or yes. And I think sometimes we can come together and be like, It kind of works. But at the same time, it literally discredits a human beings existence.

AC: I dont think theres anything damaging in offensive humour. Tamara, a lot of your material is offensive humour. But youre also not attacking marginalized people. The issue at hand is not that there are things you cannot joke about. It is how people are choosing to joke about them.

Caitlyn Jenner is not a topic that is off the table for making fun of. I have tons of Caitlyn Jenner material. Shes hilarious. But you come after Caitlyn Jenner, the rich, privileged, white Republican. You dont come after Caitlyn, the trans person.

You cant come after her for being trans. Thats hateful. But you can come after her for all the horrible choices that shes made. The fact that she ran someone over with her car. The fact that she is complicit in the oppression of her own community. There are tons of things to joke about Caitlyn Jenner that are not hateful, bigoted bullshit.

AB: You have Don Cherry people who tried to cancel that woman on The Social. First of all, who the fuck watches The Social?

TS: I had to look her up.

AB: They had to really look. They were really searching to cancel someone. Thats what it is right now. The more public we are in this room, the more vulnerable we are to attacks from people. While I should be celebrating and excited to put out work, I am very hyper aware of the fact that there are people who, because of what I say and maybe what I represent to them, might be coming for me.

If I call out Shane Gillis, then people are gonna be like, Well, lets find that joke where she said something from five years ago or whatever. It becomes this tit-for-tat thing.

I dont even really want to comment on anybody elses comedy, to be honest with you, because Id like to focus on what Im making. I dont want to put their shit under a microscope because I dont want my shit under a microscope. You let me live and Ill let you live.

But if youre doing things that actively make it hostile for me to exist, how do I not call that out? Because I could make a ton of jokes about white men and I do but it doesnt actually hurt white mens existence. Ive been to JFL a few times now, and trust me, they are not going anywhere. Theyre doing better than ever. White men are fine no matter how many jokes they make, because thats how racism works. You need power in order to fuel it. And systemically, I dont have any power.

This is a bold challenge. But I would actually like to see this round table with the other side: white men who have the opposite opinion.

TS: Thats just TV.

AB: Were kind of all on the same page. There have been like polite corrections. There have been like, Oh, yes, I have this blind spot. And were very respectful of each other. There actually has to be a conversation where two opposite sides need to talk, because I dont think anyone here really disagrees with the essentials. And so were kind of preaching to our own choir. And Id like to just see the conversation happen or have the other side acknowledge that they hear what theyre saying.

TS: Theres still really funny comics who are straight white dudes who dont offend anybody. But thats because they surround themselves with people who arent just other straight white dudes.

TG: I would not want to do a podcast with the other side because I already know I dont have the emotional or mental capacity right now for it. I think the people that have it, go HAM. Im here for it.

AB: Im not saying to meet with horrible people. Im saying meet with people on the other side of the issue who may not understand fully and have a dialogue.

AC: Its the difference between people who are passively ignorant [they] just dont have the tools to understand better.

I grew up in Hamilton. Hamilton is not that far away from here, but it may as well be in another country when it comes to how people are raised and what their understanding of the broader world is. When I grew up, I was taught about racism as a historical fact, as something from history, not something that people were still dealing with today.

When I was in high school, BET launched. I was like, Why do Black people need their own TV network? Why arent the shows just on regular TV? I wasnt against the idea of having their channel. There was literally a disconnect because the way that I grew up in the world that I grew up in, I did not understand that there was this giant systemic problem. And those are the people who are important to try to reach.

Its nice when a trans person comes up and is like, Oh, man, I had the exact same experience, or whatever. But the people that Im talking to are the people in the room who have never met a trans person before. I am consciously aware every single time I stand on the stage that theres a large majority of the room for whom I am the first trans person theyve ever seen in person.

I make it my job onstage to humanize the trans experience, to humanize what a trans person goes through and what they are like, so that by the time I get off the stage, you at least have some kind of perspective so you can go, Oh, maybe Im wrong.

***

Aisha Brown: Youve seen Brown on Just For Laughs and The Beaverton, and heard her bars on Wit My Woes, the rap album by comedy collective Runnin at the Mouth. Brown has written for Baroness Von Sketch and is currently writing for This Hour Has 22 Minutes. She has also taped a comedy special due for release on Crave.

Ashley Cooper: Cooper is a trans comic and screenwriter who has appeared at JFL42, Bitch Salad and the Midwest Queer Comedy Festival. She has opened for SNLs Sasheer Zamata.

Ophira Calof: Calof is a multi-award-winning disabled writer, performer and producer. She co-created the sketch comedy revue Generally Hospital (Canadian Comedy Award Nominee) and hosts the Reelabilities Film Festival Comedy Programming. Calofs solo show, Literally Titanium, is part of the NextStage Festival in January.

Brandon Hackett: Hackett has appeared on Second City Mainstage and with Toronto-based sketch comedy troupes The Sketchersons and The Rocket Scientists. He has also written for and appeared on The Beaverton. He is currently writing for This Hour Has 22 Minutes.

Thurka Gunaratnam: Gunaratnam is a filmmaker, educator, comedian and digital content creator. She created New Normal Comedy to celebrate marginalized comedians, artists and drag kings and queens. Thurka hosts New Normal and builds solidarity by making space for diverse acts, especially Tamil women and the Tamil 2SLGBTQ+ community. New Normal runs the first Saturday of every month at 120 Diner (120 Church).

Tamara Shevon: Shevon has performed from Beijing to Toronto, producing and hosting the SOS Comedy Show and Sunday Best, and appearing at NXNE, JFL42 and other festivals.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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