In memoriam: Jo-Anna Downey, 1966-2016

Thank you. And youre welcome.

Those were the five words Jo-Anna Downey spoke after receiving the Canadian Comedy Awards Phil Hartman Award four years ago. When her name was announced, everyone in the lavish Royal York ballroom rose to their feet.

The brief acceptance speech was apt, and it got a laugh. But it was also poignant to see Downey, one of the most animated, talkative comics around, be so laconic. She had recently been diagnosed with ALS, a degenerative disease that affected her speech.

Downey passed away from complications of the disease earlier this week.

Every comedy show in Canada tonight should take a moment to remember Jo-Anna Downey, tweeted comedy aficionado Andrew Clark, when news broke last night.

The fact is, you couldnt be a comic in Toronto in the mid-1990s through 00s without running into Downey, who hosted weekly open mics at Spirits Bar and Grill on Church and at Eton House on the Danforth.

When I started writing about comedy for NOW in the late 90s, she was one of the first comics I met in person. I’m not one to stand around chatting with the talent before or after shows, but her no-bullshit, East Coast friendliness was hard to resist when she was pitching me a story.

When are you coming back to Spirits? We’ve got an anniversary show coming up. Can you cover it? Can you just come, even if you don’t write about it? There’s this great new stand-up…

There was nothing smarmy or ingratiating about her approach. She wasn’t passive-aggressive, more like simply aggressive-aggressive. But her directness, in polite Toronto, was refreshing. And she had great taste. She was fearless about encouraging new comics, especially new female comics.

She always mentioned the big American celebrities who popped by Spirits indeed she had to cut off Robin Williams when he showed up and went past his time during her 40th birthday show. But I remember seeing future stars like Debra DiGiovanni and Ryan Belleville make some of their earliest appearances at Spirits and just killing.

I also remember seeing people try out stand-up for the first (and possibly last) time. Downey more than earned her nickname, “Mama,” for the way she dealt with her comics: firm yet nurturing. And super organized.

She was no pushover. One of her signature expressions was the heavy-lidded “Are you kidding me?” look. Frank but fair.

“I always felt that she gave me a hard time at Spirits,” wrote stand-up and writer Rhiannon Archer to me last night, via Twitter. “But I now know it was because she cared. She taught me to be professional, show up on time, stick to my time, and be funny! She pushed us in a way that was needed.”

Comic actor and writer Connor Thompson tweeted: “My first time ever at Spirits she gave me a hug and said I’d do great. She was kind/supportive/wonderful. (And wrong.)”

Personally, I loved how her eyes widened when she heard something she liked: a joke, a piece of info, a heckle, something she could take and meld into something even funnier. For the longest time, her breezy mantra, whenever I saw her at a club or on the street near the NOW office, was: “Livin’ the dream!”

Admittedly, there was something a tad reckless about her onstage, but that only added a frisson to her set.

She never told the same joke in the same way, something we discussed when I wrote a cover story about her in 2002. At that point, she had gone through an epiphany, losing some weight, firing her agent, wanting to become better known for her stand-up than for hosting and producing.

But the thing is, there’s an art to hosting and producing, just as there’s an art to headlining. For me, she’ll always be one of the best and most generous comedy hosts and producers ever.

You always knew Jo-Anna was in a room because of her unmistakable laugh, coming from the back or side of the room: a rat-a-rat-tat, machine-gun-fire sound that was that is nothing less than the affirming sound of life itself.

I’ve missed that sound over the last few years. I hope wherever you are now, Jo-Anna, you’re spreading that laughter around.

Thank you.

***

Local comics remember Downey here. Drop by Spirits Comedy Night this Wednesday (December 7) for a special memorial show. Funeral details: visitation on Friday (December 9), 5-8 pm, Morley Bedford Funeral Services (159 Eglinton West), and a mass on Saturday (December 10), at 10 am, St. Johns Catholic Church (794 Kingston Rd).

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