We really needed to laugh this year. Luckily, comics of all stripes were able to turn headlines into punchlines, or else help us escape the news entirely by cracking us up over their own personal daily events. Sure, the scene changed: a new club, Tom Foolery's, opened, and another, Yuk Yuk's, moved from uptown to downtown, while Second City made history in November by having the first-ever cast with a higher women-to-men ratio. But the bottom line is always "Is it funny?" These were.
1 psychedelicatessen (Second City, January 23-October 19) Second City's 51st revue nailed the times so perfectly, it ran for nine months and never felt stale. Many bits preyed on society's ever-increasing fear of the Other (the running gag about an alien (Paul Bates) was brilliant), and other sketches took on out-of-control technology and musicians heading south. It didn't hurt that the cast was the strongest it's been in years, or that Chris Earle was directing, ensuring that each scene kept paying dramatic dividends. Only question: how will they top this show?
2 the gavin crawford show -- second season premiere show (The Rivoli, February 11)
The ALTdot COMedy Lounge kickoff for season two of Crawford's Comedy Network series was way more than a wine-and-cheese shmooze-fest. Yes, SNL's Horatio Sanz was in the crowd, but he and clips from the TV show itself were upstaged by the locals, including improv aces Doug Morency and Nick Johne, the note-perfect hosting of Kristeen von Hagen and Crawford himself, interviewed at the end by Seán Cullen. Best moment? The recreation of a scene from the film Carrie, played by Crawford as librarian Verna Howard ("I'm not like other girls, Mama" -- you bet) and Marypat Farrell. Hysterically funny.
3 pete zedlacher's 30th birthday party (The Rivoli, June 10) One of our best stand-ups turned the big three-0 and made us laugh at least that many times. Jo-Anna Downey, Debra DiGiovanni and Richard Ryder made the ALTdot COMedy Lounge night memorable, but Dave Martin's McDonald's and goths-in-the-summer jokes killed, and Jason Rouse nearly stole the show prancing around nekkid. As a bonus, the Zed-man got to screen his video footage from entertaining the troops in Afghanistan. Class act.
4 bassprov (The Tranzac Club/Jamboree 2002: Toronto Improv Festival, August 17) Chicago's Joe Bill and Mark Sutton brought their fishing-buddy alter egos Earl and Donny to town for the Toronto Improv Festival, which I hope becomes an annual event. They reeled us in with their casual storytelling, kept us hooked with the subtle shifts in power and mood between the well-defined characters and let us go with a perfectly satisfying conclusion suggested earlier by the audience. I'd watch these guys fish any time.
5 nikki payne (Yuk Yuk's Downtown, December 7, late show) Lots of stand-ups hold stuff in reserve. Not Payne, who from the moment she comes out and starts air-fucking the crowd, is like pure, uncontrollable id. Within a few minutes she completely won over a late Saturday-night crowd. How? It helped that she never let the energy lag, but she was also brutally honest, joking about her speech impediment, her white-trash East Coast background and her penchant for angrily humping objects. Intellectual? Nope. Smart? Fuck, yeah.
6 Brent butt (Tom Foolery's, March 30) Here's a guy who can work any room in the country. The Vancouver-based stand-up was so funny, he even made me laugh at a designer coffee joke when I'd sworn I'd never fall for another one. Butt makes himself the butt of jokes -- whether it's about the enormous size of his head or being felt up by his family doctor. "Why isn't this guy a superstar?" asked one of of the many stand-ups checking out the rare set. Beats me.
7 fresh meat 2002 (Tim Sims Playhouse, September 20)
There's no shortage of young comedy talent, as this showcase for the Tim Sims Encouragement Fund Award hilariously proved. The night would have been worth it just to see 17-year-old Muslim stand-up Sabrina Jalees, or teen trio the Young & the Useless, but it was made even funnier by character guy Jim Taylor, stand-ups Ted Morris and Linda Ellis (whose West Nile Virus routine was one of the funniest bits of the year) and eventual co-winners Tim Polley and Brad Hart. A long night, for sure, but well worth the investment.
8 Slap happy (Clinton's Tavern, January 23) Long-form improv troupe Slap Happy (Dave Pearce, Sandy Jobin-Bevans, Tabetha Wells and Kerry Griffin) outclass almost every other troupe in town with their smart (these guys have book-learnin'), character-driven shows. Their Clinton's gig coincided with the introduction of a new format called the Narratron (one day, someone's gonna write a thesis about its narrative sophistication), and resulted in a show full of gut-bustingly funny scenes. An improv troupe's only as good as its weakest member. Slap Happy has no weakest link.
9 lovers! take your mark... (Tranzac Club, June 14) I'd seen the talented character comic Natasha Boomer do the odd bit before, but this full-length night of sketch and song looked at love lost, won and obsessed over in sophisticated and surprising ways. The production values weren't quite there, but the mischievous, dimpled Boomer and director/co-star Jamie Lamb showed that the funniest moments always cut close to the heart and soul.
10 andy eninger (The Tranzac Club/Jamboree 2002: Toronto Improv Festival, August 18)
Chicago's improv poet laureate devised an entire multi-character show on the spot. Set in a dilapidated playground outside an urban tenement, the astonishing piece examined sexual freedom and loneliness, as full of humanity as it was of humour.
THE KIDS IN THE HALL
(Canon Theatre, April 1)
The Kids came into the hall and went on automatic pilot. Hmmm, a big April Fool's joke?
THE CANADIAN COMEDY AWARDS
(The Docks, April 4)
Questionable nominating and voting procedures, the loss of a TV broadcast and too many categories. No wonder practically no one showed up for this un-aired farce.
(Yuk Yuk's Superclub, January 23 to 26)
He wants so much to be Tom Green or Jason Rouse. Problem? Those other guys are smart.
(Toronto Centre for the Arts, September 29)
Lowest-common-denominator Italo-ethnic humour: misogynist and racist. Opener Frank Spadone was 10 times classier -- and funnier.
(Tim Sims Playhouse, February 12)
The opening night of this improv comic soap opera set in a small town was so dull -- even with guest Colin Mochrie! -- no one wanted to come back.