With a continuing war, political changes on the national and local stages and a tiny little world event called SARS, comics had a field day in 2003. Here are 10 shows that made us laugh the most.
1 Chris Rock (Massey Hall, October 19 early show) The best comics offer us new ways of seeing the world, and Chris Rock -- the stand-up love child of Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor -- is one shrewd observer. His comic targets included everything from rap music's bad rep and economic racism to faux American patriotism. Even his rants on abortion and gay marriage (the crowd was largely male and straight) hit home. But he saved his strongest material for the end, riffing on how marriage has permanently changed his sexual vocabulary.
2 The Atomic Fireballs (Rivoli, July 30) With troupemate Samantha Bee just hired by Jon Stewart's Daily Show, remaining Fireballs Allana Harkin, Fiona Carver and Sarah Carver put on a kickass show including -- for the first time ever -- men in their sketches. Their send-ups of bad reality shows and the yoga craze were terrific, but their best bits "milked" (you had to be there) an ongoing gag about trying to sneak into the washrooms at Starbucks. Kudos to openers Chris Gibbs (loved the O Canada bit) and Dawn Whitwell, too.
3 debra digiovanni (Laugh Resort, July 18 late show) I challenge you to find a comic with better audience rapport than DiGiovanni, a stand-up in the great wisecracking tradition of Joy Behar and pre-red carpet Joan Rivers. Her high-octane act this summer was compassionate yet bitchy, as she fantasized about sitting on George Clooney's face, hijacking her yuppie employers' designer coffees and why she's considered royalty in Somalia. Debra, you're royalty here.
4 JOHNNY GARDHOUSE, RUSSELL PETERS AND OTHERS (Yuk Yuk's Downtown, October 25 late show) The opening acts alone ensured a good night: Glenn Ottoway hosted; the city's best political comic, Alan Park, delivered a ton of new material; Rodney Pentland did his world-class Cosby, De Niro and Brando impressions; and Russell Peters brought down the house with his take on white and brown people. Johnny Gardhouse's follow-up proved he might not be the classiest headliner around -- more like your hoser college roommate -- but he can deliver major fun (and a classic deadpan look), spinning tales about boozing in Vegas, our outgoing prime minister and rocking to AC/DC.
5 Skippy's Rangers (Tim Sims Playhouse, June 6) The reunion of the 90s troupe showed that classic, well-crafted sketch comedy never goes out of style. Even without member Jonathan Crombie -- sidelined by an allergy ailment -- Bob Martin, Paul O'Sullivan and Lisa Lambert got big laughs with a scaled-back show that drew on the performers' unique strengths. Lambert's satiric song about war -- how many clever rhymes for Baghdad can you find? -- and the closer about audience participation are as good as it gets.
6 The Calgary Show (Rivoli, November 30) This warm-hearted night of comedy and music by ex-Calgarians was heavy on the beef -- musician Terra Hazelton was the only woman onstage. But hosts Pat Kelly and Peter Oldring, two of the city's swiftest and most likeable improvisors, made everyone feel welcome. The stampeding lineup included Andy Boorman, Kurt Firla, Jason Belleville, Albert Howell and Ryan Belleville, who downed four "prairie fires" foisted on him by the audience. Yee-ha!
7 Fast & Dirty CD Release Party (Victory Café, December 5) After a too-long absence, Gord Oxley and Rob Hawke, the yin and yang of smart absurdist humour, reunited earlier this year to commit the best of their act onto one wickedly funny disc. Terrific wordsmiths (their singin' ain't too shabby either), the duo performed classic bits from the CD and got a great warmup from newly formed improv act Trouble, consisting of old hands Jack Mosshammer (Train 48's newest passenger), Andrew Currie and Albert Howell. Fun prize giveaways, too.
8 Stuck (Fringe Festival, July 2 to 13) Like Fast & Dirty, the Burnt Marshmallows' Christina Sicoli and Christel Bartelse smoke onstage, as they demonstrated throughout their clown-inspired Fringe show. Whether playing two nasty dwarves berating the audience, or a pesky fly trying to avoid a menacing spider's web, the two charmed with demented laughs.
9 Elvira Kurt (Tallulah's Cabaret, November 28) There's no one like stand-up Kurt to send up the bizarre complications of contemporary urban life, whether she's discussing cellphones with cameras, doctors having an off-day or the fashion pressures of being gay in this city. Though she can nail adults like her judgmental mother (the impression now reduced to its essentials) or deluded 40-somethings in love, she's most captivating when she flashes back to her wide-eyed childhood self. An original.
10 Margaret Cho THE REVOLUTION TOUR (Convocation Hall, April 4, early show) A bizarrely coutured Cho braved a freak snowstorm to enter our SARS-struck city and deliver two shows packed with the most gloriously diverse comedy audience around. Not as memorable as her Notorious C.H.O. tour, but still full of gems. No one who heard it will forget her story about a fad diet leading to one literally shit-disturbing car ride.
Mid-Morning Crisis, Meet The Imponderables and IT'S RAINING FUN (Fringe, July 2-13)
Why do so many comics suck at the Fringe? When she remembered her less than memorable lines, Rachel Cantelon personified the titular 'crisis' in her directionless solo show, while the Imponderables mistook superficial production values for slick comedy. (I've seen them three times, and they haven't matured.) The Awesome Club's It's Raining Fun, meanwhile, proved that irony alone does not a show make. Appalling.
LAWRENCE MORGENSTERN (Yuk Yuk's Downtown, July 25) Middle-class, middling traffic and toilet-seat humour for an audience that couldn't give a shit.
alumni cafe (Poor Alex, August 17) Even some of the best improvisers in town (joined by Bob Bainborough) have off nights. The worst line? "David Cronenberg with a faggy handshake." Um, let's all pretend this didn't happen, OK? ****