Last month, Paul Myrehaug achieved the pinnacle for many up-and-coming comics - a headlining spot at Yuk Yuk's downtown club. Last Sunday, April 1, he topped that by winning $25,000 in the club's second annual Great Canadian Laugh Off. Taped for the Comedy Network and hosted by Yuk Yuk's acerbic founder, Mark Breslin, the evening marked the final battle in a competition that pitted amateur and professional stand-ups against each other in regional showdowns across the country.
Being one of the eight finalists has the potential to take a comic's career to the next level. Last year's winner, small-town underdog Jeff McEnery, who insists he spent his prize money on hookers, has been touring steadily since his victory.
Like most of his competition, Myrehaug was hoping to score not only more cash than most stand-ups make in a year, but also name recognition among members of a judging panel that included bookers from The Late Show With David Letterman and The Showbiz Show With David Spade. Despite his likeable guy-next-door presence, he had his work cut out for him.
Dylan Mandlsohn, who as runner-up won an eight-place setting of matching cutlery (a step up from last year's steak knives - and, according to Breslin, "more than most comics have"), garnered huge laughs with his reflections on police apathy after having his car stolen.
Toronto's Michelle Shaughnessy and Vancouver's Jennifer Grant, the first women to make it to the finals, held their own with bits about single life and hating your friends.
South African comic Al Prodgers (international contestants entered via a lottery) disarmed the crowd with a set based largely on his country's reputation. And Matt Billon, a storyteller with a slightly stoned perspective on the world, earned laughs with twisted bits about his family.
The only comic to break a sweat was Tony Krolo, the sacrificial pro put on to entertain a distracted audience while the camera operators changed their batteries. (Much to Krolo's chagrin, the biggest onstage laugh came when a Comedy Network crew member banged his head on the Yuk Yuk's sign behind him.)
In the end, it was Myrehaug's bewildered observations that won over the judges. In a bit about terrorism, he deadpanned, "When I first heard Afghanis were responsible for 9/11, I was like, 'Holy moly, I remember my grandmother knitting me one of those. '"
In another joke about sleeping with a cougar, he quipped, "You know the girl's a little older when you're dirty-talking to her and you have to call her ma'am." But the killer in his set, a bit about a fictional sexual position called "the petrified seagull," complete with bird noises and French fries, nailed his win.
For Billon, Myrehaug's victory was just as sweet. The two first worked together five years ago, when Myrehaug was just starting out, at a hell gig in Fairview, Alberta.
"There were about four people in the bar, and I think I got scabies from the mattress at the hotel," recalls Myrehaug.
Touring across Canada and sharing dozens of experiences tightened the bond between the two to the point where they agreed prior to the Laugh Off that if one of them won they would split the money 50-50.
Myrehaug, says he plans to use his half to upgrade his car, pay off student loans and maybe, he jokes, "get a bit of cocaine."
Having risen about as far as most stand-ups can in Canada, he'll need those upgrades (and possibly the cocaine). Both he and Billon plan to use their cash to try to take it to the next level in - where else? - the United States.