This year's eclectic list includes only two American acts - proof that homegrown talent is bigger and better than ever. But you already knew that, didn't you?
1 NIKKI PAYNE (Yuk Yuk's Downtown, April 24 late show) She's the Bride of Chucky on crack, or a young Phyllis Diller with a speech impediment. A self-professed trailer-park queen, Payne has emerged as one of the most original and reliable stand-up comics on the scene. With bits that include a bowel evacuation scenario and a Nine Inch Nails song about fucking everyone in the world, she won't win any etiquette awards. Who cares as long as we're laughing?
2 INVASION FREE SINCE 1812 (Second City, April 29 through October) Whether they were sending up gun laws, gay marriage or mortgages aimed at the sk8er crowd, this was classic sketch comedy. The cast finally found its footing, with Naomi Snieckus emerging as an ace physical comic and master of the bug-eyed stare, Matt Baram introducing some wacky variations on a nebbish theme and the silver-tongued Sandy Jobin-Bevans breezing through it all effortlessly.
3 GERRY DEE (Yuk Yuk's Downtown, August 14 early show) Wholesome, scratchy-voiced Dee has the kind of act that appeals to everyone. Even when dissecting the differences between women's and men's communication, or imagining being high in kindergarten, he's totally likeable. (Note: he's better in a headlining slot than as an opener.) The former school teacher's best material is full of heart - sympathizing with hummingbirds, channelling his grade six self or impersonating his Scottish father at the U.S. border. A class act.
4 HAIRY PATTER AND THE IMPROVISER'S STONE (Bad Dog Theatre, October 9) Performed by a top-notch team of rotating improvisers (among them Slap Happy's Kerry Griffin and Dave Pearce ), this silly take on that bespectacled wizard and his annoying friends became a sold-out weekly all-ages show at the home of improv, Bad Dog Theatre. The night I went, one of the highlights included Jan Caruana 's smiling Wal-Mart-ad happy face, shot down by an evil rope-skipping villain named Sadie. Twisted.
5 GILSON LUBIN (Yuk Yuk's Downtown, August 28 early show) It was a great year for Lubin, who walked away from the Just For Laughs Festival with a Spike TV development deal in his pocket. Well deserved, as he proved in his headlining set a month later, delivering his clean material - much of it about racism - with self- effacing humility, a great deadpan stare and impeccable timing. Dave Chapelle, watch your back.
6 FROST & RONEN (Jamboree Toronto International Improv Festival, August 20) I'd watch the dimpled, outrageous Adrianne Frost do anything, and there were plenty of chances to see her let loose at this year's improv fest. Her late-night long-form improv set with real-life partner Asaf Ronen was gut-bustingly funny because it was so intimate and honest in its details - right down to the scatological humour and the hunger for food and affection - without ever being trivial. Like Curb Your Enthusiasm as written by Hemingway.
7 AN EVENING OF FUNNY (Tim Sims Playhouse, June 4) This comedy showcase lived up to its name with a strong lineup of some of the city's best character and sketch acts, including Albert Howell delivering his mom's stand-up routine and his own lyrics for Law And Order's theme music; Burnt Marshmallows Christel Bartelse and Christina Sicoli 's stomach-hurting send-up of bad community theatre; Laura McGhee 's wickedly dark take on the reality TV show The Swan, called The Gosling; and the deceptively fresh-faced Scott Montgomery 's Harry Chapin ballad gone wrong.
8 THE YEAR OF THE PANDA (Meow Mix Tango/Fringe Festival, July 2 to 10) Two of the warmest, freshest comic performances were Vanessa Macrea 's and Trish Cooper 's as longstanding friends coping with a death in one of their families. Their stories, tinged with regret about ex-boyfriends, drinking exploits and sexual escapades, rang true and came out so casually, it felt like we were eavesdropping. Cooper, the redhead in sketch troupe the Royal Liechtenstein Company, is a natural. Why isn't she performing more?
9 TODD BARRY (Yuk Yuk's Downtown, January 30 early show) A master when it comes to relating the minutiae of everyday life, New Yorker Barry is so seasoned, he looks like he's coming up with his material on the spot. Sure, the Conan and Letterman regular appears unthreatening. Short, bald, slight, he could be Woody Allen's neurotic nephew. But don't cross him. When a quip about the band Rush ruffled the crowd's patriotic feathers, he calmly shot down a heckler with a quick sarcastic salvo.
10 KNOCK KNOCK. (WHO'S THERE?) COMEDY! (Tim Sims Playhouse, November 5) One of the best of T.O.'s emerging sketch troupes, this young quartet ( Adam Brodie , Dave Derewlany , Aaron Eves and this year's Tim Sims Encouragement Fund Award winner, Katie Crown ) specializes in being clever-clever; consider their name. At this high-energy show, they staged a mock breakup (and then reunion) via a series of pretentious press conferences and funny filmlets - a brilliant send-up of artistic narcissism. Like Christopher Guest's ensembles, they're funny because they take it all so seriously.
Best 2004 comedy trend
Good comics finally getting regular work on TV: Lisa Merchant , Paul Sun-Hyung Lee , Jack Mosshammer and others on Train 48 ; Brent Butt for what's arguably the best Canadian sitcom ever, Corner Gas ; Daryn Jones for being one kick-ass correspondent on Rick Mercer's Monday Report ; and Samantha Bee (of the Atomic Fireballs ) for her seriously funny deadpan reports on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart .
Best 2004 discoveries
Unckey Darryl's House Of Sketchola ; Renée Percy and Jen Radomsky in Mardi Bra ; Cory! ( Lauren Ash and Leslie Seiler ); Shelly Marshall ; Scott Lambert ; the Pat Shay Dancers .
May's Allah Made Me Funny festival of comedy by Muslim comics offered solid sets by Enis Esmer , Rasul Somji , Sabrina Jalees and Azhar Usman . But headliner Preacher Moss 's anti-gay comments - you couldn't exactly call them jokes - wrecked the night and made its whole "looking beyond stereotypes" mandate seem hypocritical.
DORE'S A BORE
If Ben Mulroney was the class in the Canadian Idol broadcasts, his ongoing flirtation buddy Jon Dore - whose lame routines weren't even bad enough to be campy - was clearly the ass. Simon sez: please don't come back next season.
Whether he's joking about video games or ranting about self-righteous Vancouverites, Mack Lawrenz is one of the least charismatic, least funny people I've ever seen. Go back to your PlayStation, dude.