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Ha! Ha! Ha! An interview with comedian Catherine McCormick about Toronto's Indie Comedy Hour and women in comedy.

Catherine McCormick is a stand up comedian, storyteller, improvisor and, full disclosure, a lady who I think is just the best. This Wednesday, April 18th, will mark the one year anniversary of her stand up comedy night, Toronto’s Indie Comedy Hour, at 8pm at No One Writes to the Colonel, on College St.

We had a chat with her about producing comedy in Canada, that terrible “women in comedy” question we are all obligated to ask until things get better, and having Hannibal Burress suprise-guest on the show.

Tell us a little bit about yourself.

I am 29 years old and work full-time as a legal assistant. Comedy is my all-consuming passion, but at the same time, sort of relegated to the hours in which I’m not sleeping and working. For me, the luck is that I love doing it enough that I will breeze through a work day in the office in anticipation of going to do a set or a story later that night.

Why did you get into comedy?

About four years ago I was looking for something to keep me occupied, as I was working as a legal assistant but not wanting a ‘career track’ kind of lifestyle. I asked around and people recommended improv classes. At the same time I made a visit to New York and got a chance to go to the Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theatre and see some great improv. It was amazing to watch—like seeing a magic trick unfold. I wanted to learn how to do that. I started doing improv classes in Toronto, and as I met people I started picking up steam doing workshops and classes all over town. Eventually I was performing onstage and started an all-girl team called Bea Arthur in 2010 for the Toronto Cagematch (which we won). Around that time I also started producing shows.

Comedy is an outlet of expression as well as a craft.  It’s very freeing. I feel like, to the rest of the world, I’m this cranky, slightly nutty, loud and fat lady—far from the female ideal in almost anyone’s books. But if I get onstage and get laughs, or compliments, or in one rare case, an encore, it doesn’t really matter what the rest of the world thinks, does it? It’s the ultimate affirmation to take a room of people and make them laugh so hard you have to wait for them to stop so you can continue. That’s power—people don’t even necessarily want to like you or approve of you, but if you’re funny enough, they can’t help it.

What frustrates you about comedy in Canada?

One thing that’s frustrating is that we have a disproportionately small comedy audience here compared to other major cities. There are a lot of comics from all over Canada who come here for the opportunities to showcase or to audition for TV and film, but they are always so underwhelmed by the small, unhappy audiences. For some reason it’s common to set up a comedy show in a pub where the patrons don’t want or expect comedy to be happening, and then to do no other promotion whatsoever. There is nothing worse than turning up to a venue and realizing that the four people in the room who aren’t comics are mad that you’re talking in a microphone when all they want is to eat chicken wings and gossip about their coworkers.

The Indie Comedy Hour was your first production endeavour, right? What made you want to produce a show, as a performer?

It’s my first standup show, but I actually did produce a bunch of shows in the past, mostly one-off improv shows. I would say it’s my longest-running and most successful effort. I find that comics tend to be at a loss for the organizing side, but as I have a lot of experience in nonprofit events management, I know how to get things done with a minimum of fuss. As a performer, it’s nice to have the control over the environment and setup of a show.

For Toronto’s Indie Comedy Hour, my main priority was finding a comfortable and stylish venue so the performers could really shine. Too often, I feel like comics are stuck in rickety back rooms of sports bars or grim basements. We have been at No One Writes To The Colonel since before the bar even opened, and it was just luck that I nabbed the spot when I did. Not only is it a beautifully-decorated space, but the bar itself is a great place to hang out. The staff are amazing, the cocktails are handcrafted and more often than not people stick around after their set just because it’s enjoyable.  We’ve even had the bar’s owner, Marty, get up and tell some jokes!

The first half of the show is booked, and programmed towards presenting the audience with a diverse range of comedians and comedy styles. Because it’s a monthly I have a very long waiting list but I’m also careful to put people on who I think are going to really have a great time up there. The second half is an open mic, anyone can put there name out and we pull usually 4-5 names out of a hat at 7:30 the night of each show. So you get a little bit of a curated show, and a little bit of chance.

The show had Hannibal Burress as a guest this past summer; how did you guys pull that off, as a less than year old show? What makes your show special?

I’d like to take credit for it but it was really more of a fluke than anything. Hannibal was in town to sort of gear up before Just For Laughs in Montreal. I met him the night before my show at Eton House, and then he ended up coming along with a group of comics to another open mic after that. I mentioned to him that he should come to the show and thankfully, a local veteran comic very kindly steered him in my direction as well. I didn’t know until the second he showed up whether he was actually going to come or not. I was really excited but thankfully I was so busy running the show it didn’t really sink in too much. At one point I looked over while I was hosting and saw him laughing at one of my jokes, I thought to myself, this is the funniest comedian I’ve seen and he’s laughing at my joke…I can retire now. 

Hannibal was great to watch because every show he did while he was in town, he killed. No matter how dead the room was or how distracted the audience had been up until that point. He treated every show as if it was equally important, and as a result he got these huge responses. It also helps that he’s really funny, and has crafted some killer jokes. He was kind and polite to every person who spoke to him, he complimented me on my show and said thanks afterward, and was just generally a great dude. I think he represents the ideal of what a comic should be, in my mind.

How much does the ‘women in comedy’ debate make you want to stab something, on a scale of 1 to 10?

Ten billion? Overall I think that Jen Kirman explained it best on her blog, by saying that it’s dumb to have to represent women as a group, because how can we? I’ve also heard another great point, which is that they always make the funniest women defend their fellow lady comics. As if someone who is hilarious and talented like Jen Kirkman can answer to why someone else isn’t funny. That’s like asking Jay-Z to defend all the bad and unsuccessful rappers in the world.

I think that the real problem or issue is mostly that women are just disproportionally represented in comedy, and so the stakes are higher for us when we fail. Everyone bombs, simply everyone. Failure is how you learn, especially in standup. You literally have to tell something onstage to see if it’s funny or not. Then you sort of reverse engineer based on where the laughs are coming from (or more often, where they aren’t).

So the real problem is that if there are 10 dudes on a show and one girl, and seven of the ten dudes bomb and so does the girl, what really sticks out is that the chick didn’t do well. She’s representing her whole gender rather than just being a person in a moment. And I think that women already face so much judgment every day, on the streets, at work, for how we behave and act, I think it leads a lot of women to say, well, there’s no way in hell I’m trying comedy. Or, they try it, get discouraged, and leave before they really hit their stride.

One thing that keeps me in this game is that I’ve always had an enormous ego and have had a life where, if I crumpled up into a ball every time someone judged me, I wouldn’t have made it out of the womb. You have to be a little calloused against that kind of critique. In a lot of cases the people with the least self-awareness actually make better comics because they don’t churn with shame every time they screw up. And I think the comedy scene is dominated by young, mostly white males who have more ability to bounce back because they’re made of rubber. The world hasn’t ground them into dust yet.

All this to say, I encourage women to try stand up, not as a career, just as a personal challenge. The women in my life are all funny and amazing, and I think they deserve a spot on the stage too. So one thing I do is offer up a promise, that the first person each month to message me and say “It’s my first time doing standup” gets to come do a spot on the second half of the show. Not just women, certainly, everyone is welcome, but I think one of the big obstacles for women in comedy is that they don’t know where to go, and when they do go out the environment is one that might break out into a spontaneous frat party at any second. I try to make a welcoming space for would-be comedians. One person who really inspired me on that front is Daniela Saioni from West End Girls, who does an annual “Virgin Suicides” show for first-timers.

What makes good comedy, to you?

I love all different types of comedy, from confessional and dark to whimsical and clownish, to groan-inducing puns or one-liners. The main thing is to be true to yourself and the comedy you enjoy, and just run with it. As I was told about improv once, “If you chase the joy, it isn’t work,” which basically means you follow the thing that makes you as a performer happy, and it will in turn make the audience happy—but if you approach it like a chore you will not succeed. So far, it holds up.

What are you getting the Indie Comedy Hour as a birthday present?

The show itself is probably going to get a few guest hosts as I focus more on writing some new material, as well as on my other projects, namely my secrets show and my podcast. The show itself is now running smoothly enough that I can relax and let the comedy itself do to the heavy lifting. I’m also pleased that we’ve been making enough from our little Pay What You Can bucket to spread the love to the bar staff, hosts and the performers. We so rarely get paid for this work, and we’ve been lucky enough to have a growing audience that is also very generous and supportive.

The Indie Comedy Hour  is happening this Wednesday, April 18th at No One Writes to the Colonel.
460 College St. West
8pm – 11pm

~ Monica Heisey | Photo by Sharilyn Johnson, Third-Beat.com

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