Stand-up Comedy Comes to Canada

New York north

There are at least two reasons the international extension of the artistic ferment in New York began in Toronto:

  1. Toronto is close to New York. This is significant, for the link between the entertainment communities of Toronto and New York in 1974 had to be a personal one. Remember that the mass media stand-up comedy on HBO was still at least a year away.
  2. The art being exported was, at the time, strictly Anglophone.
  3. Toronto is Canada’s largest city and the acknowledged trendsetter for many aspects of Canadian popular culture.

Comedy west-coast style

When Brisling was opening his Yorkville club, Rich Elwood inaugurated a club in Vancouver in a basement rented from the Queen Elizabeth Theatre Restaurant. There was born The Punch lines Comedy Theatre. This entertainment enterprise now competes with Yuk Yuk’s Yuk’s for engagements in western Canada and to a lesser extent in Ontario and Quebec. Punch lines also book Canadian comics into rooms in Idaho and Washington State. It is unrelated to the previously mentioned Atlanta chain with a similar name.

Yuk Yuk’s Yuk’s and punch lines

Although no precise figures are available, Punch lines and Yuk Yuk’s Yuk’s are the two largest stand-up enterprises in Canada regarding the number of bookings and admissions into affiliated and satellite rooms. Certainly in the area of entries, and probably in bookings as well, Yuk’s leads. However, despite a common ground of large business volume, the two chains have moved in somewhat different directions within the world of stand-up comedy.

Anglophone comedy in Quebec

In March 1979, Ernie Butler opened Stitches on Crescent Street in downtown Montreal. Initially, it featured various forms of entertainment, but eventually, it specialized in stand-up comedy and had a Wednesday amateur night. Stitches closed in 1981 after Butler got married and was involved in a career in real estate.

Last and-up comedies Quebecoise

There exists in francophone Quebec a distinct comedic tradition that has developed largely independently of mainstream comedy in Canada and the United States. Francophone comics are known as humorists or caciques, the equivalent of our generic stand-up comics. Their tradition is a blend of practices and ideas from France and francophone Quebec; only with the widespread availability of English-language film and television and a population sufficiently bilingual to understand them to have Anglophone entertainment influences begun to penetrate Quebecois society.

The independents

Between 1978 and 1984, probably every Canadian city of 300,000 people or more had at least one comedy club. Apart from Yuk Yuk’s, Punch lines, and The Comedy Nest, most clubs have come and gone, lost in the flurry of competition from these three, other local clubs, and alternative forms of entertainment. Hiccups in Ottawa, Peppers in Hamilton, and several clubs in Toronto and Montreal endured for several years, earned a measure of fame in the community, and then disappeared. Others opened in late 1986 or 1987, at the time of this study, and it remains to be seen whether they will survive.

Regional stand-up comedy

Little can be said about regional stand-up comedy in Canada. No study has systematically examined it, and this author’s exposure to it has been haphazard. Mention is made here to complete our portrait of stand-up comedy in Canada and indicates a fruitful area for future research. Regional stand-up is distinguished from what might be called mass stand-up by local references, which are relished by the locals who make up the principal part of the audience—Mass stand-up exploits the people, events, and situations familiar to big-city dwellers everywhere in North America. The comics that practice it are interchangeable parts of the vast mass entertainment machine. Regional comics are more esoteric.


Such contributions to national and international entertainment are not made overnight. Instead, polished acts are the product of consistent, often intense daily effort over many years. In the realm of stand-up, the fruits of this effort are routinely presented in the comedy clubs and rooms across Canada. Here the novice slowly and usually painfully learns the art and craft of making people laugh.

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