By Maggie Rich
A lot more laughter has been spilling from Vancouver Island restaurants and bars lately, as business owners offer up their establishments to local comedians. It’s proven a win-win: Comedians’ careers are launched, customers love the entertainment, and the bars and restaurants fill.
Stand-up comedy on Vancouver Island has its roots in Victoria — namely, the comedy bar Hecklers. But lately — maybe it’s all the rainy weather, maybe it’s just the way laughter works — it’s spread to Nanaimo and Courtenay.
Canada, of course, has never been short on comedic talent, particularly in recent decades. Since the ’90s, major acts such as Jim Carrey, Leslie Nielsen, Mike Myers, Russell Peters, and group performers The Kids in the Hall have found success on a global scale, performing in clubs, casinos, TV, and movies.
Joey Bergey is one of many Vancouver Island comedians who wouldn’t mind being added to that prestigious list someday. The 30-year old father of two has been performing stand-up comedy part-time for the last eight years. He is currently the co-founder and lead organizer of a new stand-up comedy series in Nanaimo called The Laugh Lounge. “I moved here with a good friend, Tristan Rynsewyn and there was nowhere to preform unless you went to Victoria, so we put on a show at Diners Rendevouz and got Peter Hudson and Sirtaj Thiara started and it just grew from that.”
Bergey, who has also performed at Yuk Yuks in Vernon, BC, often takes to the sidelines and operates as host and organizer for comedians starting out. He remembers what the experience can be like. “I was terrified when I first started,” he says, “but after awhile you feel like you belong there in front of people and you just focus on making people laugh.”
Comedians often rotate through the comedy circuit, traveling between Victoria, Nanaimo, and Courtenay for their five minutes in the spotlight. The brief spots give them a chance to work on stage presence, timing, and audience interaction. Once a routine is established, they can work their way up to a headline position of 30 minutes.
One of those working his way up quickly is 23-year-old Richard Harlow, who got his start when he signed up for a local competition to open for Canadian comedian Tom Green. Harlow performed simply because he thought it would be “fun” and was a fan of Green. He built his act around his experience of a rare condition called Leber Optic Neuropathy that rendered him blind two years ago and forced him to quit Vancouver’s Emily Carr University of Art and Design. He won the contest.
“I was pretty nervous joining the comedy scene,” he says, “because I’ve seen stuff on TV about how comedians can be assholes and make fun of other comedians. But I’d say that wasn’t the case. [Comedians] generally try to help each other out.” His favourite part of performing is “knowing you’re making the audience laugh and feeling the energy from the crowd. They’re giving you their full attention just from the fact they are laughing at your stuff.” The positive feedback after the show isn’t half bad either, he notes.
Harlow doesn’t regard his experience as beginner’s luck; he practised constantly to prepare for his five minute shot at fame. Still, fortune has definitely been on his side. After he opened for Green, the iconic comedian interviewed him for his website (see below), and Harlow was able to use his new-found popularity to launch a fundrazr.com campaign to cover the cost of the $12,000 treatment needed to regain his eyesight. “One pill bottle of medication down,” he tweeted in May, “five more to go. No change just yet in my vision. Prayers welcome for a good recovery.”
Not for the Sensitive
Comedy shows can be a unique experience for spectators because they offer a casual and interactive form of entertainment. Comedy-goers should be prepared to hear almost anything, and remind themselves that a stand-up set may not be the best experience for sensitive individuals. Bergey’s advice for audience members: “Never get drunk and heckle because you make yourself an easy target.”
His main challenge in keeping the comedy scene alive in Nanaimo is often with the performers themselves. “The biggest struggle in organizing a show is getting the right comics and having them show up,” he says. Some start up comedians get cold feet or are unable to travel the distances it takes to perform. Bergey has also seen several of his comedy nights end unexpectedly when his host restaurants were forced to close their doors. Diner’s Rendezvous closed in August, 2012; Bergey moved to The Courts Pub, which closed in January, leaving his series stage-less. But comedy is tough, and comics are tougher. He has since teamed up with local promoter Andrew Roberts from Got Pop? Concerts and manager Calvin Wallin of Acme Food Co. to keep Nanaimo’s comedy scene alive.
Roberts began bringing in large-scale comedians to Nanaimo after his success with a Youtube skit artist named Jon Lajoie. He wanted “to change things up and try something new.” In 2008, Roberts booked two sold-out shows with Lajoie in Nanaimo and Vancouver. “Vancouver had 600 people [purchase tickets] with a full line up of people down Granville St. who couldn’t get in.”
The best part of bringing comedians to Vancouver Island for Roberts is the fact he gets to hang out with some of his favourites, like Pauly Shore, Jon Lovitz, and Bob Saget. His top memory is of driving around the island for four days with Lovitz. “We made jokes the whole time,” he says.
Now that Acme, a long-established jazz and martini restaurant, has opened its downstairs brick room to Bergey and Roberts, they may have found the perfect venue. With a few white tablecloths and a couple of tea lights, it makes for an intimate coedy experience. And Bergey is optimistic about the scene in general. “Feedback in the community is very energetic. Everyone wants to do shows and they want to be better comics.”
“The Laugh Lounge” continues on the first Saturday of each month with two performances per night at $10 dollars a ticket. Tickets can be purchased from performing comedians and at Acme. Bergey encourages anyone interested in trying out comedy to contact him though his Facebook group, Nanaimo Stand-Up Comedy. Bergey’s only advice for those wanting to try comedy is to “just do it. Get five minutes together and jump in.”