Imagine standing in front of a microphone, cracking your best jokes, hoping gales of laughter from a live audience will greet your attempts. Instead, your words are met with stone cold silence, not a chuckle to be heard in the house. That is probably a frightening experience for anyone, but if you are a stand-up comedian, it’s your worst nightmare. But night after night, comedians give it their best shot and for close to 27 years, in Ottawa, it is to Yuk Yuk’s they head to work their magic. Howard Wagman, co-founder and general manager of Yuk Yuk’s, says that “Ottawa has a pool of unbelievably talented people who never had a voice before and the club is here to give them a chance”. It is tough work. “Stand-up comedy involves complete nakedness – there’s a feeling of vulnerability when on stage in front of strangers, trying to make them laugh. It is the most difficult thing to do in entertainment and a lot of people have no idea.”
Wagman takes pride in the success of the club’s talent program that works with comedians on an individual basis to teach and hone their skills on stage. “It’s always difficult to tell anyone something they don’t necessarily want to hear but it is even more so with a comic’s act because you’re cutting into their soul,” he said. “This isn’t just some job they’re trying out for, it’s their innermost feelings, thoughts and words – it’s personal. When you tell them they’re not quite ready, it’s hard but you give them a reason. Some of them will never get it, but they get their 6 minutes of stage time and if they’re passionate about it and work at it then I’m not going to take that away from them.”
The talent selection begins with intensive training and includes hours of practice before comics can get on the roster. Currently, Wagman has a pool of 100 comedians to draw from. Once comics improve, they progress to opening professional shows, then to weekend acts and finally touring on the road.
“We’ve done this since the beginning because the only way to grow your business is to grow from within,” he adds. “It’s a process and takes time – maybe 10 years to develop a routine that works consistently everywhere and in front of everyone. It could be changing a word, sentence or shifting jokes to different patterns. It’s always a work in progress but when they get on our stage in front of a weekend paying audience, they’re ready and virtually bombproof.”
Over the years, Wagman has developed an iconic reputation for discovering potential through a positive, supportive approach and mentoring with respect. (Of course, the years of valuable experience in the entertainment industry also help.) His influence and popularity are obvious to every comedian (or to anyone for that matter) who walks through Yuk Yuk’s doors.
“Howard is very knowledgeable. If there’s something about comedy he doesn’t know, I don’t know what it ever could be,” said Oliver Gross, a 12-year comedy veteran who calls Ottawa’s Yuk Yuk’s his home club. “He’s incredibly good at spotting talent, as you can tell from the successful comedians he’s discovered. There’s been a few times where he’s said ‘that’s a great comedian’ and I just don’t see it but a few years later, they’re on the Comedy Network.”
Talented people from other cities and surrounding towns head to Ottawa to participate in Wagman’s program and booming business. Mark Nesseth travels from Kingston as often as he can to perform at the club. He says Howard has helped him with his act and has been a strong supporter of his passion.
“Howard took a guy he didn’t know and trusted me with his patrons and I think that’s a real leap of faith,” explained Nesseth. “He helped me get timing down and to stick to the time allotted. He doesn’t input on any of the jokes and I’ve appreciated the opportunities he’s given me.”
Nesseth first contacted Wagman after performing in a comedy contest in Kingston where a fellow competitor suggested he head to Ottawa. “I made the phone call to Howard and he said I had to know what I was getting into,” said Nesseth. “He insisted I come to Ottawa and sit through one show. I met him afterwards face-to-face and he asked if I still wanted to do it. That was 5 years ago.”
The Hometown Advantage
For Canadian comics, chances to break into the scene are minuscule. Gross says there are no venues for amateur comedians aside from big name clubs.
“As comedians, we try to do our acts in small rooms around town but they never last very long because it’s a lot of work to set it up and it’s difficult to get people out to see shows,” he explained. “You need the larger clubs and their ability to draw larger audiences.”
Some of Hollywood’s big names in comedy got their start at a Yuk Yuk’s club. Golden Globe award recipient and celebrity actor Jim Carrey worked his act in the Toronto location in 1979 (he was a mere 17-year-old kid) before Rodney Dangerfield signed him to open his tour in the early 1980s. Jeremy Hotz, Howie Mandel and Jon Dore also got their start with Yuk Yuk’s.
“They all gravitate towards the larger cities when they get good because that’s where the work is,” said Wagman. “When Jim Carrey went to L.A., he was an unknown but he was already great. He got great in obscurity because they don’t know anything about what goes on up here. He was new to them but unbelievably good right off the bat and exciting for them.”
Competing with larger cities is not seen as a challenge for Ottawa’s club because it has proven itself to be a mainstay in the capital as it approaches 27 years of business. In a larger city, a comedy club or small nightclub can get lost in the array of other entertainment options.
“Here, I think we’re a big fish in a small pond — we’re one of the top clubs in the city, extremely well known and probably one of the top ten choices on people’s minds for the weekend,” according to Wagman. “In Toronto, the choices are much more vast and they have ten times as many nightclubs let alone comedy, plus live theatre, more concerts and other forms of nightly entertainment.”
So, just what makes Ottawans laugh? Surprisingly, Ottawa audiences defy their political roots. While it is strange, the only topics that don’t seems to pull a laugh from locals are politically (and racially) oriented jokes. Gross explains that “no one does political humour in Ottawa, which is odd, but people are so inundated with politics that it doesn’t do well”. He also said that “it depends on the comedian, some can do raunchy stuff well and the audience is roaring with laughter and others don’t get a reaction. It all centres on how they are able to sell their material and connect with the audience.”
Amateur comic Scott King focuses his material on fast food, a topic easily relatable for all audiences. Performing for just over a year, Yuk Yuk’s was the first stage he stood on, thanks to the supportive environment created by Howard and his honest feedback and support.
“Since I started, I do less bathroom jokes. I used to write a joke and perfect it while in the shower,” he said. “My wife is trying to get me to swear less but I don’t do it because I have to, I do it to accentuate the point.” A seasoned comic, Gross said, feels most feel comfortable on stage when at ease with his/her material.
“What’s nerve wracking is when you have new jokes and have only gone through them in your mind,” he said. “If they bomb for the first time, it’s an awful feeling. It’s very important to have a joke to make up for it and the audience will forgive you if you acknowledge you bombed. If not, there’s a weird tension that rises. The audience is on your side in the beginning, they want to see you succeed but you have a small window to impress them.”
Wagman says stand-up comedy is one of the purest forms of entertainment because it involves impressing the audience through monologue – a one-person act on stage. Sketch comedy is scripted and improv generally involves more than one person to feed energy from one another. For him, the best part of his job has been watching the talent develop as they work with their strengths and weaknesses. “Some are good writers while others are more physically animated,” he said. “I tell them ‘don’t try to be something you’re not,’ because it won’t be as effective. I think the greatest things are just seeing the new things we see before anyone else does.”
From community centre to big time club
1976 was a leap year, when Montreal hosted the summer Olympics and Jimmy Carter defeated Gerald Ford to become the first candidate from the Deep South to hold the presidential title since the Civil War. The punk movement was in full force as the Ramones released their first self-titled album and David Berkowitz began terrorizing New York City as the “Son of Sam.” It was a time of experimentation of many sorts and the perfect milieu for stand-up comedy to take its edge on the scene.
Alongside his uncle Mark Breslin, Wagman began a small weekly club in the basement of a Church Street community centre in Toronto. Breslin was also the director of theatre and music at Harbourfront Corporation during the early ‘70s and booked acts of all kinds for events and activities at Toronto’s waterfront. Realizing there was a large number of comedians with no place to go, he decided to open up a new venue to give them an opportunity to perform.
“It was kind of ground breaking because there were a lot of people who were really good but had nowhere to go, like Larry Horowitz and Steve Shuster because there was no real business to speak of,” Wagman added. “There was no professional comedy scene at the time and we charged
$1 to get in. It wasn’t a business, it was just a fun thing, a hobby.”
The sideline pursuit quickly became successful as Wagman and Breslin were turning people away from the overcrowded basement. It was time to open a real club and in March of 1978, they established a full-time comedy club in Yorkville.
“We had no liquor license,” said Wagman. “It was milkshakes, sandwiches, salads and anatomically correct gingerbread people for food fare. The talent was unbelievably good — it was fresh, new and exciting.”
After experiencing more success with their new business venture, the decision was made to expand to Montreal. Wagman moved to the culturally vibrant city in 1980 to do it but ran into some major roadblocks.
“We learned a lot from that mistake,” he said. “First of all, it was a referendum year — not a good year for an English company to move in to Québec. Secondly, we didn’t understand that if you’re a club in downtown Montréal and not open every night, you’d be in trouble when paying high rent.” The club was moved into the St. James pub at the corner of Drummond Street and De Maisonneuve. Filled to capacity on weekends, the space was empty during the week and after one and a half years the Montreal location was closed.
Wagman returned to Toronto to operate things there, but in 1984, Breslin approached him again to try opening a new club – this time, in the nation’s capital. “It seemed like a good idea – a white collar town with money and people with brains”.
Howard and Breslin partnered with Harold Levin of Bass Clef Entertainments fame to open Yuk Yuk’s first successful venture outside of Toronto. Levin’s vast knowledge of the Ottawa entertainment market and his many years as a concert promoter in the region proved invaluable and he was highly instrumental in the success of the club. He remains a hands-on partner to this day.
“In March, we opened at the Capital Hill Hotel which was then called the Beacon Arms on Albert St. Once again, it was a huge success and packed every night. We learned from our mistakes and knew what we were doing this time.”
Shortly thereafter, the scene exploded during the biggest comedy boom in the history of the business. Stand up became a hot commodity in the mid-80s and clubs were opening up everywhere. Discos were closing down and cashing in on comedy nights. The public craved a new form of entertainment to accompany their nightly drinks and laughter was the answer.
Wagman and Breslin also established a booking agency called Funny Business, which Wagman still runs from his Ottawa office, booking comedians for corporate events and other engagements. Business was booming but as with all cyclical scenes, it would soon bust.
“In the mid to late 90s, there was an oversaturation of clubs and artistically, there were so many comedians and so much had been done already, that it wasn’t as exciting and cutting edge as it used to be,” he said. “I think we lost a segment of our audience. But everyone wants to laugh and be entertained, so it came back and over the course of the late 90s, early 2000, we opened up more clubs that were very successful.”
In the last ten years, the company has made a huge comeback and currently boasts 17 clubs across the country in addition to an on-tour office. Kathleen O’Brien, who has been the manager at the Ottawa location for six years, says Wagman was instrumental in the club’s growth and making sacrifices to ensure its success.
“It’s all about the comedy and as long as the show is running well and the comics and customers are happy, then everything is laid back,” she said. “He does take it seriously but that only comes out when needed. It’s more than his job and his career, it’s his life and he puts his entire heart into it.”
Times have certainly changed from the confined space of the community centre to a household brand popular in major North American cities. The advent of new technologies has also had effects on both the subject matter of comic material as well as the audience. Often, there are people who are caught using cell phones and cameras during performances.
“We have to constantly watch people and make sure they aren’t recording or using cameras and making YouTube clips,” said O’Brien. “The attention span of the audience has dropped a lot in recent years.”
Wagman agrees and noted there is a difference in what is appealing to the younger crowd. In terms of content, longer stories and monologues used to garner more laughs but the audience now demands quicker payoffs and sharp punch lines.
“There’s texting during the show, which I hate because it’s disrespectful and sometimes taping of the show,” he explained. “It’s distracting for the comedians. People don’t have the patience to sit through something and wait for the payoff. You have to give people what they want and there are some very good young comedians who relate to the younger audience.”
Yuk Yuk’s is known for developing the kind of ‘in-your-face’ acts with sometimes shocking and outrageous lines. Nothing is ever censored, limits are never reached and all topics are on the table, depending on the discretion of the comic of course.
Wagman said he believes there will always be a place for stand-up comedy as a form of raw, unapologetic entertainment. Wagman says he remembers the 1960s with the late George Carlin. He was a comic legend who Wagman says was one of the most amazing people he has ever met. Carlin was defiant, radical and courageous, creating jokes from societal taboos and sensitive subjects like sex, drugs, religion and the Vietnam War. It was a stark contrast to the drab one-liners of the Ed Sullivan Show.
“I think the industry is going to continue to grow but also change and in ways I won’t understand,” he added.
Whatever new subculture emerges, defining the next generation, people will need comedy to escape from the daily mundane grind and to provide an accurate reflection of society through a different art form. In the end, it really is all about people.
“I’ve been extremely lucky to my living doing something I enjoy and getting to travel,” he said. “The highlights of my career have always been about the people and I have met those who do this better than anyone in the world.”