Canadian Comedians Beat Americans to the Punch: Form First Association of Stand Up Comics to Lobby for Artist Rights
Our next Comedy Records showcase happens Monday (April 2) at New York Comedy Club. As always the lineup will feature a combination of New York and Toronto’s finest comedians with this month’s show doubling as an album release party for Sandra Battaglini’s LP, Baby Jeez. The album was recorded at the JFL 42 festival last September and debuts on Raw Dog Radio on Sirius XM this weekend.
Battaglini is an award-winning comedian and has been featured on national TV as well as several Canadian festivals including Just For Laughs. While she’s known to her peers as one of the most respected comedians in the country, the Toronto-based comic has recently gained attention off-stage by trying to fix Canada’s broken comedy industry.
Battaglini is the leading voice behind the Canadian Association of Stand Up Comedians. The group launched earlier this month alongside a petition, with goal of having stand up comedy recognized as an art form by the federal government and therefore eligible for artist grants.
Interrobang spoke with Battaglini learn more about The Association and its goals.
The Interrobang: What are some of the biggest challenges comedians in Canada face?
Sandra Battaglini: Canadian comedians have very little support in Canada. Canadian artists of other disciplines can apply for federal grants but stand up comics are excluded from this. There’s also no real comedy industry to speak of here. There’s a lot of talent and stage time but once a comedian’s headlined the major clubs or performed at Just for Laughs they’ve hit a ceiling.
Not to mention that most of the major clubs restrict comics from performing at other venues, which makes NO SENSE. It’s a highly unethical and incredibly unfair practice. Comedians appease this archaic way of doing business because they’re afraid of not getting work. I couldn’t buy into this anymore. Comedy in Canada is really a third world industry in a first world country.
The Interrobang: Is working across the border an option?
Sandra Battaglini: If we want to work in the U.S. we’re faced with a massive head tax. It costs around five to ten thousand dollars just to get the necessary 01 Visa and that’s only valid for three years. American comics don’t face the same barriers when they come here and we want to keep it that way but we’re asking for reciprocity. We do have a free trade agreement with America after all.
The Interrobang: What motivated you to take action?
Battaglini: Comedy is one of Canada’s greatest legacies and one of its biggest exports and yet no one is talking about it here. I don’t know why we refuse to tell the world about how funny we are. Even at our own festivals, Canadians get second billing. It seems Canada likes to piggy back on American success and not develop our own talent at home. It’s a shame.
Comics here talk and debate about moving to the United States ad nausea. It’s an inevitable decision. Many of my peers were moving to America and I was in the midst of getting my 01 Visa, which is so onerous, and I just felt like it was so unfair.
The Interrobang: What was the first step you took to bring attention to the issues?
Sandra Battaglini: I decided to write a letter to the Prime Minister because I realized that when the last election was going on so many comedians were inadvertently campaigning on his behalf. Many of us were telling audiences to vote and pointing out how gross (then current PM) Stephen Harper was.
I wanted to let Justin Trudeau know that this was the reality. Talk about grass roots campaigning. It was better than someone knocking on your door asking for votes. I posted the letter on social media and it received a lot of attention from the comedy community despite a lack of response from the Prime Minister.
The Interrobang: How did the association come together?
Sandra Battaglini: After speaking with a few lawyers and my local Member of Parliament, it was recommended that we form an association so that we could lobby as a group instead of one person asking the government to make change. From there I reached out to a few likeminded comics and we met to discuss our options. After a couple of meetings we created the Canadian Association of Stand Up Comedians (CASC).
The Interrobang: What are the main goals of CASC?
Sandra Battaglini: The primary goal of The Association is to create and build upon opportunities for success for Canadian stand-up comedians. Our first initiative is elevating stand-up comedy to a recognized art form in Canada. This helps make our work eligible for government funding at all levels. We’ve created a petition that’s sponsored by my Member of Parliament to help achieve this. The petition went up on March 1 and gained some support quickly.
We know American comics might think this is crazy and laugh at us for it but it’s a first step in having our country recognize and respect this incredible legacy and art form.
The Interrobang: How has the association been received so far?
Sandra Battaglini: It’s been fantastic. Although some people think CASC is a union. It’s not. We’re a lobby group. Just like every other industry has lobbyists, we believe this is the only way to promote our interests. Even though I believe in workers having the right to unionize, creating a union for comics is difficult because the work is so precarious.
The Interrobang: What’s been the most surprising part of this journey so far?
Battaglini: Comics debating whether stand up is art. I’ve had some interesting debates. Here’s what I think, you can agree or disagree whether it’s art but the reality is that we need some kind of support. Our musicians have access to a lot of funding and it’s what’s made our music industry so amazing.
The Interrobang: What do you hope to achieve in the long term with CASC?
Sandra Battaglini: Peace and respect for my tribe here. Here’s a bit of history or irony: The Canada Arts Council was founded in 1957 on the recommendation of the Royal Commission on National Development of the Arts, Letters and Sciences known as the Massey Commission after its Chair Vincent Massey. The Massey Report described a bleak cultural landscape. Despite abundant talent and a hunger among Canadians for their own creative and intellectual products, “No novelist, poet, short story writer, historian, biographer, or other writer of non-technical books can make an even modestly comfortable living by selling his work in Canada. No composer of music can live at all on what Canada pays him for his compositions. Apart from radio drama, no playwright, and only a few actors and producers can live by working in theatre in Canada.” Gifted Canadians “must be content with a precarious and unrewarding life in Canada, or go abroad where their talents are in demand.” Sixty-one years later, Canadian comedians face the same bleak reality. Hopefully our petition is the first step in changing that.
Our showcase with Comedy Records featuring Sandra Battaglini and others happens April 2 at New York Comedy Club. Tickets can be purchased for $10 with the promo code NAFTA at NewYorkComedyClub.com
Sandra Battaglini’s album is available now through Comedy Records.
More info on the Canadian Association of Stand Up Comedians, including a link to the petition can be found CanadianStandup.ca