The Toronto comedy landscape experienced a permanent shift of seismic proportions on Friday with the loss of its “Mama” Jo-Anna Downey. The aftershocks and tremors were felt all over the comedy world as news spread that Mama was in fact a mere mortal, and that ALS was as much of an asshole as we all suspected. From TO to LA, comedians gathered to console each other and raise a pint to Jo. We are all looking back and recognizing just how much she meant to us personally and professionally.
Jo-Anna was the host of Spirits’ open mic night and as a brand new comic in Toronto in 2001, I knew getting a spot on that stage was a big deal. It was THE open mic stage in the city.
The thing is, everyone could get a spot at Spirits. You just had to call and leave a message on Jo’s answering machine and she would eventually call you back and tell you to show up in a few weeks and to do your best not to suck.
That is what made it so special, the underlying code of ethics that said, don’t do Spirits before you are ready. Don’t disrespect Jo and show up with your bullshit. Be prepared. Jo trusted us and we in turn, did our best to please her. Don’t fuck it up for everyone else. Getting a spot on the stage was a big deal because it meant that YOU thought you were ready to showcase and put your neck out at one of the most important comedy rooms in the city. Sure, there were going to be random folks who just wanted attention, but all in all, if you cared about comedy, you treated Spirits with respect. If you heard Jo laugh during your set, that gigantic, thunderous laugh that came out of that teeny human, you knew you were doing something right.
Years later, when I was running my own open mic in Buffalo, I began to realize how much Jo influenced the way I viewed comedy both as a performer, a producer and a person. As I was walking to the bar at Nietzsche’s, I heard a comedian deliver a great joke, to a lackluster audience response. I laughed loud and hard from the back of the room. I realized immediately, I had learned it from watching Jo. I didn’t think about it, it just happened. One time while hosting, I accidentally used the word “mama” onstage and beat myself up for three weeks because I had no right, dammit.
My first attempt at producing was about two years after meeting Jo and it was an all female line-up called “Laugh Lines”. I was waiting tables in a suburb of Buffalo and there was a small courtyard that I decided would be perfect for an outdoor comedy experience geared towards women. I called the best female comedians I knew in Toronto, asked them to come do this thing I was trying. If you know anything about comedy, you are likely already laughing about my idea that an “outdoor” anything is good for comedy. The lighting was bad, the sound was okay, the overall production value was that which could be expected from a two year in baby comedian. It was awful, mostly. The comics though, holy shit, did those women destroy that courtyard, with fun jabs at my lighting, shooting up from ground level (which I STILL think of every time I run into Debra DiGiovanni, who skewered my lighting in the most loving way possible.) That was also the time that I found out that Jo had been calling me “Peppermint Patty” (I wore a lot of hemp and Birkenstock’s at the time) I don’t think I’ve ever been prouder. Jo loved everyone, but I had a nickname. That was the opposite of an insult, that was the best compliment ever.
When all was said and done, everyone got paid and Jo-Anna pulled me aside and said, “did you make anything? I mean, did you pay yourself?” and I, afraid that I hadn’t paid these veteran performers enough sheepishly said “yeah” to which Jo replied “Good. You are smart enough to learn the other stuff, but make sure you pay yourself as a producer. Especially as a female producer. It took me years to realize that. Look at me. I’m serious”
That’s why she was Mama. She taught you what she inherently knew you needed to be taught and trusted that you could figure out the rest.
A year or so later, I was rushing from Buffalo to get to Spirits. If you aren’t familiar with the area, that’s about a two-hour drive with a stint at an international border, post 9/11.
When I got pulled inside Canadian customs, the agent said “can you explain to me why I should believe you are driving two hours to perform for 5 minutes and not get paid?” to which I replied, “no sir, if you don’t do comedy, I cannot explain that to you. But I can show you my name in a newspaper for a free show, if that helps”. It did. Thirty minutes later, I was on my way and made it JUST in time to hop on stage. That was Spirits and that was what Jo brought out in every one of us. We all jumped through hoops to make Mama proud. I think that’s the night we got drunk and made out. I talked about it for weeks.
The last time I saw Jo was in 2013? Her speech was slurred and doctors were trying to figure out what was going on. She was not only running Spirits, but also a second room at Eton House. She had won the inaugural Phil Hartman Award, a Canadian comedy award presented to “a person or group in the comedy community that gives back in some way other than just laughs.” Make no mistake, Jo-Anna Downey was screamingly funny. Present at all times onstage, never a dull moment, fly by the seat of your pants comedian, there was just so much more to her, that focusing on that doesn’t seem to do her justice. I always imagined that growing up with brothers made her not only the balls to the wall host she was, but also a badass female showrunner in a male dominated industry.
Shortly after, Jo lost her ability to speak and the decline began. The TO comedy community went into full gear, planning fundraisers to help take care of their Mama the best they knew how. Since 2013, friends and family have kept support for the Jo-Anna Downey Fund going non-stop with regular fundraisers, including the one planned for last night. As close friend Ted Morris said yesterday via social media, “The show, as they say, will go on tonight. I can’t think of a better way to send off Mama than laughing through our tears. Please join us tonight to celebrate our dear friend.” The best and brightest of Toronto’s comedy scene gathered at the house that Jo built, and paid homage the way only comedians can. Jo passed on the day of a fundraiser in her honor. Seriously, the woman had timing like no other.
In the upcoming days, there will no doubt be more articles like these, from people much closer to Jo than I. What we are all learning today is there are hundreds of personal stories of what Jo meant to people, and we are seeing just how much she did for so many. Yes, Jo-Anna gave Robin Williams the light, yes the biggest names dropped into her free weekly show. Of course they did, it was Jo’s room.
For me, I feel blessed that I’m scheduled to be in Toronto next weekend as Mama is laid to rest so I can hug my dear friends. I haven’t performed there in over a year and I’m back the day she is laid to rest? Thanks, Mama.
Thank you to Jo-Anna’s family for sharing her with us. Thank you to the Toronto scene for reminding us that being funny is important, but not being an asshole matters more. Thank you to Cal Post, for being a ROCK not only for Jo, but for the rest of the comedy community. Your love for Jo, and your downright impeccable character has been inspiring to bear witness to. You held up the legacy that is Jo with class, humility and unparalleled grace. We all owe you a beer and a hug.
Thank you Jo. Thank you for always having a spot for me, even if I was late. Thank you for caring more about vetting whatever lady friend I brought with me more than caring if my set killed. Thank you for doing jokes about eating pussy in 2002, even though you were mostly straight, but you made it feel a little more okay for the real homos. It mattered. Thank you for your relentless authenticity. We will all do our best to continue to make you proud. From the bottom of my heart, thank you for teaching me everything. I was always watching and learning, whether you knew it or not.
For all you folks in the afterlife, you’re welcome. Someone will get Robin William’s offstage now and make room for some new voices. #RIPmama