Toronto’s comedy scene continues to thrive with multiple shows happening every night across the city. Yuk Yuk’s and Absolute Comedy are the city’s two pro clubs while independent rooms like Spirits, the Underground Comedy Club and the ALTdot Comedy Lounge showcase locals and touring pros on a weekly basis.
At the center of Toronto’s comedy community is Comedy Bar. The venue has quickly become the flagship location for Toronto and Canada’s world-class comedy scene. Hosting stand up, sketch and improv, Comedy Bar is the first venue of its kind in Canada and by far the most respected among locals and touring comedians.
The venue is the brainchild of award-winning comedian Gary Rideout Jr. As a successful writer, producer and sketch comedian, Rideout embraced a DIY mentality to create a place that has allowed performers and producers to collaborate and flourish in an environment that was not available to them in the past.
The Interrobang sat down with Rideout to discuss the origins of Comedy Bar and what makes it such a special place for comedians and comedy fans alike.
When did you start performing comedy?
I went to an arts high school and was performing all the time doing comedic plays and other shows. Eventually, I went to the Humber School of Comedy. I did the two- year program because I didn’t know what I was doing. I’m not sure how much sunk in, but it was a great gateway into the community
When were the Sketchersons born?
Pat Thorton and Tal Zimerman were in the Humber program with me and we were the older guys. We made a sketch troupe called Todd’s Lunch and started performing. We toured the Canadian fringe festivals in 2002 and 2003 and after one tour we went down to Los Angeles and saw the Groundlings. It was great and we thought, we could do something like this. One of our friends, comedian Dan Galea was looking to book a string of sketch shows at the Rivoli in Toronto and the Sketchersons became that show. We did the first Sunday Night Live with the Sketchersons January 4th, 2004.
What was the journey that brought the show from the Rivoli to Comedy Bar?
There were good parts about working with the Rivoli, but I had a good relationship with the Poor Alex Theatre and it suited us better so after a few weeks we moved there. We stayed at the Poor Alex for a year and a half and then the theatre closed. One day, I showed up and the place was locked up, the owner had sold the building. So I went over to another venue, the Brunswick House and there was a guy mopping the floor. I asked if we could do a show there and we started that night.
The shows were going well, so the owners wanted to do comedy on off nights too. I started booking other sketch troupes to perform during the week. Eventually the Diesel Playhouse came and asked us to move over there and fill their place with shows. We got perks for going there like a full time publicist and full time office. And then that place closed. All these places were closing and comedy was always being treated like an afterthought.
What inspired the idea for Comedy Bar?
I just envisioned another structure for comedy. Comedy always came after other stuff. You couldn’t do a show at places like the Rivoli on Fridays or Saturdays because they had bands playing. There were all these other comedy shows happening around the city and I thought, if we can create a space that’s busy enough, where the onus is on the performers to self produce and they make the money it could work.
How did the business start up?
We ended up borrowing a ton of money. We got a business loan and paired that with money from investors. We had to use it all. The renos we thought were gonna take six weeks when we bought the bar took fifty-five weeks. It wasn’t even close. That was 2007.
Who was crazy enough to invest in Canadian comedy?
Basically, I sat down with a veteran star of Canadian sketch comedy and said I think I can pre-sell six weeks of tickets for Sunday Night Live and make $30,000 and use that as the money to open the place. He asked for a business plan, so I drew up a plan with my partner James Elksnitis. James went to school for business, so when I put together the original plan, he took it and made it professional. By the time we went back, the ask had grown to $60,000. But he liked the plan and loaned us the money.
What was the space like when you found it?
It was two businesses, an Eritrean Restaurant and a pool hall. We just thought we were gonna paint it, put up a stage and open. Instead we had to gut it down to nothing.
We got the place on October 23, 2007 and we had an international Improv Festival booked for May. By late April, our general contractor was telling us people were legally not allowed in the space. We told him, people are booked to be here, flights are booked. Make it as legal as you’re going to be comfortable with because we have to do this.
On opening night, there was one working bathroom and on the other half of the bar where we were still renovating, there was a toilet that we hung a blue tarp around. I would walk around the lineup in between shows and tell people if they only had to go number one to follow me and they’d go behind the tarp. Our bar was a folding table with buckets of bottles of beer. The ceiling was open, the floors weren’t done but we got through that festival and everyone could tell it was a thing. Like a seed had been planted.
When was the grand opening?
We didn’t have our grand opening until November 8, 2008. After the May festival, we’d start adding the odd show because we needed revenue to buy materials to finish the job. We would take anything. There was a weird burlesque show called TITanic and some other unique shows at the beginning just to make it work. We were renovating the whole way.
What’s the basic business model of Comedy Bar?
We wanted to limit risk. As someone who had produced as much as I had, I wanted to make this as easy as possible for people. So it’s like, just bring me a professional show that you’ll promote and we’ll provide a venue that will cover the rest of the elements needed to make it successful. We take care of the tech, staffing, ticketing, assist in the promotion and create an environment where comedy is the focus. Obviously the onus is on the comedian to promote as much as they can because they stand to benefit from that, directly. But we’ll have a professional website where people can buy their tickets online, properly, we bring in pro comics that validate the space and therefore validate your show as well as being professional. Our rental fees cover a tech person for the show and someone to work the box office, that’s it.
How is your model different than a traditional comedy club?
Traditional comedy clubs are great. They serve a purpose for comics looking to get reps and stage time, but there are some comics in the city that probably make more money producing one show at Comedy Bar than they would in a month with a club.
That’s not a slight on other comedy clubs, I’m just saying we’re also a good revenue stream for comics. Which is what we wanted. If you can organize and you can hustle and back it up with a good lineup and good talent then Comedy Bar is a good revenue stream for you. People can be self sufficient in this business.
How have things changed since the first days of the bar?
I remember in the early days of the bar, we’d set the room based on what the sales were. So if a show sold sixty tickets we’d set up chairs and tables for sixty-five people. And then it would feel like a sellout show. It would create a buzz.
Atmosphere is everything in comedy. Having a convertible space really made a difference in the beginning. The Cabaret Space is mostly stand up. The whole bar is probably 50% stand up now, 30% Improv and 20% sketch
How has adding the Cabaret Space helped the venue?
We only had the main space for the first three years and then a small room with a green screen where we did classes and a lounge area. We weren’t doing enough classes to justify the space and the lounge was totally useless. There were so many up and comings shows and comedians I wanted to work with, but they’d bring out smaller crowds and there was the fear of a bad atmosphere with a half empty room. I felt like I couldn’t help cultivate shows with rooms like that and I couldn’t take risks on shows with veteran comics that have no audience pull.
We made the Cabaret Room as a fifty-seat room and now I can book whatever I want. It changed everything; especially the stand up component of the bar. I needed the room to allow us to take more risks. If a comedian draws 15 people, it still feels like a good room. Now there are acts that sell out shows in the space regularly.
Comedy Bar has become the go-to place for touring comedians as well. How did that happen?
We kind of opened at the time that Alt Comedy was becoming mainstream comedy. So we were able to get comics like Todd Glass and Maria Bamford and these were the comics that newspapers wanted to write about, so all of a sudden we’re getting press. That really helped cement what our style and brand was. That being said we’re accessible to every kind of comic.
The bar area has become a real hang out area for comedians and comedy fans…
I talked about it so much when we opened. You see venues where the bar is empty. I never understood why someone who owns something like a TGI Fridays, wouldn’t want to have a back room for theatre. People would have to walk through your restaurant to go to the show. I’m not saying to have customers watch a show and eat ribs, but why would you want someone to eat down the street before a show? It was always important for us to have a bar element to have a social aspect and environment in your place.
How has you being a comedian helped the bar succeed?
I think a big part of it is me understanding how hard it is to be a comic and know what the grind is. We’re booking 130 shows a month. There are that many different producers doing shows now. I feel like we did help kick start everyone’s independent spirit in terms of producing and creating their own work.
You’re never out of work if you’re creating your own work. It’s the only thing you can control. You can’t control whether you book a commercial or if someone hires your for a gig, but you can control creating your own gigs and keep working on your craft.
Any favorite stories that stick out over the last few years?
I’ve loved all of the drop-ins we’ve had like Louis CK and Aziz Ansari. It’s nice that people who are in town want to drop in and do a set, but it’s more that, for that sect of the community, it’s a home away from home for them. They feel comfortable coming here because they know what type of audiences they’re going to get and they can come and play.
I remember we had a night with Andy Kindler, James Adomian and Todd Glass all on the Alt Show and they just kept taking the mic and doing impressions of each other. The night wouldn’t end. They each had to be the last one to speak. Eventually they got two mics going. It was chaos and amazing.
Have you had any personal moments as a performer that stand out?
There’s a show called Rap Battles. We do it in a round and people have entrances like wrestling. Everyone performs in characters and it’s so well written. The hosts are really funny. For a while I was doing a Vince McMahon character and I’d bring a letter on stage and threaten to cancel the show. One night, Bret “The Hitman” Hart was at the bar as a guest judge for another show. I got him backstage and asked him to come out, I’d play the McMahon character and we’d have a stare down. He said, ‘I don’t know. I’m not good at stare downs’; I almost broke at Wrestlemania 8. I was like, ‘okay, I’ll break first.’ It was surreal that we were even having the conversation.
So before the show, we practiced, but during the show, he comes out, we do the stare down and then he asks the audience what they want. He tears up the letter and puts me in a sharpshooter. The host with the mic leans over and I’m yelling, ‘You can keep the show! You can keep the show!’ It was literally the comedy highlight of my life. Getting put in a sharpshooter in a show. That was pretty great.
As the venue’s reputation continues to grow, what does the future hold for Comedy Bar?
We’re at critical mass. I’d love to have a third stage, but it’s not possible with the size of the bar. I think we are what we are. We hear from comedians that people in LA and Chicago ask about the place. That’s crazy to me. ‘Cause to me this is just my dumb basement. When we started out, I thought it was just going to be a rectangle with some lights where we could do shows. Now it’s a real business where we have staff and vacation pay and real things. It’s completely real.