When it comes to Vancouver’s comedy scene, it’s no laughing matter

Entertainment venues continue to struggle

An empty stage in an empty room with orangey-red mood lighting.
Stand-up comedy spots are quickly disappearing. Photo: Brands&People / Unsplash

By: Craig Allan, Peak Associate

In 2017, I did stand-up comedy for the first time. After seeing comedians performing in front of audiences — on stages that I had no idea existed — I knew it was something I wanted to do. In less than a month, I got my jokes together and found a venue (Yuk Yuk’s). My first set received some solid reactions from the after midnight, mostly drunk crowd. Wanting to perform more, I made a plan for where I wanted this newfound interest to go.

However, by April 2019 that dream died, as The Comedy Mix announced it was closing. The Mix, which is currently looking for a new location, was one of the largest dedicated comedy venues in the downtown core. Its fall is indicative of a problem with comedy not just in the city, but the entire Lower Mainland. Vancouver is losing its funny backbone.

Comedy may not seem as valuable as a play or concert, but it’s an important artform. Apart from its entertainment value, humor is an effective tool for promoting social change. Humour helps us discuss and debate with others on an emotional level using a “nuanced social tone” that keeps listeners engaged. It’s for this reason that the role of humor in activism, for example, should not be underestimated.

Before the pandemic, I used to love going to comedy shows. To be able to sit down and hear jokes from people with various backgrounds and experiences was some of the most fun you could have in this city. The highlight of Vancouver’s comedy scene was the surprise celebrity appearances. Because so many movies and TV shows are filmed around the Lower Mainland, major comedic acts would sometimes stop by the clubs to test out their jokes. I remember one night going to The Comedy Mix and seeing a surprise set from Damon Wayans Jr. — you can’t have that kind of experience in every city. Often viewed as being a “No Fun City,” Vancouver’s comedy scene was never very big to begin with. There are only a handful of dedicated comedy venues, like Comedy After Dark, left in the city.

The pandemic no doubt has had an effect, as seen with the closure of places like Yuk Yuk’s (Cambie St. location) and Kino Café. But evidence shows that this decline was happening before the pandemic started. The Comedy Mix and Foxhole Comedy ceased performances in the months before COVID-19 hit. Another location, Little Mountain Gallery (LMG), closed because of the enemy of every artistic venue — redevelopment.

I don’t know if I will ever have my comedy dream realized in this city, but I think others should have the opportunity. It is my hope that, when this pandemic is over, the comedy scene will rebound. That will only happen if city management gets involved by actively supporting more venues than its largest mainstream stages, and maybe even mandating a few newer developments to have a comedy stage. Individually, we can make efforts to attend and participate in comedy nights — showing city planners that Vancouver’s comedy scene is still alive, and is deserving of support.

This is a problem with not just the comedy scene, but in every Vancouver-based entertainment venture; from nightclubs to music venues. Many leases are too expensive, and the affordable places are often in the shadow of the wrecking ball. Sure, some arts and culture venues — like the Rio Theatre — have been able to fight for and win building ownership, but many others are not as successful. In a Vancouver Magazine piece on the closure of LMG, Stacey McLachlan, said when it comes to arts and culture in Vancouver, it’s the big, flashy venues like ballet and music halls that get all the attention, while little places like LMG tend to get lost. In a city with an abundance of movie theatres, performance art venues, and even strip clubs, we need to remember that comedy is just as important — and local comedy stages are crucial in sustaining this community.