Comedy Network has become a launch pad for fresh talent
a rabbi and a Canadian comedian walk into a bar.
"Well, I know
they don't drink, but what can I get you?" asks the bartender,
looking at the comedian.
exposure," is his response.
that joke may have seemed funnier. (Maybe not.) But on Oct. 17
of that year, something happened that gave this country's young
comedians reason not to drink: The Comedy Network was born.
When it first
launched, it joined cable's "third tier" universe with such stations
as HGTV, the Food Network, the History Channel and Space. At the
time, those other stations seemed to have a clear advantage —
you could almost imagine the type of specialized content that
would exist on each:
your rhododendrons. How to make a batch of gazpacho from old packets
of ketchup. Ten things you never knew about Sir John A. Macdonald.
And all those highly anticipated Saturday night Star Trek
But the Comedy
"When we were
first getting ready to launch, it was such an unknown as to how
much attention our audience would give us," notes Ed Robinson,
president of the Comedy Network, which is now wholly owned by
"We are now
on people's radars. It's a channel people go to."
the network hosts Five And Live! at Roy Thomson Hall. Hosted by
Elvira Kurt, the gala — to fete the network's fifth anniversary
— features live performances from Jon Stewart, Jessica Holmes
and Jeremy Hotz, among others.
it's a chance to celebrate. Unofficially, it's a night to throw
back domestic beer and marvel over the success of a deceptively
simple, two-pronged business plan:
2. Make Canadians
done is presented a platform, a stage for people to ply their
trade — to not only learn the craft of comedy and television
— but to garner exposure," says John Brunton, president
of Insight Productions and executive producer of Open Mike
With Mike Bullard
(which started on the Comedy Network in
1997, shot live from a modest studio inside Wayne Gretzky's downtown
"I mean, if
you look at all the people who have benefitted from the Comedy
Network over the last five years, it's really quite something."
"quite something" numbers: There will be 238 hours of original
programming this year. Since 1997, the network's audience has
increased by 51 per cent, to 61,000 viewers in prime time.
At this point,
maybe you're asking "So what?" Or, "What's the big freaking deal
about five years?" And "Does anybody outside of this country really
care about the Comedy Network?"
So we asked.
"I would love
to give you my impressions of the Comedy Network, but I really
have no idea," says Jon Stewart, host of The Daily Show
from his New York office. "I've never seen it. I know that I'm
on it, which is one more reason to avoid it."
network, Tom Green — a man who brings talk-show hosts dead
raccoons, a man who drinks milk from a cow's udder — might
never have become a household name.
"I had been
doing my show on community cable, on Rogers, for about four years,"
Green recalls. "And then we did a pilot for the CBC, which didn't
get picked up."
and willing to go where no gonzo comic had gone before, he took
his pilot tape to the network and showed it to Robinson. As they
say in showbiz: "Kid, we'll buy 13 episodes."
"That was the
first time that I was ever paid to do the show," says Green, who
is now a fixture on MTV and has made several Hollywood movies,
including the current Stealing Harvard
"I had been
doing it for four or five years voluntarily with my friends. It
was suddenly a dream come true."
That's a refrain
you often hear. (Mostly from people who are sucessful.)
In five years,
the network, through its Comedy Now!
program, has given
critical air time to more than 60 up-and-coming comedians. Sure,
many of them are now assembling tacos in Scarborough, but that's
not the point.
the founder and director of the Tim Sims Encouragement Fund, which
awards a new comedian at the early stage of a career, says the
Comedy Network has done more for aspiring comics in the past five
years than anybody else.
"I think people
really want to stay here in this country," says Leese. "There
is still a ceiling in terms of how far you can get here. But the
Comedy Network now represents that ceiling."
Network, say comedians, is willing to surrender a lot of creative
control on new projects — something that is less common
in the top-down, bottom-line-driven world of conventional television.
really good about letting my little crew decide what the show
is," says Gavin Crawford, star of the originally titled The
Gavin Crawford Show
. "They are not particularly meddlesome,
and when they are, it's usually helpful."
"I think that
they are so supportive," adds actress Miranda Black, star of Patti
one of the network's upcoming comedies.
do have such a strong and unique sense of humour. There are so
many Canadian comics working in the States. So there should be
something here. And what other network is doing this?"
American television execs have known Canada is a vast, sprawling
resource in which new comic talent can be mined.
selective list: Martin Short, Dan Aykroyd, Rick Moranis, Jim Carrey,
Mike Myers, Howie Mandel, Rich Little and Leslie Nielsen.
Some have noted
that Canadians are often more cynical and questioning, a byproduct
of shared proximity to both English and American influences. And
this is why Canadians, generally speaking, are much funnier than
differences don't stop with the performers. Even the audiences
are dissimilar — a truism the Comedy Network must heed.
viewers' ass-cheeks numb a good 50 per cent more quickly," explains
Stewart. "A Canadian can basically sit through a good hour and
a half, two hours of satire, whereas the American has to get up,
touch the toes, make a sandwich, maybe pee.
"So it's really
an ass-cheek thing."
was visiting family and friends in Ottawa last week, says he noticed
audience differences when he was watching MuchMusic. To illustrate,
he compared Much On Demand
to MTV's Total Request Live
"When you go
, you walk out on the stage and the kids are screaming
so loud you can't even hear (host) Carson Daly asking you a question.
And if he's announcing a video, he says, `And up next we have
a video from J. Lo.' But before he even gets to the `o' in `Lo,'
the audience is screaming so loud you can't hear anything."
"Then I was
watching the Much On Demand
show, and it was interesting
to see the different audience. If somebody said, `And next week
we have a video from Jay-Z,' there would be a slight smattering
of applause. And you see the stagehand violently waving his hand
in the air saying, `NO, YOU ARE SUPPOSED TO BE CLAPPING NOW AND
So, who watches
the Comedy Network?
major psycho-graphic studies, Robinson says his viewers are "the
mavericks." Which means: 18-49, quirky, sarcastic, and incredibly
When the network
first launched, it had plenty of airtime to fill and a much smaller
budget. So it can be forgiven for some of its programming choices.
(Looking through its anniversary press kit, here are some shows
you may never have heard of: Y B Normal
; The Bobroom
Goofbud & Pete's Spaced Out Adventure
; and Skullduggery
for every Open Mike
there's more than one Chez Carla
. (Robinson says the network signs less than 10 per cent of the
pitches they receive, which is probably a good thing for "the
more than 70 per cent CanCon in prime time, the Comedy Network
leads most conventional networks. And the explosion of specialty
networks has segmented the market, providing new performers with
like anything that dilutes that talent pool," notes Stewart. "It's
like when Major League Baseball expands. Guys like me don't get
a chance to play with the Yankees and the Braves. But if you expand,
hell, I can make it on Tampa Bay's team!"
While the network
deserves accolades for sprinkling cathode pixie dust on dozens
of new comics, there's still plenty of room for improvement.
this and says the game plan has shifted. "We've decided to do
fewer projects but put more money into them," he says.
"At the end
of the day, you can't make excuses to the audience. A show has
to have a certain look, a certain value, otherwise it won't be
able to compete."
"A wonderful thing that the Comedy Network does is they give a
lot of opportunities to a lot of different people. But sometimes
they give opportunities when the ideas aren't as developed. It's
wonderful for people to get a foot up and get a chance, but as
time goes on, ideally, you want to refine the products that are
on the air."
And while the
network continues to hit its proverbial stride, it's important
to remember that the surrounding industry is still relatively
embryonic — a fact that means comedians must still look
southward if they really want the fame, fortune and groupies.
with this country, the end game still has to be to go to the States,"
says Crawford, who did just that in 2000, when he moved to Hollywood
to shoot the short-lived comedy Hype
for the WB network.
has not commercialized itself yet. It's not enough in Canada just
to have a good show — a lot of shows are good."
So what do
"What you really
need is the consistent hype that we don't do. We're starting to
do it now, but it's slow. You have to fight so hard in Canada
just to get your stuff made and get everybody paid in the first
God for the Comedy Network."
God, if you're reading, consider yourself thanked.
THE FACES OF COMEDY: Personalities who have appeared on Comedy,
clockwise from top left: Jessica Holmes, Carla Collins, Gavin
Crawford, Tom Green, Kyle from South Park, Kevin Spencer, Kenny
Robinson, Jon Stewart, Mike Bullard and Buzz's Daryn Jones.