"Five stand-up years"
Toronto Star
September 28, 2002
by Vinay Menon


The Comedy Network has become a launch pad for fresh talent

A PRIEST, 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.

"Some television exposure," is his response.

Before 1997, 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:

Tending to 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 marathons!

But the Comedy Network?

"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 CTV.

"We are now on people's radars. It's a channel people go to."

Next Saturday, 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.

Officially, 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:

1. Nurture new talent.

2. Make Canadians laugh.

"What they've 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 restaurant).

"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."

Some other "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."

Ignore him.

Without the 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."

Undeterred, 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.

Lindsay Leese, 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."

The Comedy 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.

"They've been 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.

"Canadians 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?"

For years, American television execs have known Canada is a vast, sprawling resource in which new comic talent can be mined.

Consider this 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 Kenyans.

The comedic differences don't stop with the performers. Even the audiences are dissimilar — a truism the Comedy Network must heed.

"The American 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."

Ignore him.

Green, who 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 (TRL).

"When you go on TRL , 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."

Green pauses.

"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 HAVING FUN!'"

So, who watches the Comedy Network?

After three major psycho-graphic studies, Robinson says his viewers are "the mavericks." Which means: 18-49, quirky, sarcastic, and incredibly bright.

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; Rockpoint P.D.; and Skullduggery.)

And, remember, 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 mavericks.")

No matter.

By broadcasting 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 greater opportunities.

"Well, it's 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!"

Ignore him.

While the network deserves accolades for sprinkling cathode pixie dust on dozens of new comics, there's still plenty of room for improvement.

Robinson acknowledges 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."

Adds Leese: "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.

"Unfortunately, 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.

"The industry 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 you need?

"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 place.

"So, thank God for the Comedy Network."

God, if you're reading, consider yourself thanked.

Photo caption: 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.


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