Why it’s almost impossible to succeed in comedy in Canada
Online chatter about the deal picked up steam after the Canadian Association of Comedians posted to their Facebook page. “Earlier this week CASC learned that SiriusXM Canada and Just for Laughs have agreed to a corporate partnership to allow Just For Laughs (#JFL) to brand and curate the Canada Laughs channel going forward. From what we have heard, it will become “Just for Laughs Radio” with a majority of the programming coming from JFL’s company catalog.” That catalog includes many non-Canadians who have simply recorded sets in Canada at the Just For Laughs Montreal comedy festival.
SiriusXM pays residuals on track plays to comics whose material airs on the station. A major shift in programming meant less income for many local comics, many of whom say those checks can typically cover their rent. Within days, comedians from all over were standing in solidarity with their Canadian colleagues and pressured JFL to keep playing Canadian content.
— Norm Wilner (@normwilner) February 28, 2019
After the huge backlash caused part-owner Howie Mandel to do some damage control on Facebook Live, it was announced that, while Just For Laughs will still take over the channel, it will feature 100% Canadian content.
For Americans, all this might seem odd. The notion that the disappearance of a single radio channel could lead to a national crisis for comedians seems inherently foreign to us. A station like Canada Laughs is so important because of the very few opportunities that comedians up north have for both exposure and income.
“Nobody feels appreciated here,” Mike Carrozza tells Laughspin. Carrozza is a Toronto-based comedian who has been doing stand-up for about nine years. He continues, “It’s difficult for me to get actual work.”
In entertainment, Canada is the Land of Limited Opportunity
Almost any Canadian comedian I spoke to brought up a lack of opportunities. Sandra Battaglini, who started the Canadian Association of Stand-up Comedians in 2017, echoed Carrozza saying, “We don’t have a real film and TV industry, so it is hard to get recognition.” She says even iconic Canadian brands like Just For Laughs are “dominated by American talent.” Most of the country’s comics will point out that Canada has no late night shows that showcase stand-up—there’s no Conan or Tonight Show to make your big break up there. Most of its TV programming is made in the United States.
To combat how much US content is in Canada, the government supports Canadian artists through grants. In these grants, they recognize 11 fields of practice. However, stand-up is not one of those fields.
Much of Battaglini’s work is trying to change that. She created the CASC after writing a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau about the hardships of being a professional comedian in Canada. With help from Member of Parliament Julie Dabrusin and, eventually, Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly, the organization is lobbying to have stand-up comedy recognized as a distinct art form by the Canadian government which would make comedy eligible for government funding at all levels.
Despite government regulations, American content is king
The problem that Battaglini sees is two-fold. While the government has a role to play, the issue is larger than Canada itself. “The sheer monopoly American media has over Canada, that is our biggest challenge,” she explains.
Canada has regulations that mandate broadcasters devote a portion of air time to Canadian content. While broadcast stations are required to have 55% of programs be of Canadian origin, most of those programs are often low-cost news shows, current affairs programming, and even re-runs. As of 2011, 50% of primetime content has to be of Canadian origin, but networks can game the system by, say, re-airing a news broadcast later the same night. Much of the country’s big media companies seem to spend as little of their budgets as legally possible to put out just enough qualifying material.
For Canada’s four broadcast networks, there’s little incentive to produce original series at home. “We pitch our TV ideas here and they tell us to pitch it in the US because it’s cheaper for them to buy American content,” Battaglini describes.
But pitching an idea, or even performing, in America is no easy feat. While American comedians can easily obtain a Canadian work visa for a mere $40, it is prohibitively difficult for Canadian comedians to work in the states.
Pricey visas provide catch-22 for Canadian comedians
To work in the United States, immigrants need to obtain either an O1 visa or a green card. An O1 is a visa that allows someone to work for up to three years in the USA, but to get that visa, an applicant has to demonstrate extraordinary ability in their field—usually the arts, sports, education, business, or the sciences. It is similar to the EB1-1 Green Card which stipulates that the applicant has extraordinary ability in their field, but also grants the holder permanent residence. While it is slightly easier to get an O1 than an EB1-1, both processes take months (if not years) and are extremely costly.
“I’m almost 9 years in and I can’t get on TV because I’m not in the right country.” – Mike Carrozza
To get a visa or green card you need a lawyer and their fees for this type of work range from about $5,000 to $10,000. Even after paying, applicants are not guaranteed that their application will be approved.
Carrozza is in the process of applying for the O1. “You have to be the best in your field. You have to be a sensation. But there is no opportunity for us to be that sensation here in Canada,” he explains. “We are not allowed to book dates in the states without a visa, but to get the visa, you have to show you have bookings for the next three years. It’s paradoxical and meant to keep us out.”
Coming to the US is important for Carrozza. ”I’m almost 9 years in and I can’t get on TV because I’m not in the right country,” he says. He has been offered headlining spots in the US and hasn’t been able to take them without a visa. After doing sets at Just For Laughs Montreal, he was approached by agents and managers. “They seem to be interested, but it changes the moment they find out I’m based in Canada. They are like, ‘If you are ever out in the states, we would love to work with you.’”
Canadians can crush all they want—nobody can hear them.
Jess Salomon came to America with her partner, and fellow stand-up, Eman El-Husseini from her native Montreal. “If I was serious about doing stand-up, I had to come to New York,” she tells Laughspin. “There is this feeling of opportunity and possibility here. It might not happen for you, but the potential is there.” Back home, she describes, “You could be killing on stage in, let’s say, Toronto all year round and it would make no difference.”
Just like a comic who crushes in Cleveland, there’s no ‘industry’ watching you in Toronto. But that first comic can always leave Ohio and move to New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago without filling out a single form. After confirming they liked the US by visiting on a tourist visa, the couple decided to get their green card. “It took a year to put all the paperwork together,” Salomon says.
The lawyer told Salomon that El-Husseini had a more established career and that she should be the one to apply for the green card. Furthermore, the lawyer advised the two to get married and have Salomon immigrate as a dependent. Salomon recalls of the marriage suggestion, “I already had the ring…I was practically in tears because she was ruining my plan to propose on the end of the trip.”
Scarce opportunities are no laughing matter for Canada’s comics
Even when entertainment is being made in Canada, there aren’t always opportunities for the nation’s own talent. While Tessa Skara now has a green card after going to college in the US, she originally hails from Vancouver. “The film industry is really big in Vancouver but there isn’t a huge performance scene there,” she explains. “A lot of the things that are being filmed there are international. It’s content for the United States that they are using Vancouver for as a set.”
The actress doesn’t see moving back to Vancouver as an option. “I know this from other friends who work in the film industry: A lot of the casting that happens in Vancouver is for small parts that they really don’t want to fly someone out from LA for.” She explains, “There is a wall you hit as an actor in Vancouver. Most of the people that I know who are making a living, even partially, off of acting are actively trying to move to the United States because there isn’t enough work.”
“Montreal itself isn’t enough for you to build a career,” El-Husseini agrees. She describes the ceiling for success as “very low” due to limited opportunities. “The reason why many of us feel like we need to leave Canada is that they don’t give us opportunities. [Canadians] don’t elevate homegrown comics.”
Salomon repeats a similar sentiment. “You can ask any Canadian on the street who their favorite Canadian comedian is—not famous for their work in the US—and they won’t be able to name any.”
Orli Matlow began performing comedy while at Columbia University on a student visa before obtaining an O1 after college. “It’s different now in Trump’s America,” Matlow shares with Laughspin. “Moving to Canada seems like a utopian alternative but, growing up, we always felt so jealous of the United States…It’s right there and it feels like it is the center of the whole entertainment industry.”
The O1 only lasts for three years. Comedians living in America on one have to renew it often which costs at least a couple thousand dollars in legal fees. Debra DiGiovanni first got her visa when she landed Last Comic Standing. While she has been renewing her visa for over 10 years, the peppy stand-up is currently trying to get a green card.
Canadian comedians start all over once they get to the states
Getting in the country is hard, but so is doing comedy in America after relocation. Canadian comedians talk about it as having to start over. Even with long careers north of the border, many who move here have to restart at open mics and bar shows. DiGiovanni, who did stand-up for 14 years before moving to Los Angeles, says, “Moving here was very humbling. The credits didn’t transfer.”
That was something Adam Christie felt when he tried to relocate to LA to live with his now ex-wife. “When I moved away from Canada, I had all these contacts and had worked my way up, and when you move to LA you have to start again…Starting over, I was doing open mics. At 32, I’m less excited to do that all over again.”
You could be killing on stage in, let’s say, Toronto all year round and it would make no difference. – Jess Salomon
Starting over professionally isn’t the only challenge comedians face. “Emigration to another country is hard.” Christie, who after trying to make it in America decided to spend some time back home, continues, “You don’t have [financial] credit. No one will give you anything: credit cards, apartments. It’s super hard and so expensive—and our dollar is so bad.” Moving back home hasn’t been all bad for Christie. He’s currently a writer on the CBC show Baroness Von Sketch (which also airs on IFC) and recently filmed a role on Pop TV’s Schitt’s Creek. However, those jobs are very few and far between for our neighbors to the north.
For comics like Matlow who started comedy in New York City, Canada seems like a foreign scene. “If I move home, I have to start fresh…It would be a reverse exodus.” While she currently works as a comedy blogger, her job doesn’t sponsor her visa. “Having things tied to a job is risky. If a visa is tied to a job, you can’t change jobs or make money outside. And it is a lot to ask of an employer. Lot of paperwork, so they might think it’s not worth it. Bloggers are a dime a dozen.”
For comics, moving to America is the Canadian Dream
Even with all the hardships, Canadians still want in on America. Many comics come into this country to do unpaid gigs or festivals lying to Customs that they are visiting friends or going on vacations. It’s a risky move, given a border agent can have them turn back or even ban them for a period of years for coming into the United States on false pretenses.
Salomon is releasing an album next month and is working hard to self-promote, something she couldn’t have done easily back home. She points out, on top of all the barriers for Canadian comics, there is a larger cultural issue. “There is this idea of the Tall Poppy Syndrome. It’s the idea that nobody should rise too high. If at any point a poppy rises too high, it should be cut down.”
She continues, “[Canadians] have these ideas around humility and ambition. Some of the cultural ideals that make Canada a good country make it a not great country for succeeding in show business. Whereas in America, ambition is something that is rewarded…It’s the American Dream.”
For comedians, there isn’t a clear Canadian Dream. Unless there are big changes to the entertainment industry in Canada, migrating south is the only way many will make it in comedy. People like Battaglini are trying to make more opportunities available at home. However, it’s clear that for most, the Canadian Dream is being able to make it in America.