Toronto has a thriving comedy scene, full of options for every kind of comedy fan. I had the opportunity to chat with some of Toronto’s up-and-coming stand-up and improv comedians and ask them about their careers, their favourite comedy clubs, and advice on starting a career in comedy. I interviewed Anasimone George, host and founder of SHADE; Danish Anwar, creator, producer, and host of Your Hood’s a Joke; Neema Nazeri, back from a tour in Australia; Celeste Yim, U of T student and comedian; Ernie Vicente, up-and-coming comic; and Coko & Daphney, an improv comedy duo.
As preparation for writing this article, I went to see SHADE, a monthly comedy show that centres on marginalized comedians. The hilarious show that night included jokes touching on inspiration porn, unbelievable family stories, and awkward Uber Eats drivers.
The comedians on stage were as diverse as advertised: not only were there comedians of colour, but queer comedians and a comedian who described herself as ‘differently abled.’
The Varsity: What made you want to get started in comedy?
Neema Nazeri: I’ve always loved comedy, especially as a kid. I always watched Just For Laughs on TV with my dad when I was growing up. I actually went to university at U of T for one year studying kinesiology, and I realized it wasn’t for me. I really loved comedy at the time; I was watching a lot of stand-up online, and I realized this isn’t what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I want to follow my dreams and do comedy, make people laugh, and that’s when I dropped out, and here I am.
Celeste Yim: I always liked comedy. I was a big fan when I was growing up in high school and stuff. When I got to U of T, I joined the UC Follies sketch comedy troupe. With a couple of friends, we sort of revived the troupe from what it was when Lorne Michaels [former UC Follies member and creator of Saturday Night Live] was on it, into a sort of performing and writing comedy troupe. With those same friends, we sort of dabbled in different kinds of comedy and stand-up just kind of stuck. It was just good timing, and meeting friends who were interested in the same thing, and weirdly having the resources and the courage to start.
Anasimone George: I’m just really bad at everything else. That’s my final answer.
TV: Can you tell me a little bit about your first set? Where did you perform? How did it go?
Danish Anwar: I remember. Oh, it was the worst set ever in my life. I wasn’t supposed to do it. It was at a weed lounge that doesn’t exist anymore at Church and Wellesley. The Village Vapor Lounge, it was on the second floor. It was a compassionate clinic and whatnot… So Friday nights they used to have a show. It was universally known as the worst show. There were actually people who would drive in from Brampton to talk shit during the set. So anyways, I was supposed to help a friend of mine and support him, and he bailed. [When] the emcee leading up to the show… found out my friend didn’t show, he’s like, “Well somebody’s gotta replace him.” And I’m like, “Me?” And he threw me up on stage…
I was super baked. I went up on stage, did like five minutes, barely a giggle. Again, it’s a vapour room. People think weed is good for comedy, but it’s not. People don’t have the wherewithal to react. Or they’ll get the joke 30 seconds too late while you’re telling another joke. So it was five minutes of maybe some guy snickered. [But] I went off stage and I was hooked.
Ernie Vicente: It was at Yuk Yuk’s here in Toronto. I was so nervous that I didn’t tell my friends. If it was bad, I didn’t want anyone to know. But then as it got closer to the show, I was like, “Actually my friends, I think I need them.” Then finally, I told everyone and a bunch of them came.
It [went] actually really well. Once I got that first laugh, the first joke, it was amazing. I was so nervous, I drank beer, and I had like four beers right before I went up. But I was so nervous that when I got on stage, I wasn’t drunk or anything. That’s how nervous I was. But it was so good. And it’s actually on YouTube.
Balancing school and stand-up
TV: Do you find it difficult being both a student and a stand-up comic?
CY: Oh yeah, it’s the worst. I don’t know why I chose this life. What a nightmare, truly. It’s this very weird thing because there’s no right or wrong way to do it. There is also no one way to do it. No one has a career that looks exactly the same in comedy. Because I had such strong affinities for writing going into it, it was sort of nice to do both where I didn’t feel like stand-up was my only creative outlet or expression or work.
That being said, I think my whole university [life] has been so much juggling. Especially the first year, year-and-a-half of school was really hard. I was just constantly running from Comedy Bar to the library to my shitty apartment to rehearsals to all these different, stupid things. Also, just because being a student requires so much time. Even if you’re not putting in energy, you have to spend so much time thinking about school and going to school and whatever, all these things that are supposed to happen when you are a student that I didn’t do much of. It was definitely hard to balance, and it still is hard to balance.
Learning what kind of work was valuable was also a means to survive for me because I couldn’t afford to do things that weren’t worth my time. I think for a whole year I was doing these shitty shows I didn’t care about, working with people I didn’t care about. I think as I grew as a comedian and as a student, the things I was spending my time working or spending energy on, or not spending energy on, they became more clear. So yes, I find it hard, but also worth it. I think I would have been really bored without it. I’m grateful that so many people helped me do it. I feel like I had a lot of support.
Dealing with hecklers
TV: Have you ever had to deal with any difficult hecklers?
NN: Not really. Just a couple times there’s been people who just jump over my words when I’m talking on stage. They’re trying to be nice, but it’s still heckling. Only one time it was a negative heckle towards me, but I handled it well, so it was good.
CY: Oh yeah, for sure. My comedy and my general personality [are] not that complacent. I feel that I’ll say a lot of things that a lot of people don’t agree with, like, “All white people are racist” or whatever, these sweeping statements because I think it’s funny trying to be a little naïve on stage in order to make people even more uncomfortable. But also, I just think that I’ve had to question a lot, for the past few years and in general, who my comedy and work is for.
EV: Not really. I see other comics and they make statements like, “Asian people are smart.” People get offended. In my material, it’s not like that. I try not to be as offensive so people don’t have strong beliefs against me. Trying not to be very confrontational.
AG: I would kill them. They haven’t lived.
Best comedy clubs
TV: If you had to choose, where would be your favourite place to perform?
EV: Right now, one of my favourite clubs is Absolute Comedy… I don’t know what it is, it’s a great room. Everyone is so happy to be there. I don’t know how they do it. I’ve been to some shows where it’s full, but it seems like people force them to be there or something. But everyone is so happy to be there. Absolute Comedy and Corner Comedy Club. Those [are] my two favourites.
Coko Galore: I think I can speak for the both of us [herself and Daphney Joseph] when I say we like festivals a lot. Two parts: we have friends on festival circuits, and so it’s really exciting to see people once a year, or once every six months, to see their growth and vice versa. So that’s very exciting… Also, to perform outside of your comfort zone, which is the city of Toronto, is also a testament to your growth as a comedian. So that’s number one, I think.
Daphney Joseph: I think the theatre I like most is Bad Dog because of the shape of it, the diamond shape. It’s kind of easier to play around. Improv is not stand-up, so you need a lot of space. You don’t need it, but it’s always fun when you have a great space and you’re able to see all of the audience and you can play around with it. Like this [The Rivoli] is not an improv stage, this is a stand-up stage. It’s a little different.
CY: That’s a good question. There are a few shows in the city that I really like doing. My favourites are probably a show called Yas Kween… That show is really fun just because it makes a real difference when people are expecting and willing and celebratory of women of colour, particularly. So that show is very warm and very fun to do. And there are always a lot of friends around and that’s really nice.
And for a long time I’ve done a show called the Crimson Wave, which you also may have heard of. So Yas Kween is every first Thursday of the month at Bad Dog Theatre, and then Crimson Wave is at Comedy Bar every Sunday. That also is a show that centres women and femmes and LGBT people. Those are just really warm, nice rooms to do and feel more like [you’re] hanging out with friends than performing or working.
DA: That’s hard to say because it’s not necessarily the venue, it’s the audience. Different shows have different audiences.
Advice for the aspiring
TV: What advice would you give to an aspiring comedian?
NN: Just get on stage as much as possible. Write about your own experiences and something that you have good knowledge of. It shows on stage if you’re not being authentic, and that’s just the best way to start off. And trial and error. Go on stage, try things, ’cause you never know what can work here and there. Do it as much as possible.
EV: I would just say, write everything down that you think is funny. And just go out there. Especially in Toronto, there’s so many open mics around town where you can just show up and perform. If you really want to do it, just keep doing it. Don’t expect to make a lot of money at first. You’re doing it for the love of performing.
DA: Don’t do it. Don’t do it. Partly because sincerely, don’t do it, but partly because I don’t want the competition. Just go away.
DJ: Get a job. Get a job during the day because you’re not gonna eat on that.
CG: And do the reps. I think a lot of people in our world, whether you’re stand-up, or an improviser, or an actor, or a sketch comedian, they think, ‘Oh, I’ve done the training and therefore I’m gonna be good.’
AG: Quit. [laughs]
TV: This has become a surprisingly common response. It’s either quit or get a job.
AG: Well, yeah, get a job is my advice. Don’t try to do this full-time if you just started. Just have fun and be very mindful of why you’re doing it. Make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons.