No matter what happens, just keep talking: That’s how amateur comics get their start in Ottawa

Emerging comedian Greg Houston has been performing in Ottawa for six years. Photo: Jennifer Vy Tran

By Rosa Saba

On Saturday nights at Yuk Yuk’s Comedy Club in Ottawa, the basement is usually packed with people for the late show featuring some of Canada’s best professional comedians. But, on Wednesdays, it’s a different scene. New Talent Night is a chance for amateurs and emerging comics test their material.

Each performer on New Talent Night gets six minutes to impress the crowd. Some are nervous first-timers. Others have been performing at these nights for years. The basement is still full, but the crowd is more forgiving; they laugh at awkward jokes, cheer on their friends and supporting those brave enough to take the stage.

There are two main amateur nights in Ottawa: at Absolute Comedy and Yuk Yuk’s. Smaller events are held at venues like Swizzle’s and Live on Elgin.

Ottawa student Adrian Brown, who now organizes comedy open mic nights at Swizzle’s, still remembers his first five minutes of standup at Absolute Comedy’s Monday open mic.

Brown spent most of his set talking about poop — more specifically, the Bristol stool scale. He remembers a groan at the punchline, and not much else. But what made him want to come back was the support from other comedians after the show.

“They found me funny because I was so nervous,” he said.

Julie Dugas started at the same open mic night. Unlike Brown, a university student who is just getting started in the performance world, Dugas stumbled into comedy later in life.

Dugas had been working for Fantasia, throwing sex-themed parties that she describes as Tupperware parties, but with sex toys and lingerie. She had always been open when it came to talking about sex, and hosting these parties was a natural fit. One Valentine’s Day, she hosted a party and was approached by one of the guests, a part-time talent agent who thought she had potential in stand-up.

Less than a year later, Dugas performs at amateur nights all over Ottawa, talking about her personal life —  mostly sex.

“I’m like everybody’s sex therapist,” she said. “You stick with what you know when you start out.”

Dugas says open mics in Ottawa can be very competitive, and a mixed bag as well.

“You’ve got brand-new people doing it on a dare, you’ve got semi-serious people that do want to try it out … but the pros also want to get in on the open mics because that’s when they try out new material,” she said. “You just never know what you’re going to get.”

Howard Wagman has been running Yuk Yuk’s Comedy in Ottawa for 35 years. He puts New Talent Night, juggling seasoned amateurs with beginners in an effort to include everyone while still putting on a great show.

Performers sign up through a Facebook group called New Talent Showcase. Wagman can only give about a third of them a spot each month.

“We always give preferential treatment to first-time members and to people who are progressing well,” Wagman said. “We draw people in and we make it a positive experience.”

In his 35 years at Yuk Yuk’s in Ottawa, Wagman has seen comedy change, adapting to pop culture and technology, as well as audiences’ shortening attention spans. Ottawa’s comedy scene is one of the best in Canada, he says, in part because of the attitude his club has towards new talent and the discerning audience the comedy scene has created.

“People get treated respectfully here. People are listened to here. You have to earn your laughs on our stage,” he said. “We draw big names here because of those reasons. It’s a respected club.”

If Wagman sees significant potential in an amateur, he will give them spots at New Talent Night, but will also offer them time on the weekend, opening for bigger acts. It’s at amateur nights like the one at Yuk Yuk’s that some of Canada’s biggest comedy stars have gotten their start. Wagman has seen some of the best perform on his stage before breaking out nationally and internationally.

“Huge stars have come out of this program,” he said. “Jim Carrey. Russell Peters. Norm MacDonald.”

He remembers seeing those comedians and knowing they had the potential to make it big in the comedy world. “It was phenomenal,” he said. “That’s the great thing about comics. They don’t change.”

Greg Houston has been doing comedy in Ottawa for almost six years. He’s not an amateur anymore, but he remembers the year he started doing comedy.

“That was always a dream, something I wanted to do,” Houston said. His first two shows went well, but the third, messy and awkward, was a wake-up call: he needed to either buckle down and work on his comedy, or quit.

“There’s a bit of a shiny gleam when it’s your first time,” Houston said. “The third set is usually the hardest.”

Now, Houston does open mics and hosts shows whenever he can. He also performs at comedy festivals, and has his sights set on some of the bigger ones, such as Just For Laughs. He’s seen the Ottawa comedy scene grow during that time — “It’s probably doubled since I started,” he said.

Houston said Ottawa is a great place to get started in the comedy world, but many comedians move on to bigger places, cities like Toronto or Vancouver with established film industries and more opportunities.

“There’s a very finite amount of stage time in town,” he said. “Because of how things are set up, it’s really hard to progress past a certain point.” Houston sees himself eventually moving to Toronto.

For amateur performers like Brown, Ottawa is the perfect place to get comfortable on stage. He’s working on his routine, getting inspiration from everyday conversations and practicing whenever possible. He’s learned to plow through an awkward set, but also to own his “weird, nervous” stage presence.

“It’s easier to live in your own head as you get more comfortable,” he said. “Keep talking. In spite of whatever happens, keep talking.”

This story was produced in collaboration with Centretown News and Carleton University.

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