Newspaper article The Canadian Press

Comedians Seek Safe Spaces to Joke, Not Offend

Newspaper article The Canadian Press

Comedians Seek Safe Spaces to Joke, Not Offend

Article excerpt

Comedians seek safe spaces to joke, not offend

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TORONTO - A no-harassment policy at a Winnipeg bar featuring amateur and emerging comics likely stirred more Twitter attacks than quelled off-colour show remarks, admits Winnipeg talent booker Tim Gray.

But he says it's also found lots of support from like-minded comedy fans tired of cracks that are more abusive than funny.

Gray says his unusual move to post a list of banned behaviours at Wee Johnny's was meant to address the divisive times we live in, not to limit free speech.

"With the current climate in our society I feel like it's important to make it clear where you stand on anything that comes down to abusive behaviour," says Gray, whose bar hosts regular open-mic nights as well as emerging comics.

"When you have a president in the United States as they do saying what he's saying on Twitter all the time, the whole alt-right movement, all that stuff, I just want to make sure it's completely clear where we stand at Wee Johnny's when it comes to discrimination or hateful speech or abusive behaviour."

Gray crafted a sign last week to warn audiences and comics alike that they could be asked to leave if they engage in "sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, physical intimidation or any other form of abusive behaviour."

While most professional clubs are "self-policing," an attempt to ban certain language or subject matter in comedy is nothing new, says Andrew Clark, director of the Humber College comedy writing and performance program in Toronto.

He points to strict codes of conduct during the days of American vaudeville that banned swearing, drinking and sexual material.

Still, comics coming of age today do appear to be more mindful of a myriad of socially sensitive issues dominating headlines.

"Comedy is falling more under the rubric of how theatre and other things have been run, certain kinds of comedy, in that there has to be some kind of social good to it," notes Clark.

"There are so many different factors now going in comedy and I think there's a real belief that comedy has some kind of social engineering function."

There are also a lot more opportunities for diverse voices to speak their truth, thanks to a proliferation of open mic nights and amateur comedy rooms where alternative voices can work out their material.

"Whereas 20 years ago you would have gone to (top-lining Winnipeg comedy club) Rumor's and the lineup would have been fantastic because there really wasn't anywhere for people to go. In Toronto it was the Laugh Resort and Yuk Yuk's.... It was like the Top 40 of Canada," says Clark.

"Now, I've got students who are doing this month (a show called) the 'Ebony Tide,' so it's people of colour every week and then at the end of the month they're doing the 'Ethnic Rainbow' which is all gay people of colour. …

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