Every tuesday night at a Vancouver restaurant called The Kino, comedians take the stage to work on their routines, to practise before bringing an act somewhere bigger. For a while, The Kino’s biggest claim to fame was that, one evening a few years back and before all the sexual misconduct allegations against him came to light, Louis C. K. stopped by for an impromptu set. The host doesn’t brag about that anymore.
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Sometimes, Tuesdays at The Kino have meant gritting my teeth in the audience as bro comics rattle through lukewarm bits about their girlfriends talking too much or shopping obsessively. In this brand of comedy, women are, at best, aliens to be theorized about by the Jerry Seinfelds of the world; at worst, we become the objects of violent fantasies. These sorts of jokes turned me off of mainstream stand-up for much of my life, but what has kept me coming back to The Kino is the occasional bit of gold. Recently, that came in the form of a set by Sophie Buddle, a twenty-five-year-old comic whose day job is writing for the cbc’s satirical news show, This Hour Has 22 Minutes.
Between jokes about her sex life and Vancouver’s murderous crow population, Buddle isn’t afraid to poke at serious topics. She does one bit about the children of millennials: “Our kids are going to be the first generation of kids that can be whatever they want, sexually and, like, gender-wise. And that’s it—you know, we’re not going to have money to, like, feed them.” During one set, at the SiriusXM Top Comic competition, she veered into the #MeToo movement, bringing up the idea that those kids of millennials will be the first generation to be properly taught about consent. “I like that,” she quipped, before looking down at the people crowded around the narrow stage. “Big frown up front from this man,” she noted, gesturing to one person in particular. His obvious discomfort became a running gag during her next bit, about rape culture.
The relationship between a comedian and their audience is a complicated one. Finnish anthropologist-turned-comedian Marianna Keisalo argues that the line between the performer’s onstage persona and their real identity is often incredibly thin. It’s the kind of thing you learn in Comedy 101: if there’s something unusual about you, acknowledge it and move on. For a long time in Canada and the United States, “unusual” applied to anyone not straight, white, cisgender, or male. Even stars that didn’t fit this mould, like Joan Rivers or Richard Pryor, had to work harder to get audiences onboard. Pushing the wrong crowd to an uncomfortable place often meant losing the room entirely.
But, in recent years, audiences have been changing. Today, podcasting, streaming, and social media are bringing large and diverse audiences to comedians who might once have been dismissed as “niche.” A handful of years ago, writer Christopher Hitchens and comedian Adam Carolla were proclaiming that women could never be as funny as men. Those arguments now seem quaint: in the past five years, there have been four acclaimed Netflix specials featuring pregnant women alone (Ali Wong, Natasha Leggero, Amy Schumer, and Ali Wong again). In fact, many of the most exciting new performers are women, people of colour, lgbtq people, or some combination thereof, bringing with them a raft of underexplored experiences that are transforming the nature of comedy.
But this shift has also meant a growing divide. On one side, new faces have meant less tolerance for the flippant bigotry that has long been a part of stand-up—Shane Gillis, for example, recently lost a spot on Saturday Night Live after people called out his history of using homophobic and racist slurs. On the other side—which includes some of the biggest names in the business, like Dave Chappelle, Bill Burr, and Ricky Gervais—comedians complain that people can no longer take a joke and that the art is losing its edge because of what they dismiss as “cancel culture.” It doesn’t seem to have crossed their minds that comedy is changing, and though they might have once been provocative or dangerous, they are now far from the cutting edge.
Tin lorica likes to test the room with a joke. “My name is Tin,” they announce in a deadpan voice. “I use they/them pronouns, in case you want to talk shit about me after the show.” The amount of laughter defines the rest of the set: a few nervous giggles mean a turn toward “universal” jokes about life as a barista; gales of laughter allow Lorica to move on to their bit about why they quit dating white women. “That one I have to address,” Lorica explains over coffee one afternoon in Vancouver. For certain crowds—like those attending Yellow Fever, the all-Asian lineup that Lorica co-produced for Just for Laughs Northwest, or Millennial Line, the monthly show they co-host—jokes about pronouns and queer-dating perils generally get a warm reception. But for other audiences? “I’m about to alienate half the room,” Lorica explains.