Published Mar 01, 2019Whenever we publish a negative comedy review, comedians always clap back at us with a "Well then, why don't you try doing some comedy?" So we will! For the next edition of Exclaim! and Comedy Records' monthly standup comedy showcase, which takes place on Thursday, March 7 at Toronto's Wenona Lodge (1069 Bloor St. W.) at 9 p.m., three longtime Exclaim! contributors will be going behind the mic, hosted by Exclaim! comedy editor Vish Khanna.
Ahead of the show, we spoke with this month's featured comics — Exclaim! Editor In Chief James Keast and contributors Liisa Ladouceur and Daniel Sylvester — about moving from writing about music to comedy, and settling the debate about which one is harder.
James Keast has been writing about music since 1992 — his first review was of Tom Waits' Bone Machine — and has been full-time with Exclaim! since 1995. His earliest inclinations about pursuing comedy occurred when Exclaim! and Comedy Records first teamed up for the standup showcase in 2016, after an offhand comment from Comedy Records' managing partner Barry Taylor.
Following Keast's first stint hosting the Exclaim!/Comedy Records showcase in April 2018, he has been slowly honing his skills at open mics across the city. "The first three or four months or so, I think I only went up about once a month. Then, I came to understand that comedy is like going to the gym, where you just have to keep going, you just have to make it a regular thing or else you won't see any progress. You can go to the gym once a month and maybe there's some benefit to that, but you won't see any real progress if you want to get better and improve." Keast now performs at open mics "closer to four times a week."
As a relatively new comic, Keast's biggest inspirations are the ones who are helping him grow. He says, "One of my current inspirations is Gary Gulman's Twitter feed. He's an excellent standup who is offering advice specific to comics every day on Twitter in 2019. Those have been amazing. And then, I would say the Comedy Records community, specifically in Toronto. Nick Reynoldson is probably my greatest inspiration and aspiration. You can watch world-renowned stand up and go 'Okay, I don't know how, from where I am, to get there.' But in Canadian comedy, there are plenty of people you can look and go, 'Well, I can get there.'"
As to which is harder between writing music criticism and comedy, Keast's answer is easy. "Writing jokes is harder, because the feedback is more immediate and the impact on your ego is also more immediate. Writing, versus performing, is just harder, because anything that I publish, any writing that I do, I have plenty of opportunities to rewrite, rework and redo something, and then it gets presented in a final form. If I go on stage and what I have as the final form in my head isn't what comes out of my mouth, I don't have the opportunity to take that back."
Liisa Ladouceur has been a full-time music writer for over a decade, with by-lines in Toronto Sun, The Globe & Mail, Alternative Press, CBC, NOW Magazine and Exclaim!, and currently works full-time at BangerTV. She entered the world of standup two years ago after leaving behind the world of performance poetry. "I figured if I was going to spend my nights in dark bars speaking my truths to ten people, I would rather be making them laugh," she says. "I had also just taken two levels of improv at Second City, but those improv freaks were way too happy for me. My main comedy experience is being an adult goth — if you are wearing a velvet cloak in summertime, that's hilarious."
Just because she abandoned poetry doesn't mean it's far from her mind. When discussing her comedic inspirations, she brings up Anthony Jeselnik's 2015 comedy special Thoughts and Prayers. "It reminds me not so much of music but poetry, in that all words are deliberate — every pause of his set is a perfectly constructed bomb," says Ladouceur. "[It] made me realize you could very, very dark in comedy and find your audience." Other comedic inspirations include local Toronto comics Aisha Brown, DeAnne Smith and Kate Barron.
Though she's been writing about music for far longer than she's been writing comedy, she says that "music criticism is way harder. It's so solitary, you don't get to try it out on anyone before publishing. And you're competing with every other critic and every fan listening or attending the concert who is putting their opinions online at the same time as you, or sooner.
"With comedy, I can pick topics that are mine alone, and road test them before sharing widely, which is a more enjoyable writing experience."
Currently based in Ottawa, Daniel Sylvester has contributed over 1000 pieces to Exclaim! since 2005, and continues to write about artists from all over the genre spectrum. A devout listener of new music — "I literally listen to about 300/400 new releases a year, because I want to stay current and want to be an informed music critic," he says — Sylvester somehow finds the time to balance his omnivorous musical habits and burgeoning comedy career with a full-time job, marriage and fatherhood.
"I've always been obsessed with comedy, but always thought standup was lame," admits Sylvester, "until I discovered the alt-comedy scene, like David Cross, Patton Oswalt and Eugene Mirman. I was then invited out to see my friend do comedy and was inspired. Within three weeks, I had six good minutes of material and was onstage at Yuk Yuk's in Ottawa performing. Five years later and now I have seven good minutes."
Comedically, Sylvester is inspired by "the Ottawa goofballs that get up on stage more often than I do and kill it," including David Brennan, Laura McLean, Mitch Muirhead, Lorenzo Patino and Aaron Hill. "I think the connection between the comedians I like and the music I like is that there's a lack of pretension in their art and there's propensity to take chances," says Sylvester. "It's art related to their own scope, in which they view the world, it's not based on what they think their audiences want to hear or what's 'of the moment.'"
As to writing music criticism versus comedy, Sylvester keeps the score tied: "They're both pains in my ass!"
See these writers in the flesh on Thursday, March 7 at 9 p.m. at the Wenona Lodge. A $10 ticket includes a pint of Steamwhistle. You can buy advance tickets here.