'We don't have anything': Standup comedians take a crack at government funding

Telling jokes is not considered a performing art by several arts-funding organizations, according to the parliamentary petition, and a Toronto comedian is spearheading an effort to change that.

Comedian Sandra Battaglini is spearheading a petition through her local MP to make standup comedy eligible for art grants.

Pierre Crepo/Bell Media

Comedian Sandra Battaglini is spearheading a petition through her local MP to make standup comedy eligible for art grants.

What’s the difference between a one-person stage play and a standup comedian’s performance?

The first one is eligible for government arts funding while the latter is not, which is a sad punchline to several of this country’s comedians. It has long been the case that Canadian arts institutions don’t recognize standup comedy under the umbrella of performing arts, which has left many comics fuming about what they see is an unfair exclusion. Canadian comedians are getting organized to try and change it.

Toronto-based comedian Sandra Battaglini has started a Parliamentary e-petition, a government-sponsored program which ensures an official government response provided the document gets at least 500 signatures. The petition started last week and already has over 2,000 signatures.

“I just thought this is the standup industry, we don’t have anything. This just seemed like this was something that could give comics a bit of relief, because so many comics are living below the poverty line, and it is one of the greatest legacies of our country and nobody talks about it,” says Battaglini.

The petition was actually the followup to an open letter she wrote to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in 2016, called “Just a little reciprocity.” That letter outlined some of the issues that comics face, including a lack of access to public funding. It got some traction, and she sent it to Julie Dabrusin, her local Liberal Member of Parliament, who called her in for a meeting to discuss further measures. That kicked off the idea of the e-petition, but Dabrusin also suggested that standups — notoriously the lone-wolf type — form their own pack.

“We were told to create a standup association, to help lobby the government (and) so many other comics have said, whatever you want, I’m on board with you.” says Battaglini. “So we formed the first Canadian Association of Stand Up Comedians, which will first work on this, getting us considered an art form, and then work on removing the restrictions for us to work in the U.S.”

The petition notes that “The Canada Council for the Arts does not recognize stand-up comedy as an artistic activity or artistic discipline, excluding stand-up comedians from arts funding,” and adds that provincial bodies do the same. Dabrusin admits that she had no idea that this was an issue for comics, but now will be taking the joke-tellers’ cause to the House of Commons.

“I truly didn’t realize that standup comedy didn’t receive any type of (Department of Canadian Heritage) funding, that’s just not something that I had ever thought about,” says Dabrusin. “I don’t have a fulsome explanation on that at all, which is part of what we’re trying to get to. By having her start this e-petition, it allows me to dig into this a little bit more.”

Local comedians have tried to start unions in the past, and those efforts have generally failed. But Battaglini sees the association as more of a loose affiliation with the very specific purpose of lobbying the government to loosen the red tape around funding and travelling in the U.S.

The argument against grant eligibility is that compared to other arts — such as performing music, which requires money for rehearsal spaces and recording, or plays that need sets and crew — standup comedy requires little overhead. It also has an industry that supports dedicated venues across the country (the Yuk Yuk’s chain alone has 14 locations). As well, comics can seek funding to create non-standup things like web shorts or recordings, and they arguably get indirect support through festivals like Just for Laughs, which are heavily backed by government funding, usually through the Ministry of Heritage. Despite the lack of funding, Canadians take great pride in producing some huge stars in the standup world — Russell Peters, Norm Macdonald and more (Jim Carrey started in standup) — without government grants.

“It is wonderful that we have had standup comedy artists who have been able to succeed without any support from the Canada Council for the Arts, but just think of how much better they could be if we do include them,” counters Dabrusin.

When the Canada Council for Arts was reached for comment about the e-petition, spokesperson Mireille Allaire provided the following statement:

“The arts sector is constantly evolving, and we monitor the situation closely. While it’s not our intention to bring any changes to our applicant profiles at this time, we consider all the feedback we receive and believe it’s through dialogue that we can improve our services in order to meet our objectives and the arts community’s needs.”

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