Published on September 12th, 2011 | by Sharilyn Johnson0
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Like a lot of cities, Toronto’s comedy community has a wide selection of weeknight open mics held in the back room of a mid-sized, mid-town, mid-priced bar.
Spirits is exactly that kind of bar. But its Wednesday night open mic – the longest-running booked open mic in the city – is not a typical room.
For the past 15 years of Wednesdays (that would be 780 weeks, minus holidays), Jo-Anna Downey has played host and gatekeeper at the Church St. bar.
It’s a consistently popular show, for good reason: where else can you escape a cover charge and see some of the best comics in Canada? Nikki Payne, Simon Rakoff, Sean Cullen, Mike Wilmot, Kenny Robinson… and that’s not necessarily a list separated by “or”s. It’s absolutely possible to see a cumulative century of comedy experience in one night. Newer comics wait months for a spot, and are warned by their buddies to watch their etiquette (the tales of Jo-Anna’s wrath are greatly exaggerated, but let’s not tell them that).
In celebration of the show’s big one-five, Third Beat talked to Jo-Anna about the ups and downs (mostly ups) of the past decade and a half.
As a regular at the previous open mic’s incarnation, and being talked into going onstage to tell a story about a bad haircut, Jo-Anna booked her first official stand-up spot at Spirits. And just her luck…. [The host] had gotten fired the week before, because he’d spoken badly to some Manulife employees.
I went to complain to the manager, Rob, who I knew. “There’s supposed to be an open mic, what’s going on?” And then he said, “you do it”. That’s how I inherited the show. My big mouth.
They didn’t give the show to me right away. They wanted it to be a music show, so there’d be music and comedy. Then the guy they gave it to… we were alternating hosting. He was supposed to book musicians but in the six months we did it he brought two people. It was all standup. He’d just do the same Tragically Hip cover songs.
I remember it was in May or something. He’d built the stage with his roommates, that day, and was at Spirits loaded. Fuckin’ drunk. And I just told him “you have to BRING people to the show.”
And then he went to take a swing at me, and Rob grabbed him and he was fired. So violence against women is the key to my success. The fact that I prompted a man to punch me in the face.
There’s no audition process. With the bookings, I’m so inundated. The only criteria is that they come to the show and watch the show. In the first five years there wasn’t really any booking per se. People would call my answering machine, I’d rewind the tape, I’d write down their numbers, and I’d call people back. But there weren’t the numbers I have to deal with now.
There’s been some weirdos. I’ve been attacked on stage, and somebody thought it was a set-up. I haven’t written a word in 15 years, and they thought that I’d fuckin’ planned a sketch. I’m like “really, do you KNOW me?”
More recently, about four months ago I booked a guy. I got him mixed up with somebody else and I booked him. He had no reason to be on the stage. He was just homophobic, and did jokes like “why do fat girls bother painting their toenails because they can’t see them anyway”. And the perfect part about that was that the audience was just in shock, just stunned silence. And Deb DiGiovani followed him and took the fuckin’ piss out of him. I didn’t even do any time. “Your next act…”
People have to wait a long time to do the show. So those people who have any drive, they’re usually not terrible. They might not be my sense of funny, but they’re okay. And they do a couple of open mics before they do Spirits.
This is the thing that bothers me the most. I’m going to sound old right now. I hear about comedy rooms where there’s like three people in the audience. And that’s what Spirits was. Everyone once in a while we’d get 10 or 20 people. I’m talking the first couple years. But all the comics were booked and there were 21 on average. We started the show at 9:30 and would sometimes go until 1:30.
But because we were performing for each other and wings were 10 cents and jugs of beer were $10, we all stayed and took notes and helped each other out. So it was always a show, just that we were performing for each other.
What kills me is kids who show up like they’re a superstar, don’t watch anybody before them, do topical material that’s been fuckin’ covered, and then bolt after their set. When I have four top headliners closing the show. It shocks me all the time.
The Best of Times:
The greatest nights have come from unexpected nights. About a month ago I booked a lot of new people, and it was a flawless night. All these new comics brought it, anyone who was experienced was wonderful, the audience was totally into it, and it just flowed as a show. There were no super highs and no super lows. It was like I cast it, wrote the script, and it was fuckin’ even. So those are the greatest nights.
My 40th birthday show was epic, in the fact that when I got there at 8:30 for my show, the only people at the bar were Robin Williams, Lewis Black, and Mike Wilmot. None of the other comics showed up on time. And then I have Mike Wilmot and Lewis Black flipping to see who goes up first, because they want to drink.
I was told by his manager that I was the first person to ever take Robin Williams off stage. “You’re done!” I have the tape. It was probably 25 minutes. On my 40th birthday I only booked comics who were older than me because I wanted to be the youngest person on the show. So I had all these fuckin’ headliners, and then Robin Williams shows up. And then texting happens, so the room is jammed. And Robin sees the room is jammed, and then he wants to go up. He just wanted to go on stage to wish me a happy birthday. And then he did time. And time. If he had wanted to do time I would have put him at the end and let him roll.
I’m at [the fourth comic], and the show was an hour and a half already!
More Big Names?
Patton Oswalt in the early years. I think he was there in ‘98 or something. He ran a workshop, and I went to the workshop because I was an amateur comic at the time. He’s the first comic, and only comic I’ve known since, who practices what they preach. He said “stage time is important, get onstage” and he hit every open mic in the city.
Paul Provenza was in the room but he didn’t perform.
Mitch Hedberg, but he didn’t perform because he was too high, so I did his jokes infront of him. I’d just seen him. This is just after he was doing [the late] Comedywood, but Comedywood didn’t have any people. So the first show Friday, I got a bunch of people to come out. And we knew the late show had no reservations, so I made the audience stay for the second show. And he did a different hour. So I knew his material, and I was pissed at him for not doing my show. So I went and did his material infront of him. He goes to me [in Hedbergian voice] “I know people who steal my jokes. But I’ve never seen somebody do my jokes infront of me.” It was surreal.
The Value of a Beer:
The reason the show is so successful is because so many of my friends aren’t above doing an open mic. They’ll come out and try five minutes for a beer. And I really appreciate that. It’s a room to practice. Not even practice — bitch for five minutes, get a beer ticket. That’s Canadian show business.
15 more years?
Oh God, no. I hope not.