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Opinion, Dave Dale column: Comedy landscape crowded with landmines

Personally, I’m concerned about the potential for extreme censorship at the government level — social pressures are a different worry — but I believe it boils down to good taste and reading the room, on top of taking some care about your actual intent
It's OK to bomb when you try your hand at stand up comedy. But try not to step too heavily on the ever-evolving societal landmines.

Writing “acceptable” jokes in a volatile social environment is half the fun and challenge of stand up comedy these days. There’s something about the threat of a viral bombing that makes getting the laughs worth twice as much as gold — almost as much as a fraction of a Bitcoin.

They don’t come easy and it’s getting harder as people get comfortable with their new role as social engineering police. Thankfully there are open mics events where novice rookies and vets can get some live practice trying out bits and working out lines that provoke both thought and giggles.

I enjoy trying to tap dance on that fine line in front of a live audience, it’s sometimes more thrilling than writing columns.

The pandemic’s restrictions really put a damper on what was a decent comedy scene in North Bay after it enjoyed successive waves of new blood pumping up the volume over the past decade or so. Open mics are just now starting up again and there was a good room of people spread out nicely at Lou Dawgs, Nov. 3. We had 10 people take the stage with local event staple Andre Raymond hosting.

The best in my opinion was Charles Adam, who came in from Manitoulin to make an audition tape for a comedy festival. Parkinson’s has his right arm and hand shaking and he has a cool way of sharing the humour of it. North Bay’s Adam Beanish also earned steady laughs with his patented tension-builders creating positive energy. There were no first-timers on the night but a couple said they’re interested in the Dec. 1 event coming.

It’s not getting easier to be a comedian during this time of intense sensitivity and backlash activism. More and more words are disappearing from accepted use. You pretty well need a live satellite image to find the boundaries between tension and humour these days. The trick, if you feel compelled to push the envelope, is not to be mean or degrading. If you’re going to make fun of people you should leave room for them to laugh at it as well. Some comics think everything is fair game, and I wish them luck, but I'm aiming for more of the "Dry Bar" mainstream market.

Fortunately, I like a challenge and regardless of the taboo lexicon of any era, it boils down to finding the funny bone, even if the joke is about finding ways to joke about things you are being told not to joke about.

I’ve been experimenting with wordplay to dance on those boundary lines. Here is an example of some new material I’m working on:

SCENE: Open with the frustration of writing jokes these days. Moan about not being able to say certain words anymore and being stuck going by first letters or abbreviations. But what can you do? Woke reality rules...

“OK. Well, how about this one … An F-word, a D-word and an A-word walk into a bar…”

My first try on that setup was last week and it got quite a few snickers and yuks as the audience realized I was going to go there. I may have rushed to the main punchline in the second half of the bit, although it got respectable laughs for a first try. It felt like there’s some room for more delay, perhaps a side joke as the three letters talk to the bartender, although that might require a secondary build-up. I could even add a tag from another joke before the punchline. One of the other comics said it “had legs” and just needs some polish.

It actually came to me while driving into North Bay, trying to think of new bits since September when the open mics were first scheduled. Being prepared and rehearsed is preferable but a last-minute addition to a set brings quite a rush. It was one of several virgin lines I wanted to try on for size.

One was about North Bay Mayor Al McDonald possibly being a ‘lame duck’ in the twilight of his municipal politics tenure. And yes, it was a groaner.

I wrote a better joke in October after being asked to give an Indigenous territory acknowledgement at a Powassan Voodoos game. The premise includes how I was already there doing the public announcements on goals and penalties for the game. I was asked because they knew I have some native affairs experience as a journalist.

When I tried it out the other night, the audience already heard at the beginning of the set my background, which includes several jokes about being with The Nugget for 18 years and how, before that, I worked for the Union of Ontario Indians as the editor of their monthly paper, the Anishinabek News for seven years: “I was their token white guy!”

The punchline for the Indigenous territory acknowledgement the other night was, “The ice for tonight’s game was made from the tears of racist hunters who didn’t get a moose tag this season.” It got some laughs, although I might take the "racist" part out and work on the line a bit. It’s a bit insulting for the non-racist hunters out there, although I’m sure the mysterious moose tag system makes them all cry. Anyway, you get the gist of it. As a white guy, there’s a tad more latitude joking about my fellow white people, but the same rules apply: it’s better if the joke leaves room for everyone to laugh.

I’m probably a better event organizer than comic, I've only dabbled in this craft for a few years now and it's a steep learning curve but I enjoy the process of figuring out the jokes and trying to make them work.

My new joke about the F-word and gang going into a bar is evolving as they usually do. You could probably make the same premise with race-based or otherwise landmine-worthy "first letter abbreviation words," but there’s really no need with other options available. You could probably make the N-word and R-word work in that joke but it depends on the lines that follow — and making sure you’re not being hateful.

Personally, I’m concerned about the potential for extreme censorship at the government level — social pressures are a different worry — but I believe it boils down to good taste and reading the room, on top of taking some care about your actual intent. The tone of political stances on stage still needs humour to achieve the goal of laughter. Comics have to ask themselves if they’re making a speech or doing stand up?  There are ways to do both but requires work.

I had thought of just going with A-word, B-word and C-word the next time I get a chance, taking an orderly approach with benign intent, but that might twist into something uncomfortable in the long wrong as well. I could plead ignorance and say the C-word represented Cassellholme but there’s a limit to how many people will think that’s funny.

There are three weeks to the next open mic to iron out the wrinkles on that one and create a few more that push the envelope.

It’s a tough crowd out there but that’s what makes it exciting.

Dave Dale is a veteran journalist and columnist who has covered the North Bay area for more than 30 years. Reader responses related to his work can be sent to [email protected]. To contact the writer directly, email: [email protected] or check out his website