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Interview: Ottawa comic Karen Joy went from working the box office to working the crowd

By Asim B. on February 11, 2018

Karen Joy is a gem of Ottawa’s comedy scene, bringing her unique take on life to stages around town. She was also the producer of the highly successful Monday Night Laughs show at The Tartan Pub. Although she considers the sudden closing of the Orleans restaurant as a loss, she is determined to keep going and use the valuable friendships and experience as inspiration.

The next thing on her list is taking part in the Crackup Comedy Competition Semi-Finals. These shows are taking place at Absolute Comedy and Yuk Yuks on Mondays and Tuesdays until the Alterna Savings Crackup Comedy Festival (March 19–24, 2018). One winner from each club will be awarded a $500 cash prize and invite to perform a set at the Comedy Night in Canada festival finale on March 24, 2018.

Before she takes the stage at Absolute Comedy on February 12, Apt613 got the chance to talk to Karen.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Apt613: Hi Karen, thanks for chatting with us this afternoon. Can you start off by telling us where you grew up?

I grew up here in Ottawa but I was from the east coast. I was born in Halifax and moved here when I was three. My family was from Lower Sackville, which is the same small town where comic Heather Hurst and Nikki Payne are from. My dad was in the Navy and I was raised in Ottawa.

What were you like as a kid?

I had ADD, was a little bit rambunctious. I was getting into trouble. Every report card was like: “Karen is not paying attention…”

I wasn’t actually diagnosed with ADD until I was eighteen, but you look back and all the warning signs and symptoms were there. It was so glaringly obvious. I went on Ritalin, but probably only for a few months because I didn’t like the way it felt. Like you would take a pill and half an hour to an hour later, I’d be in my first class in the morning and you’d feel it coursing through your veins and I didn’t feel good. I was hoping that ADD would peter out through adulthood and reflecting back now, I’d say: “No, not really.”

When you were younger, did you use comedy as an outlet for your ADD?

No, and I wish I did, because I feel like when I was younger I was far more creative, absurd and silly. Like my friends and I would make parody magazines, I used to make my own clothes, I was a member of the science book club… I was using my creativity much more. Now I feel like I spent years stifling that so I could excel at the jobs I was doing… I was working at banks and other office settings in my twenties and feel like it kind of stifled that. But I always liked standup, though never thought I’d be taking part or doing it. I ended up taking a job at Yuk Yuks when I was like thirty.

What made you decide to perform standup comedy in your thirties?

Because my day job was so boring. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed talking to clients, but overall, it was just boring. The job at Yuk Yuks was just for minimum wage, but it was also a chance to get out of the house and have the opportunity to do something I enjoyed a couple of nights a week.

So what made you step out from behind the ticket booth and onto the stage?

I was seeing all these amazing pro shows over the weekend. You’d see the same headliner again and again, and would see how they approach the same material differently depending on the crowd. It’s so different than watching Netflix specials. You’re in the room, watching live comedy, seeing how something might be delivered differently, depending on the electricity of the audience.

So after a couple of years working at Yuk Yuks I started working on their amateur night. And after a while you were able to see the progression of the comics and you’re like “holy crap”… People would start off and they would suck and then would pick it up and get so good. And I figured I’d give it a try. I had my first show on a Wednesday at Yuk Yuks New Talent Showcase. I made a Facebook event and like fifty or sixty friends said they were going so I started to panic. I was like: “I’m going to embarrass myself so badly.” So I did an open mic ahead of the show, at Patty Boland’s, as a warm up because I was so scared of freezing up on stage when I went on at Yuk Yuks.

Tell me about your most memorable stories performing standup?

I was kind of lucky starting out because I was already working at a club… and I knew a lot of the comics, but something kind of stood out when I got out and performed. Like, I’ll be honest, my first set lasted maybe three minutes… there were about seven people in the audience and I just rambled for like a minute before I got to any material and the first joke I told got some laughs and it was electrifying, just electrifying, you know?! I did two more jokes and I still had two more jokes to go, but I was screaming inside and couldn’t handle it anymore so I just went off stage early.

But just after that happened, I had all these friends coming up to me… they were already friends, but once you’ve done your first standup set, you’re in. It was respect that you afforded because you had gone up on stage. People were always respectful before, but you definitely get more respect because you’ve done it, you’ve also gotten up on stage and now I was one of them.

People were always respectful before, but you definitely get more respect because you’ve done it, you’ve also gotten up on stage and now I was one of them.

How about a cringe worthy story about performing standup?

I was taking part in Absolute Comedy’s ‘Prove You’re a Comic’ Competition two summers ago… I was closing with a technical joke that required buildup and pacing, I was starting to get the light [a signal to close the set] which is still fine because I was on target to finish my set on time… then this girl in the front row gets up and answers her phone. She’s got one finger over her ears, like she’s trying to hear better, like she’s actively trying to take this phone call. She’s like: “Hello? Hello! Hold on a second! Hello? Wait a second!” And she’s right up in front so everyone can see it.

The thing is, when it happened, I didn’t really know what to do because it was a competition and you’re specifically instructed not to do crowd work, I’m on my last joke, and you want to tear her down, but that’s just it. Plus you get heavily penalized for going over your time and my time has now been up and I couldn’t salvage my last joke. So it was just super frustrating. My chances were blown and I didn’t know how to recover from it, especially because I was only two years into comedy.

What do you hope to get out of comedy?

The rewards you receive are commensurate with the effort you put in. So as long as I keep putting in the effort, I’ll want to see how far it takes me. I mean… I’m gonna not lie to you… I’m too old to go and sleep on people’s couches so I don’t think it’s the route for me, but it’s just such a thrill to make people laugh. It’s such a thrill to produce a comedy show as well. I was having such a great time producing the weekly comedy show at Tartan Pub.

Thanks for taking the time to talk to us ahead of your competition.

No problem, thank you too.


You can catch Karen competing at Absolute Comedy (412 Preston St) on Monday February 12 as part of the Alterna Savings Crackup Comedy Competition Semi-Finals. Go to absolutecomedy.ca for ticket info.