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Write On Ottawa: The history of comedy in our city

By Alejandro Bustos on November 24, 2015

I think comedy comes more from a low sense of self-esteem, and I certainly have that.” – Craig Ferguson

ottawa-cover-small-270x398Ottawa-residents are often caricatured as a sorry lot who live boring lives. This probably explains why this region has produced so many great comedians.

Wait, what? I thought this was the city that fun forgot.

Not so fast. In his book Ottawa: Gateway to Carp (Comedy in the Nation’s Capital), John Mazerolle puts the kibosh to the claim that our lovely city is an insomnia-induced fog of boredom. In fact, his research turned up so much comedy history in the National Capital Region, he decided to turn a one-off assignment into an 89-page oral history.

“The original intention was to write something much shorter,” says Mazerolle in an email interview. “I was commissioned by Humber College’s school of comedy (which I graduated from in 2010) to write a piece for the 2013 Canadian Comedy Awards in Ottawa. Humber was a sponsor.

“The original idea was for a 3,000-word oral history of the kind you might see on the web and that festival-goers could read. But I talked to too many people and a story of that size became impractical. Comedians are by nature good talkers, so I think it worked well.”

The resulting work is not a typical book but rather a collection of interviews that were collected over a month. Among those that appear are comedians Tom Green and Norm Macdonald, both of whom were raised in Ottawa, as well as Rick Mercer and Mark Breslin, the founder of the Yuk Yuk’s chain of comedy clubs.

But before continuing a quick caveat is warranted: Readers may have to adjust to the book’s quirky structure. While the short introduction does contain regular prose, the rest of the work is comprised exclusively of transcribed interview snippets that are arranged into different themes.

Once you get used to the style, however, you learn a lot of neat things. For instance:

  • Ottawa is where Monty Python broke up;
  • Canada’s capital is the birthplace of the Canadian Improv Games; and
  • A lot of comedians were born or raised in Ottawa, e.g. Tom Green, Dan Aykroyd, Jeremy Hotz, Mike MacDonald, Rich Little, Norm Macdonald and Jon Dore.

What I found particularly interesting, however, was the observation that Ottawa’s relaxed attitude allows comedians to do crazy things. For instance, Tom Green recalls how he could perform stunts in Ottawa that would be impossible elsewhere.

Photo of Tom Green (Jan. 2006) by Randi Hogsden. Courtesy of Flickr - creative commons.

Photo of Tom Green (Jan. 2006) by Randi Hogsden. Courtesy of Flickr – creative commons.

“[W]hen you go out on the streets of Ottawa, you always felt safe,” says Green in the book. “When I was dealing with confrontational humour, you’re poking fun at the straight-laced nature of the people in the city, and they would get flustered a little more easily. You never thought somebody was gonna kick your ass, although eventually that ended up almost happening a few times . . . .

“In America, they probably would have chased us down, Tasered us and thrown us in handcuffs, and then prison, and then I’d have some horrible record. So there is some sort of a sense that we could get away with more, I think.”

This is a sentiment that is shared by other comedians from the National Capital Region.

“I think that makes a lot of sense, and it wasn’t only Tom Green’s view,” says Mazerolle, who now lives in Charlottetown. “Several other people in the book say something similar, so it seems to be a consensus opinion. I’d also say that even people who had left (with the possible exception of Norm Macdonald) had very warm, positive things to say about the city. Green was proud that Ottawa was the backdrop for so many of the stunts that made his show famous.”

Among the stunts showcased in the book is Tom Green’s decision to hang up his own painting in the National Gallery before coming back to vandalise it.

Fans of the famous U.K. graffiti artist Bansky will likely recognise this antic, as the underground painter has also put up his work in art galleries. But for fans of Ottawa’s comedy scene, be proud of the fact that Tom Green did this years before Bansky.

Not that Ottawa would ever brag. For as Mazerolle points out, one of the things he loved about writing this book was how accessible and friendly everybody was.

“Even the biggest stars seemed very happy to help,” he says. “In fact, the only two major people I didn’t reach (Dan Aykroyd and Rich Little) were missed due to time constraints only. I’m confident with a couple more weeks of time to work with I could have talked to both of them.”

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