The great playwright George Bernard Shaw wrote, “Life does not cease to be funny when people die any more than it ceases to be serious when people laugh.” The link between laughter and tears is a longstanding one and it is in moving from one to the other that we learn to navigate the time allotted to us.
“All comics have issues, and it doesn’t mean they come from deprived or abused backgrounds,” says Mark Breslin, businessman, actor, comedian and founder of Yuk Yuk’s, the largest chain of comedy clubs in Canada—the new kid on the block, joining Montreal’s burgeoning comedy scene. Located in the Rialto Theatre complex, Yuk Yuk’s Cabaret will feature English and French comics on different days, a first in the city.
“I don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t discovered the thrill of making people laugh,” says Breslin, who says he has been under the care of a psychoanalyst all his life, “though not always under court order.”
Comics are not necessarily class clowns, but people who notice and comment on what happens around them, Breslin says. “They critique the class clown. They are social observers, not too funny offstage, only onstage, where they can control everything. You can’t control a party but you can control a performance. Standup is nothing but control.”
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Most comics develop material that has no expiry date, Breslin says. “Family, education, sex, relationships, drugs, alcohol, stuff everybody goes through.”
Comedy doesn’t have to be shocking to be funny, but often is, according to Breslin. “The whole enterprise is a blood sport, always has been, always will be. The stuff in the clubs is the pure stuff, the stuff on TV is cleaned up. I like the stuff that digs the deepest, flirts with being offensive. A good comedian stretches his audience a little bit. If you go over the line and you upset them, you haven’t done your job.”
Montreal comic Sébastien Bourgault, 39, is funny in both languages.
“I always wanted to do comedy, I always made people laugh,” he says. “When I was young, we had Reader’s Digest, with a joke section inside. With my father, we always tried the best version, in competition.” With the Reader’s Digest always handy “in the toilet,” Bourgault estimates he memorized about 900 jokes. “In high school, I realized I could write my own jokes,” he recalls, and he slowly tested them on friends and family. Until he chose to do comedy full time, he did every job imaginable “except stripping. I was too fat.”
While he thinks French in Quebec should be protected, he has little patience with those who say too much English in Montreal is a threat to French culture. “When you don’t know something, you are scared. When I started learning English it was not just to learn English, it was to check out how they think, it was to integrate.
“We all have to upgrade our skills. We have two great cultures here. If you ticket a guy because he put ‘pasta’ on the menu, you should ticket the francophone who put ‘hot dog’ on the menu.”
As a comic, he wants to bring laughter, beyond Quebec’s borders, beyond the limits of language, around the world. “When I upgrade my skill, I am not a francophone, not an anglophone, not a Canadian, not a Québécois. I am a human being.”
Bourgault says many people aren’t ready to be happy and life is so stressful that comedy is indispensible. “When you laugh, it is the only time you are in the moment. You have to forget your reality and just have fun.”