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Bombs, Breakthroughs and Beer: 20 Years at Ein Stein’s

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The average life expectancy for a weekly comedy open mic in Toronto is, ballpark, 1 to 3 years. Bars close. Venues change hands. Comedians come and go. As Canada’s comedy hub, Toronto is home to a thriving (and some might say over-saturated) standup scene. A proving ground where comedians from across Canada flock to fight their way up the comedy food chain. And not all the sea turtles make the swim. That’s nature, baby! 

If Vancouver is Canada’s so-called ‘Hollywood North’, home to movie studios and production lots, then Toronto is certainly our standup stand-in for New York. Amateur comics and headliners alike from across Canada populate countless shows spread all over the city on any given night of the week. There are open mics, indie shows, clubs, pubs, dive bars, coffee shops, theatres, art spaces. All of which are home to a diverse array of shows and formats where audiences can connect with Canada’s current crop of comedy talent. Where crowds can watch some of our own TV fixtures and radio personalities live onstage, doing what they did from the very beginning – going out at night, and telling jokes. 

I arrived on the Toronto standup scene in the summer of 2011, and have since hosted and produced 3 different long-running weekly shows, a multitude of monthly shows, showcases, indie tours and one-offs at venues ranging from Toronto’s famous Comedy Bar. Bad Dog Theatre. A Scottish pub. A Greek restaurant. A coffee shop. A burlesque bar. A waffle diner (two different locations). A punk and grunge bar. An Irish pub. And a few other places I’m forgetting. I’ve also performed in some pretty bizarre locales over the years. I once did standup in an art gallery as a “living installation”. And another time, I was hired to heckle Bar Mitzvah guests in the bathroom at the Ritz Carlton hotel. As a comedian in Toronto, you get the opportunity to work in just about every kind of room imaginable – and stretch your boundaries on a thousand different formats and themes. Some are great. Some are painful. Some come and go in the blink of an eye. 

But then there are the iconic shows. The cult classic comedy shows. The standup shows that have over the years produced many of the country’s greatest comics. Shows that continue to this day, and have taken on legendary status. The shows you hear about as soon as you arrive, and you have to work your way towards. You prove your worth, you pay your dues – or at least, that’s supposed to be the idea. Shows like the Wednesday “open mic” (it’s booked) at Spirits on Church. Originally launched in ’96 by Jo-Anna Downey – a godmother of sorts to the Toronto comedy scene. Downey is a former standup and producer who’s widely respected across the country. And tragically had to retire in recent years due to her battle with ALS. At 20 years old, Spirits is one of the longest running weekly comedy shows in Canada. Same goes for Kenny Robinson’s ‘Nubian Night’. A showcase mainly featuring comedians of colour, Sunday nights at Toronto’s flagship Yuk Yuks. Nubian Night has been a career starter for countless young comics for 2 decades and counting.

Texas Comedy Massacre, one of my own local favourites, just passed the decade mark. Same goes for Brian Coughlin’s ‘Corktown Comedy’ Wednesday nights upstairs at Betty’s on King.

This is maybe what I love most about the Toronto standup scene, and why I can’t see myself ever leaving. Those long, tired winter nights running around from show to show with your hands in your pocket, maybe a few bucks in your wallet to reward yourself with a beer (as a comic in Toronto, you quickly get to know just about every bar tender and venue owner across the city) Just trying to get through the hustle. Like a standup version of Llewyn Davis.

As a comic, I think discomfort is ultimately essential to our existence. How many career comedians have we seen fade into obscurity because they rested on their laurels. Relying on the same old tried and true 20 minutes of polished material. Tiredly trotting it out in front of audiences in banquet halls and corporate shows. As a comic, we have to write. We have to stay fresh, and fluid, and current. We have to constantly evolve, hone our voice and keep our teeth sharp. You have to try new material and you have to try it everywhere. And sometimes, it’s going to fucking hurt.

Some shows seem to exist solely for this purpose. Comedy gyms, I like to call them. Rooms where you step outside of your comfort zone and float those new jokes out into the atmosphere. Because occasionally, we have to fall flat on our ass. It’s essential to growth. Once in a while, you need a good healthy bomb. You need that callus on your soul, that scar tissue.

Ein Stein Pub

Ein Stein’s on College Street in Toronto is the very definition a comedy gym. And we’re not talking about the sleek, polished fitness club kind – we’re talking about raw, real open mic madness. A weekly standup show that encompasses the art of the struggle. At times it’s known as one of the toughest comedy rooms to navigate on the Toronto standup scene – and it’s been a proving ground and a workshop for upcoming Canadian comics for 20 years. On any given Sunday (if you’ll pardon me hijacking the phrase) comics passing across the Ein Stein’s stage can find themselves honing new material in front of raucous U. of T. students. Competing for the attention and adulation of rowdy regulars. And fighting over the cacophonic ‘clacks’ of the pool tables to stage right. Some would argue this theory, but I’ve always found it essential to keep my teeth sharp and my nerves occasionally rattled in this kind of environment. In fact, I’d admit I’ve grown pretty comfortable with it over the years. If you can’t fight your way through a  sparse crowd on occasion, or a muffled amplifier in a busy bar – then how will you fair out on the road? In legion halls, or corporate gigs, or packed pubs, or even the most respected of comedy clubs on an off night? Comics aren’t meant to live in perpetual comfort. Sometimes, it’s supposed to be a struggle. And it’s essential to our health.

The first show at Ein Stein’s began in 1996 when original show runner Arie Kizel produced it as a one-off showcase, for a packed crowd of University students (the 1st graduating class of the dental program, as the official story goes). The Bier Halle was filled, and the show became a regular event. In 2000, Toronto based comic/producer David Reuben (we all know him as ‘Ruby’) took to the stage, and by 2003 he was coordinating the show as main booker, and co-producing with Kizel and O.J – the O.G of Ein Stein’s. Over the past decade and a half, the show has been a testing ground (sometimes very much trial and error) for comedy contests, festivals, showcases, special events. And for 20 years, the stage has been populated by amateur comics who came and went – and, frequented by some of the biggest names still working here in Canada and overseas, today. 

David Reuben

It ain’t always smooth sailing, sure. (See what I did there? With the overseas thing) But there’s something to be said for a show – even a BAR in Toronto – to survive 20 years and keep right on going. The way Ruby looks at it is simple. Comics live and thrive on stage time. That’s what Ein Stein’s offers – stage time. And a crowd that’s yours for the taking if you work to take them along with you. Isn’t that the whole essence of the art form to begin with? And yes, make no mistake, standup comedy IS an art form. The most original North American art form at that, after maybe Jazz. And Blues. And baseball. But comedy isn’t pretty. On Sunday October 16th, Ein Stein’s officially celebrates 20 years. With a lineup of some of the most regularly appearing comics and pros who have passed across the stage over the years and moved on. I’ll be there. Along with comics like Tyler Morrison (Cottage Country Comedy Festival, Dark Comedy Festival) Jennifer McAuliffe (a frequent face at Ein Stein’s) Caitlin Langalier (another room regular in recent years) Mike McGregor, Pat MacDonald (Superstars of Comedy, Yuk Yuks) and more. And of course, the house DJ with the worst laugh and arguably the most maniacal laugh in the business – Dave Shuken. Regulars of the room know him well.

I’m not one to subscribe to that “10,000” hours bullshit. BUT if there’s any truth to it at all – Ein Stein’s is one of the few shows that’s hit that watermark and then some. And in this scene, that’s something to take note of.