For 35 years, Yuk Yuk’s International Stand-Up Comedy clubs have brought the best in stand-up comics to Canadians across the country and have become the biggest chain of comedy clubs in North America. It has fostered the careers of numerous unknown comics who have become household names, including Jim Carrey, Howie Mandel, Norm MacDonald, Russell Peters and Shaun Majumder. Yuk Yuk’s founder Mark Breslin has authored an audio book chronicling the development of Yuk Yuk’s, as well as featuring more than 50 performances by some of Canada’s all-time best comics.
The collection is fantastic, with excellent stories and superb stand-up sets from names we know and some that we don’t know as well as we should. The importance of this Guide to Canadian Stand-Up comes from the fact that no one has attempted anything like this before — the creation of a collection of Canadian comedy on this scale is long overdue and Breslin, for a number of reasons, was the perfect person to do it.
Breslin was kind enough to answer a few questions for Popj.ca regarding the release of The Yuk Yuk’s Guide to Canadian Stand-Up and the comedy institution that is Yuk Yuk’s.
The opening of the first Yuk Yuk’s in 1974 was a watershed event for Canadian comics and the club has become one of the defining institutions of Canadian comedy. Where did Canadian stand-ups go before Yuk Yuk’s? How did they break through?
Before Yuk Yuk’s, comedians could only perform in strip clubs and service clubs, like the Shriners. As you can imagine, anything edgy or countercultural did not fly. Then, in 1974, Harbourfront in Toronto started a comedy night under the direction of Don Cullen. This was the beginning of modern Canadian comedy. I worked there, and started Yuk Yuk’s in 1976, after I left Harbourfront.
What prompted this collection of routines and stories? Was it simply a desire to tell the untold stories of Yuk Yuk’s?
I wanted to have comedy taken seriously as an art form and a craft. I had been writing op-ed pieces about comedy for the Village Post magazine for years. And voicing them on XM radio. When I was approached by Harper Collins, an audio book seemed like a great way to talk about comedy – you could hear the comics I was talking about to illustrate my points.
How hard was it to choose which routines and performers were included in this collection? Which routine was the hardest to leave out? And you can’t pick one of your own.
I chose about 50 great Canadian stand-ups, but I could have included another 40 and still kept the quality high. There really is that much talent in this country. I had certain themes I was trying to illustrate, so some great comics got left out; Derek Edwards and Ron James, for instance.
In the booklet that accompanies the collection, you mention that “The Great Canadian Laugh-Off” is one of the last bits of stand-up you do. Do you ever feel nostalgic for the days of being a stand-up comedian on the road?
I never feel nostalgic for the road – too many crummy hotels and unhealthy food. But yes, I get a twinge every so often to perform, especially if I think of a great bit and I have nowhere to use it.
With 24 locations across Canada, Yuk Yuk’s has become North America’s largest chain of comedy clubs. How did a club set up in the basement of Toronto’s Church Street Community Centre in 1974 become so huge?
Timing is everything. We were way ahead of the curve until 1982, and then we were the curve. The expansion really came about because the comics were threatening to quit and get day jobs if I didn’t find them some more places to play. And it had to be Yuk Yuk’s: only we would guarantee them an uncensored stage. If there was a dispute between a comic and a paying customer, we would always take the side of the comic. We still do.
You are someone who has been very active in promoting Canadian comics and Canadian comedy, not only through the creation of Yuk Yuk’s but through a variety of positions in different organizations. What drives you? Is this collection a continuation of that?
I have been to many psychiatrists to determine what drives me. The official answer is that I have womb and breast separation traumas coupled with an unresolved Oedipal complex. I also get bored really easily and always need new challenges.
Here are a few of the titles you have held over the years: Artistic Director for the Humber College Comedy Program; Comedy Mentor for the B.C. Festival of the Arts; Artistic Director of the Whistler Comedy Festival; Program Director for the Laugh Attack on XM Canada; and several more. How do you find the time? Do these varied positions interfere with each other or complement each other?
See above. And yes, they do complement each other. There are a finite number of people working in the comedy business – once you’re talking to them about one project, you can easily segue into another.
Who is the biggest star to come out of Yuk Yuk’s still working today? Alternatively, who is the biggest comedy star we haven’t heard of yet currently working the clubs?
Jim Carrey, Howie Mandel, and Russell Peters are the biggest stars to come out of Yuk Yuk’s, although Carrey stopped performing live stand-up some time ago. If you need to bet on some new superstar to emerge from the current pack, check out Nikki Payne and Aaron Berg. Gerry Dee has some great traction now as well.
Canadians like to think of themselves as funny people, more so on average than any other country. Is this really the case or is it something we just want to believe?
The professional comedians Canada produces have gone on to worldwide success at a far greater rate than any country per capita in the world. But Canadians generally are a bit tasteful in their everyday lives compared to Americans or Brits so it might not be apparent to the naked eye
What do you want someone who buys The Yuk Yuk’s Guide to Stand-Up to get from the experience of listening to it?
I’m hoping, after they’re-doubled over with laughter, that they’ll be able to see into comedy more deeply, and the experience will be more layered, nuanced and pleasurable.