The Sisterhood Of Canadian Comedy, From Catherine O’Hara to Lilly Singh
Sure, call them nice, but don’t underestimate the hilarious women shaking up the boys club of comedy.
It’s a Friday night in Toronto, and comedian Tricia Black is strumming a guitar while singing an irreverent folk song about cunnilingus and her identity as a “bad lesbian” — but mostly about cunnilingus — at Second City, a legendary institution and Canada’s premier comedy club. The audience is in the mood to laugh, primed for a good punchline and prepared for a night of comedic abandon, but the giggles are tepid at first.
“I’m terrified every night singing that song in front of a predominantly straight audience,” Black tells Refinery29 backstage, cramped in a tiny greenroom with her castmates Natalie Metcalfe and Clare McConnell, the other women who make up the six-person, gender-balanced cast of Second City’s latest show, If I Could #Throwback Time. “You would have never seen this scene on this stage 10 years ago,” Black says.
She’s not wrong, but a few decades ago, you would have found fellow Second City alum and comedy legend Catherine O’Hara on the same stage using her musicality and sexuality for laughs, too. While on SCTV (a sketch TV series based on Second City and Canada’s answer to Saturday Night Live) in the late ‘70s, one of O’Hara’s most iconic characters was Lola Heatherton, a hysterically verbose, pill-popping, and perpetually horny Vegas lounge singer whose catchphrase was “I wanna bear your children!” Heatherton would have probably (begrudgingly) used some softer language, but the way Black sings “Bad Lesbian” isn’t gratuitous, raunchy, or offensive; it’s mostly just making fun of herself.
By the end of the song, Black has the room joining in for the bridge: “Cunnilingus is the best!” and “We love being lesbians!” When she delivers the final line, “I just got you to say you’re a lesbian!,” people are roaring. The skit feels similar to the improv of the SCTV glory days, with a refreshing queer twist.
That self-deprecation and provocative but wholesome sensibility is the appeal of an inherently Canadian comicality, according to O’Hara. “At the risk of self-regard, I'd say that we Canadians know how to make fun of ourselves without it being all about us,” she shares over email. “We laugh with the world with intelligence and compassion and, often, with a dark sense of humour,” she says. When you think of Canadian comedy, “dark” may not be the word that comes to mind, but in O’Hara’s definition it isn’t gloomy, it’s quirky: “By the way, if you think God doesn't have a dark sense of humour, just give a moment's thought to teeth.”
Four decades after her SCTV reign, O’Hara is now leading a long list of Canadian women who are some of the most successful current voices in comedy. You’ve got the all-women, uber-popular Baroness von Sketch Show, whose principal cast is four seriously funny improv veterans from Canada: Meredith MacNeill, Aurora Browne, Carolyn Taylor, and Jennifer Whalen. (Browne and Taylor met during their own stints at Second City Toronto.) There’s Daily Show alum Samantha Bee (who flexed her chops in the Toronto-based sketch comedy troupe The Atomic Fireballs pre-fame), hosting Full Frontal with Samantha Bee , the smartest and most feminist political satire on television. Workin Moms is a sharp comedy for the mommy-blog era helmed by Catherine Reitman (daughter of Ivan, sister of Jason — both award-winning filmmakers). The first bisexual woman of colour to have her own late-night show is Scarborough’s own YouTube superstar, Lilly Singh. And O’Hara and the cast of Emmy-nominated critical darling Schitt’s Creek deliver an eccentric, idealistic, and sweet small-town sitcom to legions of die-hard fans. Canadian comedy is reaching its zenith, with women leading the charge of comedians increasingly influencing the global entertainment scene and shaking up a male-dominated industry. And these stars have each other to thank.
Catherine O’Hara was born in Toronto in 1954 and grew up with three siblings and parents who shared her “gifted sense of humour,” as she puts it. “I did plays and theatre arts in school, and loved Carol Burnett and Lily Tomlin from afar,” O’Hara says. She also grew up idealizing Canadian comedy duo Wayne and Shuster, longstanding troupe Royal Canadian Air Farce, and Monty Python, but she didn’t dream about acting professionally until her brother joined the Global Village Theatre in Toronto and she met Saturday Night Live star Gilda Radner. O’Hara says she owes her groundbreaking career to Radner (who died in 1989 of ovarian cancer) since she took over Radner’s spot in Second City when she left to do The National Lampoon Radio Hour in 1974.
“The women were literally outnumbered by men at Second City,” O’Hara recalls of the time she spent in the cast along with fellow trailblazer Andrea Martin. “A few of our male castmates may have suffered a bit of unconscious chauvinism, and Andrea and I were paid less than the guys in the early years of SCTV, but I think Andrea might agree that, creatively speaking, we never felt less than equal. We were as free as anyone to fight for our ideas.”
The new wave of women in Canadian comedy are carving out spaces where they don’t need to compete with men for creative freedom. SCTV’s “slowly built audience” (O’Hara’s words) consisted of young Aurora Browne and Carolyn Taylor, who would go on to co-create the feminist improv series Baroness von Sketch, whose writers room is made up of predominantly women. They tell Refinery29 over the phone on a break from filming a skit where Browne pushes Taylor off a bike that their work is “hugely” influenced by those early days of SCTV. “I remember growing up in Thunder Bay watching SCTV and seeing both [O’Hara and Martin] fully commit to their characters, and it was everything,” Browne says. “[O’Hara’s] ability to deliver a nuanced off-kilter character with a bit of madness — I mean, that's extraordinary,” Taylor adds.
“Yes, there is definitely some Lola Heatherton in Moira Rose [Schitt’s Creek’s matriarch and former soap star]. I'll admit to having a little Delia Deetz from Beetlejuice in there as well,” O’Hara says. “I'm still taking advantage of everything I learned at the Second City. Those characters are all sensitive, openly emotional, and a bit delusional about their talent...though Moira might say they couldn't touch her.” Since O’Hara’s humility would probably stop her from admitting how much of an impact she’s had on women in comedy, it’s ironic that she writes, "I love playing someone who has no idea what impression they're making on others.”
Metcalfe certainly sees her, and Martin, as inspirations. “Catherine was the love of my life growing up,” Metcalfe gushes. “We wouldn’t be here without them. They got in there with the boys and made quite an impact with female-identifying comedians,” Black says.
SCTV’s influence is evident in so many Canadian comedians, but Caroline Rhea, a 30-year comedy veteran who broke out as Aunt Hilda in Sabrina the Teenage Witch, says there’s also a common culture of civility that binds the group. “I think the biggest advantage I’ve had in my career being Canadian is that I was very well brought up. My parents were obsessed with good manners,” she says over the phone from Los Angeles in between rehearsals for her Disney Channel series, Sydney To The Max. “I don't want to hurt anybody's feelings, and I always think you should make fun of yourself first. That’s my big Canadian tip.” Even though Rhea credits her etiquette to her home country, she left as soon as she could to pursue her comedic dreams, and has spent most of her career south of the border.
I don't want to hurt anybody's feelings, and I always think you should make fun of yourself first. That’s my big Canadian tip.
Rhea was born in Westmount, Quebec, went to school in Montreal, and moved to New York in her early twenties with $300 in her pocket. Rhea says she spent it all on earrings the day after her big move. A few hundred stand-up sets (“I just got on every stage I possibly could”) and countless auditions later (she landed her first short-lived series after a chance run-in with O’Hara that boosted her confidence), Rhea’s big break came when she booked the role of a wise-cracking 500-year-old witch living with her sister and co-parenting their niece on later TGIF staple Sabrina The Teenage Witch. “I personally don't think somebody looks at me and thinks, ‘Oh, she's Canadian.’” Rhea says before citing a joke she used in the Comedy Central roast of Alec Baldwin earlier this year: “I know what you're thinking. It's Amy Schumer with the old age face app,” she laughs. “Really, rather than being Canadian or American, if I walk down the street, I am Aunt Hilda from Sabrina.”
At 31, Lilly Singh is a little too young to have grown up on SCTV. Like most millennials, she spent a good chunk of her childhood laughing along to Sabrina The Teenage Witch and credits Rhea as one of her biggest influences. Singh also moved to the U.S. to pursue comedy but, unlike Rhea, her Canadian nationality is on full display in her work. The backdrop of the set of A Little Late with Lilly Singh is the Toronto skyline. An explainer video for Vanity Fair of Singh breaking down her home city’s slang words went viral (with swift backlash pointing out that Singh isn’t an expert on Toronto vernacular, the Black people who originated it are). Singh’s interpretation of Canadian comedy, complete with impersonations of her immigrant parents and quips about Drake, proves that the humour coming from the North isn’t monolithic.
“I think being Canadian has made my sense of humour more worldly,” Singh said in a statement to Refinery29. “My high school had people speaking different languages down every hall, listening to different music, eating different food, and bringing different perspectives, so I grew up exposed to an accumulation of so many cultures. I think that environment contributed to me finding humour in my own differences and increased my interest to understand experiences outside of my own.”
Singh’s presence onscreen is already inspiring a new generation of comedians in the country, according to Tamil-Canadian comedian Thurka Gunaratnam who created New Normal Comedy, an event to showcase women, LGBTQIA+, Black, indigenous, and people of colour (BIPOC) groups in stand-up comedy. “Young people can turn on the TV and see someone who looks like them — I never had that as an immigrant kid,” Gunaratnam says of Singh. “Seeing [Singh] transition from YouTube to late-night TV shows the Internet has changed the gatekeepers of comedy.”
Canada is a big country with lots of different markets (Quebec basically has its own French-speaking star system isolated from the rest of the provinces), but Toronto is its English-speaking comedic hub, and that’s where you’ll find the most diversity. Still, the gatekeepers are overwhelmingly white. Singh is the exception, not the rule. “The comedy scene in Toronto has gone from almost completely white, to less white.” Baroness von Sketch’s Browne quips. “When we were coming up — I think Tina Fey said it first — only in comedy is, like, a white girl from the suburbs considered diversity.” When you think of the Canadian women who have transcended borders and hit global acclaim, the pool isn’t very inclusive.
That’s not because the talent isn’t there. There’s Andrea Bang and Jean Yoon of Kim’s Convenience, an underrated family sitcom about a Korean-Canadian family running a convenience store that made a minor splash in the U.S when the show moved from solely airing on CBC, Canada’s national broadcaster, to Netflix. Yuk Yuk's Comedy Club (Second City’s biggest competitor) holds the Nubian Disciples All Black Comedy Revue hosted by Kenny Robinson on the last Sunday of every month, which has been running for over 20 years. Robinson has given many women their first shot at the mic, including Trey Anthony.
A Jamaican-Canadian comedian hailing from Brampton, Ontario, Anthony became the first Black woman to write, produce, and star in a television show on a major primetime Canadian network in 2007 with Da Kink In My Hair, a half-hour comedy that documented the lives of women in a Caribbean hair salon in Toronto. The show was cancelled after two seasons. “I was really naïve,” Anthony says on a call from her home in Atlanta — she relocated to write shows for OWN. “I thought here we are finally, this shit is happening, we’re going to start to really give Black comics their due, and that it would open other doors,” she sighs. “That just never happened.” There hasn’t been a Canadian show of its kind since Da Kink In My Hair, and Black women are still woefully underrepresented on Canadian television and in major comedy clubs.
“I think if I had started my career in the U.S. I probably would have been a household name by now,” Anthony says. “As a Black woman they say you gotta be twice as good, and then in comedy you have to be really damn good because they are dying for you to mess up. I don’t think there’s an infrastructure really catering to Canadian talent, and that’s why we lose some of our best and brightest stars to the U.S.” Anthony returns home to Toronto to produce an annual comedy festival called Dat Gyal Funny showcasing only women of colour comedians. She compares it to HBO’s Black Lady Sketch Show and the Tiffany Haddish Netflix special, They Ready. “I don’t see why we can’t have our own version of a Tiffany Haddish or Issa Rae in Canada. We have the talent; the talent is there and we’re not tapping into it."
With Anthony’s efforts, and an evolving conversation in the industry (Second City has started a diversity and inclusion program called the Bob Curry Fellowship, named after the first African-American to join Second City in 1966), the hope is that the Canadian comedy industry — which is at once booming and in need of an overhaul — is slowly progressing to a place where comedians of all backgrounds have the chance to leave a legacy like Caroline Rhea or Catherine O’Hara. “Thankfully, much of the world is changing for the better,” O’Hara says. “Though it's not the least bit funny that so many humans still have to fight for basic respect. If there was no discrimination of any kind, we'd all be safe to laugh at ourselves and each other, as we do with loving friends and family.”
That’s a really nice sentiment. It’s easy to chalk up the secret ingredient all of the aforementioned women share to the old adage that “Canadians are so nice!” (Singh credits her success to two mantras: “work hard and be nice"), but it’s more than that. It could be the fact that Canadian comedians tend not to punch down, or that they have a unique outsider’s perspective on, say, American politics. Or, simply, it’s that Canadian women have some pretty great role models. “We stand on the backs of all the women who came before us,” says Taylor of Baroness von Sketch. “There’s a resistance that's happening, and everyone's throwing their rock however they can,” she says of the current wave of Canadian talent in the U.S. “I think everyone was just ready to hear a different perspective.”