For the obvious reasons—the tidal wave of cancelled gigs, the loss of social and financial opportunities, the existential crisis that comes with the sudden upending of a career—COVID-19 proved incredibly tough on the comedy world.
But according to the polymathic Vancouver comic, novelist, playwright and activist Charlie Demers, the pandemic brought with it another, less tangible effect.
“We live in times that not only feel perilous and sometimes hopeless, but they feel absolutely humourless, and everything that comes along with humourlessness,” he opines. “And when I say humourlessness, I also mean a complete lack of perspective on the self and the limitations of the self and one’s own flaws and hypocrisies. We live in times where even people we agree with are just consistently acting in these totally insufferable ways. That’s just become a part of everyone’s reality.”
Not ideal if you make people laugh for a living, but then, comedians have never been shy about exposing the folly of the times. And in a fraught few months that have seen a vocal minority of conspiracists eschewing science in favour of the dreaded YouTube algorithm, hordes of galaxy-brain anti-vaxxers pumping themselves full of horse dewormer, and a callous lack of consideration for the health and safety of those around them, there is certainly plenty of grist for the mill to go around.
“The people who we disagree with are now, to us, like these monsters, these people who picket hospitals and who have just become these completely unimaginable others. I’m not saying you can paper over those differences with a well-timed joke or a funny pun or something like that, but I do think humourlessness is a big part of how we got to these situations,” Demers argues. “When you look at the setup of live stand-up comedy, the comedian is onstage under a bright light and the audience is in the dark, and both those things are important. The audience has to be allowed to be in the dark because they have to be allowed a certain sense of anonymity, a certain sense of safety to giggle and laugh at the things they’re supposed to be embarrassed about, according to the rules of polite society. There is no place like the comedy club or the theatre in our lives right now.
“Existentially, the loss of comedy has been bad for comedians, but it’s been bad for everybody else, too.”
But what happens if those social rules get tossed out and a growing subset of the online commentariat seems utterly incapable of shame? Is it the comic’s job to call them out, or seek to understand and empathize?
“Every major spiritual tradition in human history and every compelling philosophical school wrestles with this kind of question in a different way, and there are perils to either response to the kind of sociopathic sort of behaviours we’re seeing,” says Demers. “I think ultimately we need some of the compassion to draw people back into where we want them to be. We need some of that hard-ass response, too, because the rest of us need to survive somehow and that kind of harmful and destructive behaviour can’t just go unchecked. But for the comedian and for the comic perspective, the response is a way of being critical, sometimes being laceratingly critical, but in a way that is still brings aesthetic pleasure. That’s why for those of us who express ourselves in comedy, that’s the beautiful thing, ultimately. It can be your sort of wounded cry to the universe, but it’s a funny sound.”
Demers joins close friend and Juno Award-winning comic Ivan Decker, with opener Andrea Jin, on Oct. 8 at the Maury Young Arts Centre, a show originally scheduled for March 2020 until … well, you know.
“It feels very significant to me, this particular show,” Demers says.
Doors are at 7:30 p.m., with the show starting at 8. Tickets are $20 in advance, $25 on the day, and $5 to livestream, available at showpass.com/comedy-evening-demers-decker.