The Stand-Up Show – One entertainment series that became one of the first to dip their toe in the post-pandemic water was “The Stand-Up Show with Jon Dore”, which currently airs every Monday night at 10:30 p.m. EST on the CTV Comedy channel. It had the distinction to be one of the very first Canadian TV productions to actually tape in front of a live (yet socially-distant) audience in Toronto during the midst of the pandemic.
The series, hosted by veteran Canadian comic Jon Dore, offers a line-up of some the best names in Canadian comedy today. And the common thread between the comics who appear on The Stand-Up Show is that it gave them the first opportunity to perform in front of a live audience after so many months of lockdown and not being able to go on the road and do what they do best: perform stand-up comedy and make people laugh.
Two of the comics who are part of The Stand-Up Show line-up and went through this period of near-total inactivity were Cassie Cao and Al Val.
For Cassie, The Stand-Up Show was the third of several TV tapings that she was fortunate to have booked in advance last year, and it came as a big help to her, especially when she didn’t have a lot of stage time since the outbreak of the pandemic. “Because I wasn’t performing a lot during the pandemic, I was unclear about the evolution of my material – I hadn’t dated in a while – and I was uncertain about the change in direction that stand-up comedy was taking. But I was excited to do this show and perform in front of a live audience again,” she said during a recent phone interview.
Cassie also noted how the people at Just For Laughs, which was producing the series, really stepped up to the plate when it came to protecting the artists, which included stringent testing, separate hand sanitizer dispensers, the mandatory wearing of masks, and how separate bubbles were created in the audience cabaret setting within the theatre where it was taped last October.
But comedy wasn’t the first calling for the Toronto resident. At first, Cassie was an economist who got experience speaking in front of audiences by explaining the ins and outs of the Canadian economy to groups of high profile Canadian policy makers. Stand-up comedy for her was actually a side thing to do after hours.
“I don’t feel there was an actual transition for me from economist to comedian. I didn’t even have a background in performing in front of a live audience. I was doing stand-up comedy in the evenings and I loved it a lot – not to mention I made a lot of friends — so I kept on doing it until it got to the point that I can pay my rent by performing stand-up,” she said.
And since then, Cassie has built up an impressive comedy resume. She was chosen as part of the line-up of the inaugural edition of Just For Laughs’ New Faces: Canada showcase, she was seen in such TV comedy shows and festivals like The New Wave of Standup, the Winnipeg Comedy Festival, JFL Northwest, CBC’s Laugh Out Loud and Top Comic on Sirius XM; she won a Canadian Comedy Award and was awarded an NBC Second City Diversity Fellowship. She has also written for the sitcom “Kim’s Convenience” and CBC’s “True Dating Stories”.
With that kind of success in the world of stand-up comedy, the natural next step would be to pack your bags and head south for greener pastures in either New York or L.A. However, that plan is not on Cassie’s agenda, as she shows her allegiance to the comedy and entertainment scenes in her home and native land. “I have no burning desire to live in the U.S., where there are far more plentiful opportunities,” she said. “But that creates a tremendous brain drain in the Canadian entertainment industry, in which it gets increasingly impossible for someone to create their art and not starve. That’s why I have decided to stay in Canada. I want to keep up the interest in Canadian artists and performers, and encourage more investment in the Canadian entertainment industry, so that it could lessen the brain drain to the U.S.”
Another performer on The Stand-Up Show’s line-up is queer/trans comedian Al Val, whose unique brand of comedy has made him a breakout performer in the stand-up world, and was one of the main highlights of this year’s edition of the New Faces: Canada show at Just For Laughs.
The Toronto-based comic has been entertaining live audiences since he broke into stand-up comedy when he was 18. Besides being a popular comic in clubs across North America, Al has also exhibited his comic, improv and musical talents in appearances on One, OutTV, MTV and YTV. A graduate of the Second City Conservatory Program, he performed with the improv troupe Starwipe for eight years, as well as half of the improv-drag-rock music duo OverDude.
Al’s comedy roots can be found both within his large family and when he attended elementary school. “I was the second youngest child in my family, and I was surrounded by a lot of voices all the time. In a way, I was assigned the role of being the quiet child and observe what’s going on within my family. That helped to make me an observational person, as well as helped to manage my emotions effectively,” he said during a recent phone interview. “However, I was able to make my brother Kieran laugh and laugh really hard. And if I could make Kieran laugh, I could make a whole room laugh. To me, that was a sublime power and gave me quite an addictive feeling.”
“When I was in elementary school, my teachers discovered that I was both quiet and funny,” he added. “So during a school talent show when I was in grades 4 and 5, I decided to perform Abbott & Costello’s ‘Who’s on First?’ routine by myself, and that’s when I found out how appealing it was to perform stand-up comedy in front of an audience. It gives you absolute control, not to mention complete ownership of your own material, where me, and only me, can live or die through the jokes I tell. That’s why I embraced it.”
And Al firmly believes that telling jokes is a great way to help anyone to cope with any sort of pain or struggle that they are going through. And that is especially so when he uses his comedy to break down stereotypes about individuals who decide to come out as a trans person. “The conversation still tends to be that trans people are a deviant foreign pocket of humanity, with a stereotype that they are too serious and do not possess a sense of humour,” he said. “This is an image that is way blown out of proportion. That is why when I tell jokes onstage as a stand-up comic, it’s like a kind of crusade for me. My mission is to normalize and connect people to humanity and deliver an image of trans people in a better-rounded normalcy, in which they are people who have a sense of humour, pride and confidence.”
Before doing The Stand-Up Show, Al had a difficult time coping with the pandemic lockdown that practically stripped him of his livelihood for more than a year. But it also gave him a chance to become more reflective about his life and his struggles. “I was internally freaking out,” he said. “But the lockdown gave me a great opportunity to reflect upon the nature of self-esteem, as well as re-prioritize my life. Actually, I did appreciate the break. But I could have used the idea of less people dying from COVID.”
Feature image: Al Val