Winnipeggers have a needed laugh with friends at comedy festival kick-off

By | August 21, 2020

Mark Nabess and his loved ones haven’t done any group outings for months due to the pandemic, and with the passing of his father earlier this month he really needed to get out, unplug and have a laugh.

“Laughter is the best medicine,” Nabess said while heading into Rumor’s Restaurant and Comedy Club with family and friends.

“I think everybody’s here for the same reason, which is to laugh and have some fun and just relax, because you know what — that’s what we’ve got to do right now.”

A few dozen people living under the weight of COVID-19 fears for five months took in opening night of Winnipeg Comedy Festival on Friday at Rumor’s.

A server wearing a mask takes orders from people in the crowd ahead of Kelly Taylor’s set Friday night. (Bryce Hoye/CBC)

The local comedy institution has been open for about a month already. Due to distancing measures, it and other venues are operating at a limited capacity.

It’s Dean Jenkinson’s first year at the helm of the festival as artistic director. He’s had an unconventional inaugural year. The Gas Station Arts Centre is hosting shows but is only permitted to operate at 30 per cent capacity, or 70 seats. Just to be safe, only 40 tickets will be sold for each of those shows.

The festival isn’t going to have the same range of comics from far and wide due to travel restrictions, so it’s being split into two phases.

A bottle of disinfecting spray rests on a table away from the stage, where Tyler Penner gets the crowd going ahead of headliner Kelly Taylor. (Bryce Hoye/CBC)

The first phase is largely local comedians with three from out west to help anchor some shows, said Jenkinson. The hope is to bring in more comics for Phase 2 this fall, when the hope is that they’ll be able to shoot some of the annual television galas.

“It’s something that we’re crossing our fingers that the pandemic will allow us to do and the health experts will allow us to do, but if it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen.”

‘A lot of material from COVID-19’

Comedian Tyler Penner hosted the kick-off event. He said the masks in the audience paired with the smaller crowd stand out.

Comedian Kelly Taylor planed to address but not dwell on the pandemic during his set at Rumor’s Friday. (Bryce Hoye/CBC)

“But comedy is still comedy,” he said. “People still want to laugh, they want to go out. We’re getting a lot of material from COVID-19.” 

Lindsay Hourie was looking forward to taking in some standup with friends, the first outing in a group she’s taken part in since the early days of the pandemic. (Bryce Hoye/CBC)

Headliner Kelly Taylor hoped to strike a balance between poking fun and acknowledging the hardships brought on for everyone in recent months. 

“You think in your head, ‘Is this the night where they escape that?” asked Taylor. “I don’t want to dwell on it but you have to address the elephant in the room.”

Summer is notoriously slow for work for comedians, said Taylor, but he’s managed to string together some small-town gigs back home in Saskatchewan, a few birthdays and backyard gatherings.

Rumor’s Restaurant and Comedy Club serves as one of several venues for the Winnipeg Comedy Festival. (Bryce Hoye/CBC)

But the fall slate of gigs he had booked months ago was wiped away by COVID-19.

“This will sound very Saskatchewan, but literally I could be selling the farm after this,” he said with a nervous laugh.

Laughter can be contagious when you’re shoulder-to-shoulder in a room full of strangers taking in live comedy. With more space and fewer potential laughers, live performances have a different feel now, said Taylor.

Different live vibe

“You’re not going to get the same adrenaline rush,” he said. “Rumor’s is always packed, you come in and you feel the place, you feel the adrenaline, but now they’re very safety [oriented] so it has a different vibe.”

A number of people heading into the show said the event was the first time they had ventured out in an indoor group setting since before the pandemic.

Landsey Hourie said it was the first time she was meeting friends in months.

“This is probably my first outing since COVID,” she said. “I think it will be a good reliever.”

‘Great for the soul’

Taylor said the unconventional circumstances have served as a reminder to performers like him that comedy can be powerfully hilarious and healing.

“For people to have their mind off of it, it’s great for them. It’s a mental health break is really what it is. Laughing is great for the soul,” he said.

“Laughs aren’t as big right now for everyone, because we’re all going through things. Maybe we need comedy more than ever.”

Winnipeg Comedy Festival runs until Aug. 28 and tickets are available online.

The patio of the Gas Station Arts Theatre will be open every day during the festival, with music and refreshments on hand ahead of live shows inside. Old Winnipeg Comedy Festival televised galas will also play outside on the patio.

On Monday night, comedian Derek Seguin will be doing live standup of his show “PanDEREK” over Zoom from Quebec. That will be broadcast on the Gas Station patio as well. 

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