Standup comics have always been on the fringe of society, so it’s only natural that so many of them would be taking to Fringe festivals the world over.
To the untrained eye, comedic one-person shows look almost identical to a standup set. But they are very different animals. Ideally, the former will include a thematic through-line and a dramatic arc rather than just a series of hilarious, but disparate, jokes.
“In standup, if they’re not laughing, you’re bombing,” says 43-year-old comedian-actor Andy Cañete, who brings The Cañete Chroñicles to Studio 16 at this year’s Vancouver Fringe Festival. “It’s pretty simple. It’s a different dynamic.”
The Cañete Chroñicles, about the comic’s crazy experiences from 20 years in Vancouver after moving here from Chile at the age of 23, is one of many productions from standup comics at the Fringe this year, including, but not limited to, Efthimios Nasiopoulos’s Disengaged (Studio 16), Katharine Ferns’s Katharine Ferns Is in Stitches (Performance Works), Damonde Tschritter’s The Messenger (Cultch Historic Theatre), Marylee Stephenson’s Tightrope Talking (Studio 16), and Tim Lee’s Scientist Turned Comedian (False Creek Community Centre).
In Cañete’s first Fringe show, Porn and Pinochet in 2015, he noticed another difference. In a bit adapted from his standup act, he talked about the corporal punishment he received from his parents growing up.
In comedy rooms, it got the response he intended. “They laughed at my pain,” he says. “Then I did it at the Fringe and I got crickets. People weren’t laughing; they just felt bad. I realized pretty quick it’s a very different vibe doing a standup show and a one-man show.”
Nasiopoulos, another Vancouver-based standup comic, says those “crickets” help bring emotional depth to his performances. In Disengaged, about his many failed relationships, the former Torontonian doesn’t feel the need to always go for the gag.
“It’s not standup at all; it’s storytelling,” he says. “You’re not writing for jokes every 20 seconds or whatever; you’re just telling stories and people are engaged in the stories. You’re going to get the laughs and emotion out of it that way. The story is funny but I’m not trying to get laughs all the time. There are more dips, I find, when it’s not standup.”
Nothing drives this home like Ferns’s show about “being in an abusive relationship, going to the police, going through the court system, going through the medical industry, all the complications of surgery, and how I was failed by several institutions and then how I came out the other end and survived. It’s a pretty brutal story,” she says on the phone from her home in Manchester, England, a day before travelling back to the city where she started standup back in 2012. Then she adds, laughing, “Oh yeah, by the way, it’s a really funny show!”
A graduate of Emily Carr University of Art + Design, Ferns did her first standup set on a dare while studying painting. “I was doing four or five gigs a week while I was studying for my final,” she says. “I was painting these horribly depressing paintings while writing dick jokes at the same time.”
Her thesis, ironically enough, was “how language is limiting and maybe we need visual language to express ourselves. And then all of a sudden, I get on-stage and I have all these things to talk about.”
And Fringe shows allow her to delve a little deeper and darker. “There are serious, dramatic moments but there are still a lot of jokes,” she says. “Everyone deals with trauma differently, but the way that I’ve decided to do it is by standing on-stage. I think through comedy I feel empowered. I think comedy is a useful tool to talk about things that are very dark and very hard to talk about, but it’s accessible through comedy.”
Opening up in such a public way is cathartic. Nasiopoulos, who broke off two engagements months before the scheduled weddings, says: “It probably took me until I started doing this show to kinda really put it behind me, to be honest. I never really talked about it or got into it.”
He claims writing and performing Disengaged has also helped him with his standup. Instead of avoiding silent moments, he’s learned to embrace them.
“I can take my time,” he says. “Now in standup I’m more comfortable in adding details and building a story and not worrying if the crowd is laughing because I know they’re engaged in the way I’m telling it, even if it’s taking me longer to get them to where I need them to go.”
“The biggest thing for a comic is you don’t have to be afraid of the silence,” says Cañete. “That takes a long time to get over.” He also thinks Fringe audiences are just generally with him, not against him, as can often be the case in comedy clubs. “They have empathy,” he says. “They’re kinda better people. They’re nicer. And they have an attention span that lasts longer than five seconds.”More