Scroll through Twitter’s #justformoney hashtag and you’ll find an army of angry Canadian comedians. Their rage stems, as it does for so many in this era of late stage capitalism, from a corporate merger, specifically that of Sirius XM Canada and Just For Laughs. As the Montreal Gazette reports, the merger will see the Canada Laughs satellite radio comedy station rebrand as Just For Laughs Radio. That sounds innocuous, but some changes to its programming could have a seismic financial impact on Canada’s comedy community, and the lot of them are not going gentle into that good night.
Since it launched in 2005, Canada Laughs has committed to broadcasting only Canadian comedians, offering the Great White North’s jokesters a reliable showcase, a home for their independently produced work, and, perhaps most importantly, access to royalties. According to a Monday press release, that will no longer be the case. In it, the the new station is described as a “blend of standup recorded at various Just For Laughs festivals and events, along with premium content from independent comedy albums.”
In a livestream on Saturday night (via The Interrobang), comedian Howie Mandel, who is part of the partnership that owns Just For Laughs, said that the station will draw upon the Just For Laughs library, with sets featuring comics from America, Australia, and Britain in addition to Canada. Though he says there will “still be room for Canadian comedians and not just those who perform at the company’s network of festivals,” it appears the amount of airtime will be cut drastically.
That’s the concern of the comedians, at least. News about the rebrand began circulating on Friday, when a Canadian comedian living in New York was informed by her record label that Canada Laughs would soon be no more. Since then, the country’s comics have made it clear how much they rely on those royalties. One of them is Toronto-based comic Craig Fay, who tells The A.V. Club that it was those “regular and consistent royalty payments that tipped the scales and made pursuing comedy financially possible.”
“I had the best year I’ve ever had touring and performing but the royalties from my album brought in nearly two-thirds of my income from comedy,” he said. “It was rent. It was groceries. It was being able to say no to driving four hours in a blizzard for $200.”
He continued, “There are so few opportunities in Canada, no star system, and we’re constantly having to compete with American acts. Putting out an album was one of the only ways you could take control of your own career and give yourself some breathing room.”
Sandra Battaglini, a Toronto comic and head of The Canadian Association of Stand-up Comedians, told the Gazette that the “changes have already started happening, and people have stopped being played.” Fay confirms this, saying that, per a number of comedians, Canada Laughs is currently airing “old JFL content.” Nobody was told in advance that the change was coming.
“We were also able to use search tools that are available online to see when the last time certain artists were played,” Fay continued. “It appears that most people who were getting consistent play before were last played near the end of January.” He acknowledges, however, that this could be due to a delay in reporting information.
In an e-mail to Fay from Just For Laughs, the company says that the new station will “continue to showcase a majority of Canadian content.” They add that the change will allow them to provide “even more meaningful support to the [Canadian comedy] community.” See it below.
Mandel made similar sentiments during his livestream, which he did as a means of addressing “some misinformation.” In it, he asserted that the station will still pay royalties to the comics it broadcasts. “You can still make money, you can still program, and you can still be a part of JFL,” he said.
This still doesn’t address the real concerns of Canadian comics, however, and that’s whether their material will be played with the same frequency. In an e-mail to Just For Laughs, Fay wrote, “We know we will be paid royalties whenever our track is played but no longer know if, when, or how often these will get played. We do not know the criteria or process for being selected or ‘curated.’”
“[N]ot a lot of information has been given to us and that is a huge part of the problem,” he tells us.
The abruptness of the programming shift is also a cause for panic in the community. “They’ve clearly been working on this for months, something like this doesn’t just happen overnight,” Toronto comic Nick Beaton told the Gazette. “If they’d said five months ago, this is what we were moving towards…at least that would have given us a chance. This is just overnight. They came in and took it away.”
In his livestream, Mandel said that Just For Laughs was approached by SiriusXM Canada, who wanted to “retool” Canada Laughs. “A lot of it was really good and a lot of it was comedians who were independently recording and submitting their own stuff and getting royalties,” he said. “For whatever reason—I’m not in the SXM business—but they approached us because they wanted to retool that station. When networks want to retool things it means they are not totally satisfied with how their customers are receiving it.” Mandel said if it weren’t for Just For Laughs, Canada Laughs would’ve disappeared. “It was going away,” he said.
Now, the community, led by The Canadian Association of Stand-up Comedians, are doing their part to address the issue head-on. In a tweet on Monday, the CASC said it was “creating an informed strategy” to address the issue, and would be holding a Town Hall at Toronto’s Comedy Bar on Tuesday.
“We are anticipating a response from Just For Laughs and SiriusXM to questions sent late last week,” they wrote on Facebook. “We look forward to sharing their thoughts and discussing a focused approach at the Town Hall on the best way to deal with the situation and support Canadian Comedians.”
“This is an incredibly hard pill to swallow,” Fay says. “This is more than a loss of a gig or a venue being shut down. It took me 10 years of performing before I was ready to put out an album. Ten years of hard work, late nights, hundreds of shows, mostly unpaid. Thousands of kilometers travelled all to get the skill and jokes needed to do an album. Those royalties felt like back payments for all the work it took to get to that point. And now it’s gone.”
Below, see tweets from a number of those impacted.