t started with a letter to the Prime Minister.
Sandra Battaglini is a veteran comedian in Toronto. She’s got an infectious energy and a way of speaking that instantly makes you want to believe in her cause because she believes in it so deeply herself. Battaglini is a two time Canadian Comedy Award Winner, she’s performed in productions on CBC, NBC and CBS, and has done seven of her own solo comedy shows. She’s also performed at the Just For Laughs comedy festival in Montreal, the largest comedy festival in the world.
But most recently Battaglini is the main focus of a documentary called The Mayor of Comedy, produced and directed by Toronto filmmaker Matt Kelly.
Despite all of her success, Battaglini still has a hard time making a living from her comedy in Canada—just like all Canadian comics, it seems.
“Once you've headlined the club, or you do Just For Laughs, you've hit the ceiling in Canada,” Battaglini said over a phone call Wednesday evening.
She calls it “a circle of entrapment.” Canadian comedians can spend years working on their craft and perform as much as they can at independent comedy clubs like Comedy Bar on Bloor Street, larger chains like Absolute and Yuk Yuks, or smaller venues across the city. Then if they’re lucky, once they reach a certain level of professionalism, they’ll be asked to perform at festivals like JFL42 or Just for Laughs in Montreal. Then they can tour the country as a middler or headliner and start to make a bit of a name for themselves. And after that? Not much.
“There are no panel shows or late night TV shows that would bring notoriety or raise your profile, like there are in other markets,” Battaglini said.
Comedians have to go elsewhere to be recognized as real talent by the Canadian entertainment establishment. Many comedians choose to go to the United States because that’s where the real money is, but that process can take between $10,000 and $20,000 to get a visa, not to mention a hell of a lot of paperwork. Battaglini says it's comically easy for American performers to work in Canada, which the Canadian entertainment industry abuses when they stack their lineups with American talent instead of Canadian.
And to top it all off, Canadian comedians aren’t eligible to receive grants from the Canada Council of the Arts. The CCA gave over $263 million dollars to the arts in 2019, which many Canadian artists heavily rely on to fund their projects.
"It's so unfair and unjust," Battaglini said.
So in 2016 she decided to do something about it.
Battaglini drafted an open letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau entitled: Just a Little Reciprocity. It asked that comedy be added to the list of 11 recognized artistic fields of practice eligible for grants from the CCA. The letter gained traction within the comedy community, which led Battaglini and a coalition of comedians to start a union of sorts: The Canadian Association of Stand-Up Comedians (CASC).
Battaglini spoke to her local MP Julie Dabrusin, who convinced her and CASC to file a petition with the Canadian government so it would have to be tabled and voted on.
This process, and the outcome of the vote, is the central focus of Matt Kelly’s The Mayor of Comedy, an often delightful but honest look at the impossible barriers put in the way of Canadian talent and how hard it is to succeed as a comedian if you don’t leave the country.
In The Mayor of Comedy, Kelly and Battaglini travel across the country and interview over 30 stand-up comedians who have made a name for themselves, including K-Trevor Wilson, Aisha Browne and DeAnne Smith.
The interviews are laugh-out-loud funny, but the content they cover is often heartbreaking: comedians tell their stories of spending years working on their art, and inevitably either have to leave the country to make it, or stay stagnant where they are. There was an overwhelming sense from this ensemble of Canadian legends, of absolute exhaustion—the kind of exhaustion when a person feels like there's no one on their side.
The Mayor of Comedy dives deep into how entrenched these issues are within regulatory agencies like The Canadian Radio-Television and Communications Commission. The CRTC decides how much Canadian content media giants like Bell, Corus and Rogers have to include in their programming. Spoiler: it’s less than 10 percent.
“And for comedy writers who want to pitch TV shows, they're told 'That's a great idea, but why don't you go sell that to the United States,” Battaglini explained, “because it's cheaper for Canadian broadcasters to buy American content instead of making it themselves.”
Over the last year, all Canadians have realized just how much we rely on other countries, predominantly the US, to make the things we need most. Who knew Canada, with our huge pharmaceutical industry and world class R&D, couldn’t make our own vaccines? Or our own masks? We have the tools, the infrastructure and the individual talent, we just don’t have the commitment from our government to invest and elevate Canadian content, the kind that is life saving, or in the case of comedy, life-giving.
“These people kind of live in anonymity up here,” Kelly said in an interview over the phone. “They might be famous in the UK or they might have a hit TV show somewhere in the States, or they might be someone who can fill an arena in Australia, but it's really hard for them to make a living here in Canada.”
For National Canadian Film day on April 21, Kelly and Battaglini have made The Mayor of Comedy watchable for free on their website for a limited time. Support Canadian content and watch it today.