Andrew Grose isn’t on land much these days, but he’ll be in town running the Edmonton Comedy Festival this weekend. We talked about how the fest started (and endured the last few years), if you can teach comedy, and the importance of pizza in Edmonton’s growing comedy scene
By Cory Schachtel | September 29, 2022
Good morning. I hear you’re off on a cruise.
Oh, I live on cruise ships these days. I’ve been a comedian for 30 years, but I started doing cruise ships in December, out of pure necessity. I didn’t really want to work on cruise ships. But I agreed to do it over Christmas, following two years of COVID. As a comedian, I’m accustomed to never saying no when somebody offers me work, and now I’m booked on cruises until 2024 — it’s like I don’t even live in Edmonton anymore. The only way I’ll get off cruise ships now is if I jump.
What’s a cruise ship audience like, compared to a land-lubbing audience?
It’s funny, because at my age — I’m 63 — I feel like I found my audience. Because oftentimes on these cruises, especially the high-end, longer ones, I’m the youngest guy. And I’m a clean, corporate comic, so there’s no issue with offending anyone.
I know many comedians wouldn’t like them, and I remember back in the day when I went on a Carnival cruise with my wife and my little kids, I looked at the audience and thought, Oh my god, look at all the white hair in this room. Now, if I go on a shorter, three-day cruise with a younger crowd, I think, Oh my god, look at all the black hair. But I like the older crowd. They appreciate clean comedy.
And cruises provide funny moments. I was on an Alaskan cruise and saw a whole bunch of people standing at the rail, taking pictures. I asked the bartender, “What are they all taking pictures of?” And he said, “Well, they think they’re taking pictures of a sea otter, but they’re actually taking pictures of driftwood.”
So you’ve been doing comedy for 30 years, and for the last 12 years, you’ve ran the Edmonton Comedy Fest. How did that start?
It was actually a result of, at the time, mayor Mandel. He was at a comedy show that was put on by ATB financial, a fundraiser out in Sherwood Park. I met him after the show, and he got my contact information, and a couple weeks later his office reached out and said the mayor wants to meet with you, and I just thought, Oh god.
No, I sort of thought, like, what do you wear to the mayor’s office? I didn’t even know where you park to get in City Hall. But I went there, and then he said we should have a comedy festival in Edmonton — he’d like me to organize it, and for it to run in the winter, because there’s not enough to do in Edmonton in the winter. Then he asked how much money I would need, from the Arts Council. I said, “I don’t know, I guess $25,000?” And he said sure.
So my wife and I, and some friends, said, OK, let’s organize a comedy festival. And we soon realized that it would cost about $300,000. So I was a little off in my estimate. My wife and I took out a loan against our house. And we took the risk that we could turn a profit, but then ATB Financial stepped up with money, and so did other companies, and we sold tickets. And in the end, we made enough to put on another one, and then another one, year after year.
And then COVID hit. But we had already planned that year’s festival and were committed to hiring comedians and venues, airline tickets and hotel rooms. And companies were saying that their business was down due to COVID so they couldn’t support us like they had in the past. A smart man would have canceled two years ago, but I guess we’re not smart. We just went ahead and held it through COVID, using every safety protocol, at 20 per cent capacity. So it’s been a hard couple of years, honestly. We’re rebuilding this year, or trying to. I like to think our karma bank is full, but we need to get our actual physical bank going again.
Well it definitely looks like this year’s lineup is full. Can you tell us about the schedule?
The first night is the free comedy seminar, hosted by Lars Callieou. The Thursday night, we kick off the Spotlight Series, which is the dinner and show package, at Spotlight Cabaret. That’s always really popular and it actually sold out almost immediately. And then over the weekend is when all our shows launch — at Yuk Yuk’s, the Arts Barns, Spotlight Cabaret, and everywhere else.
But what’s gonna be really great are the two galas at the Arts Barns on the Friday at 7:30 and 10 o’clock, the Leading Edge and Leading Edge After Dark galas. Leading Edge Physiotherapy have been a partner of ours since the first year. And what they do is buy the whole show, both of them, at half price from us. And then they turn around and sell them through Leading Edge Physiotherapy, and they donate the money to a charity or not-for-profit in the Edmonton area.
It also looks like you’re bringing a lot of local talent along with the bigger name headliners.
It’s really important to us to use both Edmonton and Alberta comics. Because, in my mind, a festival organizer should leave whatever the art form is a little better than they found it. So this is an opportunity for guys like Kyle [Canniff] and Will [Hannigan] and some of the other locals to get their first festival credit. Because the hardest thing about getting a festival like a Just For Laughs or Halifax Comedy Festival, is that festival organizers always want to know what festivals have you have already done. So it’s sort of like getting a job: It’s hard to get experience if you can’t get the first job. So we like to give a few locals that opportunity to get their first festival credit.
Jumping back to the Thursday comedy seminar — can you teach comedy?
Well, I think most people would assume, when they see a comedy seminar, that it’s going to be like, OK, get up there, do five minutes, and I’ll criticize it. But there’s far more to comedy than actually just talking into a microphone. “Formula” is a bad word in comedy, but there’s a structure to it that you need to understand. And there’s a process for writing material that you need to open up that part of your mind to be successful at comedy.
So the comedy seminar breaks down those structural aspects: It’s set up, punchline, tag, tag, segue. And you’ve watched comedians do that without knowing that’s what they were doing your whole life. Typically, somebody who’s new — myself included when I was new — you think of yourself as somebody who’s kind of funny in social circles. You’ve told a story a couple of times at parties, and people laughed, and so you thought, You know what, I bet if I just told that story, it would kill. And then it doesn’t work on stage. And it doesn’t work because you’re not putting it into that structure that it needs to be to successfully do stand-up comedy.
I once heard the late, great Patrice O’Neal say that comedians work hard at being lazy, meaning they work on their acts so they can have a lazy lifestyle of sleeping in and going to bars. But this festival seems like a lot of work, so… what’s your deal?
It’s a great point. We are a lazy people. I always tell younger comedians that they’re entering the field of show business, but you have to put equal weight on both those words — “show” and “business.” Many comedians excel at show and many comedians excel at business, but the ones who are really successful, excel at both.
The festival is not financially beneficial in any significant way to my wife and me. But it’s important to us, and it’s a part of our business — it’s our not-for-profit business, and it’s important to us to always be creating work not only for us, but for comedians. And for the comedians who attend festivals, it’s like Club Med for comedians. The longest set you’ll do is typically 20 minutes, so it’s easy-peasy for these guys, because they’re all headliners. And if you want to see the real entertainment at a festival, be a fly on the wall in the greenroom. It’s where the funniest stories get told and the funniest interactions happen. So that’s the other aspect of why we do a festival: I love hanging out with comedians.
Finally: How have you seen the Edmonton comedy scene grow over the years?
I’ve seen it grow exponentially over 12 years. And I hope that we are part of the reason for that. There’s a comedy scene in every major city in Canada, but the number of amateurs trying to work their selves up to professional ranks in Edmonton has grown huge. You can pretty much take in comedy somewhere in Edmonton almost every night of the week. The comedians who come to our festival often ask if they can come in early because they want to drop by one of these open mic nights and try some material out, and Edmonton is a great town for that.
And it’s funny, because Edmonton excels in both open mic nights, and the availability of pizza. It’s the weirdest thing: In Toronto, it’s tough to get an open mic night on a Monday night or a pizza past midnight. But in Edmonton, you can do both.
This is an arts city. Actually, on the last cruise ship I was on there was an American who said he’d been to both Calgary and Edmonton, and they wondered why I lived in Edmonton. And I said, because I’m a comedian. And he was like, “Oh, I wouldn’t know anything about that.” And I go, “Right, that’s why I’m telling you.” Calgary does not have the art scene that we have. And I’m not talking about just comedy — I’m talking about arts in general, the number of venues and the number of venues that are a suitable size. And again, we have great pizza.