We lose approximately 4,000 Canadians to suicide each year. Many of us have felt the heartbreak that comes from a friend, family member, or colleague’s very final action taken in response to a struggle with mental illness. Comedians Stand-Up to Stigma is a comedy event supporting a wonderful organization, Distress Centres of Greater Toronto, which is the recent result of a merger between Peel’s Spectra Helpline and Toronto’s Distress Centres.
The organizations’ crisis lines are open 24 hours a day, trained volunteers fielding more than 118,000 calls and texts, while 60,000 outbound calls are made a year to at-risk seniors, and volunteer grief facilitators support families and friends through their losses. As September 10th was World Suicide Prevention Day, the Thursday event felt timely and urgent, and it was good to see a large crowd at the Royal Cinema.
After a brief introduction about the event’s purpose, we met our host, Dave Martin. He kept things moving and regaled us with jokes about Tim Hortons, the aftermath of hangovers over 40, and the unfortunate tendency of comedians to try to turn societal interactions into jokes.
Ryan Maglunob – self-proclaimed “Disney Princess” due to his long, flowing locks – covered subjects from camping to online dating with an endearing, laid-back but earnest delivery. Next, Fiona O’Brien, an Irish immigrant to Canada, energetically spoke about dealing with, in turn, bizarre Irish stereotypes and her divorce. Her closer about using her father’s ashes as a familial take on Elf on a Shelf was very entertaining.
Joze Piranian, a Lebanese comic who “speaks six languages and stutters in all of them,” got excellent mileage out of his awareness of his speech impediment, telling us that he hoped we liked suspense in our comedy. Though, of course, stuttering is categorized as a speech disorder rather than a mental health condition, his gentle, self-deprecating humour and frank talk about turning his limitations into strengths was the closest routine thematically to the evening’s message of overcoming stigma.
Simon Rakoff, the headliner and 40-year comic veteran, clearly has his sarcastic delivery down pat and had the audience in stitches with his commentary about the anonymous life of a Canadian comedian and the futility of sports as a concept.
While I enjoyed all of the comedians, I was struck by how relentlessly old-school a lot of the evening was in terms of material. I have spent a lot of time attending stand-up shows that are purposefully diverse in terms of race, sexuality, and gender identity. Many, if not most, of these younger comics are bracingly honest in their discussions of oppressive systems and issues with mental health. In fact, it is rare at these shows when these topics don’t come up.
Thus, it honestly surprised me how little any of the standup routines had to do with the advertised subject of stigma and mental health, or the societal factors that contribute to mental illness. Instead, this was an entertaining fundraiser for a worthy cause related to stigma and mental health. Other than a couple of comedians referring to the cause outside of their core routines and acknowledging the tendency of comics toward depression, the topic was almost conspicuously absent from the evening.
In fact, while the concept of the event would seem to purport to create a safe space to have a discussion – that’s what fighting stigma does, after all – I actually found there to be an odd tendency amongst some of the comedians to retreat into stereotypes that might negatively affect audience members. Whether it was a neurotypical comic using a common slur against the developmentally delayed, or an average-sized comic making fun of the morbidly obese, there didn’t seem to be a concern about ‘punching down’ for some of these comedians. Another comedian, for example, pulled out an extended “nagging wives” schtick fresh from the 1970s. “What do you do when your wife won’t talk to you? Enjoy it!” is an odd line to culminate an event promoting openness, honesty, and conversation amongst the vulnerable.
The cause is undeniably completely worthy, the concept is great, and I had fun overall listening to some talented comics. I imagine the organization relies on comedians who have some name recognition and are willing to donate their time. It likely does not have a say in the content presented. I would merely point out that the event could be taken to the next level in its – hopefully – yearly iteration if there was more mindful attention paid to its thematic heart.
- Comedians Stand-Up to Stigma was performed at the Royal Cinema (608 College St. W) on Thursday, September 12.
- You can donate to Distress Centres of Toronto here.
If you need to access the services of Distress Centres of Greater Toronto you can do so through the following channels:
24 hour support (GTA): 416-408-4357
Text support: 45645
Online Chat support: http://www.crisisservicescanada.ca/ (Then click online chat)
Multilingual support: 905-459-7777
Image provided by the organization