Icebreakers Comedy Fest: Uncorking the Laughter
By David DeRocco
A good joke is always a great icebreaker, but a great icebreaker festival is definitely something worth laughing at. In fact, if event organizers have anything to say about it, the 2016 Icebreakers Comedy Festival is going to be a completely laughable experience.
January 28 through 30 marks the return to Niagara-on-the-Lake of The Icebreakers Comedy Festival, a marquee event held in conjunction with the Old Town’s annual Icewine Festival. The three-day comedy-fest boasts no less than eighteen top-notch comedians delivering a wide variety of comedic content across three club stages. This year the festival has partnered with CBC Radio’s Laugh Out Loud Radio program, and festival founder Jeff Paul says that has brought some positive changes to the way this year’s festival will be staged.
“We’ve changed a few of the formats this year,” said Paul, a NOTL resident and regular at Yuk Yuk’s who’ll also be performing at the Icebreakers festival. “Last year we had a main headliner, but that doesn’t work for the CBC tapings. We needed multiple comics to make it work for them. So we changed the format and I think it’s going to be a lot better this year. The show’s not resting on one person’s shoulders; it’s resting on a whole bunch of shoulders.”
That collection of shoulders includes some of Canada’s best young comics recording their sets for future airplay on the CBC show hosted by Ali Hassan. On Friday night, for example, Paul hosts an all-star lineup of professional comics at Oast Brew House that includes Matt O’Brien, Bryan Hatt, Zabrina Chevannes, Todd Graham, Jess Salomon and Kyle Hickey. Saturday night’s line-up features headliner comics Fraser Young, Jen Grant, Patrick Haye, Sam Easton, Jeff Elliott, Nick Beaton and host Sandra Battaglini at the Royal Cambridge at the Prince of Wales. The Icebreakers Festival kicks off Thursday night at Cork’s Wine Bar and Eatery with a local talent showcase hosted by Joe Pillitteri and featuring Efthimios Nasiopoulous, Graham Davidson and Patrick Smolarek. It’s a lineup that Paul himself is impressed by.
“We’ve got some really good names coming through this year. The whole Saturday night roster is unbelievable; Sandra (Battaglini) is probably one of the funniest women in the country. Sam Easton was in Final Destination 3. Fraser Young, he’d done everything. The first year, we didn’t really know anything. We didn’t know what we were doing. We did a bunch of shows and then had a big Saturday night gala. It’s definitely going to be a better event this year.”
Comedy events have often been regulated to nightclubs and beer halls, but the affiliation with the prestigious Icewine Festival is more an indication of shifting tides in the wine industry than a sign that comedy has gone high-brow. Paul, who was approached to organize the original festival by a winery-owning friend, said the event is simply an indication of an industry that’s trying to cater to a new and emerging demographic.
“I think what the idea was in bringing in the comedy festival was there’s a younger generation of wine snobs coming through (Niagara-on-the-Lake),” said Paul. “It’s not just your parents coming here anymore, it’s now you. Younger people, people in their 30s, are finding an appreciation for the wine, but they also want something else to entertain them. People my age aren’t going to the Shaw Festival sort of thing.”
Ultimately, the Icebreakers Comedy Festival is also about providing Canadian comics with a place to showcase their talents -- at least, while they're still in Canada. Although the Canadian comedy scene is healthy, Paul says the flash and cash offered in the U.S. is a drain on the industry.
“The problem with Canadian comedy is once you get good you leave. It would be nice for a really good talent to stay. But there’s no money here, no incentive to stay. You can live comfortably here as a Canadian comedian but you’re not going to live that Hollywood lifestyle that everyone’s so in love with. Pound for pound the Toronto comedy scene is insane. There’s so many people and so many good good talented people, it’s great. It’s a good breeding ground.”
Tickets for the festival can be purchased online at www.icebreakerscomedy.com.
Icebreakers Comedy Festival
January 28-30, 2016, Niagara-on-the-Lake
Thursday January 28 - Local Talent Showcase, 8pm Tickets: Advance $10, Door $15
Friday January 29 – CBC Radio Laugh Out Loud taping, 9pm
Tickets: Advance $20, Door $25
Saturday January 30 – Gala presentation CBC Laugh Out Loud taping, 8:30pm
Tickets: Advance $30, Door $35