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January 24, 2002 Sociologist Anna Woodrow researched PhD thesis in a comedy club



Anna Woodrow

Anne Woodrow: The waitress took notes.

Photo by Andrew Dobrowolskyj

by James Martin

A funny thing happened to Anna Woodrow while writing her PhD dissertation about media representations of native people during the 1990 Oka stand-off: She changed her mind.

When she moved to Montreal to pursue her master’s degree at Concordia, she also began a four-year stint waiting tables at the Comedy Nest nightclub. “I was only working there to make money, but I ended up ingrained in the world of stand-up comedy without actually being a comedian myself.”

Woodrow was still working at the club when she started her PhD, also at Concordia. Early in her Oka research, she encountered obstacles (including high copyright fees for reproducing news footage, as well as reluctance among the people to trust an outsider) that left her a little discouraged.

“I was out for a jog one day. Some things had happened while I was working at the club the night before — I can’t remember what, exactly. Because I was so aware of audience reception and had all this theoretical background, I was constantly doing mini-analyses of the activities in the club.

“I knew how easy it would be for me to access the world of comedy because I was already in it, even though it’s a very private and closed place. By the time I’d finished my run, I’d decided to change my thesis topic.”

Eyewitness to a dog-eat-dog world

Over the course of the next two years, Woodrow interviewed 41 Canadian stand-ups and a handful of producers, managers, and agents. Most of her subjects came to her, so to speak (attracted by the comedy beacon that is the Just For Laughs Festival), but Woodrow also hit the road, travelling across country with a group of comics.

She witnessed firsthand the bizarre crucible in which our country’s comedic talents are forged (or broken), a dog-eat-dog world of long drives, late nights, hostile crowds, isolated rural venues, hard-nut club owners, questionable accommodations, and worse.

“What stand-up comedians have to go through in Canada, is Hell. They start out getting maybe 50 bucks for a show — that’s if they’re getting paid at all,” Woodrow said.

“One comedian told me about the time a guy burst through the door on a motorcycle, drove right up to the stage, revved his motor, then rode back out. The comedian left the stage, went over to the bar, and said, ‘I want to see the manager right now.’ And the bartender said, ‘That was the manager.’”


This isn’t to say that Hell doesn’t have its up-side. “Canada is one of the best training grounds in the world for stand-up comedy,” Woodrow said.

“It sucks the life right out of you, but — because of the size of our country, because of the variance between the regions, because of the desperate nature of it — it creates really well-trained, really adaptable comedians.” (Woodrow added they would nevertheless jump at the chance to relocate to the far more lucrative U.S. market.)

Woodrow conducted clandestine audience research during her shifts, literally crouching down among the front-row hoi polloi to take mental notes on “the dance between the performers and audience.”

This undercover tactic not only afforded her an insider’s vantage point (“I was invisible, and could see all kinds of things happening that the average person sitting at the back of the room would not catch”), but opened a lucrative avenue of alternative academic funding: “Because I was in the middle of things all the time, I made more money than the waitresses waiting for people to call them over!”

With her dissertation (“Why are They Laughing? The Re-formulation of Identity in Canadian Stand-up Comedy”) completed, and having delivered the valedictory at convocation last November, Woodrow is now teaching humanities full-time at John Abbott College, as well as working with Dr. Bill Reimer on a major Concordia research project concerned with changes in the Canadian rural economy.

She’s hoping to spin her dissertation into a book, noting that “very little has been written about stand-up comedy in Canada.” There is, however, one thing she won’t be doing any time soon.

“I’ve never, ever tried to go on stage and be a comic of any kind,” she said firmly. “I love stand-up, but I can’t write a joke for the life of me. I have horrible timing as well. I’m serious: I’m not funny at all.”