Comedy Shorts: The Struggle for Main Stream Success
By Alex Cooper


So yells Graham Wagner at the end of the comedy short of the same name about a man who “doesn’t understand a word.” The video was created by Wagner and Nick Flanagan, along with several friends, and some random passerbys.

Even the Best

The film is one of many shorts to emerge out of the Toronto alternative comedy scene centred on Laugh Sabbath, held every Sunday at the Rivoli. It’s the same night and the same stage where the Canadian comedy legends from The Kids in the Hall got their start many years ago. The show has garnered significant attention and, for the past two years, has been part of the official Just for Laughs showcase circuit.

Laugh Sabbath is characterized by its non-traditional comedy. Performers are encouraged to break away from the usual stand-up and go off-the-board for laughs. One element that characterizes the show is the use of the short film. It is rare for a show to not feature any videos.

Flanagan started making shorts to promote his comedy night, Joke Club. His videos have been posted on websites such as Super Deluxe, Channel 101, and YouTube. On Super Deluxe, Douche is the most watched community video, with more than 365,000 views. Despite its popularity, Flanagan, who hopes to make his living from comedy, hasn’t made any inroads into mainstream success.

Several comedians now have TV shows based on their shorts. Greg Lawrence’s cartoon series Kevin Spencer began that way before being  picked up by The Comedy Network. Likewise, Peter Oldring and Pat Kelly’s breakfast show parody Good Morning World was also picked up.

In Your House

They are the exceptions. Michelle Daly, director of content at The Comedy Network, says the network receives 15 to 20 pitches weekly. Very few turn into series, and about 50 shorts get broadcast on the show Canadian Comedy Shorts.

Levi MacDougall, one of the core members of Laugh Sabbath, came close to making it when he produced a pilot for the network with his sketch-comedy group, The Distractions. He got their attention when he won the 2001 Cream of Comedy competition. Scouts from the network began coming out to The Distractions’ shows and the show eventually went into production. The group, which also includes Tim Polley and Paul Schuck, set out to produce a sketch show with a cinematic look to it, but it never aired.

One person from Laugh Sabbath who has had success is Nathan Fielder, the director of Douche and winner of the 2006 Cream of Comedy competition. He managed to parlay his shorts into a gig as a field correspondent for the hit CBC show This Hour has 22 Minutes when a producer at the show saw his videos. Fielder began making films while at comedy school. One of them, Job Hunt, was a finalist in the 2006 CBC Comedy Shorts Contest and another he made with MacDougall called In Your House was picked up for Canadian Comedy Shorts.

Bacon (The Distractions, from their unaired Comedy Network pilot

Eventually he collaborated with Laugh Sabbath host Chris Locke on These Moments Too – a series of nine shorts where the humour was “less conceptual and more dialogue driven.” Fielder was unsure of them at first. It wasn’t until he witnessed the crowd response at shows that he realized what he was onto. “People were asking when we were going to make more,” he says. “People wanted to be in them and were sending us scripts for ideas they had.”

Attempts to turn These Moments Too into a television series have been unsuccessful so far. Fielder and Locke pitched the show to several networks but were told it wasn’t mainstream enough. Despite that, Fielder says that out of all the shorts he’s made, he’s most proud of them. “I feel like they were doing something new that I hadn’t seen in comedy,” he says.

The comedy short can be dated back to the dawn of film, with the Lumière Brothers’ 1895 Watering the Gardener. However, Fielder notes an increased prominence of the short due to the advance of technology. “It’s making people into self-producers,” he explains. “If you do that well, then it’s easier for people to see how they can turn what you do into something on TV.”

The Comedy Network’s Michelle Daly agrees. “It gives you a sense of  writing, of aesthetic, and of the tone that they’re looking for. It’s a very low risk calling card.”


The advent of YouTube and the ease with which people can make their own videos has changed the way people approach her. Seven out of 10 pitches she receives include a link to a YouTube video.

For MacDougall, there are several benefits to posting his films online. He says the films he’s made with The Distractions helps them reach out to people who would not have heard about them normally. “It means the films we screen at the shows don’t end there,” he says.

It also allows him to bypass mainstream media. “It’s an encouraging part of it,” he says. “To just shoot something and put it up in front of a crowd and let them decide, without it being filtered through 10 executives.” And when a video gets lots of views, he adds, executives know there’s an audience out there.”


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