The Yuk Yuk's Story
by Joel Axler, Co-founder
The Setting: Toronto, Spring 1976
It was a time when disco hits climbed the charts and fended off light rock to hold mighty positions; a time when Hollywood films turned moody, even black with introspection. There were minefields of reactions to the first avalanche of corporate entertainment fluff, so it was no surprise that the emerging popular music of the day would be called punk and hurl vomit and reworked war songs into bruised yet ecstatic faces.
It sprang from the Harbourfront Open Evenings in a time when poetry, native songs, folk and experimental jazz all shared a facet in a mosaic of Toronto's mid-70's cry for meaning and edge; and, there was an ocean of government money for esoteric expression! The CN Tower had just been erected and put a "Tower of Babel" phallus on the skyline. Many of the hidden polite savages with renegade sentiments were finally bleeping into the city's radar, and our desperate need to mock everything in exchange for the public's hilarity and fun clinched the deal.
"What's Our Motivation?"
It was conceived from our alienation and glee in entertaining in a "poor theatre barrio", which held the audience for ransom without apologies. We blindly incubated this trust that more talent would find a path to us, only because we sought to bring them their long-lost and denied fix: a like-minded captive crowd of bewildered patrons. It was later deemed 'wild, weird and wacky', but to our absolute delight, had an unpredictable infancy and confrontational teething phase.
It was never an industry then, only a half a dozen of our funny friends, and a haphazard weekly Wednesday open stage in a mildew-filled basement hall at the '519' in the heart of then 'rubby-town'. It was only discovered as a fluke and seized because we were cast-outs from Harbourfront due to a matronly 'putsch' early that Spring. Toronto's Church and Wellesley district in mid-1976 had a mini-park behind the Community Centre which was then rife with drunken street people. As always, it felt a light year away from Yonge Street.
"A Smash Success Delivery!"
While the 'room' itself was quite narrow and long with a raised stage; the seating was endless longitude tables, chairs and a counter at the back, with stairs that led up to the lobby. A glance stage-ward through the sweating bodies revealed the very first backdrop: a pair of huge lips and bared teeth laughing. Whatever oxygen did enter this dungeon was consumed by the table candles and clouds of burning tobacco.
Originally it birthed as more of a 'happening' with a side show, but the original experience of Yuk Yuk's was 'in-your-face' long before the expression had been coined and far more cerebrally outrageous than a drag show of any time. Mark's keenest senses of promoting a macabre freedom in expression were only matched by his undying protection of the show and its environment.
When the talent and our audience fused, there was a visceral explosion that bounced off the narrow walls into our skulls, and I felt almost directly responsible for causing so much mass laughter! The comics fought for the sound and smell of the sweet thunder of the laugh-kill, and this was my way of enabling it. The smash of the opening was the talk of the town, and assured me that comedy would bloom in countless ways, and that the future would quickly lead us into executive boardrooms in Hollywood with this alternative showbiz art form. But the details! Live entertainment production, getting an audience, setting up and striking a show, blabbing the 'cause' to everyone and anyone who could have been funny.
I set up and did the sound, tape and light cues, and commanded the infamous hook from backstage. My 'end' came from selling coffee, pop and bagels. Mark put a batting order to our new collection of borderline deviants, M.C.'d, and gave a weekly feature to someone he knew and trusted that had at least half an hour of material. That only took three hours or so. The rest of his days and nights were devoted to promoting the Yuk Yuk's dream to an unrealized but slowly growing talent pool: That our grey, mid-sized Toronto would become the Liverpool of the Canadian Comedy Invasion of Hollywood. And almost 30 years later all eyes remain on this country!
"The Weekly Angry Fix"
We stood with our outsiders, and our new funny friends came from high and low places to watch, hang out, perform, soak in, and to beg, borrow and steal another dram of hilarity. With the help of early-20's testosterone, adrenaline, caffeine, embarrassment and a little pot, everything was funny and novel. The tension from unpredictability was so visceral that after my incessant giggling and the innumerable screams of laughter, I always felt different; I wasn't sure whether it was nausea or elation, but the experience had an altering effect on us all; we being the perennial studies in exaggeration: too geeky, sharp, poor, smart, rich, plain or crazy. It became the perfect underground 1970's asylum, as well as our new home and extended family.
The currency of the period was a new joke, character or one-man tirade. At many of our earliest shows, the caretaker would come bounding down the stairs at 11:00 pm (our clear-out time) screaming, "Get out! It's 11 o'clock, get out!" This would always occur during the show and the poor guy usually got laughed out of the basement. It wasn't really about money then. It was pocket change with which to go out afterwards to a chic Bloor Street bistro like the Courtyard Café, Bemelman's, or The Bloor Street Diner, and invariably, Mark, who was refining his outlet of new outrage in performance-art mania, would make a scene either with shrieking or smooching and get us all tossed out. Mark was beginning to create a riveting and brilliant MC character, one that would grow not only in self-satire and audience power. His onstage character raised the bar on brashness and verbal craft and always 'wow-ed' our new friends to push harder and write more. His onstage bits and persona sold the show, talent and the image. Few could adequately follow him, and eventually he became THE Yuk Yuk's experience in its own 'write'.
"The Passage to Adulthood"
Soon our crowds started to swell over the confines of our little pad of exhibitionism. We loved it so much that we wanted to build safe houses for it. And then the Bay and Yorkville storefronts were rented, gutted, painted black and voila!: We finally had our own day and night hang out, show-club and maybe a chance to meet girls...
We showed the city and then the country that our mission was to make more fun and live it. Comedy was our shield of the soul, our new drug, the one-way vacation from the predictable, and more often than not, the ultimate weapon.
Millions of fans from coast to coast have likely felt better when they've left a good show. I believe that in the very near future we'll see more humour understood and applied as psychological and medical therapy.
Our brighter comics got to the heart of news, culture and public sentiment much faster than media and focus groups today. After all, in 1976, most information was not yet being sold by conglomerates, and no-one even owned a VCR. Baby-boomers were still in their 20's and sex was the rule, not the exception. Targeting anyone's ethnicity or lifestyle was fair game, because everyone had a voice in an equally-offending environment. There was no menacing fascism of political correctness, and the happiest patrons were usually those that took the most punches. We were in our early twenties, unemployable and hungry for subversive expression and play. Now, it seems that every conversation holds enough quiet voltage to ignite a socio/political fight. And that's one small reason I'm so proud that to this day, Mark still provides, grows and insures this bastion of freedom of speech.