Sirius XM Canada and Just For Laughs formally announced a partnership Monday that will see the Canada Laughs channel become Just For Laughs Radio this spring. (Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Canadian comics say livelihood at risk as Just For Laughs takes over radio channel

MONTREAL — Canadian comics are sounding the alarm over major changes to a satellite radio comedy station that many count on as a significant source of income.

Sirius XM Canada and Just For Laughs formally announced a partnership Monday that will see the Canada Laughs channel become Just For Laughs Radio this spring, curated by the Montreal entertainment company.

The blowback began brewing online among Canadian comedians last week. The Canada Laughs channel has provided 100 per cent Canadian content since its 2005 creation, giving homegrown comedians access to royalties and a place to showcase their work.

The Canadian Association of Stand-up Comedians says many local comics rely heavily on that money and exposure.

“For some people, this is their primary source of income,” Sandra Battaglini, a Toronto comic and head of the two-year-old association, said in an interview Monday. “It’s devastating for people, because these changes have already started happening, and people have stopped being played.”

In a news release Monday, the new station was described as a “blend of standup recorded at various Just For Laughs festivals and events, along with premium content from independent comedy albums.”

Battaglini said that means it is no longer “an exclusively Canadian channel … because Just For Laughs archives, the catalogue, is mostly an American festival.” She said a Canadian comedian living in New York first sounded the alarm when her record label informed her that Canada Laughs was disappearing.

The abrupt switch was a source of frustration for standup comics who have used the income stream to pay for everything from rent to work visas and immigration paperwork to build careers in the United States.

“If this isn’t going to be there next month, they’re going to be in a tough spot,” Battaglini said. She added she was hopeful about working with Just For Laughs SiriusXM to address some of the issues.

Canadian comedy legend Howie Mandel, who is part of the partnership that owns Just For Laughs, explained on his Facebook page late Sunday that some of the station’s content would now be drawn from the Just For Laughs archives, which include performers from around the world.

“We will still be taking content — it is a Canadian station — we will be taking content from Canadian comedians and independently recorded comedians and up-and-coming comedians from Canada,” Mandel said. He said SiriusXM Satellite Radio approached the Montreal-based company wanting to “retool” the station.

Last March, U.S.-based talent agency ICM Partners and Mandel announced the purchase of Just for Laughs from Quebec entertainment mogul Gilbert Rozon. In June, Bell Media and Groupe CH also became partners in the Montreal-based company.

Mandel suggested the change was necessary to keep the station alive. “They came to us and said, could you help us with the Canadian comedy,” he said. “We said, yes, because that’s what we do, we promote comedy. We are comedy.”

But for comics like Calgary’s Dave Nystrom, who challenged Mandel on Twitter, the financial impact will be immediate. He said the cash will instead flow to Just For Laughs and international comedians.

“Everybody was getting played daily,” Nystrom, who has worked in comedy for nearly 25 years, said in an interview. “What he (Mandel) can’t change and can’t spin is that this money is going to stop coming to us as comedians — this has hit working, often struggling, comedians in their bank accounts.”

In Nystrom’s case, the money earned amounted to the monthly rent for the married father of four. He said comedians stand to lose between US$500 to $2,000 per month. “It’s not like we lost a couple of gigs,” Nystrom said. “People are losing up to and above 50 per cent of their annual income.”

Several high-profile Canadian comics weighed in on Twitter recently as rumours began to swirl.

“Just For Laughs made a terrible decision today that once again treats Canadian comics as second class,” said Scott Thompson, best known for his time on “Kids in the Hall.”

“Canada Laughs has been an AMAZING outlet for Canadian comedians to showcase material & actually receive genuine revenue from royalties. I’m hoping it can survive somehow,” wrote ”Corner Gas” star and creator Brent Butt.

For Toronto-based comedian Nick Beaton, the impact will be severe. “I will literally lose half of my income,” he said in an interview.

Beaton said the backlash would have been just as intense if it had come with some warning, but the abrupt nature of the decision is especially difficult to swallow.

“They’ve clearly been working on this for months, something like this doesn’t just happen overnight,” Beaton said. “If they’d said five months ago, this is what we were moving towards … at least that would have given us a chance. This is just overnight. They came in and took it away.”

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