TORONTO — Saskatchewan comedian Kelly Taylor was booked for a cancer benefit outside Saskatoon the day after the Humboldt Broncos bus crash.
But as the tragic headlines poured in, the passionate hockey fan struggled to find his lighter side.
“I spent some of that day texting hockey buddies and hearing a lot of them breaking down,” he said. “It was on another level.”
He didn’t want to back out of the charity event, but Taylor said he couldn’t shake the sadness that had overtaken the hockey community he grew up around. He took the stage that night, but an hour into his show, he told the audience he was having trouble focusing on anything besides the overwhelming loss.
“I knew when I did I wouldn’t be able to hold together,” he said. “But it felt like a lot of people were feeling that way.”
The Broncos were on their way to a playoff game April 6 when their bus and a semi collided at an intersection in the country near Tisdale, Sask., killing 16 people and injuring 13 others.
Taylor finished his set with another 20 minutes of comedy, hoping to leave the audience with boosted spirits. Later this month, he hopes to strike a similarly optimistic tone when he performs at the Humour for Humboldt fundraiser at Edmonton’s the Comic Strip on May 17.
The showcase features Taylor alongside “Letterkenny” star K. Trevor Wilson and the venue’s owner Rick Bronson, who will serve as host. It’s being promoted as a night of comedians raising money for the Humboldt hockey community.
Taylor, who was raised a couple hours away from Humboldt in Prince Albert, Sask., grew up playing hockey, but eventually traded dreams of suiting up in the pros for the comedy scene.
His jokes still emphasize his love for hockey. A major part of his act focuses on the sport, its players and other barbs about the Canada’s game. He’ll decide on the quantity of hockey punchlines once he takes the temperature of the crowd.
“I’m just going to go there, try and have a real good set and maybe give people (some time) away from it,” he said.
Regular tickets for Humour for Humboldt start at $75, while a VIP ticket for $125 gets attendees access to a meet-and-greet reception with the comics.
The money raised will be split between Humboldt-area junior hockey teams and the Stars Air Ambulance, which helped transport some of the victims from the crash.
Laughing in the wake of tragedy is important to Bronson, the Comic Strip’s owner.
He points to David Letterman who took to the airwaves a week after Sept. 11 with a sense of class and a light dose of humour.
“Several of the late-night talk show guys were instrumental in showing us how important it was to return to our daily routines and lives — and laugh,” Bronson said.
“That’s certainly an important emotion in my life.”
Bronson began making plans for the comedy show about a week after the Humboldt crash, he said.
Two years ago, he launched a fundraiser with former “Saturday Night Live” alum Rob Schneider to raise money for victims of the Fort McMurray wildfires. It wound up collecting $100,000 for the Red Cross.
Striking the right tone for this particular night of comedy is important to Taylor, who has played shows in the face of tragedy before.
Over a decade ago, he performed at a military base in Cold Lake, Alta., only hours after a pilot died in a crash, though he acknowledges the “show must go on” attitude of the military differs from most other communities.
Taylor said he’s sympathetic to concerns raised over the recent Humboldt Broncos tribute concert where two American comedians made jokes deemed racially insensitive to Indigenous people. While Taylor wasn’t offered a spot at that charity concert, he insists he would’ve gone through his act “with a fine-tooth comb” to ensure nothing was offensive.
The comedian also acknowledged there’s “no right answer” to when it’s appropriate to laugh after a tragedy. But he found some assurance in comments made by Broncos assistant coach Chris Beaudry after the bus crash.
Beaudry reminded Canadians to enjoy happiness whenever they could find it — even if the moment was fleeting.
“When you’ve got dark times, if you can sit there and laugh, let it in,” Taylor echoed.
“Otherwise the sadness is going to eat you up.”