We’ve Outgrown Our Baby Shoes

As a young comedian, I believed that I was better than everybody else. I believed I was funnier, more intelligent and more deserving of success than every other comedian in Canada. I believed that my path was righteous and nearly everyone else’s path was not. It’s a not-uncommon trait among young artists, and some mature artists too. But for a number of years, I did have a relatively good streak of successes that only served to fortify my arrogance.

Three events in my life turned this inferiority complex on its end.

The first event was my mother’s descent into the vegetative stupor of Alzheimer’s disease in the final third of her 23-year battle with the disease – not that it was much of a battle, more of a drawn-out surrender. When that occurred, when she lost everything that made her her, nothing about my life was funny anymore. I could still laugh at other peoples’ humour but I could no longer generate any of my own. So I stopped trying.

I became insular. I was introduced to the Internet and I sunk myself into a career in web development, where I could function alone, and anonymously, in the humourlessness of programming code. Believe me when I tell you that there is nothing funny about HyperText Markup Language and Common Gateway Interface.

The second event was meeting a person whose generosity of spirit and capacity for understanding rendered my self-imposed depression obsolete. She taught me that life is meaningless until we bring meaning to it. And whether we know it or not, whether we like it or not, we are always bringing meaning to it. Her name is Diana Galligan. And until I am dead and forgotten, she is my hero.

The third event was a culmination of the first two. I became involved in the Canadian Comedy Awards, a national awards process that was still in its infancy. Ironically, years earlier, the arrogant person I once was had ridiculed this organization for all the reasons anyone might ridicule it – as a self-aggrandizing stew of mediocrity.

My entrance into the CCAs occurred halfway through the 2008 awards season. I was tasked with building a new website for the CCAs and constructing the online mechanism by which voters could vote on nominees. I had about 3 weeks in which to create this structure.

Any sane person (or team of people) would have taken several months to carefully plan the steps required to build such a thing and five figures would be charged to do so. I charged $5,000 for it. I’m not bragging, clearly. Being paid $5K for something for which someone else would charge ten times that amount is in no way something to brag about. But web development has never been my true calling, so my tendency has always been to undervalue myself. I never wanted to be successful at it. Because that would be the death of me as an artist.

In 2009, I created the online mechanism by which jurors could select their Top 5 submissions to the category in which they were a juror. And the Top 5 of those Top 5’s become the nominees.

What happened next is something I will always carry with me.

One of my tasks was pulling clips from all the submission DVDs to convert them into video files so they could be viewed online by the jurors. In that capacity, I watched every single submission to the 2009 Canadian Comedy Awards. 230 videos. I’m the only person on the planet who got to watch all of them. And I wear that as a badge of honour.

Because in those 9 days of non-stop video processing and entertainment consumption, I was exposed to the kaleidoscope – I’m sorry, I know that’s cliché, but there really is no better word for it – the kaleidoscope of talent and gifts that hundreds and hundreds of comedy artists in this country have to give. From standup comics, to sketch and improv troupes, to playwrights, TV writers, directors and actors, and filmmakers. Those 230 fifteen-minute videos transformed me.

If you were one of those submitters in 2009, thank you. You helped me disempower a fucking asshole that had taken residence inside my heart decades earlier. There is no dollar value that I could possibly assign to that – $5K, $50K, $500K, all pale in comparison.

In 2010, I created the online submission form. The total number of submissions that year was a little over 300. If you were one of those submitters in 2010 (including those that were disqualified because they didn’t meet the criteria), thank you. You proved to me that my transformative experience the previous year was not an anomaly.

In 2011, to better accommodate video submissions, I added a video upload application to the submission process. The biggest challenge was this app’s limitations to a very specific set of parameters. Without a much larger budget, it was simply not possible to create a wide berth for the various digital formats that accompanied submissions.

So in 2012, I outsourced the storage of all submission videos to YouTube, a company that has invested millions of dollars into ensuring that videos are capable of being uploaded and viewed by as many people as possible. This made it much easier and more cost-effective for artists to submit their work.

In each of these years, I found myself viewing submissions videos. And each year, I was subsequently reassured that the comedy artists who work in this country are not funnier than anyone else, as I once thought myself to be.

They are as funny AS THEY ARE.

And they are – YOU are – Really. Really. Really. Fucking. Funny.

 

I’m a firm believer in democracy. Who gets nominated and who wins is kind of irrelevant to me. The most important thing is the process. If the process works, the nominees will be great and consequently the winners will be great.

So I’d like to provide a few facts which are often overlooked whenever someone challenges the integrity of the CCAs, as a few recently have.

There have been changes to some criteria every awards season in which I’ve been involved. These changes are developed by the Chair of the Awards & Nominations Committee, in consultation with members of that committee and with the community itself. This list of proposals, usually averaging 10-15 each year, is then brought before the Board of Directors of the Canadian Comedy Foundation for Excellence, the foundation which guides the growth of the CCAs. If memory serves me well, the Board of Directors has at most rejected 3 of these proposals in any given year.

So while a person might have the perception that favouritism could exist in certain members of the Board of Directors, any self-serving bias that person might believe exists is easily stifled by the fact that no one has complete and undeniable control over the process. The Board of Directors – the list of which has been publicly available on the CCA website for quite some time – do not make the criteria. They either approve or reject the criteria proposals suggested by the Awards & Nominations Committee.

The Awards & Nominations Committee is made up of members of the community who volunteer their time because they believe in and feel passionately about the awards. They do not participate to childishly stack the odds in anyone’s favour; they participate for one reason and one reason alone – because it’s an honour to participate in something greater than themselves.

The Chair of this committee is responsible for assembling the juries and vetting the submissions in every category. They are responsible for ensuring that artists are not jurying a category to which they’ve submitted and that artists are not jurying a category to which their spouses or business partners have submitted.

Every awards season in which I’ve been involved in the CCAs, at least one member of the Awards & Nominations Committee has been a submitter or a nominee or a winner. Two of the three Chairs of this committee in the past 5 years have been submitters while they were Chair of the committee. That is a by-product of the relatively small size of our community, the volume of work generated by our community and the grassroots nature of our organization.

I was honoured to serve on the Awards & Nominations Committee in 2011 under chair Cory Mack, who I admire greatly. I know of no one in the Canadian comedy community who is as dedicated, fair-minded and prudent as Cory Mack. Cory was personally responsible for ensuring that hundreds of submissions met the criteria in the categories to which they’d been submitted. I was present when she made decisions that were obviously difficult decisions for her to make, to tell her peers that they couldn’t be included because they didn’t meet the criteria. This was not something that needed to be asked of her; she took it on because she knew it had to be done.

For as long as I’ve been involved in the CCAs, there has been an Annual General Meeting which all members of the community who are registered to vote are invited to attend. It is also streamed over the Internet. The purpose of the AGM is for the Chair of the Awards & Nominations Committee to hear criticisms and suggestions directly from the community. These are then used to inform what proposals that committee will make to the Board of Directors. It is the one place where anyone who has any stake whatsoever in the CCAs is guaranteed to have their voice be heard. No other platform – not a blog like this, not a Facebook status update, not the back of a bar – can guarantee that those voices are heard.

However, without a standardized annual budget, it is impossible to ensure that action is taken on every great idea suggested by the community.

Therefore, recently, the CCAs introduced an annual membership fee for anyone who wishes to submit to or vote in any of the industry-only categories. The reason for this fee is simple. The trajectory of the CCAs cannot be maintained without it.

In 2009, Harry Doupe produced a great awards ceremony at the Imperial Theatre in Saint John. In 2010 and 2011, he did the same at the Isabel Bader Theatre in Toronto. This past year, Gary Rideout, Jr. produced a great ceremony at the Royal York Hotel, a landmark hotel in our country.

In 2013, the CCAs are going to Ottawa. Ottawa fought other cities in order to bring the CCAs to their city.

In short, we’ve outgrown our baby shoes.

No one should be expected to volunteer hours upon hours upon hours (of lost time and, therefore, lost income) ensuring that hundreds of submissions adhere to the criteria of the categories to which they’ve been submitted.

No one should be expected to use their domicile as the headquarters for a national awards process.

No one should be expected to go into personal debt to ensure that an artist’s airfare has been paid or suffer the community’s wrath when they correct other people’s mistakes.

Will there always be challenges? Yes.

Will there always be failures? Of course.

Does any one person have a monopoly on integrity? No, that is impossible.

Will we always all agree on the best course of action? No. Because we’re artists, not robots.

Whether they know it or not – whether YOU know it or not – every comedy artist in Canada has the opportunity to contribute to this organization. The CCAs are not our community. To mistake it as such would be foolish. They represent our community. And every comedy artist in Canada has the opportunity to be transformed by their community in ways that could astonish them.

Every comedy artist in Canada also has the opportunity to do nothing, to sit in the cheap seats, heckling those whose heads are actually in the game.

That is the choice.

I’ve made mine.

Simon Fraser
Voting Member
2013 Canadian Comedy Awards

(Please feel free to leave a comment below if you’d like. They’re moderated only to prevent spam postings for brand name knock-off’s and poorly-designed porn sites. I don’t reject comments simply because I might disagree with the opinions they express.)

 

6 thoughts on “We’ve Outgrown Our Baby Shoes

  1. Denis McGrath (@heywriterboy)

    Good for you Simon. Really interesting read. Canadians like to bitch; but many don’t like to do, much, ever. But bitching? Oh Lordy, were there an award for that, the nomination cup would runneth over.

    It is always easier to fling arrows than to try and build something up. And anyone who does so without trying to help, to be part of the process, and to make a positive contribution — well, that’s the exchange rate at which their complaints should be considered.

    Here’s to those who find the generous spirit within themselves to celebrate the efforts of others, without it feeling like a part of you is dying. That burning ember in the throat poisons many of us…I’m tremendously happy that you too found a way to exorcise it.

    Best.

  2. Peter Cianfarani

    Well put Simon. Having sat in on the town hall meetings in the past and being able to contribute, I can honestly say I felt like I was listened to. I even proposed things that were immediately rejected, only to learn at these meetings that the same ideas were attempted in the past and proved not to work as well as what replaced them.

    As Denis says, it is easy to condemn. It requires less energy and never needs to be advanced. It is much harder to build, fail, de-construct and build again. Kudos to those of you on the CCA’s various committee’s for choosing to the latter. I can’t speak for everyone but I think I speak for a large number when I say we truly appreciate your efforts. You give us a goal, something to reach for. Whether we win, lose or are even nominated, just attempting to reach that goal makes us better.

    Thank you for helping make me better.

  3. Marcel

    Thanks for this, Simon.

    As someone who’s known you for 20+ yrs, your work ethic (not to mention your talent) has always inspired me. That you’ve realized your faults (real or perceived) and can acknowledge that you’ve grown and will continue to grow as a person, is equally inspiring.

    It could have been easy in light of the criticisms of the last few days/weeks to throw your hands up in the air and let someone else worry about all of this. But you’ve chosen to stick with the CCAs, not because it’s going to be easy, but because you – like others – believe in them.

    There will never be a day when there isn’t SOMEONE bitching in our weird little tribe of lovable, misfit idiots. Same can be said of the Geminis, the Junos, The Emmys, The Oscars, or any possible awards you can think of.

    I’m glad the questions of integrity and transparency in the CCAs have come up. This shows people DO care. And I do think some people should NOT in fact be on the board as voting members if indeed it did place them in conflict… or even a perceived conflict.

    But I for one would like to stand up and say that, despite the problems and mistakes of the past or present, the CCAs are important to me, as a Canadian comic and I believe they are important to the fabric of comedy within Canada.

    It’s important that the CCAs grow, and that they grow in a way that inspires past, present and future winners to contribute, to be a part of the process, and to feel that the award MEANS something.

    Anyway, I’m rambling. The bottom line is that I’m thanking you, and Tim, and the Board, and everybody every year who goes out of their way to give their time, talent and energy for these awards for no gain other than wanting to give something back to a community and a group of art forms that makes them happy and gives them purpose during their stay on this insane planet.

    Should the CCA team be allowed to grow the organization and awards to the point where they might stand to make a salary? Hell yes.

    Please DO continue to strive to keep the process transparent. And please DO let the community know what we need to do to help you – and future Canadian Comedy Awards – happening.

    m

  4. Don Ferguson

    Simon, thanks for this expression of passionate commitment. I agree wholeheartedly with everything you say, and wish that I’d read it without letting two weeks go by. I also wish that every member of the comedy community in this country would read and heed your words. In order to grow the business of doing comedy in Canada – in other words, to grow the ability of comedy practitioners to earn a living making comedy in this country – we need what the CCAs are spearheading, namely a full-time professional lobbying effort to represent and focus Canadian comedy workers’ interests and views. I urge everyone who has an interest in comedy in this country to join up, pay up, and look to the future.

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