Yuk Yuk's Ottawa Manager Howard Wagman is trying to provide a laugh at a time when most residents feel they could use one.
Now that COVID-19 public health restrictions have eased enough to allow patio dining, he's decided to launch a standup comedy series on the rooftop of the Trattoria Caffe Italia on Preston Street.
“I always wanted to work in an Italian restaurant,” Wagman jokes. “Food and nurturing new comedians are my two biggest passions.”
And it's something he's been doing with remarkable skill for 45 years, to become one of the most influential impresarios in Canadian comedy.
Now 62, Wagman was only 16 when he started working in his uncle Mark Breslin's original Yuk Yuk's club in Toronto, learning the ropes of managing a club.
In 1984, Breslin sent Wagman to Ottawa to open the club in the old Beacon Arms, later the Capital Hill hotel. The club proved so popular, he stayed for 25 years before moving the club to Elgin Street and then closing it during the pandemic.
“It was a hit from day one,” Wagman recalls. “There were no comedy clubs in Canada before us. It was all new. And people in Ottawa were hungry for it.”
More importantly, the club became a hub for aspiring comedians; a place where young performers could see more seasoned comedians, learn their craft and perform in front of live audiences.
Within five years of opening, Yuk Yuk's was at the epicentre of an incredibly robust comedy scene. Local boys such as Jeremy Hotz, Tom Green and Jon Dore were on their way to becoming national headliners, appearing at Just For Laughs and on television. It was also a second home for more established funnymen like Mike MacDonald, and soon-to-be stars like Gerry Dee, Don Kelly, Dan Viola, Wafik Nasralla and Jon Steinberg.
“We've developed amazing talent here over the years,” Wagman says. “If Yuk Yuk's wasn't here, those guys wouldn't have had a place to learn their craft. They would have had to leave town, or get a job with the government.”
Ironically, Wagman never wanted to do stand-up comedy himself, preferring to leave that to others.
“The biggest phobia most people have is speaking in front of an audience, but for most comedians, that's the only phobia they don't have,” he explains. “That's not me. I was always the guy who liked to surround himself with more extroverted entertainers.”
Not surprisingly, Wagman has a lot of stories to tell. He remembers the afternoon in 1981 when George Carlin called, asking if he could do a set. Wagman thought it was a practical joke, but at 10 p.m., Carlin was at the club, where he did an outstanding half-hour set before spending the rest of the evening, and most of the next morning smoking joints backstage in the green room with star-struck comedians.
Then, there was the night when a young Robin Williams interrupted his set by jumping on a table in the audience and performing a scene from Hamlet.
More recently, Black, conservative, Trump-supporting identical twin brothers called The Hodgetwins caused pandemonium at the Ottawa club, drawing an audience that was equal portions urban Black hipsters and right-wing White conservatives.
“There are a lot of ups and downs in comedy but it always comes back and reinvents itself,” Wagman says. “It's a place where people take risks and break down social barriers. So many people want to be comedians now. Young teens, aboriginal and ethnic, big time. It's becoming very diverse.”
In the meantime, Wagman has no plans to retire. He's planning to write a book about Canadian comedy and open a new Yuk Yuk's club.
His advice for anyone who wants to try stand-up?
“Don't quit your day job, and you better love it,” he intones with his 45-years of experience. “Stand-up is all about repetition. We have a cliche saying, 'You haven't done it once until you've done it 100 times,' because it's true -- you're going to be in a different mood in front of a different audience. Sometimes you'll kill and sometimes you're going to bomb. Keep going until you build a 45-minute set. You can't make any money until you do that.”
Every Friday and Saturday night until Labour Day, comedians Alex Woods, Rob Prue, Kyle Brownrigg, Tommy Marshall, Chris Quigley, Nick Beaton and Bobby Knauff are performing two shows on the rooftop of the Trattoria Caffe Italia on Preston Street to give fans some much-needed laughs. For more information, visit yukyuks.com/ottawa.