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“I would call the record moody.”
It’s perhaps not the first word that springs to mind when promoting a comedy album. But given that Calgary stand-up comedian Victoria Banner’s debut record is actually called I Hate Stand-Up, it’s safe to assume she has no qualms about bucking tradition when it comes to performances. Last year, Banner performed a half-hour set in an episode of Comedy Invasion, a Canadian series that highlights diverse artists in the comedy scene. She noticed that much of the leftover material that didn’t make it in the special was decidedly darker in tone. So she went with it.
“It made me laugh, because I knew I was going to put it on a record and I’m a big, dark-wave, ’80s goth fan,” says Banner. “So I was like ‘What if I choose the rest of my jokes that are gothy, death-(obsessed), depressive and put them together for another half hour?”
Recorded in June at cSpace in Calgary, I Hate Stand-Up is scheduled to hit streaming services on Oct. 13. It’s not depressing, of course. But there does seem to be some flagrant rule-breaking in the first few minutes. Banner bursts on stage with something she calls “Hello Neckbeard,” a very meta opening that finds her singing about how she is recording an album in front of all her friends but the only people who will listen to it online will be her “enemies.” “Hello Neckbeard, who is on a podcast and wants a fortune to try and prove that women aren’t funny!” she shouts. She then launches into a self-deprecating tale about a recent breakup.
“Usually on an album, you’re supposed to do polished material you’ve been doing for 10 (expletive) years,” she explains to the audience. “Nope, telling a story that happened last week.”
Through her rapid-fire delivery, she covers everything from her dysfunctional relationship with her father, COVID-19 deaths, contemplating her own death, the lyrics to Death Cab for Cutie songs, paranormal TV shows, the death of singer-songwriter Warren Zevon and, finally, her own experiences with mental illness and cognitive behavioural therapy.
“I think it’s super funny to pick darker emotions and laugh at just how bad things have gotten and know that everybody is in it together,” she says. “It’s got that graveside humour that touches on the pandemic and touches on a lot of mental-health stuff. That’s my big thing. Even though I’m a female comedian, I’ve had people say that I’m not doing female comedy in the same way you would expect to see the girls’ night, Mamma-Mia brand and I’m not doing queer comedy in the way you would expect to see at a drag show. But I do mental-health comedy.”
Banner, who is bisexual and suffers from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, has been honing her stand-up for the past decade. But releasing an indie comedy album, which is a bit of a rarity these days, is all part of a decision she made five years ago to stubbornly blaze her own trail in the comedy world. Ever since she first heard her mother’s George Carlin album, she knew she wanted to do stand-up and she found some early success that included competing in the SiriusXM Top Comic competition and landing spots in comedy festivals. In 2014, she received a grant from Calgary Arts Development to study comedy at in Chicago.
But she says she now realizes her first five years of comedy had her trying too hard to fit into a mould and following bad advice, all in an attempt to offer comedy that was “super relatable.”
“Before 2017, I used to really compete,” she says. “I used to try and get up at Yuk Yuks every single week. I used to try and get up at The Laugh Shop every single week. I would host at the Comedy Cave and stuff like that. I realized I wasn’t clicking with these people. So post-2017, that’s when I started producing my own shows.”
But prior to that, Banner also suffered a mental health crisis that she says was at least partially brought upon by career frustration.
“A bunch of terrible things happened at the same time,” she says. “My mental health was just a house of cards. I ran out of money, there were some deaths in the family. I didn’t know how to behave as a human being so they tossed me in the back of a cop car kicking and screaming to the hospital, the Rockyview. I spent months doing cognitive behavioural therapy on the psyche ward.”
It led to her restructuring her life and comedy, finding what she calls an “alternative niche of people who actually do like me.”
“I came out (of the hospital) and was like ‘OK, maybe I’m a little different than your average bear but we can still work with it,” she says.
Banner has made appearances at both Femme Wave and Big Winter Classic while hosting her own theatre shows. In May 2022, she began co-curating The Laugh Loft every Sunday night at The Attic in Inglewood with comedian and drag queen Karla Marx. The show is meant to highlight queer and female comedians and risk-taking is encouraged.
“We want them to feel comfortable, not only in doing well but also in failing, too,” says Banner. “A big thing I encountered was that if you’re a marginalized comedian, you get one shot to represent your entire type of marginalized comedy. So if someone has a pre-conceived notion that women are not funny and you do good nine times in a row and then you do bad one time, you affirm that person’s belief and then you just don’t get any more chances.”
She alternates hosting duties with Marx at the Attic. Both have years of experience hosting comedy nights and performing stand-up and have confidence that they can carry a show.
“We just tell all the amazing female, queer comedians that we work with: ‘Swing for the fences, take that risk,’ ” Banner says. ” ‘I don’t care if it bombs or not, because we’re going to rescue the show for you and we’re going to give you as many chances as you need.’ It’s been absolutely incredible to see all of the comedians we work with not doing derivative, safe material but doing boundary-pushing material that actually has artistic merit to it and allows them to safely express what they want to express and get it to the point where it’s funny. Our shows absolutely are funny. When I say people are safe to fail, they don’t fail as much when they are safe to fail.”
I Hate Stand-Up will be on all streaming services on Oct. 13. The Laugh Loft takes place every Sunday at the Attic. Visit vbcreates.ca.