When Toronto comic Jeff Paul comes home to Niagara-on-the-Lake for the 10th anniversary of the Icebreakers Comedy Festival, those attending the shows he has organized can count on lots of laughs.
For the last 10 years, he has arranged successful, sold-out comedy events for his hometown, where he and the comics he brings with him love to perform.
Paul, a St. Michael and Niagara District Secondary School grad, says he looks forward to getting out of the big city, where he performs regularly, to instead tell jokes in front of family, friends and the visitors who come for the Icewine Festival. He always has fun while he’s here, and he makes sure the comics he lines up for three hilarious nights and four shows also have a good time.
During the rest of the year, when Paul performs at festivals and comedy clubs, he says he begins making a mental list, then an actual list of comics he thinks will be a good fit in NOTL. When it’s time to reach out to those on the top of his list, he just has to hope they’re available.
He describes the end of January as the perfect time for that.
Early in the New Year, he says, when people are on a “healthcare blitz,” feeling like they’ve had too much to eat and drink, too much partying and spent too much money, they swear off all the excesses of the holiday season and stay home.
But then the need to get out builds up throughout the month, as the health kick wears off and New Year’s resolutions are mostly in the past, “and there isn’t much going on anywhere else,” says Paul. That makes the comedy festival in NOTL look pretty attractive for locals, visitors from around the region and tourists, especially from the U.S.
It also is planned to coincide with the Icewine Festival, which attracts visitors to town who are looking for evening entertainment.
That’s how the Icebreakers Comedy Festival began, he says, with the help of two of his high school friends, Maria Mavridis and Tim Balasiuk. Paul’s wife, Kyra Williams, is also a huge help — he describes her as “the glue that holds this together.”
While the comedy festival coincides with the Chamber’s icewine celebration, “it has always been an independent event, and even if there was no Icewine Festival, we’d still be doing this.”
He’s also had support from his friend Paul Harber of Ravine Vineyard Estates Winery — he has held some shows there — as well as from the MacNeill family from Niagara Oast House Brewers, also a great venue for comedy.
This year the festival opens Thursday, Jan. 25, and the first show is almost sold out. Locals hoping to see Joe Pillitteri emceeing at Oast better get their tickets soon. The line-up for that event includes Tamara Shevon and headliner Darrin Rose, one of the country’s best TV and film stars, including appearances on The Late Late Show on CBS.
It’s not difficult convincing some of the best comedians in the country, those who perform at all the major comedy festivals, in film and on TV, to come to Niagara-on-the-Lake, he says. It’s a beautiful town that has much to offer visitors, and he makes sure they see the best of it. And in return, while they’re here, they will do their best work because they’re having fun themselves.
“I’ve worked with most of them throughout the year,” says Paul about this year’s line-up, and some are friends of his. A few have performed at past Icebreaker’s Festivals, but most will be here for the first time.
“The better time you show them, the better the show they give you. We put them up somewhere nice, feed them well and they give us a great show.”
They stay at Colonel Butler Inn, mostly eat at the Sandtrap Pub and Grill right down the street, and can spend some time checking out the Icewine Festival.
“They like the whole experience, and I Iike giving them that experience.”
Paul still has a day job as a program coordinator at CTV, which he jokes about being “an 18-year entry level position,” but says it is perfect for him — he can work from home, and it allows him to pursue his main focus, which is performing by night at comedy festivals and clubs.
Although some audience members will go to see a particular comic they like to see, one they may watch for or follow from one club to another, in his experience, Paul says, it’s typical for people to choose shows for their venue, rather than the comics performing.
This year, he is particularly pleased with the performers he is bringing to town for the 10th anniversary. “It’s a big milestone, and we have an amazing line-up of great comics. That’s why people keep coming back. They may not know the comics by name, but we’ve earned their trust. They know I bring great comics who put on great shows. And we have to appeal to a wide range of ages, from teenagers to seniors, and build their trust so that they know we’re going to bring them something new and something they’ll enjoy.”
The Pillitteri opening at Oast will be followed by two shows Friday at Corks Winebar and Eatery, the first with comic Sandra Battaglini hosting, and Ian Gordon, Jean Paul and Rob Bebenek performing.
Following that is the Meltdown, the late-night show at Corks, with its “dark and often dirty content.” It’s billed on the festival website as “our very own foul-mouthed festival founder Jeff Paul” hosting a “line-up of degenerates, including Rebecca Reeds, Nick Reynoldson and Hunter Collin.”
The final show, the CBC Radio Gala, is at the Court House Saturday night. It is again being recorded for CBC’s Laugh Out Loud, with the popular radio show’s host Ali Hassan emceeing the line-up of some of Canada’s top comedians, including Lianne Mauladin, Gavin Stephens, Tom Henry, Allie Pearse, Keith Pedro and Matt Wright. The gala tickets also always sell out quickly, says Paul.
Tickets for all shows are available at www.icebreakerscomedy.com/shows.