Democratizing the Stand-Up Stage

Category: community 453

How a group of local comics began hosting regular comedy nights in their garage. 

Matt Carter 
A crowd gathers for another evening of comedy with the Labour Union. Their first ticketed event is coming up on September 25.

I was aimlessly scrolling through my work Instagram feed one day when I came across a photo that caught my attention. The image was taken looking into a crowded single car garage on a dim summer’s evening. The main door was open and between the silhouetted outlines of people standing around looking inside, I could see a seated audience and what looked to be a performer of some kind standing on a makeshift stage in the corner of the room. My first thought was how captivating this simple image was to me. What was happening? What was everybody looking at? My photographer brain also thought this would be a fun image to recreate in a higher resolution for no other reason than to try and capture the way I felt when I first saw it. I was intrigued, to say the least.

The picture was posted to the account @labourunionnb with the quote, “What an amazing turnout we had last Saturday! However, we wanted YOU to be in our audience! Oh well, maybe on August 7th.” This of course led me to wonder, who the hell is the Labour Union and how can I be in their audience for the 7th, which was only a few days from the time I was reading their post. 

The Labour Union’s Instagram account has them listed as being a Fredericton based comedy collective/club. Scrolling through the other images posted to this account, I recognised a few of the people on that tiny corner stage, but had no idea these acquaintances of mine were into stand-up comedy. Curious to learn more, I reached out to ask about the next show. “Can I come??” I wrote. “Please!” came their reply. I was pumped, and maybe a bit nervous. What did I just commit to? 

So far, Labour Union’s bi-monthly comedy nights have all been pay-what-you-wish.

Another reason why I was so curious to attend one of these events had to do with the location. Sure, the shows take place in a garage, but that garage is located somewhere down the Doak Road in a very rural part of the city. In Fredericton-speak, we’d say, “It’s out behind the Co-op on the Vanier,” meaning the Fredericton Direct Charge Co-op visible from the Vanier Highway, a section of the main road connecting Fredericton with the neighbouring town of Oromocto. It is just about as rural as you can get and still be within the city limits, and it is a strange place for anything to be happening, really. 

As it turned out, I wasn’t able to make the show on the 7th. Then came the next show two weeks later and again, I had all the intentions in the world to go but couldn’t get myself off the couch by showtime. Truth be told, I may have just chickened out. As a forty-something white guy with a sometimes dangerous sense of curiosity, I often worry about coming across as a creep or just being the old guy in the room. Especially in a situation like this where I was essentially committing to go hang out with a group of strangers in their garage surrounded by an audience of people I have probably never met. When I was younger I went to a lot of similar styled events to watch bands playing in church basements and warehouses. We always figured the oldest person in the room was a narc. Nobody wants to be labeled a narc just for going out to enjoy themselves. Not even a narc. And especially not me. I can be fearless at times, but this wasn’t one of those occasions. 

Eventually, my FOMO did get the best of me and I decided I would go to the September 4 show no matter what. 

“If you don’t hear from me in a few hours, call the police.”

The 4th came and I thought about the show that entire day, cycling back and forth between nervous excitement and straight-up anxiety. But I didn’t chicken out this time. Somewhere around 8:15, my partner was on the couch ready for a night of Netflix and our son was fast asleep. As I prepared to leave I resisted saying something along the lines of, “If you don’t hear from me in a few hours, call the police.” Instead I feigned confidence and simply said, “I’m going to check out that comedy thing. I’ll be back.”

The Doak Road is dark at night. There are no street lights, and it is a bumpy ride with trees and brush creeping in from both sides making the roadway feel a lot narrower than it probably is in the daylight. I was looking for 330 but could not see any of the house numbers. Late summer evenings can sometimes be as dark as they will get by 8:30. It was 8:35.  

The garage.

It wasn’t long before I saw a set of small traffic cones along the edge of an approaching driveway. I slowed down and as I passed, there it was – the garage from the photograph. I also noticed a large parking lot across the street which appeared to double as guest parking for night. I turned around and found a spot to park next to a growing line of vehicles. After taking a quick look through my camera bag to make sure I brought everything I needed, I made my way to the garage. 

There were only a handful of people there. A man in a toga was dancing alone near the stage. A DJ was playing African pop music. I could see the P.A. was a mic plugged into a Marshall guitar amp. A table was set up mid-way through the driveway with a sign-up sheet for new comics, and a pink ceramic piggy bank for visitor donations. As I approached the garage I was greeted by two of the evening’s hosts, Dawson Gorham and Collin Flanagan, who were more than eager to talk about the Labour Union, their love of comedy and how they turned the garage at 330 Doak Road into a performance space that exists somewhere between the all ages venues of my punk rock youth and a pre-COVID house concert – an ideal setting for a listening audience and a performer to engage with one another.

Flanagan told me he got into comedy while living in St. John’s. He found the stand-up community in that city to be very welcoming so when he ended up back in Fredericton, he wanted to find a way to share the same type of encouragement he received during his first few appearances on stage. 

“There is a super good community for comedy in St. John’s,” Flanagan told me. “Everybody is very helpful. When I came back here I found people to be super into stand-up and helpful but just not in the same way like, they probably wouldn’t pull you aside and tell you what you did right or tell you what you could have done differently.”

“It’s the safest place in town to get on stage for the first time. Since we started doing these shows, people we know who we thought would never have an interest in trying comedy have either got on stage or told us they would like to try being part of a show in the future.”

Gorham lives at 330 Doak Road. After he and Flanagan and a few of their friends decided to host their first show as the Labour Union, they spent about two weeks getting the garage ready. Lots of cleaning, a stage was built, and several lawn chairs were gathered to create this makeshift club atmosphere. Calling what they do a comedy club might be a bit of an exaggeration. The Labour Union’s shows are basically private parties where everyone is welcome. There is no bar and no cover charge. Visitors are encouraged to pay what they wish and there is no reserved seating. It is a very simple format – show up, be respectful, be encouraging and have fun. And every show concludes with a hang around the fire pit.

“People can come and try doing stand-up for the first time,” said Gorham. “It’s the safest place in town to get on stage for the first time. Since we started doing these shows, people we know who we thought would never have an interest in trying comedy have either got on stage or told us they would like to try being part of a show in the future.”

But the Labour Union is more than just a stage for would-be comics. By hosting occasional off-night get togethers, or workshops, where novice comics can try their material before a group of their peers, Gorham, Flanagan and their Labour Union pals are helping to create an encouraging environment where new comics can develop their material, gain confidence and receive feedback on their craft in a space free from heckling critics or egos of any kind.

Performers parading into the “club” at the start of the show.

“At these workshops, we’ll get people to bring what they’ve been writing and then they’ll go up on the mic and just say it,” said Flanagan. “We tell them, ‘you’re not going to get the laughs here that you will at a show, but if you can get through your stuff in front of 5, 6, or 7 people and there’s some laughs, you’re going to kill it at the show.’”

Ashley Crouse was one of nine comedians performing that night. It was her first time doing comedy before an audience. She had attended one of the Labour Union’s workshops and was excited to get on stage.

“I usually just use jokes as a way to pass time or awkwardness at work and social events,” she said. “I wasn’t sure whether or not I would even be perceived as funny before trying to write jokes for the first time. I was at the third show discussing my simultaneous interest and apprehension, and one of the performers who had gone on that night told me I should just do it and that it would be fun. So I signed up. 

Dawson, Collin, and all of the performers are so nice and approachable which really helped me gain the confidence to give it a try,” said Crouse. “When I attended one of their workshops they gave me really positive and constructive feedback which helped subside a lot of my anxiety leading up to show day.

Collin Flanagan welcomes the audience to the fourth Labour Union Comedy Night.

“It’s hard to describe how kind and inviting both the cast and the audience is,” she said. “There are always first-time or relatively new comics going up, and the setting is so supportive for newcomers. It’s all much less intimidating when you realize that no one is attending these shows to heckle or boo you. They actually come because they want to laugh. Everyone has a different sense of what is funny, so you’re almost guaranteed to get at least one person laughing with your brand of comedy. It genuinely is an everyone-welcome deal.”

My pre-show conversation with Gorham and Flanagan became increasingly difficult as more people began to arrive. I found it quite inspiring to watch as one or the other would step away from our chat to welcome friends and new faces to the yard. They wanted to greet everyone and by this point the garage was filling up. The guy who was dancing near the stage – the guy in the toga – he was now pacing back and forth from the stage to the door and looked as though he was in deep thought.

“That’s Leonce [Sindahebura]. This is going to be his second time up,” said Flanagan. “He’s going first because he wasn’t proud of the stuff he did last time. He did really well, especially for his first time. He’s going to do the same set this time but he’s hungry for it right now. It’s awesome to see.”  

As the group of performers begin to gather near the front of the garage, I stepped back and took it all in. The buzz was palpable. Lots of smiling faces. Everyone seemed genuinely excited to get the show started. Minutes later, the music changes, someone shouts, “Let’s do this!” and one by one, the evening’s entertainers begin dancing their way through the cheering crowd to gather at the front of the room. After a welcoming round of applause, all but Flanagan exit through the stage door. Left alone, he stepped forward and took the mic in his hand. 

“What the fuck’s up everybody?”

Another Labour Union show was underway. 

Upcoming Performances:

September 18 
September 25

Find them on Instagram for full details. 

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