The world’s first queer performance festival returns to it’s original home in Toronto June 3-6, 2020 at the Buddies In Bad Times Theatre to benefit the We’re Funny That Way Foundation.

ABOUT THE FESTIVAL

The we’re funny that way® festival began in 1996, co-founded by activist (ex-lawyer), performer, writer, producer, and stand-up comic Maggie Cassella and filmmaker David Adkin.  It was the first international queer comedy festival in the world.

Over the years the festival has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for queer charities across Canada (go here to see who we’ve helped) and helped launch queer entertainers’ careers in the process.  

Here’s a great article written by Chanel Klein for CBC about the festival:

This festival boosted gay comedians when nobody else would

We’re Funny That Way billed itself as the world’s first international queer comedy festival in 1996.

Maggie Cassella co-produced the We’re Funny That Way festival. (Josh Fee)

Before Ellen Degeneres, Rosie O’Donnell, Neil Patrick Harris or Wanda Sykes came out, representation of openly queer comedians was rare. Being “outed” as gay could destroy an entertainer’s career and comedy clubs weren’t welcoming spaces for queer comedians.

One festival broke that mould in 1996 by offering a lineup full of queer performers at Toronto’s Buddies in Bad Times Theatre – it billed itself as the world’s first international queer comedy festival. Produced by comedic performer and former lawyer Maggie Cassella, the We’re Funny That Way festival showcases queer talent with a fundraising gala and three nights of queer comedy, improv, drag and music.

It’s where CBC Radio’s Gavin Crawford got a big break in the early years of the festival. It hosted queer comedy pioneers like Scott Thompson, Kate Clinton, Karen Williams and the late Bob Smith. After taking a hiatus in 2011, the festival returns again to provide a platform for new queer talent.

Lawyer turned comedian

When the AIDS hysteria was at its height, Maggie Cassella worked as an openly lesbian civil rights lawyer in Hartford, Connecticut. Hartford was a staunchly conservative city – marchers in the city’s first pride parades wore bags over their heads to conceal their identity.

Maggie refused to hide. She was outspoken: dealing with cases involving gay adoption, trans marriage and taking on clients with AIDS. “I was trying to help queers navigate a system that didn’t allow for us to be married or divorced or any of that stuff,” says Maggie.

Despite Cassella’s natural sense of humour and public speaking experience, being a comedian never crossed her mind. That was until Lea DeLaria (Orange is the New Black) discovered Cassella while she was speaking at the Hartford Gay & Lesbian Pride event in 1988.

“She was like, ‘You’re funny, you’re going to do stand up,'” recalls Cassella. “When Lea DeLaria says you’re gonna do something, you just do it.”

Washington, D.C.: Maggie Cassella takes the stage at the 1993 ‘March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation.’ (C-SPAN 1)

Cassella calls her style “news-comedy”: she’d open the newspaper, pick a story and take jabs at it. Comedy became another way for her to “speak for people in a setting where people aren’t speaking for them and point out stuff that people aren’t talking about.”

Your words have meaning and power.– Maggie Cassella on being a comedian.

After performing a set in Lea DeLaria’s hometown of Provincetown, Massachusetts, DeLaria encouraged Cassella to start producing her own events.

So, she did. Because when Lea DeLaria tells you to do something, you do it.

Maggie Cassella and Lea DeLaria frequently collaborate on creative projects. (Facebook)

David Adkin’s documentary

When Cassella moved to Toronto in the mid-90s, she began producing the NAFTA Cabaret – a monthly event that billed itself as the “U.S./Canadian exchange of gay comics.”

Every show featured two queer comedians—one American, one Canadian—at the Buddies in Bad Times Theatre at original George Street location. Kids In the Hall actor-writer Scott Thompson performed at a NAFTA Cabaret in 1995.

Shortly after that, filmmaker David Adkin approached Cassella with an idea. He was looking to do a documentary about the burgeoning queer comedy scene. Together, they co-produced the International Queer Comedy Festival in 1996 for Adkin’s documentary We’re Funny That Way.

(Video contains mature content.)

The documentary captures performances by the late Bob Smith and Steve Moore. Elvira Kurt, Karen Williams, Kate Clinton and Lea DeLaria also share screen time in the 90-minute film.

“We can say with about 99.9% certainty probably the largest gay and lesbian comedy event in the world,” says Cassella while addressing the audience in the documentary.

Stand-up comedy wasn’t the only act on the lineup. Audiences saw spoken word, dance, music and sketch comedy at the festival. The wild variety of queer performers proved to be a hit. Cassella recalls the lineups going around the block outside the Buddies in Bad Times Theatre: “It was crazy. People were very excited to see something they just haven’t seen all in one place.”

The original performers from the first We’re Funny That Way pose with festival co-producer Maggie Cassella (bottom left). (David Adkin)

We’re Funny That Way

After the documentary was released, Cassella continued to produce the festival under the name We’re Funny That Way.

Years after his first performance at We’re Funny That Way, Gavin Crawford became a regular cast member on ‘This Hour Has 22 Minutes.’ (CBC)

“Back then, ‘we’re funny that way,’ was a pejorative. ‘He’s funny that way,’ or, ‘She’s funny that way,’ is something they used to say about someone in the family… it meant queer,” says Cassella. “We were taking back the offensive little cliche.”

Enter Gavin Crawford: a 24-year-old character comedian living in Toronto’s gay village in the mid-90s. Crawford came across a poster for the second annual We’re Funny That Way festival while walking around the Church-Wellesley area.

A gay comedy festival? He had to check it out. More importantly, he wondered if the organizer of the event had any advice on how to “be queer and do comedy,” as Crawford recalls. “At the time, there was no queer comedy scene… 20 years ago, it was a big deal for me to do stand up and be out.”

He sent a tape of his material and a letter asking for advice to Cassella’s address in Toronto.

Instead of giving him advice, Cassella booked Crawford for the big festival gala.

“I had no idea what I was doing… Just walking out on that stage and having that huge crowd go nuts was such a crazy feeling.”

It was a pivotal moment for Crawford’s early career: sitting in the audience of the Buddies In Bad Times Theatre was his future talent agent. He recalls seeing the late Bob Smith perform and he opened for Lea DeLaria.  “It was an amazing experience for me as a 24-year old kid who’s just starting out in comedy to be suddenly thrust in that environment.”

He’s remained a regular performer at the festival since those early days: “To say that We’re Funny That Way festival has been good and a seminal piece of my history is a large understatement.”

Transformation

After 15 years, Cassella took a break from producing the festival. Seeing the queer comedy scene flourish and grow, she questioned if a queer showcase was as necessary now as it was in the mid-90s. After taking a hiatus, the festival returned in 2017.

“I think we have to transform, there are a lot of queer comics [now],” says Cassella. Boosting more intersectional perspectives outside the white queer experience is a part of that transformation.

Cassella booked producer-comedian Brandon Ash-Mohammed and his show The Ethnic Rainbow, “Canada’s first & only comedy show showcasing LGBTQ2S+ comedians of colour.”

Brandon Ash-Mohammed’s The Ethnic Rainbow show made its festival debut at We’re Funny That Way 2019. (Sylvia Pereria)

“There had literally never been a space for QPOC (queer people of colour) to do comedy in Canada,” says Ash-Mohammed over an email. As a QPOC, he describes feeling out of place at queer comedy shows as a person of colour (POC). When he performed at POC shows, he didn’t fit in because he would be the only queer comedian. “I felt a sorta disconnect with those spaces because of that. They weren’t my true home.”

The festival’s big ticket variety show gala continues to support the We’re Funny That Way Foundation – a charity that raises money for queer charities across Canada. 

NOTE: Shows will be added to the schedule as talent is booked and tix will be available for shows as soon as talent is locked in. So keep checking back because the theatre is intimate and tix will go fast.  Our gala fundraiser is on Wednesday, June 3.  Festival shows are Thursday June 4, Friday June 5, and Saturday June 6.