‘Extraordinary Person’ Visas and the Plight of Canadian Comedians

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At some point, every comic serious about their career makes the move to either New York or Los Angeles. Some are lucky enough to grow up in one of the two cities, but the majority of comics migrate there. Their stories are generally pretty similar: drive across the country, rent a brutal apartment in a terrible neighborhood, and start from scratch. It’s an enormous sacrifice, but it’s part of the process. For Canadian comics, however, the situation is more complicated. When your friends from the great white north decide that this is how they want to earn their living, they can’t just saunter across the border into New York to tell jokes.

Canadian comics have an entirely different and painfully frustrating set of legal hoops to navigate. For starters, they have to plan this out well in advance because before they can even book a ticket, comics need to pitch themselves to an immigration official. Preparing the documentation itself can take around 6 months. That official will then decide whether the comic is deserving of the title ’extraordinary person.’ The fee for that ego boosting privilege ranges anywhere from $5,000 to $25,000. My parents’ escape from the Soviet Union in the mid ‘80s was way less expensive and time-consuming. So, is Canada so bad that people are willing to plot for half a year and spend $25,000 to leave? Well, sort of.

“They have all the jobs here.” says Darrin Rose, the former host of Canada’s Match Game and a recent visa recipient. “Once you’re playing all the clubs in Canada, and doing theatres, there’s no next step. Norm Macdonald said this to me: ‘We don’t have show business in Canada, you just play all the clubs and then start over to do it all again, so you keep going in a circle forever.’ There’s also this weird thing where Canadians don’t really respect you unless you leave. Canadians love nothing more than a comedian who’s left the country. They go, ‘oh well he must’ve been great if he left!’ which is such a weird low self-esteem thing that we have.”

We have an enormous inferiority complex when it comes to American media. We like our hockey, but we love your television shows. On a whole, we just assume our programming is worse. We have a national broadcaster, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, that might be full of quality content, but no one watches it. Canadians only tune into the CBC on Saturday nights when it airs the longest-running weekly TV program ever created, Hockey Night in Canada. Ratings for HNIC are so high that it generates more than half of the CBC’s annual advertising income. One night of hockey per week keeps our national broadcasting corporation afloat.

We also have Much Music, our homegrown equivalent to MTV, where the show Video on Trial has become a showcase for Canada’s top comedians. Exceptionally talented Canadian comedians like Sabrina Jalees and Debra DiGiovanni have used it as a jumping off point to quickly gain national attention and flee for the US.

“The thing that shocks me the most now that I’m in the US is that you meet people who have their own shows, or specials or whatever, and they’ve only been doing comedy for a short period, like four years,” says DiGiovanni. “That’s the difference between America and Canada. That’s why Canadians have to move to America. I’m at 14 years now and I should have my own show, but there’s no chance to have one in Toronto. If I could work in Toronto, I would, I love Toronto. We all did Video on Trial. If that show was in America, with how popular it was in Canada, we’d be millionaires now and I’d have a spin-off show. They’re not stupid here, they go, here’s a really popular show, let’s do something with this! At Video on Trial, they just gave the comics $50 and left it at that.”

And much like it is for any comic moving from Chicago, Denver, or Austin, none of the attention ever carries over. “Moving from Canada to the US is like taking your feet out of a foot bath and then just cutting your feet off.” says Jalees, who is now developing her own show with Dan Powell, the Executive Producer of Inside Amy Shumer. “It’s very difficult. You feel like you’re doing well, then you come to New York and nobody gives a tiny little fuck.”

The blatant disadvantage over coming from an American city is that you have to jump through huge financial and legal hoops. Comedian Nathan Mackintosh says he needed letters from all the clubs, festivals, and important people he’d worked with in Canada. “I needed all that stuff put together in a package, then that was sent to some random American and they basically decided my fate. My package was like a big book. You kind of want to make it so big that they don’t want to look at it. That book cost me $6,500.”

Comedian Michael Harrison tried a different route. “I originally went down to New York saying I wanted to be a model when I was 18, but I would just do comedy. I didn’t have any paperwork though and my agency was useless. They hadn’t set anything up so when I’d audition and the casting people found out that I was Canadian, they’d say, well we don’t want to spend money or time getting you a visa so no thanks.” When Harrison went back to Canada, instead of reintegrating into Toronto’s scene, he thought of a potentially faster option. He relocated to Edmonton, which is like leaving New York City to tell jokes in Siberia. Harrison spent the next two years performing jokes seven nights a week to crews of oil sands workers in a city where the average winter temperature is 7 degrees. His talent and his work ethic helped him earn a Comedy Network half-hour special after which he was granted his visa. He has since become a headline act, most recently performing at Comedy on State in Madison. That’s the level of dedication it takes to quickly transition from the Canadian circuit to the US.

Nonetheless, Sabrina’s able to see a bit of light in the whole process. “The advantage of that is that once you have done that, and you’ve sunk ten grand or whatever into your visa, you’re serious about this, you’ve got both feet in and your dick is in the game. Like any shitty thing in life, if you spit out a kid and it has no limbs and one eye, you’re going to be like well the great thing about this situation is…and that analogy might be what it is to be Canadian.”

Photo by Roozbeh Rokni.

Christian Borys lives in Toronto and writes freelance for Twitter.