Rodney Ramsey on the Unknown Comedy Club and Bringing Back Comedyworks (Virtually) for One Night Only

The Comedyworks was a Montreal institution. Like the Just for Laughs festival, it was a club that many big name comedians got their start at. I used to go during my CEGEP days to see the On The Spot Improv troupe and the occasional headliners.

Then one day, in 2014, it closed. It re-opened under new management a year later. But then, shortly after St-Patrick’s Day 2018, a fire in an apartment above the neighboring Irish Embassy Pub consumed it and spread to the Comedyworks. There were plans to re-build and re-open, but then COVID hit.

There hasn’t been a comedy club quite like it since, and to this day so many local comedians treat their memories there with reverence. Rodney Ramsey is no exception.

Ramsey is one of the many Montreal comedians who got his start at the Comedyworks when he was still working as a telemarketer. Now he’s a full-time comedian and the co-founder of the Unknown Comedy Club, a Canadian black-owned online comedy club presenting live stream standup comedy performances each week.

Tonight, the Unknown Comedy Club is virtually reviving The Comedyworks with a show featuring Comedyworks veterans including David Pryde, Kwasi Thomas, Eman El Husseini, and DeAnne Smith.

I asked Ramsey what he meant by the notion that the Unknown Comedy Club would recreate the Comedyworks for one night. He spoke of recreating that warm atmosphere in which so many like him got their start in standup.

The audience isn’t muted. Both they and the performers are invited to appear as themselves or as an avatar. Ramsey chooses to perform as the latter.

One of the major questions is how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting standup comedy. Ramsey replied that while comedy clubs were closed due to public health restrictions, corporate jobs performing for company events were still available at the beginning. Like other entertainers, he’s had to adapt to a world without live on-site audiences.

“We had to open a virtual club,” he says, adding that all the technology to deal with issues arising due to the pandemic already existed, if you have the money for them. “We have all the tools to replicate the standup live experience we just needed to learn how to use those tools to do it,”

Given the uptick in racial tensions in the past year with the murder of George Floyd and the suspicious death of Joyce Echequan, I couldn’t help but wonder the Black Lives Matter movement impacted the establishment of the Unknown Comedy Club. Ramsey said not really.

“I think this thing was born out of necessity. I don’t think this Club would ever have happened if it wasn’t for COVID, I think the global pandemic had the most effect on it.”

He mentions that he and his co-founder were producers of Canada’s first and longest running all-black comedy tour and are always mindful of bookings for The Unknown Comedy Club.

“A lot of the shows that are being booked are mostly white men. We’re booking diversity.”

He mentions that the Comedyworks tribute will feature Eman El-Husseini, one of the biggest acts in Canada who is also Palestinian, and that the Unknown Comedy Club has an upcoming show called I Heart Asians which will tackle anti-Asian hate head-on by featuring all Asian comedians.

“We do not book like everyone else. We’re booking for everyone.”

The Unknown Comedy Club presents Comedyworks Revival hosted by Rodney Ramsey and featuring David Pryde, Kwasi Thomas, Eman El Husseini and DeAnne Smith takes place Saturday, May 22, 9pm. Tickets for this show and any other Unknown Comedy Club shows (Wednesdays to Sundays) are available through UnknownComedyClub.com

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