The first Great Outdoors Comedy Festival caused a national table shortage.
At least, that’s according to Mike Anderson, CEO of Trixstar Productions, who organized that fateful event in Edmonton in 2021.
“We purchased 1,400 tables from Costco—cleared Costco coast to coast,” Anderson recalls in a Zoom call. “There was a table shortage in Canada, if you believe it, because of us.”
While the idea for the Great Outdoors Comedy Festival had been percolating for years, it had a somewhat delayed initiation. Inspired by comedians like Adam Sandler and Nick Swanson doing tours of outdoor amphitheatres in the US, Trixstar set about to bring a similar idea to city parks in Canada. The very first show was scheduled for April 1, 2020—so it’s pretty obvious what happened to that one.
A year and change later, a rescheduled event—with Chelsea Handler, David Spade, Nikki Glaser, and Donnell Rawlings—took place on August 12, 2021, only three days after the border re-opened for non-essential travel to vaccinated Americans. But outdoor events still had to be COVID-safe. Hence the hundreds of tables.
“All of our tables were six feet apart from each other. People were able to go get a spot with their cohort. And it turned out, it looked just like a comedy club,” Anderson remembers. “So we created the world’s largest comedy club outdoors!”
Considering the 650-seat Laugh Factory in Long Beach, California claims to be the largest comedy club in the world, an outdoor venue seating several thousand eager punters around Costco tables definitely tops it. Other, bigger comedy festivals also obviously exist, but most of them involve taking over a city’s existing venues, as opposed to pitching up in a park and encouraging the audience to bring umbrellas and sweaters.
Since then, growth has been truly exponential: from one city in 2021, to expanding into Calgary in 2022, to adding Halifax and Vancouver in 2023.
Vancouver, especially, has been a long time coming: Anderson says it took around 16 months to get approvals, including extensive discussions at municipal and park board levels, that resulted in the first license to produce a festival in Stanley Park in several years.
To celebrate the kick-off, they’ve looped in comedy giants. International Canadian comedy superstar Russell Peters headlines on Friday night, joined by guests Reggie Watts and Steph Tolev, while Saturday night sees the inimitable Kevin Hart take the stage.
Like many comedians, Hart and Peters aren’t without controversy—be it Hart being pulled from presenting the Oscars in 2019 over old homophobic jokes, or Peters’ material about gender identity last year that commits the sin of being simply cringe.
Brennan McFaul, vice-president of Trixstar Entertainment (the company’s US branch), says that the organizers doesn’t put any parameters on what artists can say, neither condoning or disavowing potentially incendiary material.
“Comedy has always pushed the boundaries of freedom of expression, and oftentimes, if those freedoms are pushed back on, it can get worse or more controversial,” McFaul says. “We leave it up to their art form, and their expression, to do what they feel is correct.”
McFaul adds that the company is “super grateful to be guests” in the park. And having such a well-known location provides an international draw.
“It’s a different conversation when you’re speaking with some of the artists and their management about an event in Vancouver. Vancouver’s an international city, a very welcoming city, as a city that celebrates the arts,” he says. “Artists love coming there.”
Local talent is on the lineup, too, with Sḵwx̱wú7mesh comedian Keith Nahanee and upcoming comic Katie Westman hosting on Friday and Saturday nights. They’re joined by local mainstay Afro-Indigenous DJ O Show spinning tunes at both shows.
Anderson mentions they’re looking into expanding into “seven or eight other markets across Canada” next year, too. So far, comedians who’ve been involved have enjoyed the experience so much that some have asked to come back—adding another consideration into the logistics of who gets scheduled where.
McFaul notes that the concept of a large-scale outdoor comedy show has seen a lot of interest in Canada. According to the company, around 40 per cent of attendees come from out of town, with five per cent flying in from abroad.
Comedy tourism is a real thing to capitalize on, but so too is bringing the festival to more cities around the country, with different lineups and local talent as makes sense.
“These other markets are seeing it and they want it to come to their city,” McFaul says. “In Canada, obviously, the summertime is a very important piece of people’s lives because it is so short that people want to get outside to celebrate the arts in a different form than just another music festival…perhaps going to something that’s going to be lower impact on their beautiful parks and communities.”
If this is your first time hearing about the festival, worry not: there are still tickets available, and any leftovers will be available on the door. Just pray for no smoke, no rain, and no bad hecklers.
Great Outdoors Comedy Festival
When: September 15 and 16, doors from 5:30pm
Where: Brockton Point, 1151 Stanley Park Drive, Vancouver
Admission: September 15 from $79; September 16 from $99