• David Reuben

Jo-Anna Downey

"Mama Is In The House"


Sadly, Jo-Anna was diagnosed ALS in 2012 and had to stop performing in 2013. This horrible disease took her life on December 1, 2016. Jo-Anna had become a legendary figure in Canadian Comedy at the time of her death.

On September 7, 2011, Spirits Bar & Grill. Comedy Night celebrated 15 years of outstanding comedy in the heart of Toronto. It was celebrated with your hostess Jo-Anna Downey and special guests Sean Cullen, Gavin Crawford, Simon Rakoff, Debra DiGiovanni, Nikki Payne, Richard Ryder, Pete Zedlacher, Ted Morris, and Kate Davis.

How did this comedy institution start? In 1994 Jo-Anna moved to Toronto from her home town of Montreal. She did not know a sole in the big smoke; one of the guys that Jo-Anna worked with took her to the Wednesday comedy and music night at Spirits. According to Ms. Downey "one week there were not enough comics and he volunteered me to go up. There was promise of a beer, so I walked toward the stage - not having a clue what I was doing. It went well. I had no dreams of being a performer."

Fast forward two years and Jo-Anna booked a spot on the Wednesday night comedy and music show at Spirits, but there is only one problem. Jo-Anna says "I had invited the ladies from my supper club (yes I belonged to a supper club). We arrived at the bar with the news the host had been fired and they had no replacement. So, I complained to the manager that they had advertised an open mic and there was no show. His answer was "why don't you do it". So, I did. They hired a music guy and me. The music guy didn't work out so eventually it just became a stand-up night. And that was 15 years ago."

The lovely and talented Ms. Downey was considered the best intelligent, intimate, story teller in the business. This gift unknowingly was developed in childhood. As a child Jo-Anna spent a lot of time with her mother's family. Her mom's family is from Newfoundland and all four sisters lived in Montreal and they were gabbers. Jo-Anna was fascinated with their storytelling abilities. Jo-Anna states "Even if I had heard the story before, I was captivated. Of course, they added a different flavour every time they told it. I learned you can tell a true story but add some stuff to keep the audience interested."

Jo-Anna produced two comedy institutions in Toronto, Tuesday's Eton House on the Danforth, and Wednesday's Spirits. Plus, she was an in-demand MC and Headliner with the famous Yuk Yuk's Chain of Comedy Clubs. According to Mark Breslin founder of The Yuk Yuk's Chain of Comedy Clubs "Jo-Anna's ability to bring an audience into her world is what makes her the perfect emcee. Her material is all about how a real, modern woman lives, and not some fake, media conception of femininity."

Know as "Mama" the nickname that stuck from her early days when Jo-Anna had to fight to have chatty audiences listen to her screaming the catch phrase "Listen to Mama". Well, "Mama" has achieved great success in the Canadian Comedy Industry, including nominations from the Canadian Comedy Awards, voted Toronto favorite stand -up comic by Now Magazine, and has been at Just For laughs.

Yet she remained true to your roots at Spirits and Eton House where she uses the two stages to write material and develop ideas. Early on Ms. Downey realized that the Canadian Comedy Industry was not a mountain race to the top but a lot of peaks and valleys. According to Jo-Anna "I have really loyal fans at both my rooms, and they are really appreciative of the shows. If there was not an audience, there would be no point in continuing. And the truth of the matter is I produce amazing weekly shows. I have friends who are some of the most talented comics and they are not above performing at an open stage for a drink ticket. And what better way to spend a Tuesday and Wednesday then at a comedy show. I get to book my friends, and then hang out with them. My audiences are a little spoiled though. They get to see the funniest people in Canada for free."

Jo-Anna spent about one day a week answers e-mails and returning phone calls for both shows. Both Spirits and Eton House are in demand bookings by both amateur and professional comics. Ms. Downey states that "I really did not plan for the shows to continue. I took it week by week. I spend little time preparing to perform but A LOT of time answering emails. Honestly, I miss the beginnings when there was no pre-booking whoever showed up was on, but comedy has exploded."

To see Jo-Anna on stage you see a fearless performer who takes no prisoners and as she has gotten older her attitude towards life and comedy has evolved. Her family has been supportive from the beginning and you will see her parents and brothers at both Spirits and Eton House. According to Jo-Anna "I have aged a lot. A lot! The great thing about aging is you really take on a who gives a shit attitude. I am way more comfortable on stage. Time will do that to you. A comic friend said to me last week "you handle silence so well". I think he meant it as a compliment. I am taking it that way."

When not traveling throughout Canada Jo-Anna spent off time with long time boyfriend Cal Post, also a stand -up comic and life has become a balance between work and home. As Jo-Anna sees her life "It works for us. We have fun together at shows and at home. He also has friends who he hangs out with, so we are not always in each others' faces. We spend a lot of time with my family, so it helps that he enjoys their company."

Ms. Jo-Anna Downey has worked hard at being funny. Time flies when you are having fun and gabbing with your friend in a comedy room that seems like you are in her living room and according to Jo-Anna "Truly I never chose a style. I started hosting Spirits weekly before I had 10 minutes of comedy. Looking back, I am little embarrassed. So, to fill the time I would just blab about my week. Thankfully, I learned how to be funny. It took me awhile."

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The author, David Reuben, is forever grateful that Ms. Downey did my “April Fools Show” on April 1, 2012. As usual she was the fan favourite!

Mention you found out about Mark Christian Walker on www.thecomedygreenroom.com



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