Written by Zoey Duncan
His goal is to laugh every single day, and by funding a nationally renowned comedy open mic night from his own pocket, James Moore makes that happen.
Applause precedes a man to the stage. Hot spotlights on him, James Moore is behind the microphone stand, relaxed grin in place, at Yuk Yuk’s in Calgary.
“How you doin’?” he asks, gripping that mic stand, which imitates his own lean, rigid stature. Moore meanders into his set. He’s a storyteller, weaving the results of his show the week before in Red Deer into a joke about New Year’s Eve 1975.
He’s wearing a black sweater that’s a size too big. Likely chosen because it fits his tall frame, regardless of its roominess, the shirt drapes over him. His grey hair is parted straight down the middle, and its length – long enough to tuck around his ear – reveals a slight wave.
“…I missed the couch entirely, landed on the concrete floor, spent midnight in emergency having the broken glass sutured out of my ass.
“But somehow, that was more fun than New Year’s in Red Deer.”
Moore, 51, is twice the age of most of the audience members tonight. This evening, his routine is a profusion of advice to the young crowd. He advises the smokers to quit smoking and the non-smokers to lighten up. A regular blood donor (he says he’s one of the “three per cent of Canadians whose lives are so devoid of any kind of fun that (he) actually qualifies to give blood”), Moore shares his plan for escaping Canadian Blood Services, which he compares to Revenue Canada: “I am taking intravenous drugs and having sex with an African man one time since 1977.”
He giggles at his own jokes along with the crowd and exudes calm with his easy smile and even delivery.
James Moore is a 6’4” beacon of comedy for performers across Canada. But he’s not known for his onstage stories. Since March 2004, he’s poured his passion, his time and his money into a “comedy workout room” in downtown Calgary: Comedy Monday Night. While his stage has been the catalyst for other local comedians’ successful careers, Moore’s path has stayed relatively humble. Now, on the brink of retirement from his day job, his comedy goals have shifted – from being the headliner on a show, to running a room where amateur comics can develop into skilled performers, and where pros can hone rough material into gold.
“In the Calgary comedy community and even nationally, he’s very well known,” said Donovan Deschner, a professional comic who created Comediapedia.ca, a directory of Canadian comedians, and in 2009 launched a Calgary open mic night exclusively for pros.
“James would definitely be the starting point for most amateurs in the city…. James prides himself on making sure that if you’re down there and you want to go up, you’ve never been on stage before, that no matter who else is in the room, you will get up.
“So your card begins there, you can grow there, and then eventually when you’re a working professional, you end up going back there all the time to work on the new stuff.”
Moore’s open mic is unlike any other in the city, thanks to the supportive community he has provided for professionals, amateurs and those in between. Now, the production format Moore has spent years perfecting is being duplicated in clubs across the country.
I met Moore a number of times at Broken City, the Beltline bar where he runs Comedy Monday Night. First when I worked there as a server, then as a one-time performer. Our relationship met its most dramatic point in May 2010, when I walked off his stage and he walked over to me with a clipboard to tell me I’d been on stage 90 seconds longer than my allotted five minutes. I flushed and babbled excuses and he shot me a silent look and walked back to his command station in the sound booth.
His show is meticulously organized. Trial and error in the early days taught him that a night with 18 people on stage did not make for an entertaining show; a “trainwreck,” he called it.
More recent encounters have been less intimidating for me and, in his own words, more so for him. Over dinner at a crowded Kensington pub during a Flames game, Moore bashfully drew pictures of his past for me, completing the images with exaggerated comic voices and punch lines.
Moore grew up in southwest Calgary with two older sisters and a younger brother, in a neighbourhood that had been home to his family for generations.
Under his father’s domestic autocracy, Moore had his first job at age five.
“There was a grocery store about a mile from my house. I used to go twice a week and pull the weeds for a quarter. Five years old,” Moore said, delivering the line with the emphasis he would give on stage, knowing how alien it sounds to me.
“Anything you ever wanted to do in life – it didn’t matter what it was – according to my old man, the first key step was always: you had to get a job…. So that was built into me very early on in life.
“I had a paper route by the time I was 11. And as soon as I got the paper route, that was when the old man decided, ‘Well, you’re making money now, son, it’s time to start paying rent.’ ”
The work-hard-or-else ethic was installed in Moore from those early days, and while it’s evident in his work now, it was AWOL in his school days, thanks to his comedy dreams.
“I always wanted to do comedy because when we were kids we only had one channel on TV. Everybody watched Ed Sullivan back in the day and they used to bring on some of the best, (most) amazing comics in the world. I just really took to the whole angle of laughter and making people laugh was always something that I wanted to do.”
“Our parents had awesome senses of humour,” said Kathy Fyfe, Moore’s sister. “When Jim was growing up, that wasn’t really encouraged so I think it got him probably in more than a little bit of trouble at school.”
Moore wasn’t much interested in school. He spent his summers in remedial math and got kicked out of Western Canada, Central Memorial and Ernest Manning high schools because he neglected to attend most classes.
“I was probably ADD, although it wasn’t a condition back then,” Moore said. “I just could not sit still.”
“Back in the day, we didn’t have medication, we had something else. It was called corporal punishment.”
After leaving high school for good around age 15, Moore got a job at a car dealership, where he parked cars and polished lemons before people came to check them out. Working there, he was making enough money to leave home.
“It was better to be on your own than sort of under the iron fist of the old boy,” Moore recalled his younger self thinking.
Life on his own, without a high school diploma led to “a litany of horrible jobs.”
“All kinds of horrible, dirty, dangerous (jobs)…which I find are great motivating factors for going to school at night.”
Starting when he was 22, Moore spent 10 years working during the day and going to school at night. He attended Mount Royal, SAIT and the University of Calgary to eventually earn two commercial real estate designations, which license him in the management of commercial real estate.
“It was painful and grueling and I should have listened to the old man and gone to school,” Moore said. “And he would be delighted if he could hear these words right now. That’s what (he) always wanted to hear his whole life, is he wanted to be here the day when I said, ‘You know, I should’ve listened to the old man.’ ”
Until 2003, Moore, then 43, worked for the largest commercial real estate corporation in North America. He helped build the Bankers Hall towers in downtown Calgary, and managed 3.2-million square feet and 5,000 tenants there.
“I was king of the world; it was pretty awesome,” he said.
But during the five-year planning and construction of the second tower, Moore was working 70 to 80 hours a week and it took its toll, so he left that job.
Around the same time, Moore’s sister Fyfe signed him up for comedy classes, along with their eldest sibling, Sharon.
When Moore continued with comedy after that, Fyfe said the family was surprised, but that the move fit.
Comedy was a reprieve from a tragic time in the Moore family. The four Moore siblings lost many family members, including both parents to illnesses, in a two-year period, which overlapped both their comedy training and Moore’s job change.
“I always knew I wanted to do (stand-up) but that was the trigger right there and it was a real therapeutic endeavour at the time and it really went a long way to try and get through that whole terrible time,” Moore said.
Hoping to get into comedy more officially, Moore attended amateur night at Yuk Yuk’s. Every week, the headliner for the show sat with budding comics and shared advice on writing and performing.
Usually a handful of comics showed up for these lessons, anxiously scrawling pointers in notebooks. After, a draw determined which eight comics would perform in a show the following Tuesday. The crowd of comics always ballooned specifically for the draw.
“There’d only be six of us there for the workshop, but 40 guys would show up for the draw. And you would go months, months without drawing on a number,” Moore said, a trace of that old anxiety returning to his voice.
“I remember one of those headliners very early on, he said, ‘You know, if you haven’t been on stage as an amateur a hundred times, you haven’t been on once. Count every hundred times as one time.’ ”
“I started doing the math… ‘If I’m ever going to get to one time, at this rate I’m never going to get on the stage.’ ”
Out-of-town headliners always asked where the local talent went to try out new material.
“It would start that whole 20 minutes of moaning and dripping and pissing about, ‘Well, we ain’t got no place but here.’ ‘Well, why ain’t you got no place but here?’
“Well, the reason is because comics are not necessarily – and I hate to generalize, but as a rule – all that motivated to do anything outside of their own career.”
Moore, with his old man’s advice kicking in again, decided if he wanted to be a comic, he was going to have to start his own open mic night.
He sought the advice of veteran Calgary comic Daryl Makk, who had earlier offered to help any comic set up an open mic night. The men met when Makk was judging the Comedy Idol competition at Yuk Yuk’s in February 2003.
“He was pretty rough,” said Makk. “I ended up tearing him a new one when he did his performance. And he had plotted my demise in the parking lot and later on decided ‘No, I’ll be the bigger man.’ He came up, shook my hand, said ‘Thanks for your comments.’ I said, ‘I just think you can do better than what I saw up there.’ ”
“It was completely embarrassing,” Moore says now.
Eight years later, Makk still remembers where Moore fell short that night.
“There was no substance of who he was, which determines who does well in comedy,” he said. “It’s baring your soul and making it funny. That’s comedy.”
In 2004, with Makk’s advice, Moore proposed his open mic comedy night idea to the manager at Dickens Pub, which sits on the busy Ninth Avenue S.W. thoroughfare on the corner of 10th Street. They offered him Wednesday nights, but he declined; Wednesday was a club night for comedy, so there would be competition and no way to draw in travelling headliners.
Eight months later, he got a phone call from the same manager, who this time offered Monday nights. Moore agreed.
Monday is a dark night for local clubs and it’s often a day traveling comics arrive in town with nothing to do. As Calgary’s exclusive spot for comedy on a Monday, Moore could offer the comics, as he describes it, “a few dollars, giggles and shits and someone’s undying gratitude” to come perform on his stage.
Comedy Monday Night came to life at Dickens Pub in March 2004 with 100 per cent of the budget for promotions and paying headliners coming from Moore’s pocket.
Things started out slow.
“Basically it was like there were a few random drunk gentlemen wandering about the bar. There was, I believe, a pool league that went Monday nights at the back of the bar,” said Allyson June Smith, a teacher-turned-comic who was a professional comedian when she walked into the second-ever Comedy Monday Night.
Smith joked she fell in love with Moore the first time she met him, because he heaped praise on her, thanking her for bringing a professional presence to Comedy Monday Night.
From her first visit, Smith came to Dickens every week to try out new material, and set an example for less-experienced comics.
“I really found my voice, I found my funny because nobody was judging me at Comedy Monday Night. I wasn’t going to do any wrong. I could go up and say whatever I wanted,” Smith said.
For Comedy Monday Night to survive where others had failed, Moore had to commit to spending a significant amount of time and money, among other resources.
“He went there with a broken foot,” said Karen O’Keefe, whose first comedy performance was on Moore’s stage. “He got into a car accident earlier that day….
“The microphone stand, he used that as a crutch – and he was drinking, ‘cause his car was gone and he was in a lot of pain. He ended up breaking his foot and we’re like, ‘Holy crap what’re you – like, you could’ve cancelled it or called somebody to run it or help you or something!’ ”
Five years after her initiation to comedy on Moore’s stage, O’Keefe has quit her day job as a graphic designer, and is preparing to move to Toronto to pursue comedy.
After Moore had spent three years running Comedy Monday Night out of his own pocket, Dickens no longer wanted to host the open mic.
“‘You’re going to cancel us are you?’ ” Moore said at the time. “‘We’ll show you. We’re going to go right across the street then…’ So, we went over to the Lord Nelson, which at the outset was a brilliant idea.”
At the Lord Nelson, Moore had a small budget from the bar, which went toward paying headliners and the cost of promotions. But that pub never became home because of frequent management changes and the accompanying change in the value placed on Comedy Monday Night by management.
Less than a year after that move, Moore packed up his backdrop and took his idea to Broken City – a Beltline bar that’s literally on the right side of the tracks. On the south side of Ninth Avenue S.W., there are walk-ins who are drawn into the bar thanks to the laughter that seeps out of the building’s wooden door – and Moore’s strategically placed sandwich board.
Every week Moore spends 12 to 16 hours preparing for and producing Comedy Monday Night. His Monday nights follow a rigid pattern: he gets to the bar no later than 6:15 p.m. and drags the monitors out of storage at Broken City. He changes out coloured spotlights for neutral ones, sets up microphones, and adjusts sound levels. Setting up the stage takes him about an hour.
He tells comics to arrive by 7:15 if they want one of nine seriously coveted spots that night. Once he’s got a list of potential performers, he determines who will make it on stage, and who will be cut that night.
“I want to make sure that all the kids have an equal opportunity to get stage time,” Moore said. His own experience trying to get on at other amateur nights, when it was done by a draw, was frustrating, hence his approach.
He compares last week’s list of performers to this week’s, to make sure there’s no unfair overlap. From there, he organizes the ebb and flow of the show. The night starts with the second-funniest person in the pack, “the bullet,” and then proceeds so that the crowd doesn’t have to wait too long between laughs in case a new comic bombs.
The final spot of the night goes to the headliner. Frequently that’s a travelling comic who will be performing at a local club later in the week. Moore gives a $100 “honorarium” to the headliner. He insists it’s not payment, because it’s not comparable to what the comic would make elsewhere. Depending on the club and the comic, a headliner might make between $225 to $500 per night.
While Moore would like to have a bigger portion of the budget come from the host bar’s cash box, he’s currently funding Comedy Monday Night from his own coffers. He spends $6,000 to $8,000 a year on headliners, emcees — who are paid $50 per night — and promotions. Moore’s income from comedy performance all goes into Comedy Monday Night, and though there are local businesses who provide audience participation prizes, Comedy Monday night only has one real sponsor, and that’s James Moore.
Beyond supporting the comic community, Comedy Monday Night hosts four charities events a year, where all the proceeds from the door contribute to a cause. In the past, money has been raised for the Epilepsy Association of Calgary, Inn From the Cold, United Way, and breast and prostate cancer research.
The investment he makes – monetary and otherwise – is due to his desire for a job well done. Comedy Monday Night is an ongoing project for Moore, who says he prefers to do something well if he’s going to do it at all.
With that in mind, he’s currently taking photography classes at Mount Royal University to improve his photos of performers. Before comedy, in 1996, Moore was the top-ranked recreational pool player in Calgary. Prior to that, he studied guitar through the Royal Conservatory of Music. And for almost his entire life, Moore has been riding motorcycles.
“I’m not happy unless I’m Mach 10 with my hair on fire,” he said.
When it comes to personal time, Moore is content not to focus on finding a woman to bounce jokes off of. He was married from 1988-92, a period he described as, “brief. Not brief enough.”
“At my age, dating is a lot like a street brawl, I think,” he paused to laugh at himself. “It is. It’s a little bit like a street brawl. You’re certainly not looking for a fight when you leave the house, you’re not. And you want to make sure your opponent’s smaller than you.”
With no children or long-term partner for now, Moore has financial freedom along with the opportunity to be flexible with his time and his projects.
The daytime hours he spends working in an office as facilities manager for the geological research institute of Natural Resources Canada, far from the world of comedy, eat up more of his creative energy than he’d like, but he perseveres.
Between that day job and the time he spends on Comedy Monday Night, Moore still finds some time to write and perform his own work. Moore carries around a small brown notebook where he jots his jokes, given to him by Makk, and on which Makk inscribed “for a steamy hot extra tall white mocha.”
“I can write lots of crappy jokes, those are the ones I get the most of,” Moore said. “The ones that are really good, I don’t know where they come from. They materialize out of thin air and if I knew where they came from, I would go there and get them all the time.”
He recently paid off his mortgage and boasts that he’s entirely debt-free and without bills. Retirement could be in his very near future.
“Here’s my whole retirement plan right here: when I finally do that, I’m going to get up every day for the rest of my life – and let’s be candid when we suggest none of us really knows how many more days do we get – but I’m going to pull the pin, I’m going to quit working and I am going to get up every single day for the rest of my life and find a reason to laugh my ass off that day.
“And now, sort of secondary to that, I hope I don’t live longer than the money lasts, but —” he laughs — “I’m going to have fun.”