He single-handedly revolutionized the comedy scene in this country.
“We brought Jewish American comedy to Canada,” said Mark Breslin, the founder and chief executive officer of Canada’s largest comedy club chain, Yuk Yuk’s, which marked its 35th anniversary last year.
Before Breslin shook up Canada with his brand of cutting humour, standup comedians tended to be relatively timid and rarely, if ever, did they stray beyond the accepted red lines.
“Comedy in Canada was polite and sedate,” said Breslin, who opened the first Yuk Yuk’s in the basement of a community centre in Toronto in June 1976. “It lacked an edge.”
Influenced by such iconic figures as Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl, Breslin encouraged his comedians to venture into uncharted territory, tell titillating jokes turning on personal confession, sex, drugs and the like and thereby shatter social conventions.
A standup comedian himself, he was guided by two objectives: to build a comedy club network and to remain uncensored
“We found the audience we wanted,” said Breslin, who celebrates his 60th birthday in May. “Young, hip and somewhat anti-establishment, which is what our comedy is all about.”
No topic was beyond the pale. “If it was a good joke, it stayed in,” he said.
Having tapped into a niche market, Yuk Yuk’s prospered. “We were packed from the very beginning, though we weren’t always financially viable,” he said in an interview in a midtown café.
After moving to its first permanent location on Bay Street in 1978, Yuk Yuk’s expanded beyond Toronto, opening a branch in Ottawa. Buoyed by its success, Breslin opened eight more clubs in the next three years. “It was quite an expansion,” he noted.
There are 17 Yuk Yuk’s clubs in Canada today, stretching from St. John’s to Vancouver. Though franchised, he owns the intellectual property rights to the name and format.
At one point, he expanded into the United States, setting up branches in upstate New York – Buffalo and Rochester – and in Maui, Hawaii (where he lived for eight months).
Breslin launched Yuk Yuk’s by chance.
After graduating from York University with a BA degree in English literature, he was at a loss, not knowing what to do.
But he knew his degree would not take him far. “It prepared me to work for a taxi company,” he quipped.
Certainly, he was not interested in joining his father, Ruben, an entrepreneur in the garment district who made shirts and then switched into the nursing home business.
Nor was he certain whether he should continue his studies at the postgraduate level. The uncertainty vanished after Harbourfront hired him as its director of theatre and music. Yet two years later, he was out of a job.
“I was fired,” he said, explaining that his position was eliminated by cutbacks. “I fell into Yuk Yuk’s after finding myself unemployed.”
Breslin did not know much about show business, but he knew that his future was in comedy.
The comedians he had worked with and befriended at Harbourfront were chafing at the bit, eager to do something different. They wanted to try out daring, racy jokes that management had discouraged and that Second City, a comedy club that preceded Yuk Yuk’s, was also wary of.
Breslin approached a friend who happened to be wealthy and asked him whether it would be a good idea to start an edgier version of Second City.
“You have a business here,” the friend said after duly considering the concept. He arranged financing, and Yuk Yuk’s was born.
With Breslin doing double duty as host and comedian, Yuk Yuk’s was a popular attraction. But after the Globe and Mail published a story about it on its front page, Breslin never looked back. “I was turning away hundreds of people at the door,” he recalled.
As he discovered to his chagrin, comedians could be unreasonably demanding and jarringly vain. As he put it, “The comedy industry is a viper’s pit due to clashing egos.”
Yuk Yuk’s “graduates” are household names today: Jim Carrey, Howie Mandel, Rick Moranis, Russell Peters, Mike Bullard, Jeremy Hotz and Harland Williams.
Sizing up his “graduates,” he observed, “Carrey was young, but old school. Mandel would do anything for a laugh. Peters revitalized race in comedy. Hotz is the best standup comedian since Jack Benny. Williams exhibited pure, child-like wonder. Buller, in his improvised banter, was razor sharp.”
Breslin’s latest crop of comedians, including Jessica Holmes and Sam Kinison, are featured in a new boxed set of DVDs. Road Warriors and Rarities is written and narrated by Breslin and distributed by Harper Audio Canada.
When Breslin launched Yuk Yuk’s, Jewish comedians were omnipresent in Canada. But with Jewish talent having largely migrated to the United States, Jews no longer dominate the Canadian club scene.
In his judgment, Woody Allen was probably the most important comedian in the second half of the 20th century, filling the shoes of Charlie Chaplin, who dominated the first half. “He brought a whole new level of intellectualism to the business that didn’t exist before. And he made comedy extremely personal.”
Breslin also admires Jack Benny’s subtlety, Joan Rivers’ fearlessness and vulnerability and Lenny Bruce’s cleverness. But he was never an admirer of Myron Cohen’s 1950s ethnic jokes, and he believes that Jackie Mason peaked in the 1990s.
To Breslin, great comedians share three qualities. They rock to their own rhythm. They have superior writing skills. They display an exaggerated personality flaw that becomes endearing.
Breslin is in charge of Humber College’s comedy program, the only one of its kind in the world. He founded it, sits on its advisory board and is its producer in residence. “It’s a very gratifying job,” he said. But it bothers him that some of Humber’s most talented graduates are either underemployed or unemployed.
Breslin, though, has no trouble keeping busy.
A television producer whose credits include Late Night with Joan Rivers, Friday Night with Ralph Benmergui and, most recently, Kenny vs. Spenny, he has also appeared on radio (Live from Yuk Yuk’s and Laugh Attack).
Apart from having written several books – Zen and Now and Control Freaked, among others – he writes a monthly comedy column for the Village Post and reviews films for Metro.
But his most outstanding achievement may be his one-year-old son, Jackson, whom he fathered with his wife, Karina Lemke, a wedding planner and florist. “Jackson is named for Jackson Pollock, the abstract painter. I’m hoping he makes a revolutionary mess like his namesake.”