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Breslin: Mixing high finance and low humour

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After more than 40 years in the comedy business, you’ve pretty much seen it all: mostly, it’s people standing in front of a brick wall. Sometimes there’s a contest – “Ooh, who’s the funniest?” Sometimes there’s a theme – black comics, female comics, comics on the left, comics on the right. But rarely do I see a new approach. Enter David Goodman.

Born in Montreal, Goodman has lived most of his adult life in Toronto. About a decade ago, he started doing standup and he was quite funny. He didn’t fit the usual profile. He was educated, lived in the suburbs, had a wife and kids and a good career.

Let me rephrase that: he had an amazing career. He was the CEO of many financial institutions. Not your usual comedy resumé.

Straddling these two worlds of high finance and low humour gave Goodman a unique skill set. He could mix it up with the best of them in little comedy clubs, but he was friends with some of the most important people in Canada.

So his personal journey led to combining these two worlds in the charity arena. Seven years ago, he created Humour Me,  an event designed to raise money for a variety of worthy causes, especially – but not limited to – children.

He devised a brilliant new format, and here’s how it works: CEOs of major corporations, banks and even politicians are approached and challenged to do five minutes of standup in front of their peers in a 1,500-seat theatre. Four executives are each assigned a comedy mentor – comics like Ian Sirota and Peter Anthony. The mentors work with the CEOs to get them ready for battle. The process takes months. Meanwhile, these well-connected CEOs go to their well-heeled friends and ask them to donate to the charity in exchange for watching the CEO potentially make a fool of themselves (though they rarely do, since most CEOs are at least used to speaking in public). And the seats are sold for $1,000 each.

The charity gets to pocket an average of $1.5 million in one night. Good work, Mr. Goodman!

The night of the contest, the mood in the hall is electric. Goodman comes out, does a short routine – usually at the expense of his family – and introduces the host, who is usually a Canadian star – think Dave Foley, Shaun Majumder, Steve Patterson – and then it’s all up to the CEOs.

Because they come from competitive backgrounds, they take their role seriously. They want to win. They’ve learned to get the audience on their side by revealing intimate things about themselves. That’s odd coming from corporate titans who have learned never to show vulnerability. After each one does their performance, the onstage panel of judges – Amanda Lang, Jim Slotek and myself – weigh in, American Idol style.

Clearly I’ve been cast in the Simon Cowell role, because I’m the one expected to be blunt and sarcastic. The audience eats it up. They get to see their boss critiqued as only a total stranger could. I get lots of laughs in the process and a wary reputation from business people everywhere.

After all the contestants finish, the judges confab and choose a winner. One year, Toronto Mayor John Tory won, and I’ll tell you, he was very funny. Then, to wrap up the evening, a big comedy star, such as Howie Mandel or Dennis Miller, does a nice long set. This year, on Oct. 10, it will be Tig Notaro, from the sitcom One Mississippi and multiple comedy specials.

READ: BRESLIN: MAD IS DEAD. WHAT, ME WORRY?

Up until this year, Goodman divided his time between his business and charity work. But then tragedy struck when he got hit by a streetcar (of course he turned it into a comedy routine). While he was in the hospital, he started thinking deeply about his life and what he really wanted to do with it, and made the decision to work on Humour Me full-time. He made plans to grow it into a national, and even an international, event.

So far, Goodman has raised over $14 million for worthy causes. I think that’s only the beginning. And that’s no joke.

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