By Olivia Zhong

Jessie Olsen is not just a fixture within Toronto’s comedy scene. She’s a familiar face, and the scene knows her well.

Sitting amidst the dimly lit venue, surrounded by the chatter of fellow comedians and comedy enthusiasts, Olsen was eager for an evening of shared jokes, supportive nods and the electric energy that only a live stand-up comedy show could provide.

The air quickly soiled when a comedian began making body-shaming jokes. Acknowledging the discomfort in the room, he concluded his set with an apology.

“I know I lost you with that overweight white women joke. Sorry, Jessie.” 

A sudden spotlight cast on her in a room of strangers.

“Just like that, he called out the overweight white women in the crowd,” Olsen said. “That felt really shitty.” 

As a seasoned stand-up comedian, Olsen has witnessed enough offensive sets to recognize the urgent need for change. 

In a time of acceptance and inclusivity, why are hateful comedians given room to perform?

According to 2020 data by The Foundation for Canadian Comedy, 42 per cent of comedy content creators in Ontario encounter gender-based discrimination. Notably, among survey respondents, 40 per cent identified as women, while 16 per cent identified as LGBTQ2. 

However, comedians like Olsen are shifting the paradigm and producing ‘safe space’ comedy shows. These platforms prioritize respect and comfort for audience members while allowing underrepresented performers to express themselves freely, devoid of judgment, discrimination, or harassment.


Originally a sex and dating podcast hosted by Olsen, Your Place or Mine, transitioned into a comedy show in November 2021, following her discovery of a passion for comedy.

The show swiftly evolved into a ‘safe space’ after Olsen reflected on her experiences attending general comedy shows.

“That was my first real experience of comics who were openly homophobic, transphobic, racist [and] misogynistic,” said Olsen. “That’s what made me want to run safer space comedy shows. I wanted to produce shows for people like me who didn’t want to feel like shit after a comedy show.” 

“Not only is there opportunity for great comedy that everyone can enjoy, but there was also a need for better safer systems for feminine queer comics, especially [those] coming into the scene,” Olsen said. 

Toronto stand-up comedian and producer, Amanda Custodio, has also faced her fair share of ‘edgy’ comedians known for their misogynistic, homophobic, and generally discriminatory humour. 

She doesn’t shy away from addressing their behaviour directly during her performances and touching on contentious topics like abortion. As a result, she has been told to redesign her set to appease the sensibilities of the predominantly male audience. 

Custodio began producing her show, The Whore Store, after she was verbally harassed on her virtual comedy show amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“It’s an open space for people to be themselves, but it also has edgy elements to it because the name itself was pretty in your face,” Custodio said.


However, despite her efforts to cultivate safe spaces, Olsen’s experience reflects the reality that women comedians, even within these sanctuaries, remain susceptible to harassment and discrimination.

While Olsen’s productions have consistently hosted safe and comfortable shows, discontent has arisen among comedians known to produce harmful comedy.

“I’ve had people [‘edgy’ comedians] corner me in clubs and say they want a spot on my show,” Olsen said. When Olsen denies their advances, she said some react with hostility, questioning her concept and accusing her of pushing them to conform to something they’re not.

Unfortunately, this made a lot of the ‘edgy’ comedians upset, which was reflected in the way that was most familiar to them: hate speech. “People were calling me up on stage by name all the time and fat shaming me, slut shaming me and being misogynistic,” Olsen said.

“Sometimes I’m tired of being a loud woman about this. I kind of just want to go and workshop this joke about dating apps that I’m working on,” Olsen said. “But when I came in and started going to a couple of these mics where fucked up stuff was happening, I was on my own.”


Marc Hallworth, a veteran Toronto stand-up comedian since 2009, now shares his expertise as an instructor at Humber College’s Comedy: Writing and Performance program..

“Female forward shows didn’t exist ten years ago, or if it did, you were really going out on a limb,” Hallworth said. “You got to get your tickets now, because this is never happening again. It is a huge deal.” 

It is noticeable when an open mic has predominantly male comedians, yet the audience includes women. “Shouldn’t the stage represent the crowd?” Hallworth said. 

Hallworth underscores the importance of taking small but necessary steps for improvement. As part of this process, comedians often receive gig sheets listing each performer’s name before a show. In this context, he encourages fellow comedians to aim to be a name on a gig sheet that doesn’t scare comedians away.


In the ever-evolving landscape of stand-up comedy, women like Olsen and Custodio are rewriting the script, challenging longstanding norms, and creating spaces that redefine the boundaries of humour.

“Men get upset when women create spaces that they are not welcomed in; it is threatening and scary for them,” Olsen said. 

Olsen said she believes there is a misconception surrounding women entering the comedy space, often conflated with the notion of displacing men from it.

“Society tells [heterosexual men] they need to be funny, but people are calling them out for their unfunny jokes, so they feel inferior,” said Custodio. She also said she believes male comics confuse freedom of speech with the liberty to express anything they desire, creating an echo chamber of harmful behaviours. 


Reflecting on her journey over the past two-and-a-half years, Olsen notes, with satisfaction, that the meanest men in comedy she has encountered haven’t made any progress while she continues to climb the ranks. 

“If you look at the top as people grow in comedy and move up the ladder, there are way less super edgy dudes. That is reassuring enough. I think it instills a lot of hope.”

“I think women move up faster because we have to work really hard to do it. There is a lot more intentionality about what we do and bring on stage,” said Olsen. “All of the work that’s going on right now is paying off and I have no worries about how many funny women there are that are being fostered here in the city.”


Three femme and queer comedy shows in Toronto. (Olivia Zhong/T•)