Love Letter: Goodbye to Little Mountain Gallery, Vancouver’s Last Great Independent Comedy Club

Now firmly in my mid-30s, I’m probably too old to have a clubhouse. But there’s something irresistible about a place where everybody knows your name.

I personally started showing up at Little Mountain Gallery, Main Street’s most seismically unsound performance venue, to timidly watch comedy shows back in 2013. Since then, I’ve gotten into comedy myself and have really made myself at home—yes, I know where the key to the dumpster is, brag. I’ve taken classes here, produced my own shows and festivals, totally bombed on other people’s experimental talk shows and been shushed for talking at the bar during a standup set. I’ve laughed until I cried (I’d need a whole other column to explain what “the Lotion Man” is), pushed myself to new creative highs (perhaps you’ve heard of my parody of “Born in the U.S.A,” “Born in a Chipotle”) and fostered friendships with the city’s funniest, weirdest people.

The walls are plywood. The stage is too small. The bathroom doesn’t have hot water. It’s a rotten little hellhole, but it’s our rotten little hellhole, and it’s my favourite place in the whole city. And, naturally, after surviving near financial ruin for 20 years and squeaking through a pandemic, it’s about to be knocked down.

When we got the notice that the building would be turned into condos in late 2019, it felt inevitable. Everything eventually becomes condos. It’s the Vancouver circle of life. Why does the city coat of arms show a fisherman and a logger when it should just be a development permit?

A replacement so far has been elusive. Newsflash: Vancouver real estate is expensive, and commercial and retail spaces are too, especially for a place that basically never—excuse me while I use a technical term here—“makes money.”

Little Mountain Gallery has always been the antithesis to the more consumer standup clubs that used to be here in town. Nothing against YukYuks or ComedyMix, but those were the places where road comics and seasoned pros would draw in the suburban crowds for a night out. Twenty bucks got you the promise of a sticky-tabled comedy club with some plaid-shirted white dude shouting at you as you sipped your Sleeman and watched bachelorette parties “WOOO” their way into getting totally roasted by the on-stage talent.

Nothing wrong with that at all. But LMG offered (offers!) something different: a sandbox. Gatekeeping here is fairly minimal. If you’re not an asshole or conspiracy theorist and have $150 to risk on a booking, this little black box theatre can be yours for a few hours to do with as you wish. Sell some tickets, or perform for five of your friends, it’s up to you.

Twenty years ago, the legend goes, it was a butcher shop. If the ghosts of any choice hogs continue to haunt the space, they’ve been rudely ignored as various waves of artists transformed the storefront over the years. For a time, it was an art gallery and music venue; rumour has it the leaseholder at the time would even covertly sleep there. Local comedian and acclaimed A&W spokesman Ryan Beil took over for a spell, shifting the focus more into the comedy realm—though the occasional scrappy theatre production would book out the space for rehearsals—and paying for rent out of his own pocket when the haphazard bookings couldn’t make ends meet.

For the past few years, the programming has turned into full comedy, as a grown-up-sounding board started running the joint and trying to use an official status as a non-profit to get some money, any money, to keep this special little place afloat. A fresh paint job (traffic cone orange, of course) declared it not just a comedy club, but a Comedy Community Centre: a rare moment of earnestness in a place where bits are prime social capital.

READ MORE: Meet the Comedians of Little Mountain Gallery

Vancouver can get a bad rap for being cold, but within these presumably asbestos-filled walls, community (and, let’s be honest, probably a racoon family) was always growing. You’d walk in the door for your first time to timidly take your first improv class, having an anxiety attack in the backstage corridor that passes for a greenroom; six months later, you’re scrubbing the floor on your hands and knees as your troupe-mate struggles to get curdled milk out of his beard because a sketch you wrote about hitting someone in the face with a pie went very wrong.

The low barrier to entry makes it a place for comic experimentation, for better or for worse. I’ve seen comics turn it into a standing-room-only comedy hip-hop concert (shout out to Ese Atawo’s iconic “Lil Clitty” character), or into a high-concept variety show where comics compete to impress the host’s alien roommate. For a show called Senseless, comedians each did a tight five wearing a blindfold and headphones, oblivious to both the hysterical crowd and the MC making smoothies on a blender right on stage. Even more pedestrian improv groups and sketch shows are a high-wire thrill for the audiences: Who are these people? Will they soar? Will they bomb?

I’m personally sad to be saying goodbye to a place that’s been host to so many laughs and late nights, but I’m sad for the city, too. These cultural spaces are what make cities matter. This is why we’re here: to make things, to see things, to find people. Vancouver allegedly sees the importance of the cultural industries (in 2019, it released a 10-year “Creative City Strategy”), but too often the emphasis is on “high art”: the ballet, the symphony. All noble causes, to be sure. But the scrappy, dirty, poorly air-conditioned spaces are where the most exciting art—and yeah, my sketch show about a party bus was art, thank you—always happens.

READ MORE: A Lego Set To Commemorate Your Love for LMG

I have hope that LMG will spring up again, better faster stronger, in an equally crummy-charming space where the landlord isn’t looking too closely. Finding a replacement, though, has proven to be a tall order. It has to be somewhere that’s fairly accessible to transit and that might just capture the attention of passersby (our main clientele are heavy drinkers and comedians: not the type of people who are typically driving), but more importantly, somewhere affordable enough that we’re able to continue to offer low-barrier rentals to Vancouver’s very best goofs.

Would a liquor license so those goofs can make some money be nice, too? Sure. Would it be cool to have neighbours who don’t mind a little late night laughter spilling out onto the street? Absolutely. But really, the ask is pretty modest. Some walls, a space to put a stage and hang some lights. We’re low maintenance, ultimately. Just give us a door and some applause, and we’re primed to thrive.

READ MORE: Vancouver Art Spaces Face Uncertain Futures

What’s so disappointing is that new buildings—given their chance to reshape their block in whatever image they desire—rarely include spaces for making or sharing art. While developers are obliged to provide something of artistic or community value to the city, it’s easier to slap a poodle statue up on the property and call it a day than to siphon off any square footage to share with performers or makers.

On the surface it might seem frivolous to be asking developers and city councillors for a place to play, but the science (science!) is in our favour: arts and culture elevate a city. It makes it a place worth being. It’s why we spend stupid money to live here. (Okay, that and the beach.)

In the meantime, the show goes on—until January 1, at least. For these last precious months, in this bittersweet moment between the pandemic reopening and the grand finale, the laughs will be louder, the backstage moments will be a little sweeter and the immortal words of every host’s intermission speech will emblazon themselves on the heart of every comedian and LMG fan forever: “If you’re going to smoke, go down to Main Street. The neighbours hate us, but they hate you more.”

Support Little Mountain Gallery’s fundraiser for its next venue here.