When the going gets tough, Funnies for Families keeps the laughs coming

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.

Rockland Pickard and Kristie Gunter: photo by Connor Low

Funnies for Families delivers art and medicine to families across the GTA when they need it most. Kristie Gunter and Rockland Pickard began the Toronto-based non-profit organization 4 years ago, after graduating from The Second City’s Conservatory program. Powered by a compulsion to use their comedy training “for good,” they began bringing to life the adage “laughter is the best medicine” (which also happens to be their motto). How? By dispensing doses of laughter via improv games and sketches – combined with a healthy tincture of audience interaction – to young people and their families undergoing “life-changing hardships”. “We started with one show a month at Ronald McDonald House, and now we have over ten shows a month at multiple hospitals, shelters and care centres!” declares Ms Gunter, the company’s CEO.

Funnies for Families has the ability to spur an “amazing memorable experience every week.” And not just for the families. Along the way, several families have really touched Ms Gunter’s and Mr Pickard’s hearts. Right now, a young girl at Ronald McDonald House closes their weekly show with a joke. “She practices the joke the whole week with her parents, and she always does an amazing job. Last week, her joke was ‘Where does a polar bear keep his money? In a snow bank!’ ”

They appreciate these magic moments “when a shy kid comes to the show and laughs quietly in the back, and then comes back the next week, and they’re practically running the show.” Clearly, their approach inspires comfort, creating a relaxed environment where spontaneity can flow. Their Covenant House shows always begin with improvised stand-up jokes, and Ms Gunter loves it when an audience member “puts their hand up to throw their own joke into the show!”

If Ms Gunter and Mr Pickard have their druthers, Funnies for Families will extend its performances to more venues, volunteers and cities. “I’d be over the moon,” beams Ms Gunther, anticipating this future prospect. “There is such a need for laughter in the places we go to, and it’s an important tool in coping and healing. I simply want us to be able to help more families.”

To that end, on the evening of August 25, the company is presenting “Funny Money,” a event in the Annex to raise funds toward this goal. Hosted by comedy legends Colin Mochrie and Deb McGrath, the evening will feature performances by Derek Sequin, Elvira Kurt and Ashley Botting. It also includes an open bar, hors d’oeuvres and a silent auction – all in support of Funnies for Families. “There is going to be comedy, music, a silent auction, an open bar, and food provided! What more could you ask for! It’s going to be an amazing night!” Ms Gunter enthuses. In fact, they would “love to spread the word of what we do and connect with all the guests with a sincere thank you for coming.” Volunteers Erin Conway and Anne McMaster have coordinated the event “of their own volition, and we’re so thankful for it.” They were able to book the acts, including McGrath and Mochrie, whom Ms Gunter is particularly stoked to see because she recalls watching him on Whose Line is it Anyway?. “I wanted to be his exact type of funny. So you can imagine, this is pretty surreal for me,” she beams.

Looking forward, she stresses that the money raised through “Funny Money” will go towards practicalities like travel costs, allowing them to support more families in and beyond the GTA. The company currently has a list of people and venues who have reached out, and for whom they would “love to go and perform” . . . but lack the funds to travel to them. “The money raised here [at the fundraiser] will help us grow, as well as be good improvisors and say ‘YES!’ to every request that comes our way, no matter the travel.” The ultimate aspiration of  Ms Gunter and Mr Pickard is for the company to become self-sustaining, so that they no longer have to work full-time elsewhere in order to support it and themselves. Ms Gunter is candid: Funnies is already her “full time passion”. She would love it to be her full-time job, as well.

When asked for their final thoughts, Ms Gunter and Mr Pickard return to their gratitude, offering a “huge shout-out and thank you” to their volunteers, who are all professionally-trained comedians putting their talent and time to good use with these shows. “No matter what their day has been, they come [and] do these shows with smiles, energy and positivity. They’re amazing people.” Tickets for Saturday’s event range from $25 – $125, and will go towards helping these dedicated performers spread joy and laughter. Ms Gunter and Mr Pickard hope for nothing more than a full house – to help them dispense the healing power of a few good jokes, far and wide.

News You Can Use

What: “Funny Money: A Fundraiser for Funnies for Families”
When: Saturday, August 25, 2018, 7 PM
Where: The McMaster House, Toronto, ON (exact address will be emailed following the purchase of tickets)
Info: funniesforfamilies.com
Tickets: brownpapertickets.com 

© 2018 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya

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