Jackie Pirico’s “cartoonish” positive energy is infectious

Toronto-based comedian is “high energy,” “deranged” and “unnervingly energetic”

What: Jackie Pirico’s Live Album Recording
When: Thurs., April 18 and Thurs., April 25, 9:30 pm
Where: Comedy Bar, 945 Bloor St. W.
Why you should go: Jackie Pirico’s relentless, positive on-stage energy is infectious and has earned her much-deserved accolades as one of the Toronto comedy scene’s best and brightest stars.

TORONTO-BASED, JUNO-nominated stand-up comedian Jackie Pirico says her dad describes her style as “intense.” Describing herself, she uses words like “cartoonish,” “high energy,” “deranged” and “unnervingly energetic.”

Pirico is a regular at Comedy Bar’s acclaimed weekly stand-up show Laugh Sabbath, where she stands out for her whirlwind intensity and rapid-fire delivery. She says the way she speaks to an audience is about “metaphorically grabbing them by the shoulders and shaking them.”

Pirico’s live-wire energy on stage matches the cartoon lens with which she views the world in her act. She says she derives her material from blowing up the mundane of ordinary life into a “cinematic, exaggerated retelling of very small, a lot of times meaningless, events”. As an example, “Let’s say your doctor’s too hot, like your doctor is a hot babe, and you don’t want to tell them your embarrassing ailment. That’s just a moment in time, but that can be stretched out. For me, I can stretch that out and make a meal out of it,” something she does on her 2023 JUNO-nominated album Splash Pad, talking about going to the doctor for her chronic ailment of bunions — a word she delivers with extra grumbling relish to emphasize how gross it already sounds.

There’s nothing nervous about her energy. Pirico’s controlled chaos comes from years of experience performing regularly in Montreal and Toronto. Her relentless drive wasn’t always a feature of her act, though. “Years ago, when I was newer and I was doing a set and it wasn’t going as well as I wanted, if the audience energy was low or they weren’t feeling me, or they weren’t giving me the laughs that I wanted, I would kind of retreat a little bit more, energetically; I would kind of shrink a little bit more.”

Now, though, she views her act as an “attack” on the audience, saying, “We’re going to have fun. We’re having fun, dammit.” Rather than shrinking from a disengaged audience, Pirico learned “it’s kind of a fake-it-until-you-make-it situation, and being high energy and being intense, I think, sometimes shifts the vibe in the room and makes for pageantry and a good show.”

Despite a lifelong love for comedy and performing, pursuing a career as a stand-up comedian hadn’t been on her radar when she took a job as a server at the Comedy Nest in Montreal while a student at Concordia University. It was the only English-language service job available to her at the time, but it meant becoming immersed in Montreal’s stand-up comedy scene, which included heavy hitters like Heidi Foss and DeAnne Smith. Encouraged to get on stage and try it out herself, Pirico eventually became part of a new generation of up-and-coming talent out of Montreal, which included future stars Nour Hadidi and Chris Sandiford.

Still, the Montreal scene is limited for Anglophones, where Pirico says she felt she had “hit the ceiling” due to the lack of opportunity for English-speaking comedians. Making the move to Toronto, she found the comedy scene here was “overwhelmingly huge” by comparison, because “there’s just so many more venues, so many more open mics, tons more people.”

Even though, Pirico says, Quebec does a better job of fostering French-speaking talent in comedy than the rest of Canada does for English speakers, performing regularly in Toronto helped open up opportunities for her, including recent appearances on CTV’s Roast Battle Canada and The New Wave of Standup on CBC Gem. The emphasis on tapings with the big networks is something Pirico describes as part of a “sea change” in the industry that she’s witnessed over her career.

Pirico notes another change she’s witnessed over her 10 years of performing: “I remember when I was first starting out in 2014, and me and my girlfriends just being in a sea of white men. And you’d sign up for an open mic, and sometimes you’d be like 25th, 30th on the list, and everyone before you had the same point of view.”

“When I first started, there was such a domination of white male” in the comedy scene, Pirico says. “And it’s so amazing to see that shift over the years, seeing spaces pop up like open mics that are female- and non-gender-conforming-priority, queer spaces, safe spaces — there’s just so many more places that people can go and hone their craft and find their footing as a stand-up comedian.”

That doesn’t mean that the comedy scene today isn’t still a challenging space for non-white, non-male performers, though. Being a woman in comedy still means that “you don’t have the same luxury to, you know, coast, as I think males do.”

Pirico describes a time earlier in her career when “I was the only woman on the lineup at this venue. And the venue owner, who was an older man, singled me out, out of everyone on the lineup, as the only girl. And he goes, ‘You’re a comedian on the lineup?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah,’ and he goes, ‘Yeah, you’re a comic?’ And I had to say ‘Yes, yes, yes.’ And he goes ‘Tell me something funny, then. Be funny.’ And it was so irritating to me because he wasn’t asking any of the men to do that. He wasn’t asking them to, like, prove why they deserve to be there.” The incident “encapsulates that struggle — that we aren’t given the benefit of the doubt off the top. We have to prove more to audiences that we’re funny.”

Pirico will be recording the follow-up to her 2022 JUNO-nominated album Splash Pad at Comedy Bar on Bloor on Thurs., April 18 and Thurs., April 25. Recording a follow-up to that album comes with “a level of pressure,” Pirico says. “It’s like, ‘Oh, if this one’s not nominated, then that’s definitely not a good look.’” Recording another album now, though, is about consistency. “Mostly, the impetus behind recording again is just to keep that momentum, keep my focus sharp and just general posterity too, because it’s been almost two years since I recorded Splash Pad, and then two years before that I recorded my very first album, Dream Phone. So, I’m trying to maintain that consistency.”

The accolades aren’t what Pirico is ultimately focused on, she says. “One of my favourite things about stand-up comedy is the camaraderie and the special connections that you form with other comics. Because it’s such a weird job.” Even though it can sometimes feel “isolating” on stage, “you are really never alone. And it’s a really cool feeling.”