Funny Business: New West teacher celebrates 20 years of stand-up comedy
Janice Bannister describes herself as a “comedy mama” to all the students she has taught over the years. But it was her dad that taught her the joy of laughter when she was a young girl.
“I wanted to make people laugh ever since the first time my dad told me a joke,” Bannister told Daily Hive in an interview. “We would always share jokes when I was a child. Knock-knock jokes, smelly fart jokes, bugs-on-the-wall jokes.”
“It was a fun connection we had, almost like our secret language.”
The founder of Laughter Zone 101 Comedy School is celebrating 20 years of sharing the language of laughs in 2023, and she said that she’s excited to see where the journey goes.
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“At heart, I am a storyteller,” explained Bannister. “I love taking my day-to-day life and telling people about it. I find the more I can get people laughing about my life adventures, they recognize the ‘funny’ in their own lives.”
Born and raised in Trail, BC, the performer has had many stops on her way to the stage, starting with leaving home to go into psychiatric nurse training at Riverview Hospital.
“I noticed in psych nursing that when people were at their lowest due to life challenges, they lost their ability to laugh and to connect with others. It often leads to depression and other mental health challenges,” said Bannister. “During my time as a registered practical nurse (RPN), I became a real nerd and studied the benefits of laughter on the brain and the body. Hint: Laughter is good for you.”
Bannister would spend 14 years as an RPN before needing a career change so she could care for her young family as a single mom. She ended up in a fateful Transitions program that helps participants determine what work fields they are best suited for.
“My lightbulb moment came during my exit interview from the program when the counsellor said, ‘Have you ever thought of doing stand-up comedy? Because you kept this group entertained for the whole three weeks. You made the course fun for all of them and for all of our instructors too.'”
“The counsellor told me there was a stand-up comedy class at Langara College. It was the only one at the time. So, I checked it out.”
It was in 2003 that Bannister performed her first comedy set and immediately fell in love with the art form.
“I performed the set I wrote for class on a Thursday in March of 2003 in front of about 80 people at a restaurant on Commercial Drive formally called Zestys, now called ZaWa,” the playwright and director shared. “All of my wonderful friends showed up to support me and that was the magic sauce. I was hooked.”
Bannister would find success in a variety of ways during her early comedy years, including winning first prize in a Funny Female competition that included an ICBC hat, a Toblerone bar, a cheque for $50, and a trophy that she still has today.
However, one of her proudest achievements is launching her business, Laughter Zone 101, a comedy school that has taught students ranging in ages from 8 to 86 years old.
“I believe that anyone can do stand-up comedy if they do the work,” the comedy teacher said. “What helps a person succeed is their desire to get on the stage, be themselves and take risks.”
“There is comedy for everyone. A complete introvert can shine on the stage if they are authentic, with their win possibly being the fact that they actually got on stage.”
Bannister currently teaches about six to seven sets of Level 1 Beginner and Advanced stand-up comedy classes a year at the House of Comedy in New Westminster. She also teaches as part of SFU Continuing Studies, leads Zoom classes, and is the creator of BC’s Funniest New Female Comic competition.
“I encourage my students not to throw out anything they write. The more they write the better their jokes get. I encourage authenticity in the material, Audiences love to see the real you on stage.”
At the end of the Laughter Zone 101 cohorts, students will get onstage to perform a set they workshopped in class alongside their fellow comics and Bannister. This is the moment that Bannister, a JFL alum, loves the most.
“The biggest enjoyment I get out of teaching stand-up comedy is when a new performer walks on the showcase stage after all their hard work and gets their first big laugh. I enjoy watching their face as they realize, ‘Wow, I just did this.'”
“My message to up-and-coming comics is that we are only as good as our last gig. After your exciting showcase with your supportive family and friends, you feel amazing. But keep the momentum going. Go out and do the open mics and stay for the whole show to support your fellow comics.”
A 20th-anniversary celebration of Bannister’s comedy career is in the works for a possible June show. In the meantime, she is grateful to everyone who has helped her along the way.
“I want to thank all my fantastic students and comedy buddies. There have been so many great comedy club staff, room runners, and community programmers that have been very helpful. And all the audiences that come out and support live comedy are wonderful.
“And thanks to my kids for letting me share knock-knock jokes with my grandgirls.”
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