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If we can joke, we’re still alive, say Ukrainians using standup comedy as an outlet in Canada

Maria Kravchenko strides across her rented Toronto room, practising her English-language routine for Saturday’s standup comedy show at Free Times Cafe in the downtown core.

The 27-year-old Odesa native arrived in Toronto two months ago from Riga, Latvia, where she fled to escape the war in Ukraine after Russia’s invasion.

In Odesa, Kravchenko was a professional stage actress with dreams of getting a role on a Netflix show. In Toronto, she’s working as an entertainer at children’s birthday parties — and is now part of a growing group of Ukrainians who’ve been displaced by war and are using standup comedy to tell their stories.

Saturday’s show will be her first time performing comedy in English.

“OK. I have a joke about relationships,” she said, pausing to find the right words. “I just got divorced from my husband. We didn’t see life in the same way. I didn’t like his habits, and he didn’t like my boyfriend.”

“Do you think it’s OK?” she asked, laughing at her own joke.

Kravchenko says everyday life inspires her comedy. Like how when she first arrived, she noticed how polite Canadians were.

“When Ukrainians quarrel we really quarrel; with yelling, and swearing. And then we make friends and say, ‘Let’s go for a drink,’ ” she joked, again with a laugh.

“Some jokes are more interesting in Ukrainian, and some are better in English. You have to find the right balance.”

Finding that balance means making people laugh, and to Kravchenko, that’s important.

“As long as we can joke, we are still alive,” she said. 

WATCH | Ucrazy shows feature Ukrainian standup comics: 

Comedy nights raise funds for Ukrainians

12 hours ago

Duration 1:54

Alex Kotsyk calls Toronto’s Free Times Cafe a second home for the UCRAZY comedians, where they perform often. Kotsyk started UCRAZY comedy nights to raise money to send to soldiers and friends back in his native Ukraine

‘We make fun of ourselves’

Jokes and laughter are also important to the other Ukrainians who gather at clubs around Toronto to perform standup routines in Ukrainian and English.

Comedian and organizer Alex Kotsyk has dubbed the group Ucrazy, both because it stands for Ukrainian and because everyone is “just a little crazy.” 

“We make fun of ourselves, that’s the national tradition,” he said. “That’s in the genes.”

There are currently about 12 standups who perform with Ucrazy, but the group is ever-expanding. In their acts, they speak about culture shock and adapting to a new life away from home. 

“Ukrainian humour is simple. It’s laughing about hard things,” said Kotsyk, 34. “It helps us to cope with difficult times.” 

A man with dark hair and a neatly groomed beard and moustache wears a black t-shirt with the phrase 'I'm Ukrainian' as he speaks into a microphone on a stage.
Standup comic Alex Kotsyk founded the Ucrazy standup group to help fellow Ukrainians with their English and provide a little bit of laughter in dark times. (Submitted by Alex Kotsyk)

Comedy helps ‘forget about the war’

Kotsyk moved to Canada twelve years ago from Chernivtsi, Ukraine. He went to school in Regina for a master’s degree in public administration, before moving to Toronto and then Los Angeles to study acting.  

He was back in Kyiv and about to film a Domino’s Pizza commercial when the war started.

“When I got back to Canada I did not have it in me to do acting, so I did standup,” he said. “I wanted to do something for Ukrainians in Canada, especially those who don’t speak good English.”

So he started Ucrazy and encouraged other aspiring Ukrainian comedians to join in, even if they didn’t have much experience.

“We make them forget about the war for one hour, two hours,” said Kotsyk. “We talk about the pain, family, jobs, and English not being a first language.”

From the beginning, Kotsyk said he planned to use these shows as a fundraiser to send money back to Ukraine in support of the war effort.

“I was always trying to donate for the defenders,” he said, noting that the shows have been successful enough that they’ve been able to send money back home to buy five drones for soldiers to use.

“Ukrainian soldiers use drones to do surveillance, and it helps to protect lives,” Kotsyk said.

A man wearing a blue polo shirt smiles while holding a microphone on stage.
Yaroslav Fabrika, 29, is from Kyiv, but was living in Slovakia before the war began. He’s now living in Toronto and performs standup comedy as part of Ucrazy. (Submitted by Yaroslav Fabrika )

Overcoming nerves

Back in Canada, some in the comedy group are starting to perform in English, which Kotsyk says is helping them feel more integrated into society here.

“They are mostly displaced people,” he said. “They have a platform to talk about what pain they have and make it funny.”

That’s true of Yaroslav Fabrika, a 29-year-old auto mechanic from Kyiv who was working in Slovakia when war broke out. He moved to Canada a year ago and says he wanted to do “something creative” to express himself.

“Humour can help in bad times,” he said. “First time on stage, it was hard. I was really nervous.”

But now, Fabrika says, the jokes keep coming. “I think about things all the time. I’m realizing there can be something funny.”

Ivanna Chornenka Osovska sitting in front of a church railing in Toronto.
Ivanna Chornenka Osovska started doing standup at the suggestion of her therapist. She says it is helps her process being a displaced person in Canada. (Submitted by Ivanna Chornenka Osovska)

Finding community

Single mother Ivanna Chornenka Osovska, 30, works as a personal care assistant for seniors. She was going through a hard time when she started doing standup at the suggestion of her therapist.

“It was the first year of immigration,” she said. “It lifted my morale.”

It also helped her meet new people and form a new community full of “young people from Ukraine who are working out the same issues.” 

When asked what his ultimate dream is as the group’s organizer, Kotsyk says more than anything, he hopes Ukrainian soldiers will win the war.

“If we can help a little bit with standup, we do what we can,” he said, but he also wouldn’t be opposed to taking the UCrazy show on the road. 

“We want to travel across Canada and the U.S. and bring people joy.” 

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