Mark Breslin is not only the CEO and founder of Yuk Yuk’s Comedy Clubs, but also the founder and Artistic Director for the Humber College Comedy Program and a founding member of the Canadian Comedy Awards. Breslin has also acted as producer, executive producer and story consultant for numerous television programs, including Late Night With Joan Rivers, Friday Night With Ralph Benmergui and Kenny Vs. Spenny. In addition, Breslin is a prolific author and columnist, has worked in radio, and is a sought-after public speaker.
In 2014, Mark Breslin was named one of the 180 most influential people ever to be born and raised in Toronto. Last year, Breslin was awarded the Order Of Canada, which is the second highest honour for merit in the system of orders, decorations, and medals of Canada. Simply put, Breslin is one of the few comedy-related people to be respected by performers, fans and government officials alike.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Mark Breslin by phone, and below are highlights from that chat. More on Breslin can be found on the Yuk Yuk’s website, while Breslin’s on-going columns can be read here and here. He was every bit as funny and nice as an interviewer could have hoped for.
A look at the evolution of Mark Breslin.
As a business man and an author, your Order of Canada appointment, how exactly did that happen?
Mark Breslin: Well, you don’t campaign for the position because if you do, they’ll never give it to you. You have to pretend to be humble, which is the hardest thing in the world to do, you know? But there were people who were applying in my stead… The creator of Hee Haw, he’s Canadian, he has one of the Orders, and also created a bunch of Canadian television, and he said, “Congratulations on becoming part of the Order. I’m enclosing something I wrote a while ago.” And it was a letter of reference and recommendation for the Order from 2003 that he wrote. So I guess this has been going on for a while.
Did receiving it in any way change your life?
Breslin: It was a wonderful, wonderful experience. This is a sort of the equivalent of almost getting a knighthood in Britain. And I’ll just back this up a bit. When John Lennon got the OBE, which is the Order of the British Empire, which I guess is the closest thing to what I got, he turned it down. And then years later said the only regret he ever had was turning down his OBE.
So when they called me and said, “Do you accept?” I said, “Do people actually turn it down?” They said, “You’d be surprised.” And I believe Mordecai Richler, the novelist, turned it down twice. And I think David Suzuki, who is like a very strong environmentalist. One of the biggest probably environmental activists in the country. I think he turned it down. Because some people see it as cozying up to the government. But considering I wanted to put Donald Trump toilet paper in the loos when I got there, I don’t think I’m cozying up to anybody.
Mark and Joan Rivers.
Are there any perks that come along with this honor? Anything that we should be jealous of?
Breslin: Yeah. My wife won’t bug me so much with the loading the dishwasher when I’m wearing the pin on my bathrobe. Just to your question, has it changed my life any? It was a beautiful ceremony. It was a black-tie dinner. The place is an incredible mansion. It’s kind of the Canadian version of Versailles. Then I went home, and I had to take out the garbage. There was a rip in the bag, and I got all this goo on my shoe. So that’s a reality of life, right?
Absolutely. What would you say aside from this is your proudest accomplishment in terms of your career? Because we could talk about opening more than a dozen comedy clubs and producing major things, and writing books. But I’m curious where you come from as the most important thing for your career is?
Breslin: Okay, I’ll give you a couple of high points. First of all, I put $80 million in the hands of Canadian comedians, since I started doing this 40 years ago. And I feel that that’s quite an accomplishment to be proud of. The second thing I’m really proud of is that I had stood for freedom of speech on my stages since the beginning of my career, and I continue to do so. That’s the second accomplishment I’m proud of.
The third thing I’m really proud of is when I produced Joan Rivers’ show back in the ‘80s and when Fox was a fledgling network, and it hadn’t found its, you know, political voice yet. And another thing I’m really proud of is starting the Humber School Of Comedy which is the only degree-granting institution of comedy in the world… Wait a minute, I left out the best one… I fathered a child at 58.
A look back at Mark Breslin’s early days as a comic.
Was that on purpose?
Breslin: No comment. (laughs) Listen, all these people who are my friends who were even 20 years younger, they’re all doing incredible things to try to get pregnant, and taking all kinds of medication and pills. They have to turn their wives upside down on a certain day during this time of the month except on Tuesday where it’s real independence day. But my wife and I just got drunk in Cabo, frankly, and it just happened.
Cabo, huh? Was that your first time in Cabo?
Breslin: No. We like going there. We’ve been there a number of times before.
Did that have anything to do being a fan of Van Halen or Sammy Hagar?
Breslin: No, but we went to the Hagar joint, and it was as you would expect. It was kind of a fancy dive bar. It was very similar to what Jimmy Buffett, like a Margaritaville kind of thing. We’d go to that.
So steering it back to you. What was your transition from being a creative person to a businessman? Was there something before Yuk Yuk’s?
Breslin: Well, I never made a transition as such. The two things happened organically at the same time. I was doing a bit of comedy. My friends needed a place to play. I started opening up a club where everybody could play including myself. I started doing more comedy because I’d opened up the place. It was kind of a circular. And both sides just grew at the same time. About 20 years ago, I stopped performing nightly in my clubs. I occasionally do some performance if I do keynote speaking, or if I’m doing a big charity event.
Mark and Norm Macdonald.
Did writing books kind of fill that creative niche for you?
Breslin: Well, I always felt that my act had outgrown itself, and was kind of stale. But I couldn’t figure out a way of writing a new one. But when I wrote Control Freaked, which was my middle book I guess. I wrote it in 2002. It was basically like writing a new act. In fact, if I went back on-stage, I could simply take portions of that book and turn it into stand-up I think if I wanted to.
How much do you write in general? And I ask that because some people may not be performing on stage every day, but they actually have to write, or else they don’t feel complete.
Breslin: I wish I could tell you that I get up every morning, and I take a nice hot pot of coffee out to my garage where I’d set up a writing atelier, and I write for four hours, but unfortunately, that’s not really what happens. I somehow get the urge, and I scribble some stuff out.
But I do have two columns that I continuously write for. One is for the Canadian Jewish News. I do a humor column. And I’ve been doing that column for about fifteen years, but it moves around from paper to paper. Right now it’s parked at the Canadian Jewish News, which is national, and that’s great. And the second thing I do is I do a movie column for a website called Original-CIN. Spelled Original dash C-I-N. Get it? (laughs) Because movies are another love of mine.
And I’m also writing a couple of screenplays. One of which has been optioned. The other one I’m just finishing now. I wish I could tell you I have a really good writing regimen, but I don’t. I kind of do it when I can.
What can you expect from one of Mark Breslin’s public speaking engagements?
You avoided the pitfall, as far as I know, of saying, “Hey, I dominated Canada. Time to move over into the States.” Or did I miss something? Was there a Yuk Yuk’s U.S. chapter that you planned for?
Breslin: There were a couple of Yuk Yuk’s in the States. There was one in Buffalo. There was one in Rochester because they hugged the border, and it took advantage at the time in the ‘80s of a law that said that Canadian performers could work within fifty miles of the border without getting visas. They just needed to rubber-stamp the contract. That law no longer exists. That exemption no longer exists. And there was also a Yuk Yuk’s, believe it or not, in Maui, because I lived in Maui in 1987.
Wait a second. How did you live in Maui in 1987, while running all the comedy clubs in Canada?
Breslin: Well, I took a break. I was producing Joan Rivers’ show, and when that stopped I had a lot of mileage still left on my contract, and they paid me out. I had a lot of money to spend. I was kind of exhausted, didn’t know what I wanted to do. I knew I’d have to come back to Toronto eventually. But I thought, “I’ll move to Maui, and see what happens.” I was there for about six months. Started a club, got it going. Went back to Toronto, but then the thing fell apart after I moved back to Toronto. It’s very hard to do business across eight time zones.
Absolutely. As somebody who has been successful as a businessman, a writer, producer, etc, is there anything that you haven’t yet done and still are hoping to do?
Breslin: I’d like to be in the film business. But the film business doesn’t really exist in Canada in the way that it does in the United States where there’s actually a film culture. It’s all government grants here, which sounds fantastic, but it’s not really, because it’s all very small, small, small films. They love the idea of doing the film with two people in the room, and that’s it. That’s not really what I want to do. I would love to get more involved in that aspect of the business. And maybe do a little more television production.
Mark and George Burns in 1997.
Well, you mentioned earlier about having a film optioned. Was that something that you actively pursued, or it happened organically?
Breslin: Well, I wrote a script, and then I shopped it around. Somebody significant bit, and they’re out there trying to raise money. Who isn’t out there trying to raise money? Everybody’s trying to raise money.
But in your case you didn’t go the crowdsourcing route…
Breslin: No, no, no. That’s too indie for me. Sorry, I know you’re writing for an indie music publication. But that’s like trying to get rich by collecting pop bottles. It would just take too long. I’m an associate producer of a film out of Vancouver that’s being done that way, with outsourcing, and all those kinds of techniques. But I’m glad somebody else is actually doing that part of it because that’s not for me…
I’m very old school. Here’s what I like the idea of. I like going to a guy’s office, and he’s smoking a big drooly cigar, and I say, “I need $14 million, Bob.” And he says, “What’s it about?” And you show him a paper napkin, and you’ve written four words on it. And he goes, “Brilliant.” And he goes write you a check. This is sort of my way of doing things.
That also happens in Canada?
Breslin: No, which is probably why I’m still waiting.
So in closing, Mark, any last words for the kids?
Breslin: How old?
However old you think they might be that might be reading this.
Breslin: I think Bob Dylan said it best, “Don’t follow leaders. Trust the parking meters.”