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This article was published 24/1/2019 (270 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Five years ago, Johnny Giannakis made what he thought would be a sound investment.
The Greek-born restaurateur, who’s been running kitchens in Winnipeg for more than 30 years, wanted to inject new life into Johnny G’s, the eponymous, open-till-4-a.m. lounge he’d been running on McDermot Avenue since 1996. So, Giannakis reached into his pockets and decided to renovate the basement into a classic Irish pub, hoping it would become a live music hotspot.
Giannakis spared no expense, hiring a master woodworker to handcraft the beautiful oak bar section, a project that cost $75,000. In all, Johnny G spent 250 G’s, and Wee Johnny’s opened for business.
But as the bands started playing, the crowds didn’t start paying, and a year into the experiment, the pub seemed like a dud; the owner considered leasing it to an outside tenant. "We were losing anywhere between $5,000 to $10,000 per month for almost a year," Giannakis says Tuesday, admiring the fine details of the bar. "It was bleeding us dry."
Then, a funny thing happened: Wee Johnny’s became a full-fledged comedy club, and now, it’s thriving while turning a profit. "You have to do something special to get people to spend their night in a basement," Giannakis realized. "The comedy sort of saved the pub."
'You have to do something special to get people to spend their night in a basement. The comedy sort of saved the pub' – restaurateur Johnny Giannakis
Giannakis takes no credit for the transition from fiddle music to local comedy proving-ground. "All credit goes to Timothy Gray," he says.
In 2015, Gray, a local comedian, began organizing a Sunday night showcase in the basement bar once a month. As interest grew, the event moved to Friday night. In June 2017, Gray took over as the club’s sole booker, and success came quickly. By 2018, there were three shows weekly, and now, Wee Johnny’s has some sort of comedy going on as often as six nights per week.
"Last year, we went all in on comedy and abandoned music," says Gray, twiddling his moustache while drinking a Diet Pepsi. "I wasn’t sure we could get to this point, but the formula is definitely working for us right now."
The formula is a rather simple one, he says. Gray makes sure to book a wide variety of performers and events, including the popular Women’s Open Mic, hosted by Dana Smith, a stand-out comic who happens to be married to Gray, as well as a number of improv and storytelling shows. Gray also gives young up-and-comers a fair shake, and seeks out every opportunity to bring up comics from underrepresented groups, such as people of colour or members of the LGBTTQ* community.
Last year, he also implemented a safe-space policy, outlining Wee Johnny’s policies against discrimination, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and other forms of harassment. At the time, the policy was met with some criticism, Gray says, but overall, it’s achieved its goal of creating a respectful room for comics and audiences alike to tell jokes and push boundaries in a unique way.
Comedian Sasha Mark, 24, says the policy has helped open up the comedy scene for people from marginalized communities.
"I’m Indigenous — a person of colour — and I’m queer," says Mark, who hosts a monthly showcase at the pub called the Sasha-Ha-Ha-Show-Show.
"In the past, people might have told me that my act ‘wasn’t the right fit,’ but Wee Johnny’s is different. What they’re doing is amazing and ahead of its time." Plus, Mark says, Gray has a solid reputation for giving comics opportunities to get paid fairly for their work.
To keep audiences enticed, Gray and Giannakis have ensured tickets are affordable, with free entry to the two-hour-plus open mic every Wednesday night, and the headliner shows usually feature a $5 gate.
"I really feel like the product is worth at least $15 or $20, though," Gray deadpans.
At the free open mic on Jan. 23, about 20 comics — some veterans, others, not so much — got a shot to make audiences giggle, giving the crowd more than their money’s worth. After telling a series of jokes about his veganism, comedian Jared Story managed to make a Free Press reporter audibly snort. "Either there’s a pig in the audience, or I’m really good at comedy," he says.
For more than two hours, the pub, which had 50 onlookers, was also filled with laughter, sometimes raucous. Stand-outs included Jared Nathan, a comedian who uses his stutter to comic perfection, and Angie St. Mars, who recently won the Winnipeg’s Funniest Person With a Day Job competition at Rumor’s Comedy Club.
"Every time there’s a show there, it’s full," says St. Mars, 30. "It’s kind of become a community club for comedians."
Gray closed out the night with a set of his own, summing up the oddity of Wee Johnny’s he helped create. "This is exciting," he says. "This is a group of strangers that all decided to get together in this room here tonight and share the experience of laughter, huh? Isn’t that nice?... ha, ha, hahahaha."
Giannakis, who’d never fancied himself anything other than a restaurateur, couldn’t agree more. As far as he’s concerned, Wee Johnny’s has finally started to achieve the potential he thought it had, even if it’s more likely to feature John Mulaney wannabes on its stage than the next Neil Young. "We’ve found a niche, we took a chance, and it paid off," he says.
Funny how that works.