In October 2014, Kristie Gunter founded Funnies for Families, a non-profit organization that brings laughter to families going through tough times. Volunteer comedy groups perform shows and conduct workshops at various shelters and centres across Ontario, with the mission of sharing smiles and creating positive moments that turn into lifelong memories.
Kristie, a performer herself, says her three biggest passions are comedy, working with kids and helping others. She adds that Funnies for Families lets her pursue all three.
We connected with Kristie to learn about this entirely volunteer-run organization that unites the comedy community with families who need funnies the most.
- What lead you to want to start Funnies for Families?
In early 2014, my partner Rockland became an uncle when his sister had a baby, Henry Nathaniel. Henry was born prematurely and with Down syndrome. This came with a number of medical complications and Henry and his mother stayed at Ronald McDonald House in southern Alberta for three months while Henry underwent surgeries, developed strength and grew! Throughout their stay, I learned about all the amazing things Ronald McDonald House does to keep families together, getting them through their difficult time.
I wanted to find a way to help families like Henry’s. I had done a couple of shows with my friend Eric Toth at the The Hospital for Sick Children with his group and thought I could do something similar at Ronald McDonald House. I reached out to the Toronto location with a formal proposal for Funnies for Families, a monthly comedy show for the families with a solid cast of six. Since then, we’ve grown to become our own nonprofit, doing multiple shows and workshops at various venues, helping hundreds of families.
- How old were you when Funnies for Families started? How old are you now?
I was 21 when I started Funnies for Families and I’m 25 now – the same age as Cardi B and we’re practically at the exact same success level!
The first couple of years in Toronto, I was figuring out who I was on my own and what I wanted in life, other than fruit roll ups. After starting Funnies for Families, I feel like I’ve found a way I can use my comedy skills and my passion for helping others, together as one. I know I’m one lucky duck to be able to do that.
- If you could describe Funnies for Families in 280 characters (a tweet!), what would you write?
Funnies for Families is an non-profit organization dedicated to helping families get through difficult times using laughter. Our skilled group of volunteer comedians deliver comedy shows and workshops to bring smiles to those who need it most. (And then however many sunglass guy emojis Twitter will allow).
- Performances and workshops have taken place at The Redwood women’s shelter, Covenant House and Gilda’s Club, in addition to Ronald McDonald House Toronto and The Hospital for Sick Children. What does it feel like to walk into these places on what could be a person’s worst day of the year? What does the energy in the room feel like, so to speak?
The energy can be so different, day to day and place to place. Sometimes, it can be a tragic day and others, a stable day with the normal (very heavy) stresses of these situations. But, we always make sure we’re coming in with positive, upbeat energy to set the tone of the show or the workshop. I know it’s a release for families.
We’ve had families that stay to watch our evening show, even if they’ve got the okay to leave the shelter or go home earlier that day. We’ve also had families that have had a child pass away that day, but the siblings and parents need to just have a moment to breathe. Those days, the energy can feel different. Not always negative but just softer, more sombre. And I know our cast feels even more determined like, “This is why we’re here, let’s be next level hilarious tonight.”
- What’s it like to see families laughing and enjoying the performances, despite everything they’re going through?
It’s incredibly heartwarming. Rockland pointed out once that laughter is more of a reflex than a choice. If you see something funny, you can’t help but laugh or smile. It’s cool to see that happen with these families. They’re going through unimaginable hardships, but they come to our show and share a laugh. They can’t help it! And improv can feel special and intimate because not only is the audience seeing the show for the first time, but the performers are too. It makes it feel like we’re all on the same team. The families enjoy being a part of that magic, as the show gets created based on what they suggest. It’s like all of us, performers and audience, are there to forget whatever is happening today and just create and have fun together.
- What themes does Funnies for Families explore in performances?
We do almost everything and anything. Because it’s all improvised, anything can happen. Before the show, we always say this is a special show made just for that audience, which is true because it’s different every time. Each venue has a certain list of topics to stay away from. At women’s shelters, we stay away from male characters if we can, and violence, of course. At Covenant House, we have the unique challenge of staying away from many family based scenes (we just go by “Comedy Show” at that venue to accomodate how our name may be triggering). At Ronald McDonald House Toronto and in hospitals, we try to stay away from the topics of surgery, illness and death – but sometimes, we have an audience that wants to see a scene set in a hospital, because that’s what they think of all day, everyday. If that’s the case, we make it as goofy as possible. We had a scene recently where all the nurses were turning into potatoes. That’s our kind of solution. We try to make the experience comfortable and fun. We don’t want to trigger anyone in the audience, so we do our best to accommodate everyone’s needs.
- What type of pressure do you face as Co-Founder and CEO of the organization?
My biggest is probably time. My position (and every position) at Funnies for Families is voluntary at the moment. I do work a full time job at The Second City Training Centre as well as manage Funnies for Families full time. Related to that, I have found myself actually scheduling time to relax, which is embarrassing, but needed. Throughout the last two years of being a person in this world, I’ve learned self-care is important, and a necessity in order to make sure Funnies for Families is being run as best as it can be. We go through grief sometimes with this kind of job, so it’s important for me to take care of myself and our team. I’ve found small pressures along the way, as well. I had personal insecurities about making Funnies for Families so public. I have guilt when we can’t do something requested because of resources. But all in all, I find the positives far outweigh the pressures.
- Has Funnies for Families ever faced criticism or controversial remarks?
It hasn’t faced criticism, as of yet. There will likely be a time when we face criticism or controversy, as most places do. When that times comes, I’m confident we’ll be able to handle it. Or, I’ll change my name to Rihanna and live a quiet life with no attention.
- How do you think Funnies for Families works to lessen the negative stigma around hospitals and shelters?
People who aren’t around this kind of environment and just see it in the media can forget that what’s behind it is people. Yes, there is sadness and hardship, but I think we bring it back to – yes, this girl has cancer, but she can also recite the whole movie Frozen from memory; yes, this mother escaped an abusive home with her two sons, but she suggests dancing at every show because she thinks it’s HILARIOUS to see us try that out. People seek joy and joy is so easy to forget when life is being narrated completely by the negative. There is always that glimmer of light and we bring that to the forefront.
- Over the last three-and-a-half-years, you must have met so many inspiring people. Do you have a story or memory that perhaps propels you forward, motivating you to keep leading Funnies for Families?
I have so many! Every show motivates me; every interaction with these families drives me to do this forever, even when I turn into a ghost.
There was a family with two brothers that would come see the show every week. They started this ongoing joke with Rockland. We have this game called “Scraps,” where the audience writes down a sentence and we have to say it in our scene and make it make sense. They would giggle like crazy even writing their scrap, before seeing it onstage. Every time, they’d write some ridiculous, Looney Toon style way of Rockland getting injured. We would have to say, “Rockland gets hit by a running bear.” They would go crazy laughing. One time, we asked them why they did that and they said, “It’s just something we do.” Which was never established, so it was even more hilarious.
In that same game, we also had a boy who would always write the same sentences each week. We said, “You have a pee stain,” and, “The price is wrong,” every week for about a year. He was a big Adam Sandler fan. It never failed to make him laugh.
At The Redwood, we did our show and the focus of the audience was super high energy because the mothers were downstairs in a workshop and it was just us and the kids. There wasn’t a ton of focus. We still had so much fun, but I had just hoped the audience had fun too. I was a little nervous it was a bit too crazy for the kids to enjoy. We have a debrief after every show to check in with our cast and as we were talking, an eight-year-old boy that we had invited up as an audience volunteer handed me a note. He ran away quickly after. The note said, “I love the show so much. I like when I got to be in the show. Think you.” It made all the difference to know that he had such a good time.
Another time, we had a shy girl come up to do a game called Sound Effects. She was pretty nervous but happy to help. In this game, we get a volunteer from the audience who will provide all the sound effects of the scene. We got the suggestion of haunted house (a great suggestion!). She tried to make the sound of a ghost but instead it came out, “MooooOOOoooo.” And our cast justified it by saying, “That must be the ghost cow!” The audience loved it. And when we came back the next week, the front desk asked us what “Ghost Cow” meant because the kids had been saying it to each other all week.
I could honestly tell these stories forever.
- How many people make up the Funnies for Families team right now? What are their roles?
We have just over 50 incredible performance volunteers for our shows and workshops. We also have people who help us behind the scenes. I have my friend Joanne Adair who I can reach out to and say, “I need someone who does ____” and she will find that person for me. Annie Day provided our team with free coaching on grief and self-care. Erin Conway has been a great resource for connections for us. Johana Barretto donated our logo. Emily Richardson has donated art for our social media. Lindsay Woods and Claire Farmer helped me wrangle all the legal needs of starting Funnies for Families. And of course, Rockland is my partner in kind in this endeavour.
- How has Funnies for Families changed and grown since the very first day as a business?
Funnies for Families has changed immensely. We started with a once a month show at Ronald McDonald House Toronto and a cast of six volunteers. Now, we have at least 10 shows and workshops a month, throughout Ontario. We have over 50 volunteers. We have a social media presence. This is all new for us, within the last year. These changes have been so encouraging. Nothing makes my heart soar quite like someone believing in Funnies for Families. And this last year, my heart has fully flown right out my chest and it’s probably somewhere over the Atlantic.
- With extensive experience in the entertainment, comedy and arts industries, what is your favourite part about this community in Toronto?
Definitely the support. Lots of our donations come right from the comedy community. People produce shows or do workshops in the city and donate the earnings to us. We even had a comedian host her birthday party and instead of gifts, she asked her guests to donate to Funnies for Families. All of our volunteers are local comedians from the community. The people I’ve met that support us behind the scenes are all connections I’ve made through this community. There are parts of the acting and comedy community that can be difficult and competitive, but it’s proved time and time again that it’s really held together by the strong support.
- How are the fundraising dollars you collect put to use?
There are tons of ways the fundraising dollars help us out. A huge use for us is to be able to travel to different venues that we wouldn’t be able to for free. For example, it costs us between $100 and $150 to travel to Ronald McDonald House Hamilton each month. We wouldn’t be able to do that without donations. Hopefully, we’ll soon be able to use our donations to travel outside of Ontario as well and do shows across the country. We also use donations for supplies for our shows, like the microphone equipment and our running orders. Our admin costs like the website, business cards and more are also ways we use the donations.
- Describe the concrete impact that funds raised for Funnies for Families have had in the community.
Because our main cost right now is transportation, the concrete impact of funds raised is bringing the same dedication to helping families get through difficult times using laughter to more destinations. It’s bringing our volunteers to each venue, which brings comedy to that place. And in turn, happiness to those families. The Circle of Laughs, as they say in the popular 1994 Disney hit, The Lion King.
- You’ve talked about prospective national impact. Will Funnies for Families expand to other cities in Canada?
Yes, it’s in our five year plan as a business. We’ve already had to sadly turn down a few out-of-province opportunities due to resources, but someday we will be able to perform all over!
- When and where is Funnies for Families’ next performance?
We have multiple shows weekly! As I’m typing this, we just finished a show at Ronald McDonald House Toronto, and a workshop at Gilda’s Club an hour ago. Tomorrow, we have a show at Ronald McDonald House Hamilton! Those donations are helping us get there.
To learn more about Funnies for Families, follow the organization on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter and listen to the House Lights podcast, a weekly show celebrating people who do amazing work in the Toronto entertainment industry, where Kristie shares news about Funnies for Families with host Hidetaka Ishii in episode three. And, before you click away from this interview, click here to donate to Funnies for Families.
A huge thank you to Kristie for speaking with A Quarter Young and for voluntarily leading Funnies for Families. Your commitment to helping Canadian families and spreading smiles is invaluable. Please keep us updated on where your heart flies to, next.