Starting Out as a Stand-Up Comedian

Jeff | Uncategorized | Monday, April 16th, 2007

I always thought I’d make a pretty good stand-up comic. When I was a kid I loved watching the new episodes of Just for Laughs Festival that would air on the CBC every summer. The first stand-up special I can remember seeing was Mike McDonald’s on CBC. I couldn’t watch it the night it aired because it was on too late, but my parents taped it for me. Recently, I found that special amidst of pile of blank tapes at my mom’s house. My mom and dad neglected to label any of these damn tapes so I spent an afternoon watching them and in addition to the Mike McDonald special, I found Game 6 of the 1992 World Series and a dreadful Don Cherry roast from the early 90’s. The roast is painfully unfunny but I can remember my old man killing himself at some of Dennis Hull’s zingers. Anyway, I watched the Mike McDonald special again and it was still as funny as remember it being when I was a kid. I enjoy Mike McDonald’s personal style, it’s very similar to that of my comedic idol’s, Richard Pryor. Richard Pryor was another comic I’ve loved since I was a kid. While it might not have been the most popular Wilder-Pryor vehicle, both my mom and I love the movie Hear No Evil, See No Evil. In my last year of high school, I really started to study Pryor’s stand-up. I watched Live On the Sunset Strip and it made a huge impact on me and my comedy. If I were to ever teach stand-up my first act as teacher would be to make my student’s watch that movie. In the summer of 2003, just before I was to begin attending classes at Humber’s Comedy: Writing and Performance program, I began writing some stand-up. I mimicked both Pryor and McDonald in that I wrote about stuff that was close to my heart. I’m sure if I saw those writings now I’d think they were terrible but at least I already had a grasp of the style of comedy I wanted to perform.

My first set was on September 30th 2003 on Yuk Yuk’s Humber Night. I was nervous as hell and to make matters worse, my old drama teacher Mrs. Ross had organized a field trip, so over fifty students and teachers from my old high school showed up to watch me pop my stand-up cherry. I was introduced on to the stage by the legendary Stu Gallagher. Stu was a hilarious character. A Humber comedy student who was north of 40 and looked like the dude from Neon Rider, Stu’s honest-to-God closer was “What’s a ghost favourite drink?” “BOOOOOOZE!” I hopped on to the stage and nervously gripped the mic. My first act on stage was leaning forward with the mic and growling “HOW’S EVERYBODY DOING TONIGHTTTAAA???!!!” I sounded like the lead singer of shitty cover band trying to illicit a crowd response from the 7 bums that frequent Manny Road House in Acton. I then proceeded to perform two of the shittiest, hackiest minutes of stand-up comedy Humber Night has ever seen. (And anyone who has seen a Humber Night would realize that that’s no small feat.) I was bad, really bad. Due to the biased crowd I did get a good response though. As I was leaving the stage the guys from my old Improv team even threw some ladies underwear at me that they had purchased from the Acton Salvation Army earlier that day. After the show, I went to say goodbye to Mrs. Ross and when I boarded the bus all the field trippers gave me a standing ovation. That was a cool feeling. The standing ovation was undeserved, but it was still a cool feeling nonetheless.

It was obvious I wasn’t a natural when it came to stand-up. Luckily a 2nd year in the Humber Comedy Program took me under his wing. His name was Tyler Morrison and he was, and still is, my favourite stand-up to watch. Tyler’s a hick from Bracebridge, who is, without a doubt, the smartest guy to ever rock a Wendel Clark fu manchu and one of the best joke writers I’ve ever met. His material is as sharp as it is edgy and if one were ever to see Morrison perform in front of his crowd they’d be blown away. Tyler helped me out a lot with joke structure and word play and would throw me the occasional tag line as well. He truly is the best comic nobody’s ever heard of. I hope that will change soon.

Despite Tyler’s tutelage it wasn’t until December 5th 2003 that I finally had a “killer” set. Fast and Dirty are a musical/improvisational duo comprised of Gord Oxley and Rob Hawke. Gord was good friends with my drama teacher and invited me to do a set at their CD release party. Coincidentally enough, I had been in the audience the night their CD was recorded 8 months earlier as Mrs. Ross had arranged that field trip as well. My friends Creed, Mandy and my cousin Trav showed up to the Victory Café as I nervously studied the small crowd. I was really anxious about the thought of bombing in front of my friends. Much to my surprise however the diminutive audience was very receptive and my handful of
Acton jokes killed. It was a great feeling to realize that in less than a year I had gone from watching these guys perform to performing alongside them and doing quite well at that. Gord came up to me after the show and told me that I had done a great job and even paid be 20 bucks. That was the first time I had ever been paid to do comedy so it remains a special memory to this day.

After the Fast and Dirty show I milked that Acton set for all it was worth. Hell, I still am. I knew I was on to something when on my 10th set I killed at Spirits, which is arguably Toronto’s best open-mic. I decided to stay in Toronto for the summer of 2004, while most Humber students retreated back home. That turned out to be a very smart decision as I began hitting up more open-mics despite the fact that I had only 8 jokes at the time. One of my most memorable open-mic experiences happened at the Victory Pub. A British guy named Steve who referred to himself as “The Cheeky Chef” used to run this shithole. It was held every Thursday night in the basement a sports bar. The mic was situated right in front of this huge window that offered a view of the street and bypassing Torontonians. Since the audience consisted of the same twelve open-mic losers every week nobody ever got any laughs. One night a comic named Rob Balsden stuck his head out the window and struck up a conservation with one of the people on the street. By doing this, Rob actually cracked all of the open-micers up. Unfortunately, ever since that night, the open-micers got it in their heads that “If that Rob guy could do that and kill then I sure as hell can to.” So half way through their sets, after all of their shitty jokes had tanked, these guys would panic and start hollering out the window. Inevitably some curious person would look peak their head in the window to see what the hell was going on. At that point the open-micer would start riffing with them for about 40 seconds before the bystander would become disinterested and walk away. For reasons I can’t explain now, perhaps either dedication or stupidity, I went to do a set at the Victory Pub on my 20th birthday. Victory Pub was its usual horrible self but the night was made slightly more bearable because a few of my college buddies accompanied me that night. My friend Will even got up and did a set – and died – like everyone else. I had an okay set though, probably because my friends were nice enough to fake laugh for me on my birthday. As my set came to a close I decided that I should do a hilarious window bit as well. But instead of simply to talking to somebody, I should climb out the damn window and walk onto the street. That’d get a hell of a big laugh. Well I did and it didn’t. So now here I was on some street in Toronto having just crawled out of a window for a cheap laugh which never appeared. So I thought to myself “Fuck it.” “I’m not going back in there.” I couldn’t face those open-micers after making such an unfunny, grand exit. So instead I just walked around in circles outside the Victory Pub for the next half hour until the show ended, leaving my friends stuck at this terrible open-mic not knowing the whereabouts of the asshole that had dragged them there in the first place.

I got to be pretty good friends with Linda Ellis over my first year at Humber. Linda Ellis is a stand-up comic who works for Humber College. Linda is also in charge of booking the Humber nights at Yuk Yuk’s. Linda liked me and thought I showed some potential so she booked me for a lot of Humber nights that summer. I also started writing a lot more that summer, moving away from my Acton jokes and into more personal material such as my experiences in high school and poking fun at my family. My new material really clicked and I started tearing up Humber nights.

After one particularly good showing on a Humber night in late August of 2004, Linda informed me that Jack Norman wanted to meet me. Jack Norman ran the show “The Launching Pad”, which followed the Humber Night shows on Toonie Tuesday. All of the Yuk Yuk’s amateurs performed on “The Launching Pad” show. Yuk Yuk’s amateurs are comics that Yuk Yuk’s shows interest in but feel they need to develop more before adding them to their professional roster. A Yuk Yuk’s amateur was referred to as being on the “Fast Track.” Apparently Jack had shown up early that night (must have been an act of God) and liked what he saw.
“Great stuff kid. You’re a fuckin’ natural. Has Mark seen you yet?” (Referring to Yuk Yuk’s owner Mark Breslin)
“No.” I replied.
“Well he’s gonna fuckin’ see yah.”

So for the next two weeks Jack put me up on the Launching Pad and then got me a showcase for Mark the following week. I was pretty nervous the night of the showcase. I had heard stories of guys who had showcased 4 or 5 times for Breslin and still not been “Fast Tracked.” Fortunately, I pulled off a good set and the first words Mark said to me were “Loved it. How would you like to be put on our “Fast Track?” I went home feeling on top of the world that night. When I told all the boys back at the apartment (5 of us lived in a 2 bedroom apartment at the time) they were all happy for me as well, Alain Rochefort even poured me a congratulatory rye, the classy son of a bitch.

Had I known what I was in store for on the Launching Pad, I might not have been so ecstatic. As I mentioned before, The Launching Pad was supposed to be a show where the Yuk Yuk’s amateurs honed their craft before being brought up on to the professional roster. In actuality though, the Launching Pad shows were usually two steps below god-awful. Gong shows comprised of a lot of comedians, a few audience members and even fewer laughs. In my seven months on Launching Pad I can honestly say I had two good sets. To me the only thing that made the Launching Pad shows bearable was watching the nutcases. You see in addition to the “Fast Track” comics, the Launching Pad also offered spots to first-timers as well. Believe me when I tell you that I saw many an unfunny man led to the gallows. To make matters worse (or better, depending on your perspective) whenever somebody would be tanking the boys in the back would play a video on the two television monitors that hung from opposites sides of the stage. These videos featured everything from nuclear bomb test footage to a mobster getting riddled with bullets in one of those gangster movies from the 1930’s. So you’d have some open-micer excreting their terrible rape material while Jimmy Cagney was getting blown to bits behind them.

My favorite Launching Pad bomb was performed by this older man who had clearly never performed a stand-up set in his life, but had watched a lot of it on TV. Jack called this mid-life crisis to the stage, who was decked out in an all denim outfit and slicked-back silver hair and looked a lesbian Bill Maher. The man then grabbed the mic and began prowling the stage ala Chris Rock while delivering his hard-hitting material…about the weather. “Is anybody else pissed off about this motherfuckin’ rain?” he screamed. “Fuck snow up the ass eh?” and so on. Anyways, after four minutes of this guy’s edgy meteorology he stomped off the stage and right out the front door. Jack Norman then reclaimed the microphone and asked the question that was on everyone’s mind. “Okay guys what the fuck was that?”

Out of all the character’s that passed through during my time on the Launching Pad though, I have two favorites. “Machine Gun” Harry and the show’s host himself, Jack Norman. Machine Gunn Harry is an octogenarian stand-up comic who had made frequent appearances on City TV’s Speaker’s Corner alongside drunk dudes from Buffalo “Fuckin’ Toronto girls are sooooo hot!” and the homeless. Eighty-year old Harry would usually sit in the front row, fall asleep halfway through the show and awake just in time for his set. Jack would put Harry up for his own personal amusement and Harry would rock the house with timeless cut ups such as “My apartment is so small the mice are hunchbacked.” I’m pretty sure every time Harry told a joke he had to pay royalties to the estate of Henny Youngman. Also, I found it a little ironic that on a show designed for grooming young comics, the best act was an ¾ dead 80 year old man. Jack Norman was a shady looking character who was notorious for doing more or less the same act every week. For example Jack would start the show every week by saying “Thank you folks for that heartfelt smattering of applause, all right let’s kick this old lady in the ass and see how she walks across the street.” Bitter and sarcastic, Jack was always a straight-shooter with me. He’d give me hell when I had a bad set but would praise me when I did well, which as I mentioned before, didn’t happen too often. Sometimes Jack was brutally honest with me. One night I was bored watching the Launching Pad show so I went up to Jack and tried to make small-talk. “Hey Jack, how are ya, what’ve you been up to?” I asked. “Jesus kid you must be bored, what the hell do you care what I’ve been up to.” I went back to my seat. Jack was also infamous for either being or acting drunk at least 80% of the time he hosted. While some people didn’t care for Jack he always treated me well and I got a kick out of his antics.

Finally, one week after my 21st birthday I was bumped off the Launching Pad and added to the professional roster.

Jeff

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