Bullard still at the mic (The Province)

 

Bullard still at the mic

Comedy Showdown: Former TV host hoping to wind up in radio

 

The Province, February 21, 2008

In the U.S., late-night talk-show hosts are a dime a dozen. The three major networks have six among them. But in Canada, there’s only been one of note. And he’s been gone since 2004.

Open Mike with Mike Bullard hit the air back in 1997 on CTV in front of a miniscule crowd of about 100 at the back of a Toronto restaurant. His round face shadowed by a day’s growth of whiskers, and quick put-downs of anyone in his sights, were an instant hit with Canadians.

The show moved to bigger digs, attracted bigger guests, and he was sitting pretty. By 2003 Bullard had done 1,100 shows and his contract was up. Foolishly, he left, signing up with the rival Global network. Six weeks later, buh-bye.

“I thought, ‘You know what? I’m going to try some place else and see what happens,’” he says now. “I could have gone back [to CTV]. Do I wish I had? Many times. But I don’t look back. I try to look forward.”

In this age where it seems anything that ever hit the airwaves is available on DVD, it’s surprising there’s no highlight package from Open Mike. Bullard gets asked that all the time but has no answer. It seems that maybe only a public clamouring for one might get it done. There’s certainly no shortage of memorable moments, like the time he asked Julian Lennon who his favourite Beatle was, or when the late Mitch Hedberg made one of his first TV appearances, or when the sitting prime minister paid a visit.

Bullard’s all-time favourite show was when Ricky Martin arrived at the height of his fame. The host was told that under no circumstances was he to ask him any questions about his sexual preference. Bullard being Bullard decided to have a little on-air fun. As he tells it, “We do the interview and it’s going really well and we’re almost at the end. And I go, ‘Listen, Ricky, I don’t want to pry but I gotta tell you I’d be remiss in my duties if I didn’t ask you this question.’ And you could just see the colour go right out of his face. I said, ‘But if I don’t ask you this question I really won’t be able to look in the mirror tomorrow morning.’ And he stutters and stammers and goes, ‘W-w-what is it?’ And I go, ‘Are you Spanish or Puerto Rican?’”

After his cancellation, Bullard started doing corporate gigs with his standup act before landing a gig as a morning guy on XM radio. The station ran out of money, as he puts it, but Bullard thinks he’s found his calling.

“That’s where I want to wind up,” he says, whether it’s satellite or terrestrial radio. “There’s none of this, ‘Hey, let’s write this, let’s go over it 25 times and put it on the show tomorrow.’ It’s right there and now.”

Bullard has always been about the here and now. Abandoning any prepared material early in his standup career, he started concentrating on crowd work. He’s one of the few comics working today who can go a whole hour just spritzing with folks. You can see him in action at Yuk Yuk’s tonight through Saturday hosting the Comedy Showdown competition.

His impressive memory doesn’t forget a name or relevant piece of information throughout the night. It’s not anything he works on; it just comes naturally.

“I don’t know what it is,” he says. “I guess I’ve never lost a brain cell through drugs or booze because I never drank or anything. On the down side, I’m up all night with sparks going off in my head. That makes me wish I had had a drink once in a while.”

The face that makes you laugh (The Province)

 

The face that makes you laugh

Jon Lovitz: Standup comedy saved star after close friend died

The Province, December 21, 2007

Jon Lovitz has a face made for comedy. Which made the former theatre student’s career choice that much easier.

When people ask him if he wants to delve into dramatic roles, Lovitz says he has. The only problem? “They laugh as soon as I come on the screen if they know me,” he said on the phone from his home in Los Angeles. “I don’t even say anything and they’re already laughing. It’s kind of funny. People go, ‘I just look at your face and I start laughing.’ I’m like, ‘Oh, great. Thanks.’ But I know what they mean. It’s a compliment.”

At least he got to play at serious acting during his five seasons on Saturday Night Live. His favourite character, he says, was The Master Thespian, based on cinema greats like John Barrymore (Drew’s grandfather). Lovitz, a fan of early show business, would watch old movies and think, “I wish I could play that part.” So he’d go into work and make up a character based on what he saw.

His Pathological Liar character, whose catchphrase (“Yeah, that’s the ticket!”) was on everyone’s lips a decade ago, was similarly inspired. “I saw part of The Thin Man recently,” he said, “and I forgot how much I was imitating it.

“I like old movies because they had a lot of energy. I like people that tend to be bigger than life. I was just watching this thing with W.C. Fields and he was doing this bit with a pool table. It’s just the funniest thing ever. If you want to know what comedy is, it’s that scene. He does everything. He’s amazing.”

Lovitz teaches an acting class at the Laugh Factory comedy club and says that too many actors and comedians don’t know their history, which he thinks is a shame. “I say, ‘It’s not old school, it’s correct school!’ There are certain basics in everything. Once you know all that, then you can add your own thing on top.”

His own thing these days is standup comedy. Lovitz started out in improv and sketch but turned to standup a few years ago in large part to break out of a funk brought on by the death of former SNL castmate Phil Hartman.

“Phil was like my older brother,” he says. “I idolized him. And he was murdered and it was horrible. Basically I was depressed for five years. I did stuff but I kind of withdrew socially. And then one day I remember standing in front of my garage and I said, ‘I’m still alive.’ That’s when I started doing standup, to be honest.”

Lovitz brings his act back to the River Rock Show Theatre tomorrow. He played there last year and had a ball, even recommending the venue to his good friend Dana Carvey. But above all, he just loves the art form. There are no directors or writers telling him what to do and say.

“I really enjoy it,” he says. “You get to be funny the way you’re funny. All the responsibility of the show is yours. That’s the thing that’s hard about it for me. If it succeeds, it’s you. And if it fails, it’s you. You can’t blame anyone else.”

Not to worry, Lovitz fans, he’s not forsaking acting.

“I still want to do television and movies. But the thing is, you just don’t know when the other stuff is going to come, at least in my case. But the standup is always there so it’s a great thing to have.”

You'll laugh your Yak-off (The Province)

 

You’ll laugh your Yak-off
 

Pre-Valentine’s Show: Comedian giving love seminar for singles
 

The Province, February 9, 2007

When Yakov Naumovich Pokhis emigrated with his parents to the U.S. from the Soviet Union in 1977, he knew two things. One, he’d have to learn to speak English if he wanted to make it as a comedian in his new country.

And, two, he’d need a new name.

He accomplished the former by locking himself in his room and watching TV for three months straight.

“Then I realized it was a Spanish station,” he jokes.

As for the name, while working as a bartender in New York, he tried to figure out what would be a name Americans would respond to.

“They knew Krushchev but that wasn’t a good association,” he says. “But they had a smile on their face when they heard Smirnoff.”

Yakov Smirnoff went on to become one of the hottest comedy stars of the 1980s, featured in movies, his own sitcom, and Miller Lite commercials. As kind of an early model Borat, his observations on life in America compared with his former home, usually followed by his catchphrase “What a country!” kept him in the limelight until the fall of the Soviet empire.

“I thought it was very inconsiderate of them to do this to me,” he says of the collapse. “Not even a phone call! I mean, at least they could have said, “OK, get ready. Your mortgage is gonna be the same and your income is going to plummet.’”

But the resourceful comic moved shop to Branson, Missouri, where he owns his own 2,000-seat theatre and plays approximately 200 shows a year there.

“It was actually one of the best things that happened to the world and to me, as well,” he says, “because I needed it. I was too comfortable. I was doing Vegas, Atlantic City and was living high on the hog. It helped me to reevaluate and see what is it I really want to do.”

With the dissolution of both the USSR and his marriage, Smirnoff turned his attention away from east-west relations and toward human relations.

Taking a hiatus from comedy to get his masters in applied positive psychology from the Ivy League University of Pennsylvania, he has now incorporated humour into the classroom, teaching a course entitled “Living Happily Ever Laughter.” He’s at Yuk Yuk’s Comedy Club on Burrard this Sunday from 6 to 9 p.m. with a pre-Valentine’s Day seminar for singles called “Let Laughter Lead You to Love.”

“The secret here is not that laughter creates love,” he says, “it’s that love creates laughter.”

He believes that cachinnation is the canary in the coal mine that monitors the health of a relationship.

Don’t expect a dull dissertation. He claims you’ll laugh your Yak-off.

“Laughter is a serious matter but it’s very much an entertaining workshop,” he says. “My goal is to pass on this information because I am personally so excited by this. My mission statement is ‘to experience happiness and teach it to the world with passion through comedy and sensitivity.’ So I’m making it very fun and interesting but mainly this information has to go out there because there are too many unhappy people.”

He could easily impart the same message within the framework of his standup comedy, but Smirnoff says people would just walk out laughing.

“What I want to give them is tools that they can take home and create laughter in their own homes. It’s kind of like the Home Depot of comedy.”

Conquering Canuck (The Globe and Mail)

Conquering Canuck

The Globe and Mail, January 5, 2007

Canada has produced its share of comedy superstars: Jim Carrey, Mike Myers and the casts of SCTV and Kids in the Hall, to name a few.

But in November, Vancouver comedian Damonde Tschritter did what no other Canadian has ever been able to do: The 36-year-old became the first standup from the Great White North to win the prestigious Seattle International Comedy Competition in its 27-year history.

This was no small feat. In fact, the first time Tschritter entered the three-week-long competition, in 1999, the event’s organizer, Ron Reid, told him that no Canuck would ever win it.

“He said it with a bit of sarcasm,” Tschritter remembers, “but I don’t know if he was joking or he was serious. It was a little of both.”

Tschritter’s style is that of a storyteller rather than a quick-hitter with one-liners. He eschews what he considers to be gimmicks, such as acting out routines or doing tried-and-true impressions, preferring to weave stories together from his life – about taking a Greyhound bus, wanting to be a firefighter and getting coerced into playing softball while stoned.

With only five minutes given to each performer in the first round, Tschritter ended up beating 31 comedians from throughout North America.

Although some Canadian comics shy away from any mention of their native country while working in the United States, Tschritter embraced his nationality during the competition.

“I decided I wanted to win it admitting I was from Canada,” he said. “I’d play the fish-out-of-water angle. I’m sure there are nights where the judges don’t pull for the Canadian, but what can you do?”

The 10-year standup veteran has done some big shows in his career, including the New Faces showcase at Just For Laughs in Montreal and his own Comedy Now! TV special. But Tschritter, an avid sports fan, says he loves the thrill of victory a competition provides.

Tschritter took home $5,000 (U.S.) “and a pretty good bundle of prestige,” he says, although he admits with a laugh, “It’s not like the phone’s been ringing off the hook.”

Perhaps the most beneficial byproduct of his first-place finish is being able to renew his U.S. work visa.

“You’ve always got to prove that you can do the job better than Americans and if you’re the champ, they can’t really deny that.”

Tschritter has done his share of touring stateside; already, he notices a difference in how he’s perceived.

“Down there, standup comics turn into TV stars, so [spectators] think this could be the next guy [to make it]. They give you that sort of respect. You’re living the American dream, whereas in Canada they just kind of look at you like you’re a garage band.”

If it’s true that you’re nobody until you’ve made it in the States, then Tschritter has taken one small step in that direction. But it’s a giant leap for Canadian standups.

A humble Harland Williams never wants for work (The Province)

A humble Harland Williams never wants for work

 

On a role: He’s played everything from a guy on Mars to a killer

 

The Province, November 23, 2006

When Harland Williams packed up and moved south in 1990, many in the entertainment industry predicted he’d be the next Jim Carrey, he was such a unique presence on the standup stages of his native Canada.

In fact, his first movie role was opposite his fellow countryman Carrey in Dumb & Dumber, where Williams played the first of seven law-enforcement characters he’d play to date in his career, albeit the only one who imbibed urine (his latest, Rosco P. Coltrane in The Dukes of Hazzard: The Beginning, will be released next year.)

Williams, admittedly, hasn’t had the kind of stratospheric success of Carrey, but the humble Canuck is never wanting for work.

“I feel – in terms of a really gratifying career in movies and standup and TV, I mean – I could have died eight years ago and I would have been happy,” he says on the phone from San Jose, where he was performing in advance of his three-night run at Vancouver’s Funny Bone. “I’m really happy. And what’s great about it is I still feel anything can happen. Right now I’m at a certain level, which I’m very happy with, but I always strive to move forward and, God willing, I move up the chain to something else. But if I don’t, I really don’t have any regrets…. I’ve pretty much done everything I wanted to do.”

One of his better known parts was as Kenny Davis in the cult hit Half Baked. But it was a role Williams was reluctant to take, given the film’s pro-drug stance. (“I just didn’t want to condone that type of thing,” he says.) In fact, he turned the movie down five times before his manager convinced him it would widen his fan base.

“I’ve played a guy on Mars; I’ve played a cop drinking pee; I’ve played a serial killer in There’s Something About Mary. They’re just roles. And so I kind of justified it that way,” he says.

Occasionally he’ll be approached by a young fan who credits him with turning him on to pot. “I don’t really like that,” he says. “So it was a bit of a mixed thing for me.”

No doubt it was also problematic for his father, a former Conservative Member of Provincial Parliament in Ontario and Solicitor-General.

“I think he gets a kick out of me playing all the cop roles because he was like the top cop there for a while,” says Williams. In fact, with all the time he’s spent in uniform, it’s surprising he hasn’t yet received recognition from the police.

“I’m hoping they give me something!” he laughs. “Like an honourable badge of merit or something. A diploma or an honorary degree or something. My own office, at least.”

The offstage Mr. Warmth is, well, really quite warm (Vancouver Sun)

The offstage Mr. Warmth is, well, really quite warm

Don Rickles, the bulldog of comedy, once studied dramatic arts in New York

The Vancouver Sun, October 14, 2006

Don Rickles isn’t called Mr. Warmth because of his cordial amiability. But after talking to the man on the phone, it’s clear his ironic nickname also works at face value.

The 80-year-old bulldog of comedy has made a name for himself throughout the years as a caustic, politically incorrect insult comic of the highest magnitude. But Rickles has long had the reputation, well-deserved by all appearances, of being a pussycat off-stage. You can’t help but wonder how he’s going to embarrass you (and secretly hoping he does), but it never comes.

Comedy historians trace his style back to Jack E. Leonard, but Rickles begs to differ. “Jack, rest his soul, was a friend of mine,” he says. “But he was so wrong, and so were a lot of other people. They compared me to him. Jack was a funny guy but Jack was the kind of guy that did put-down things in a set routine. Whereas I don’t tell jokes.”

An interesting distinction, to be sure, for anyone at the receiving end of either of these legends’ tongue-lashings. But Rickles, who plays the River Rock Show Theatre tonight, goes one step further, claiming not even to be an insult comic.

“Milton Berle gave me that many, many years ago and it always stuck with me,” he says. “But it’s not insult. Let me put it this way: I’m the guy that makes fun of the boss at the Christmas party on Friday night and Monday still has his job. It’s never mean-spirited. And it’s a matter of exaggerating people and things around us.”

It’s hard to imagine, but were it not for a few more inches and a lot more hair, Rickles might have had a different career path. Some fans and critics were blown away by his dramatic role in Martin Scorsese’s Casino, never realizing the clown had such depth of talent. But Rickles was a graduate of the esteemed American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, along with classmates such as Grace Kelly, Jason Robards, Tom Poston and Conrad Bain, before he ever took to the standup stage.

“I tried to get a job on Broadway and nothing really happened,” he says. “I got a couple of off-Broadway plays and that didn’t work out too well.”

So he started performing comedy, starting as an impressionist who did voices like Peter Lorre and Jimmy Cagney (“very badly,” he recalls with a laugh), before developing his current style by, in effect, heckling the hecklers.

“Without realizing it,” he says, “that’s how this performance developed… Thank God for standup, and of course doing odd jobs, otherwise I’d be selling apples today.”

But that very in-your-face approach to comedy also precluded much success in the movies.

“It did affect my movie career,” he says. “I was fortunate to do films, but to this day there are producers that hear my name and they go, ‘Ah, gee, what’s he gonna do to me?’”

Coincidentally, that’s precisely what his fans wonder, except in gleeful anticipation.

She still has something to say (The Province)

She still has something to say

Roseanne Barr: Stand-up lets her say what’s on her mind

The Province, September 21, 2006

For nine seasons, Roseanne Barr entertained us weekly with her ground-breaking sitcom Roseanne as the matriarch of the Conner household. In fact, it’s quite possible she went by Roseanne Conner longer than her various professional surnames (or lack thereof): Barr, Arnold, Thomas, nothing.

But if you can, try to suppress the urge to shout it out during her appearance at the Red Robinson Show Theatre in Coquitlam on Friday. Despite rumours to the contrary, Barr is a real person.

After a 14-year hiatus from stand-up comedy, Barr is back doing what propelled her to fame, fortune and infamy after her debut on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson in 1985. What drove her away from her chosen art form was yahoos who couldn’t separate fantasy from reality. As her talent was eclipsed by her enormous celebrity, audience members would take to shouting out, “Hey, where’s Dan?” in reference to her TV husband, played by John Goodman.

“It made me so furious,” she says now with a laugh on the phone from her home near Los Angeles. “I’d get real angry and go on stage and tell people to [screw] theirselves and stuff.”

Don’t get her wrong. She’s not bitter; it just goes against the old comedy axiom about timing. “Sometimes I’d be like, it isn’t even worth trying to come back from that because first of all, it [the series] is the greatest thing that ever happened and I really don’t have to do anything after that. I proved everything I needed to prove. But I’m doing it because I’m a comic.

“That’s why I ever got into that television show. I was a comic first and, once you’re a comic, you gotta do it.”

Now that she’s come back to her showbiz roots, she’s having a grand old time spouting off on politics, feminism, class struggles, and being a grandma. “It’s awesome. I love it,” she says, but admits it wasn’t easy coming back. “It wasn’t like riding a bike at all. It was like, ‘Geez, I gotta start over.’ The writing drives you crazy.”

She hasn’t noticed a significant difference in the stand-up scene since she first started back in 1980.

“They wouldn’t let me on stage then because they said nobody wants to hear anything any woman says,” she recalls. “I proved that pretty much wrong. They still don’t want to hear it. Even worse than when they didn’t want to hear it the first time I had to cram it down their throats. But, you know, I’m still going to say it… I like being a woman with something say and I’ll always want to say it.”

The Smothers get the last laugh (The Globe and Mail)

The Smothers get the last laugh

The Globe and Mail, July 28, 2006 (unedited version)

The longest-running comedy team in the history of show business has made a living bickering on stage. And it wasn’t always an act.

Tommy Smothers, who plays the dim-witted, guitar-playing half of the Smothers Brothers, says their relationship got to the point where they needed couple’s counselling ten years ago. “They said we should just forget about being brothers and treat each other like professionals and stop bringing up old shit,” he says by phone from his home in Sonoma Valley, California, where he runs Remick Ridge Vineyards. “We love each other but we do have a lot of sincere differences.”

One bone of contention remains politics. Tom has always been a “screaming, left-wing liberal,” while Dick is the pragmatic conservative. The Museum of Broadcast Communications calls their Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, which aired on CBS-TV from 1967 to 1969,  “one of the most controversial television shows in the medium's history.” The duo was fired after one too many run-ins with the censors.

“I think it was that we were just quite in tune with the consciousness of all the people thinking the Vietnam war was bad,” the 69-year-old comic says. “All these things were happening and all of the people on our show were young and we all started taking that position. It just slowly evolved until [the network] started saying, ‘You can’t say that.’ And of course that’s the worst thing you can tell a comedian: ‘Don’t say that.’ Well, they’re gonna say it!”

Dick didn’t care one way or another. “He said, ‘Just don’t make any mistakes,’” remembers older brother Tommy. “I said, ‘I won’t.’ Of course, I did and we were fired,” he laughs.

The brothers will be performing at the River Rock Show Theatre in Richmond tonight, one night before half of another famous comedy pair, Cheech Marin of Cheech & Chong, who couldn’t make it past the 15-year mark together. The Smothers are going into their 48th year as a team.

Smothers says their live show, while clean and light-hearted, canÌ still pack a political punch.

“When people leave the show, they know exactly where we stand,” he says. “We haven’t walked away from it. If we did the same show on television, we’d have all kinds of problems. ... Its not hard-hitting satire but it’s certainly strong social commentary about the condition of the world and the condition of the United States. But it’s not a preachy show, it’s a fun show. It’s a family show and it’s got the right amount of sarcasm and the right amount of laughter.”

The Smothers started out as a serious musical group before Tommy’s silly introductions got the better of them. Despite wanting to be a band leader growing up, he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“There’s something about comedy that if you have the ≥gift, you gravitate towards it because it is more unique than being a good musician,” he says. “If you get the comedy gift going, there’s a tendency to let the other stuff take a second position. I’m a pretty good guitar player and we sing very well... [But] there’s nothing better than getting a laugh. And there’s nothing worse than trying to get a laugh and missing.”

After 48 years in the business, they don’t miss too much now.

Dane Cook gets the hook at Yuk Yuk's (The Province)

Dane Cook gets the hook at Yuk Yuk's

Cut Short: Night's headliner, chain's CEO split over whether it was right call

The Province, July 25, 2006

One of, if not the, hottest names in show business right now is Dane Cook.

The 34-year-old standup comic was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2006, he sells out stadiums in the U.S. and is one of the few standups to have hosted Saturday Night Live without a series or movie to promote.

But all comics are created equal, it would see, to the Vancouver Yuk Yuk’s.

In town for six weeks filming a movie with Jessica Alba, Cook requested a guest spot at the Burrard St. comedy club on Saturday night.

Originally scheduled to go on for 45 minutes following an abbreviated set by scheduled headliner Peter Kelamis, Cook showed up and requested to go on early, before Kelamis. The club agreed, on condition that he shorten his set to 20 to 30 minutes.

After 33 minutes, and approximately five minutes of the warning light flashing him to wind up his act, Cook wasn’t appearing to slow down, so the club blared music from the speakers and cut his microphone in an effort to get him off the stage.

This action rarely happens, even on amateur nights.

Stunned, Cook appeared like he wasn’t sure if there was a technical glitch and, when the music stopped and his mic came back on, he continued his set. Five minutes later, the scene repeated itself. This time, Cook stuck his head behind the curtain, then turned back around to the audience, dropped the mic to the floor and walked off the stage.

The show then ended prematurely shortly after midnight and scheduled headliner Peter Kelamis, one of the top comics in the country but with nowhere near the star power of Cook, wasn’t able to perform.

Says Kelamis, “It was the most arrogant thing that I’ve ever seen in my life. Hands down. He knew a headliner was coming on after him… and he couldn’t have cared less about it. And throwing the mic down at the end was probably one of the most childish-looking things I’ve ever seen a performer do.

“In 18 years of comedy and my lifetime of witnessing comedy I’ve never seen a headliner get bumped time-wise from a show due to somebody doing what he did.”

Messages left with the local Yuk Yuk’s manager were not returned, but the comedy chain’s founder and CEO, Mark Breslin, sided with Cook.

“The tradition is stardom trumps everything,” said Breslin on the phone from his home in Toronto. “It’s the novelty factor and the fact that how often are these people even around? It’s too bad when somebody’s expecting to go on but you’ve got to be a big boy and suck it up.”

Breslin, who isn’t involved with the day-to-day running of individual clubs but still has his hand in booking the shows and oversees the local licencees (or franchises), sees no reason why the evening couldn’t have gone late since it was the last show of the night. When asked about the liquor laws, he replied that they still could have stayed until 2 a.m.

Breslin says he was doing damage control in Los Angeles all day Sunday with Cook’s manager.

“I’m on Dane’s side totally, 100 per cent,” said Breslin. “My guy screwed up. Period.

“I’m going to be spending a lot of time trying to mend this fence, both with Dane and with his manager…. Dane’s probably going to get the biggest fruit basket I can find.”

Cook’s publicity office said he was “unavailable for comment” yesterday. It’s safe to say, though, he hasn’t received that kind of treatment in a long time, if ever. Nor, it must be said, has Kelamis.

A Feel Good Groove (The Globe and Mail)

A Feel Good Groove

The Globe and Mail, February 24, 2006

 

When Monty Alexander sits down at the piano, you can’t help but smile. Go ahead, try not to. The jazzman plays with such delight and sense of humour that if your foot’s not tapping, chances are you might be dead.

“I enjoy [music] so much, I believe in it so much, that my natural being is to be as knocked out about it as the people seem to be,” the 61-year-old Jamaican American says on the phone from his home in New York. “I’m reacting to this experience just like the people in the audience. I’m one of the audience, if that makes any sense.”

Alexander, who has collaborated with everyone from Frank Sinatra to Dizzy Gillespie, performs all over the world. Last summer in Europe, he played concerts in front of 6,000 people, so his two appearances at Vancouver’s 85-seat Cellar jazz club this week will be a welcome respite for him.

“Sometimes it’s difficult to play in an auditorium when the lights are completely down and you don’t see anybody out there,” he says. “You still do your gig, but you miss knowing that the people are there, you know?”

Newcomers to jazz will appreciate the pianist’s repertoire. Along with standard tunes, Alexander is known for turning anything, be it a nursery rhyme, Bob Marley song or sappy seventies hit, into a gutsy and bluesy sound full of his dazzling keyboard technique.

“For me, it’s about being open to different things. To try not to be a snob,” he says. “More important than the songs we play is how we play them.”

The Monty Alexander Trio features Hassan Shakur on bass and Herlin Riley on drums, two musicians who share Alexander’s obvious love of jazz. “We’re all very serious about what we do,” Alexander says, “but we don’t take ourselves so seriously that we’re not smiling or laughing or having a good time with it.”

A keen sense of Pryor knowledge (The Globe and Mail)

A keen sense of Pryor knowledge

The Globe and Mail, February 24, 2006

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Lisa Marie Presley, Adam Cohen or Lucie Arnaz? You don’t think of them, you say? Well, that partly proves my point.

It can’t be easy foraging a career in showbiz when you’re the offspring of a name that will last through the ages. Sure, certain doors may open to you. But once in, you must constantly face unfair comparisons to the transcendent performer who is your parent. Rain Pryor, 36, knows all too well the benefits and pitfalls of being the daughter of arguably the greatest standup comic of all time, Richard Pryor.

“You grow up in the public eye and it’s hard to have any form of a private life,” she says on the phone from Maryland, where she is performing Fried Chicken and Latkes, the one-woman show she is bringing to the Chutzpah! Festival’s opening-night gala tomorrow.

One critic called her show “autobiographically naked,” which only makes sense, given that her father’s brand of comedy let everyone in on his (and therefore her) life. Much of the comedy in the show stems from characterizations of her mother and grandmothers. She’ll also adapt the lyrics of famous tunes like Cabaret to send up her life story in song.

While there’s lots of laughs and singing, her show has its share of poignancy and drama. But she insists she isn’t embarrassed about emotionally exposing herself. “My life has always been an open book,” she says. “One of my dad’s gifts was talking about his life and his truth. So for me it’s very normal.”

Richard Pryor was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1986. Rain, now a national ambassador for the disease, still feels the pain of his passing in December. He never got to see his progeny’s production, which has been running – and evolving – for three years, although she did perform parts of it for him.

Fried Chicken and Latkes will continue to grow before its off-Broadway debut later this year as Pryor workships it for her uyltimate goal, a run on Broadway. The show, as the title suggests, is about growing up the daughter of an African-American father and Jewish mother. “I the seventies and eighties, being black and Jewish wasn’t typical,” she says. “My parents getting together was taboo back then. Here was this mixed child in the world living in Beverly Hills where there was mostly white.”

Dating was tough in high school because she was part black, yet today she is constantly asked about her ethnic background. “I get, ‘Are you Brazilian? Are you Latin?’”

Pryor visits Vancouver after four nights in London and before heading to Australia for most of March. Reactions are varied outside America because, as she says, other countries deal with discrimination differently. “Some places are in denial that they even have racism … In Scotland, there’s no black Jewish people there, period. There were some Jews there, but being black and Jewish was like going into a bar and ordering non-alcoholic beer – it just doesn’t exist,” she laughs.

Yet, as unique as her story is, you don’t need to be from a showbiz family to get it, she says. “I think everyone can identify with wanting to fit in and the growing pains that happen. And I think everyone can relate to the parent issues that I talk about. And talking about death, it’s a universal story, even though it’s my story.”

Stand-ups get smart when they roll into town (The Globe and Mail)

Stand-ups get smart when they roll into town

The Globe and Mail, January 6, 2006

In the comedy business, Vancouverites are known as a finicky audience, less willing than other Canadians to humour any old joke a comic throws our way. Is it the West Coast attitude? Politically correct sensibilities? The weather? No one really knows, but stand-up comics soon learn what works here and what doesn’t.

“You’d think Vancouver wouldn’t be that tough of a city because of all the rain,” says Ottawa-born comedian Jennifer Grant, who moved here 2½ years ago. “Everybody’s smoking pot and on antidepressants because of the weather, so you’d think they’d be a great crowd and ready to laugh.”

Vancouverites do appreciate comedy. In fact, open-mike nights are popping up all over the city to complement the area’s two dedicated comedy clubs, Yuk Yuk’s and Lafflines. It’s just that the crowds here are more sophisticated than elsewhere, notes Grant, who recently finished third out of 90 entrants in the Boston Comedy Competition. “The audiences [here] seem to appreciate originality and something a little bit more alternative,” she says. “They give you licence to be more creative.”

Chuck Byrn, a Toronto comic who got his start in Vancouver, finds that he doesn’t change his act so much when he comes home; rather, it’s the timing that is altered. And in comedy, timing is everything.

“You can tell the exact same joke, but sometimes you have to change how you’re telling it,” he says. “Vancouver’s a city that stresses how laid-back it is. But if you tell a joke that is politically incorrect in Vancouver, they’re much more likely to go, ‘That’s funny, but it’s not appropriate.’”

Byrn loves to throw out slightly arcane references, like the bit he does about watching Cool Hand Luke with a bowl of 50 hard-boiled eggs at his side. He figures usually 3 per cent of a given audience gets the reference (in the movie, Paul Newman eats 50 hard-boiled eggs in an hour), but the joke did much better than that last weekend, when he headlined at Yuk Yuk’s on Burrard.

“The people in Vancouver get all of the references,” he says. “You don’t have to worry about them getting it; you have to worry about whether or not they’re going to think it’s funny. In other parts of the country, you worry about whether or not they’re going to get it.”

John Beuhler, a local comic who spent 18 months in Montreal, agrees. “I think [Vancouverites] are a lot hipper than a lot of other places in the country,” he says. “They’re too cool for a lot of stuff, but they do get more as well.”

Beuhler had to make a conscious effort to slow down when he moved back to town. Audiences here prefer an entertainer who goes with the flow and really connects to them, he says. “I found that I was going a mile a minute when I came back from Montreal and I really didn’t fit in.”

Not every stand-up needs to be mellow, sensitive or suffering from seasonal affective disorder to relate to the comedy patrons here. It’s just that local crowds appreciate diversity in their humour professionals, and are less keen on cookie-cutter comics with interchangeable jokes.

Clowning Around

Here are five rooms that are bound to elicit a giggle or two:

Yuk Yuk’s Comedy Club. One of the best clubs in the country, on par with the chain’s Superclub in Toronto. Touring headliners play Wednesday through Saturday; Tuesday is amateur night. To avoid a drunken heckle-fest, take a pass on the Friday late show. Century Plaza Hotel & Spa, 1015 Burrard St., 604-696-9857.

The Urban Well (Kits location). The city’s hippest room offers stand-up on Tuesdays. You never know when you’ll catch a surprise appearance by Robin Williams or Brent Butt, the host here for six years before finding fame on Corner Gas. If you prefer improv, check out the Monday show. 1516 Yew St., 604-737-7770.

Balthazar’s House of Comedy. See top local talent and the occasional visiting pro on Monday nights in the West End. Run by failed NPA candidate (and potty mouth) Patrick Maliha. 1215 Bidwell St., 604-689-8822.

El Cocal. The Laugh Gallery on Wednesdays features the city’s best alternative acts – rough and unpolished, but often hilarious. 1037 Commercial Dr. Info at www.elcocalcomedy.com.

Lafflines Comedy Club. Sometimes you have to leave the city limits to see great Canadian comics who don’t play the Yuk’s circuit. #26-4th St. New Westminster, 604-525-2262.

This Town is a Joke: Our Comedy Renaissance (Vancouver Magazine)

This Town is a Joke

Our Comedy Renaissance

Vancouver Magazine, November 2005

It's Tuesday night in No Fun City. But you wouldn't know it from the crowd down at Yuk Yuk's. More than 200 people are crammed into the downtown comedy club to watch a competition to find the funniest comic in Vancouver; a fool's game, to be sure, in such a subjective art form, but a club owner's dream. Everyone loves a contest. This particular one is running over an eight-week period and the club has been consistently selling out.

But head south over the Burrard Bridge that very same night and a similar scene is playing out in another room, sans competition. The Urban Well in Kitsilano has been running a Tuesday standup night for over eight years. It's the place to be for comedy in the city, with lineups often down the street. Not only do all of Vancouver's top comics show up each week to do a set, hang out and talk shop with their peers, but superstars in the comedy world like Robin Williams, Sarah Silverman and Kevin Nealon drop by to perform whenever they're in town.

These midweek shows are no exception here. A Vancouver comic can work seven nights a week throughout the lower mainland if the desire and work ethic (not to mention skin thick enough to shake off the non-responsiveness from the notoriously reticent audiences) are there. There's definitely something happening here comedy-wise, although you wouldn't know it from the lack of press it receives compared to its arts brethren.

Standup comedy flourished throughout Canada and the U.S. from about the mid-1980s to the early-'90s. It was omnipresent. Not only were clubs popping up across the continent, but TV shows celebrating the movement filled the airwaves. Shows like A&E's Evening at the Improv,
Caroline's Comedy HourComedy on the Road, and HBO's Comedy Showcase provided a more sanitized version of the live shows they could see on their hometown stages. 

Rich Elwood opened Punchlines underneath the restaurant at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in March of 1978. At the time, it was one of only a handful of comedy clubs in North America. By 1980, it had moved to Gastown where it would be home to some of the best and brightest standups in the country for another 15 years. Names like Ryan Stiles and Colin Campbell started – and ended – their standup careers there: Stiles found fame with improv, which requires a lot less preparation, and never looked back; Campbell's body was found washed ashore on Vancouver Island three months after going missing. A life of painkillers due to a bad back and excessive drinking led to a weakened heart, which ultimately did him in.

They weren't the only ones, though, to make an impact in comedy from that room. Patrick McKenna, Craig Campbell (no relation), Ian Bagg, Rick Ducommun, and Bonnie McFarlane have all done scads of TV work here, in the US and in Great Britain.

Pete Johansson started his career in comedy in Vancouver in 1989, nearing the end of the boom. He was, by his own admission, one of the worst comics to have come out of Vancouver, but counts himself as one of the best after he left. He moved to Montreal, where a six-minute set at the Just For Laughs festival landed him a development deal with Warner Brothers television, before moving to Los Angeles where he has been based ever since, regularly touring the U.S. as a headliner. 

Like now, Johansson says you could do comedy every night of the week back when he was an open-miker. The difference, though, was they were all paying gigs back then. You could actually make a little money, he says, before adding, "Well, I couldn't, but other comics were making money."

But those rooms, as well as Punchlines, eventually disappeared.

"It ran its cycle," says Elwood today. "A&E killed the comedy club. You didn't have to go out to the comedy clubs to catch what was going on. Essentially, you could sit at home and at least believe you saw what was going on, on television. It was too much. It kinda killed the art form." 

While Toronto is the centre of the universe and Montreal hosts the world's biggest comedy festival, Vancouver's scene pretty much went unnoticed in the last quarter century. Back when many national variety shows like The Alan Thicke Show, The Tom Jones Show, and The René Simard Show were all taped here, local comics were used both in front of and behind the cameras. "Sometimes the assumption is if you're not in Toronto, you're not really a comedian," says Elwood. "The opposite used to be the case back in the late '70s, early '80s, when the place to be was Vancouver."

Those days are long gone, however. Now comics like Peter Kelamis or Sam Easton are lucky to get supporting roles as actors on TV and film or leads in commercials. The powers-that-be for their comedy careers are all in the east or down south.

Still, standup is making a remarkable comeback in Vancouver. It's not quite at the level of the heyday, but it's getting there. And we're not just talking quantity of comics. The quality of the local acts is on par with, or better than, the best in any other city save New York.

The person most likely responsible for the renaissance is Brent Butt, the stocky star of CTV's Corner Gas. Butt moved to Vancouver five years into his standup career after falling in love with the place and hosted the Urban Well show for six years, providing a solid example to all the up-and-comers of what a professional comedian is. When the funniest and most respected comedian in the country lives and works in your community, you've got to keep sharp to impress the godfather.

"Brent had a great impact on everybody," says Johansson. "He raised the bar on a lot of levels so everybody would work harder to write. The guy wrote like crazy. I stayed with him for two weeks when my girlfriend kicked me out of my apartment and all we did every day was write. And it was the coolest thing ever because I'd never stayed with a comic who'd actually had a work ethic."

The modest Butt, who now lives in Saskatchewan six months of the year while working on his sitcom, believes western alienation is as much to credit for Vancouver's mini-resurgence as anything he did.

"I think the quality of comics in Vancouver is great because you're not under the thumb or the nose of any particular decision-making entity," he says. "As a result you have some freedom. And so you get really creative, experimental standups trying some stuff because they've got a bit of freedom to fall on their face."

And lately those decision-makers are starting to pay attention. Butt says he has taken an interest in trumpeting the abilities of Vancouver comics to Toronto and American talent scouts and producers. "They've always been really kinda blown away. They're seeing more really high quality comics than they expected they would," he says. "Maybe it was just because their expectations were shitty, I don't know."

Who knows why they've been blown away, but he's not speaking just out of civic pride. J.P. Buck is a freelance comedy producer from Los Angeles who booked talent on Star Search and It's Showtime at the Apollo before moving over to HBO's U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen to run its talent department. He estimates he's seen about 8000 comedians in his travels over the years."I'm looking for the next comic genius," he says.

In his initial scouting venture for Aspen, he had New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, Austin, Atlanta and Toronto on his itinerary. Along the way, Will Davis, a Vancouver comic who now runs the CanWest Comedy Festival here, got word to him that there was a scene in Vancouver he should take a look at. Davis personally drove Buck up from Seattle and put on three showcases of 36 local comics for the American producer. "I was really, really impressed with the depth of talent there and just the variety of performers, of material, and how original a lot of the comics were," Buck said on the phone from his home in California. "Usually whenever I go to a city, I'll maybe, if I'm lucky, find two or three out of thirty that I'm impressed with. And when I came back from Vancouver, I probably had on my list at least eleven guys that I had no fear of recommending for the festival. And actually two of them got in, which is still a great rate."

Buck agrees with Butt about why Vancouver has suddenly nurtured this topnotch breed of comedian. He says the years Vancouver has been hidden from the mainstream media and international industry (agents, producers, et al) have been creatively beneficial: It fosters an environment where they can write their own material, think differently, work on their sets and their skills, and become much better comics for it, and not get overexposed too soon. 

Buck goes on to term Vancouver a comedy mecca, supplanting such famous locales as Boston and San Francisco. "I definitely think right now that there's such a wealth of comics the audiences are almost spoiled."

Zach Galifianakis is an American comic who may as well be a local for all the time he's spent here shooting various TV shows and films over the past five years. Unlike some of the bigger names, like Robin Williams, who show up at the Well, do a set, then leave, Galifianakis has integrated himself into the Vancouver community by also playing the smaller, more alternative rooms and sticking around to befriend many of the city's young comics. He's impressed with the scene here, seeing it as a place that produces a fresh and unique variety of comedian. "It could really be a standup town, known for standup much like Chicago is known for improv and Second City or how Seattle or Athens, Georgia, and now Montreal is known as the birthplace of a well known music scene," he writes from North Carolina where he's in the last stages of buying a farm to act as a writers' retreat. "I believe these are the early days of something taking root that may one day evolve into a particular brand that may be known down the road as 'Couve-like' humour."

But is there a particular style to Vancouver comedy? Ask around and you get different opinions. Some, like Yuk Yuk's founder Mark Breslin, say it is based in a kind of casual, slacker ethos ( "You'd never see a comic in Vancouver in a suit," he says, Butt, Irwin Barker and Graham Clark notwithstanding). The manager of the Vancouver franchise, distant relative Mike Breslin, calls it a beatnik quality, comics with really laid-back styles that lend themselves more to funny storytelling rather than bang-bang in-your-face comedy. Others, though, find a diversity of delivery. Buck calls it unapologetic, saying everybody is working so hard they've had time to form their own styles. Eddie Brill, the comedy talent booker for The Late Show Starring David Letterman, disagrees with the slacker tag, too. "What I've seen of the local comics, smart and quirky would be a good way to describe them." And Davis says there's a smorgasbord of comedy in Vancouver. It's a buffet of jokes. He correctly notes that if you were to put such local joke-tellers as Damonde Tschritter, Kevin Foxx, Simon King, Kelly Dixon, Sean Proudlove, Peter Kelamis, Jen Grant, J.P. Mass or Erica Sigurdson on the same stage, the only thing in common would be that they're all standing behind a mic being funny. 

If you haven't heard of any of these professional
funny people, it's no reflection on them. "There's an amazing amount of talent," says Johansson of his former home's comedy scene. "There really is. You look around at the uniqueness and the strength of some of the comics and you're like, 'Wow! Why aren't these guys famous?'" 

However you want to describe them, it's fair to say that we, the people, have helped shape who they are. It's a reciprocal arrangement, according to Mark Breslin. "The audience kind of creates the comedy and vice versa," he says. "If anything, it's the crowds that could be described as slackers. Not apathetic, though, because Vancouverites are showing up to all the comedy rooms throughout the city, which implies at the very least an interest. But our reserved nature can be unsettling on a comic's ego. Still, it serves a purpose: a standup really has to fine-tune a joke and edit out dumb material that would fly elsewhere in order to get any kind of reaction here." 

Buck noticed this on his first trip to our city: "Vancouver has possibly one of the most discerning, and also toughest, crowds I've ever seen," he says. And remember, this is a man who travels to every big city and one-horse town in North America to assess talent in their natural environment - on a stage in front of people. "You've got these amazing comics on stage. It's funny, if you saw these comics in other cities, I think you'd get audiences that are flocking to them. But the toughness of winning the crowds over makes the comics work even that much harder here. I definitely think right now that there's such a wealth of comics the audiences are almost spoiled."

Graham Clark, who embodies the beatnik, slacker qualities the Breslins talk about, with his scruffy goatee and lazy persona, also happens to be, oximoronically enough, one of the hardest-working comics in town, constantly writing and performing new material at as many shows as is humanly possible, and even wears a suit, albeit one from Value Village. He has a love-hate relationship with the crowds here. "That's always been the best thing about this city," says the 25-year-old winner of last year's competition. "Your bad material is going to be turfed. In a place like Calgary, you could get away with some stuff you wouldn't even get halfway through out here. It makes you tougher. It just makes you better. Smarter."

Johansson agrees. "You can get away with getting a laugh in Red Deer by being very general, but here if you try to develop that joke, you've got to now make a point. The point's got to hit and make sense. I think that's a great thing. It takes a little bit of the stupidity out of it. You can always dumb something down later. But here you gotta make it hit." 

Butt has the best analogy about working in front of laid-back west coast audiences: It's like swinging a heavy bat. Before his TV fame, Butt was working the rooms, doing two or three spots a week just to keep his craft up and try out new bits, often in front of a smattering of silent people. He never sabotaged his own act by abandoning material or commenting on the crowd; he always sensed them smiling even if there weren't many audible laughs. "It's like you're in the batter's box. And in the batter's box, it's always good to swing a heavy bat. So when you go on the road, you've been performing in front of tougher crowds than some other places."

Maybe we're to blame for the city's bad rep. It's not because there's nothing to do here; it's because we just look like we're having no fun when we do it. But if our reserved manner helps produce some of the best laugh-makers in the land, it's all for a good cause. We may not be laughing hysterically on the outside, but you can bet in Red Deer they're rolling in the aisles.

Top Ten Comics to Come Out of Vancouver

1. Brent Butt No one comes close. The funniest stand-up in all the land. Some consider him a prairie comic because of his Saskatchewan roots. Butt says he learned to be a comic in Toronto, but learned how to be himself as a comic in Vancouver. If there was a war and I had to side, he says, I would be on the Vancouver side. Butt now stars in, executive produces, and writes the hit Canadian sitcom Corner Gas.

2. Ryan Stiles The most successful of them all. The American-born but Vancouver-raised comic started his career at Punchlines as a standup comic with a knack for spritzing with the crowd. Somebody in the audience would say something to him and Ryan would go with it for ten or fifteen minutes and it was funny, says Punchlines founder Rich Elwood. He was funny from the first time he went onstage. Stiles decided he had more fun with improv and went on to find fame on Whose Line Is It Anyway? and The Drew Carey Show

3. Colin Campbell Ah, what might have been... Campbell was one of the best standups this city ever produced before booze and painkillers culminated in his death in 1991. "I would forget the 'Vancouver' part of it and put just one of the best standups to walk the planet," says Butt. "He had the perfect standup comic way to process information and at the same time be completely original. He could walk from the hotel to the corner and he would think of ten things along the way." Elwood remembers one night finding Campbell backstage between shows taking notes. Turns out he was writing 40 minutes of new material for the next show. "The guy was just an amazing writer," he says.

4. Irwin Barker Speaking of great writers, it's been said the professorial Barker is such a smart and effective writer, he doesn't need charisma. Has appeal right across the board, from frat boys to Christian crowds. The former Winnipegger writes forThis Hour Has 22 Minutes so spends the TV season in Halifax, but returns home to Vancouver as soon as hiatus hits. 

5. Rick Ducommun You know this plus-sized comic from his many supporting roles in films such as Scary MovieGroundhog Day, and The 'Burbs. He was very influential ten, fifteen years ago, says Mark Breslin. Okay, fifteen, twenty years ago. Ducommun, too, got his start at Punchlines before moving south to work as announcer and performer on Alan Thicke's failed American talk show.

6. Bonnie McFarlane She may have been the first one eliminated on NBC's Last Comic Standing, but McFarlane's unapologetic Vancouver style isn't for everyone, let alone middle America. "She's a great example of subjective comedy," says Pete Johansson. "I will run into people that find her the funniest thing in the world, and right next to them, who just saw the same show, will hate her guts. There's a power to that. Divisiveness actually breeds marketing value. Bonnie's very skilled and I think she's going to become very high profile in the very short term, too." McFarlane got her start working the door at Punchlines before working up the nerve to try amateur night.

7. Patrick McKenna The big-toothed Harold Green from The Red Green Show started out as a sketch performer with Second City in Toronto, but when the touring company hit Vancouver for Expo 86, McKenna took the opportunity to give standup a try. With Punchlines going strong, the environment was here for him.

8. Colin Mochrie The Killarney High grad got his start at Vancouver TheatreSports League before moving on to star with good friend Stiles on Whose Line Is It Anyway? He's one of the busiest actors working in Canada as witnessed by his appearances in... every show ever made.

9. Will Sasso Started out in Vancouver as the quirky teen on the dramatic series Madison. Moved down to L.A. where he became known as one of the funniest sketch actors in the U.S. on Mad TV and has been seen in scores of film comedies, including Best In ShowBeverly Hills Ninja, and Happy Gilmore.

10. Craig Campbell You might know him as the co-host of Ed's Night Party hosted by the inimitable Ed the Sock. "I still think Craig Campbell is probably one of the best acts this country's seen," says Johansson. But he's chosen to focus his energies on England. Chortle, the U.K. comedy guide, says "His whimsical opinions are eloquently put... Hugely enjoyable stuff."

Game On! (TV Week magazine)

Game On!

In a season without hockey, NHL players lace up the blades to hit the ice alongside Vancouver entertainers and media personalities in the annual Sea to Sky Charity Challenge

TV Week magazine, February 19-25, 2005

Fret not, hockey fans; relief is on the way. NHL players are suiting up and coming to an ice rink near you – that is, if you’re within driving distance of Vancouver or Whistler. Sure, some of the players aren’t necessarily active anymore, but then again, who is? Plus, they’ll be skating alongside musicians and media folks. But hockey’s hockey, right?

So it’s game on at next weekend’s Re/Max Sea to Sky Hockey Challenge. The two-game celebrity hockey series, held at the Pacific Coliseum in Vancouver on February 26, and at the Meadow Park Sports Centre in Whistler the following day, will not only provide some much-needed action to hockey-starved fans, but also support a good cause: the development of Canada’s top amateur athletes.

Funds raised from the event will go towards the PacificSport PodiumFund, which assists our country’s Olympic medal hopefuls in being the best they can be as they enter the international arena, by providing financial support for such needs as special equipment, training and travel expenses – all of which will become increasingly important as we count down to our very own 2010 Winter Olympics.

The two Sea to Sky games sandwich what is billed as the Puck Bunny Charity Ball at the Sheraton Vancouver Wall Centre on the night of February 26, where sports paraphernalia, vacations and dinners will be auctioned off and fans will get to mix with hockey legends to the soundtrack of a jam session featuring musicians such as Barney Bentall, Matt Johnson from 54-40, and Blue Rodeo’s Jim Cuddy.

“There are going to be lots of reasons to come besides an entertaining hockey game,” says former Vancouver Canucks boss Brian Burke, who has selected a team that will take on a squad put together by current Canucks GM Dave Nonis.

With athletes like Jyrki Lumme, the Courtnall brothers, Darcy Rota and Ryan Walter, Nonis has assembled a potent roster to go up against Burke’s team of Cliff Ronning, Ray Ferraro, Kevin Lowe, Steve Tambellini, Doug Risebrough and Richard Brodeur. And at the coaching helm is NHL legend Howie Meeker. But Burke isn’t intimidated.

“It’s kind of unfair,” he says, tongue planted firmly in cheek. “Because it’s me against Dave Nonis – this guy’s never won a game as a general manager.”

(Nonis, of course, took over from Burke after last season, and given the NHL lockout, hasn’t had the opportunity to do much of anything except a lot of office work.)

So without the NHL with which to busy themselves, Nonis and Burke are relishing the chance to put together any kind of team. And they’re thankful they live in a city that places such a high premium on the sport they love.

“Living in Canada is a great thing, and living in Vancouver, I think it’s the best place to live in North America,” says Burke, who is still looking to get back in the NHL game. “The passion for hockey does allow you to do more stuff charitably than you could in other places. If I were GM now in some of the U.S. markets, I wouldn’t have any profile; I wouldn’t be able to raise any money. It’s different here.

As much as they both love the hockey side of the Sea to Sky Challenge, they both very much believe in the cause.

“People have to realize that for our elite athletes to improve and to be competitive that a lot of money and time goes into it,” says Nonis. “It’s important for our country that we continue to support those people.”

Some would debate whether it really is important, in the grand scheme of things, for jocks to get medals in the Olympics. What difference does it really make?

Says Burke: “There’s a stopwatch at every track meet for a reason. There’s a scoreboard at every hockey rink for a reason. So I think results are critically important.”

While this event features hockey players, Burke is quick to point out that they are not the recipients of the assistance.

“Obviously it’s different for NHL players and NBA players,” he says, “but for individual sports, if you’re a figure skater or a cross-country skier, you’re not properly subsidized by the government, in my opinion. And the goal of this group is to make sure that these athletes are properly funded. If the government’s not in the position to do it, or have the inclination to do it, then we’re going to try and help.”

It’s not only professional hockey players helping out in the cause. Nonis’s squad features such talent as JACK-FM’s Willy Percy, Jason Priestley, Jackson Davies, Craig Northey of The Odds and Vancouver mayor Larry Campbell, who will be between the pipes, facing legendary net minder King Richard Brodeur down at the other end. Hmm, who has the advantage in goal?

“Put it this way,” says Nonis. “I’m not going to say anything negative about [Campbell] because he’s our goaltender – but we’re going to have to play good team defence.”

Burke’s celebrities include country crooner Aaron Pritchett, former BC Lions hero Lui Passaglia, and Global personalities Jay Janower and Steve Darling, about whom the ever-diplomatic Burke says, “Well, they kind of made me take him because he’s instrumental in promoting this thing. He and Jay Janower have been terrific. They were wonderful last year promoting it and they played in it and they’re both very popular guys. So I kinda got stuck with them. I like his attitude, so I’m not totally disappointed. But his skill level leaves something to be desired.”

To top it all off, the two executives will be joining in the fun on ice. And more NHLers and celebrities will be announced in the days leading up to the event. But as entertaining a game as this will be, hockey fans are still chomping at the bit for their beloved Canucks to return to the ice. But even insiders like Nonis and Burke know no more than the rest of us as to when that might be.

“The media knows more about this than we do,” says Nonis. “We’re sitting here as a club waiting to play. We’re ready to play and hoping that the [Players Association] and the league can reach some type of agreement. There’s no information that I can provide, that’s for sure.”

The no-nonsense Burke doesn’t have any more information than Nonis, but he does know one thing: “They’re clearly running out of time. The flexibility has to enter into this on both sides. So far, neither side’s been flexible. They both have to move if they’re going to make a deal… they’ve both taken positions that they are ultimately not going to be able to prevail. Neither side is going to get what they want here. They’re both going to have to move. If I had to bet money one way or the other, I’d bet that we’re not going to play.”

Which makes the Sea to Sky Challenge about as close as you’re going to get to NHL action for a long time – while helping to increase the chances that an amateur athlete will hear “O Canada” being played at the medal ceremony of the next Olympic Games.

 

No Joke (BCBusiness magazine)

No Joke

Comedian Vic Lippucci has five days to polish his act for the finale of the Montreal Comedy Festival, the biggest, most influential in the world. Five days to make the kind of impression that might launch him into the big time.

BCBusiness magazine, December 2003

“Ladies and gentlemen, all the way from Vancouver, please welcome to the stage Vic Lippucci!”

It’s showtime. Lippucci, a bundle of raw energy, has completed his pre-show push-ups and closed-eye visualization in the wings. This is not a high-profile show, but the casually-dressed comic treats each performance seriously. Hearing his name, he sprints to the microphone, zig-zagging through tables along the way.

He is feeling awesome. Prowling the stage like a mountain cat, Lippucci bends over at the waist and makes direct eye contact with as many people as he can, dying to tell everyone how his day went. He paces frantically, talking with his arms (he is Italian after all) and throwing his head around like his neck were made of rubber. He’s definitely excited.

“What’s up, Montreal?!”

 

A few mumbles, but mostly the audience just sits there. They’re waiting for the first punchline, which is coming in due course. In the meantime, Luppucci is trying to pump them up.

“Yeah! I’m feeling awesome!”

Still nothing.

“I’m feeling good because I got a wake-up call in my hotel today.”

He screeches a telephone ring into the microphone. “Front desk calling,” he mimics in a sing-song voice. “That’s right, giving you a wake-up call. Just for you. We’re here for you.”

The audience isn’t biting. But the joke’s coming. They’re just have to be patient.

“I’m not used to that. Yeah, because I grew up in an Italian family. My dad was in charge of wake-up calls in my house. My dad didn’t talk; my dad yelled everything. Imagine if my dad was working in a hotel. That would be so cool.”

And here it comes, folks. Right down the pipe: Affecting his best Italian father impersonation, he screams, “Wake up, you bum! Go to work lazy bum!” First major laugh. Relief.

Fast forward five minutes in the scenario. His dad is standing outside the door, banging. Lippucci knocks into the mic 19 times. The sheer number of knocks and the time they take is absurd, but serve to drive the big payoff home: “You tink dis is some kinda hotel?!” Another big laugh.

Now he’s rolling.

He moves on to assorted funny bits about his mother’s obsession with keeping all the good food for guests, his family’s Smithsonian-model wooden TV set, ColecoVision TV games like Pong, and the duties and functions of a first base coach in baseball.

His 10 minutes up, Lippucci tells the crowd they’ve been awesome and exits to a decent ovation, slapping hands with some audience members on his way back to the greenroom.

Vic Lippucci is in Montreal for the world’s biggest and most influential comedy festival, Just For Laughs. Now in its 20th season, the festival has become the comedic Mecca to anyone associated with show business. But worshippers can’t just show up on its doorstep; they must be invited. Festival organizers hold showcases throughout the world to look at the best new talent to invite, while more seasoned or more famous acts get the nod by reputation.

Once, a single shot on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show could launch the career of a young comic, but the hundreds-of-channels universe has changed all that. Not enough eyes are concentrated in that one spot anymore. Now, for two weeks every July anyway, Montreal is the centre of the entertainment world. Comedians, agents, managers, producers, TV executives and bookers converge on the city’s Delta Hotel to wheel and deal. A good seven-minute set can be enough to turn a no-name into a household name.

So Lippucci, or Pooch as he is known to his buddies, is fine-tuning his shot at stardom this evening at the Comedy Nest on Ste. Catherine Street West in a show called Comedy Night in Canada, one of 18 live comedy shows at various rooms and clubs around the city on this Wednesday night. He is gearing up for what his manager, Dale J. Manton of Integra Entertainment, calls his most prestigious show yet – a televised gala performance this Sunday at the St. Denis Theatre hosted by the legendary American comedian/writer/director/author Carl Reiner.

As a professional standup comedian, it’s Lippucci’s job, as he sees it, to convey energy to his audience, to channel his excitement over to them, culminating with hearty laughter and – if all goes well during this momentous week in his career – a deal.

But in the greenroom after this his first of eight performances at the festival, Lippucci worries about the crowd’s slow reaction. Before the show he had commented that the room didn’t seem very cozy. “There’s something missing,” he had told BCBusiness. But now he’s put his finger on it.

“They just didn’t give it up when I went up there,” he says, blaming it on the distance from the holding area to the stage. “It took too long to walk all the way from the back of the room to the front. Four or five seconds is good. But 20 seconds to walk on stage, the crowd dies. Now it’s, ‘Hurry up and be funny. Right now!’ It’s more pressure. I wasn’t really happy with the set. I didn’t feel bang-on. Also, the whole stage isn’t lit. I’m very physical and I was very aware that I was in the dark.”

Lippucci is always analyzing the ins and outs of the business. Some comics concentrate solely on their material, but this Vancouver-born and –raised funnyman has a keen eye and a savvy business sense about his act and the self-promotion that goes with it.

As the act stands now, it’s about 10 seconds, by his clock, to the set’s first punchline. That’s a little long, especially factoring in a long sprint from the back of the room to the stage. This, though, is a peculiar problem of the Comedy Nest, one he need not worry about at any of the festival’s other venues. Still, Lippucci discusses with Manton and one of Manton’s other clients, magician Sean Watson, who is along for the ride, a way to move into that first joke more quickly. Instead of the usual “What’s up? I’m feeling awesome! How are you guys?!”, Vic decides to go with a simple “Yes!” Yes is positive. Yes is short. Yes is still not funny, but it will allow him to get to the funny stuff in short order. He still wants to keep the excitement going.

“I do a lot of physical stuff,” he says. That’s not to say Lippucci is slipping on banana peels and throwing confetti to the crowd. Rather, he expresses each word with a movement of the hand, arm, neck or eyebrow.

Says Lippucci: “The key is to get their attention as soon as you can. Something that really makes them say, ‘Hey, let’s listen to this guy.’ When you’re excited about something, people can’t help but watch, right? My stage persona is a guy who totally just has to tell you guys this. ‘Oh listen to this! You wouldn’t believe what just happened.’”

 

Lippucci does 12 minutes this night, five longer than he’ll get at his gala. Each night until then, he’ll record and listen to his sets, constantly cutting and second-guessing himself. But he knows all too well the dangers that brings.

This is his third appearance at Just For Laughs. In 1999 he won the BC Homegrown Comics Competition at Lafflines Comedy Club in New Westminster, sending him to Montreal for the national competition for young Canadian up-and-comers. The smart thing would have been to refine the set that got him there, but he was seeing stars and decided to make wholesale changes. “I thought he could have taken [the competition], but he messed around with the jokes he was going to do and made a last-minute decision as he walked up onto the stage,” says Brent Schiess, manager of development and alternative programming at the festival. “It was a dumb move.”

“I’ve been learning a lot,” says Lippucci. “I’ve been really concentrating on just enjoying everything. I used to be really down and out on myself. I changed my whole set with an hour until showtime. And I was told not to by industry people. And I was like, ‘But I want to make it better!’ I’m like a poet or a writer. When you’re an artist, it’s never good enough.”

This year he will heed the industry’s advice. Now it’s a matter of cutting little bits here, adding a touch there. He will lose the ColecoVision material and the bit about his father trying to act hip by calling women “chickens.” “I’m not having fun with it,” he says.

He heads over to Comedy Works on Bishop Street for the 11:15 show Best of the Fest, where he tries out his minor adjustments. Again, the crowd response in the very cramped, very hot attic room is not where it should be this close to his shining moment. The show was running long (it wouldn’t end until 2 a.m.), and everyone was perhaps comedied-out. But other comics did well.

“I’m just concentrating on my set, not really so much the audience response,” he reflects the next morning, “because I know the stuff’s gold as it stands right now. And the crowd was into it last night, but they just saw a lot of comedy.”

There’s a telling scene in the documentary Comedian in which a frustrated Orny Adams gets a poor response from an audience at the Montreal Festival. He flings open the stage door and screams to the world about the early time of the show, the lousy crowd – everything but his act.

Lippucci says a comic should always look within before lashing out at an audience. “These people aren’t going home thinking, ‘How can we be a better audience?’ It’s the comic’s job to go home and say, ‘Why did that not work?’”

 

Lippucci finished his second set of the evening and headed downstairs to the bar where he ran into a fellow from Fox Searchlight Pictures. “He said he was very interested in my set and my style,” Vic says later. “They liked the physical stuff in my set, the expression, the craziness.”

Who knows whether anything will come of this chance encounter. But these are precisely the situations that jump-start careers. Schiess points to young performers who have bombed in their showcases, yet have come away with deals. Why? Producers aren’t always looking for the ability to generate laughs with original material. They have their own writers. What they want is a look, perhaps, or a character. “The crowd may not go for it,” says Schiess, “but industry still flocks to them saying, ‘I want you because you’re fantastic. You’ve got acting skills. This audience didn’t get it, but I’ve seen through that.’” So the performers walk off the stage in tears, but it turns out to be the best night of their professional careers.

Lippucci, naturally, would love to ink a deal. His immediate goal is to do the cross-country fall tour with Just For Laughs, which plays virtually every major Canadian city. He wants to pitch his ideas for two TV shows. And he wants to perform on The Tonight Show, which has producers present in Montreal. The Tonight Show is huge, he says. “It’s a very serious, possible goal as of the last couple of weeks. I’ve been looking at the guys that I’ve worked with in New York that have done it, and I believe I’m very capable of attaining that here at the festival.”

This is where Manton comes in. It’s his job as Lippucci’s manager to make all the necessary connections and do the follow-ups. Manton, who worked in an insurance company for 12 years before deciding it wasn’t much fun, is a newcomer to the festival, which, in effect, doubles his workload.

Not only does he have to schmooze day and night, but he’s also going in cold. Nobody knows his face.

“The festival will never be more intense than it is for me this year because the learning curve is so large,” says Manton. “Every person you meet, virtually, is a brand new person. Once you have the relationships established, it’s much easier to go to conferences like this.”

This is the reason a festival like Just For Laughs is so crucial. Manton would have to fly all over the map to meet any of these people. Here, they’re all conveniently located in and around the Delta Hotel bar, which acts as the focal point for festival insiders. It’s one big party until the wee hours every single night.

“We check after a number of different markets while we’re looking for the large breaks that can possibly come our way,” says Manton, sitting in the hotel restaurant sticking Vic’s schedule onto promotional postcards. “You gotta have staying power in the industry to develop your act, to go on waiting for the right break, waiting for the right opportunity, being in the right place at the right time.”

Manton and Lippucci are at the right place at the right time, that’s for sure. The key now is to make the right connections. A lot of people think a comedian works for just the 10 or 20 minutes he’s on stage. As veteran comic Glen Foster, another of Manton’s clients, says, “Comedians get 7½ days a week off. ‘I gotta go to work. I’ll be back in 40 minutes.’” That may be true the other times of the year, but in Montreal they put in a long workday. The comic mentally prepares for his set during the day, wanting to make sure it’s his best in case there’s an industry dealmaker in the audience. He does his show, and then the real work begins.

“You are officially on the clock from the second you touch the mic to the second you go to bed,” says Lippucci. “You do your set, you rock it, you kick as much ass as you possibly can and make all these people bleed from their eyes because they’re having a good time, peeing their pants. Then you hang out and you grab a drink and you just mingle. And you work that room. You ooze with self-confidence and a happy smile that everything is awesome in life. If you’ve got a miserable-looking face and you’re not sending out that aura and that good energy and the vibe, nobody’s gonna want to talk to you.”

The festival’s Schiess advises a three-step process for maxing a comedian’s effectiveness: talk to everyone, gather business cards and follow up. If the industry happens to catch your set, all the better, but it’s not necessary. Just knowing you were booked at the festival shows them you have talent. Sometimes, having a good mouth is more than enough. “One young lady who was here years ago got a deal signed – not even a performer – just by hanging out at the Delta,” says Schiess. “Her look, persona and conversational skills got her signed to a deal.”

If conversational skills are enough, the very personable Lippucci should have no trouble. It’s just a matter of talking to the right person. But he’s still got to do his main job. If a deal doesn’t come about this year, he shouldn’t consider himself a failure. “You’ve got to concern yourself, as a performer, with, number one, having a good show,” says Schiess.

The 28-year-old Lippucci, while confident, is well aware that his time to ink a big deal might not be this year. It’s a crapshoot. He might be disappointed, even surprised, but not devastated. “Because as soon as you’re devastated,” he says, “You’re the guy who got devastated and ‘Let’s not do business with him ever again.’ So instead, you’re like, ‘I wonder why? What do I gotta do to get that?’ Realign the crosshairs and just go to it again.”

 

Just getting a much-coveted gala is more than many comics accomplish. Not every comedian at the festival gets invited to perform at the large downtown theatre. There are five galas with nine acts per night. That works out to 45 comics out of the total of 1,003 performers. The galas are held at the St. Denis Theatre and hosted by big celebrities, not necessarily standup comedians. Brad Garrett, Rick Mercer, Kelly Ripa, Tina Fey and Carl Reiner are this year’s hosts. Only those considered at the top of their field – or destined to get there soon – get booked as guests. It can be a nerve-wracking experience for a young comic who has never played a large theatre before. Couple this with the fact that the televised program will be seen in syndication for years and it’s a recipe for sleepless nights.

Still, Lippucci seems in his element. He’s more excited than nervous – at least on the outside. He’s not admitting to any nerves (to the media, anyway).

Months are spent doing your gala set over and over to the point where you hate it. At the halfway point of the festival for Lippucci, he finishes his set at a show called Bubbling with Laughter, basically a dress rehearsal for his gala. His parents are in the audience, on their way to a vacation in their native Italy.

Outside Club Soda on St. Laurent Blvd., a weary-sounding Lippucci tells his family he’s going to retire the set once the gala is over. He says he’s getting bored with it, and his father, Angelo, nods his head. “It shows,” he says.

“My dad’s bored of seeing it,” he says later. “Bored of hearing it. It’s like a newbord kid, right? You love your kids when they’re newborn. Then they start turning into adults and you’re like, ‘Okay, when are you going to move out?’ So the jokes have become adults and they keep asking to borrow the fucking car. And I can’t handle it anymore. I’m ready for some new ones.”

But he’s still got three more performances before the big night. And althought Lippucci may be getting tired of the act, Manton likes where his client is at this point.

“I think he’s really, really close,” he says in a buffet line at the hotel. “It’s a roll of the dice with the audience. The comics are up there baring their souls. They’ve been working for years on this material. This is the toughest business in the world. Can you imagine? Just place yourself on stage telling what you think is your best joke, or even the best story, in front of 250 people and all of a sudden everyone’s just sitting there looking at you.”

Later, in his hotel room the night before his moment of glory, Lippucci reflects on what made him and others get up on stage in the first place.

“Comics do comedy for acceptance,” he says. “If you look at any comic, many of them are sad, depressed, disappointed with their lives. So they go on stage and hog the stage and work their asses off just for acceptance. Because there’s nothing better than the feeling of people going nuts, clapping, applauding, saying, ‘Hey, man, really good show.’

“When I first started, I was like, ‘Man, you know what? I want some acceptance in life so let’s do this. Wanting all the attention is what standup comedy is. It’s you and you only, so when you rock, you rock, and it’s you that rocks. And when you suck real bad is when you go stick your head in the sand or go to the greenroom and you just cry for the next three hours. And you wait for the whole crowd to leave and then you leave.”

 

Vic Lippucci can’t worry about all of that now, though. The gala is tomorrow – “the biggest show in my career by far,” he says. A week of late-night schmoozing is starting to take its toll. Lippucci is starting to lose his voice. His penultimate performance tonight at the Comedy Nest is perhaps his best. Foster says there are so many factors that need to come together, from the performer to the audience to the room, that’s he’s amazed successful standup ever comes together. But tonight is one of those nights for Lippucci. So he’s peaking at the right time. In his hotel room, he wants to call it a night, but knows he’s got to put in an appearance downstairs.

“I gotta really sleep,” he says. “I gotta watch my voice. I can’t be in a crowded, loud, smoke-filled bar. I gotta de-stress because after a really good show, it’s my up. Instead of doing cocaine or drugs or anything like that, I just do standup comedy. So now I’m really high on myself. I’m really ecstatic and happy. So I’m up, but I’m gonna bonk.”

Manton reviews with Lippucci the advice that veteran comedians Mike MacDonald, the only comic to have performed at every Just For Laughs festival, and Glen Foster gave him. They said to start each bit before the crowd finishes laughing, unlike one would in a club. It may sound weird in the theatre, but on TV it sounds just perfect. “If you wait for the crowd to stop before you start your next bit, you set’s going to be 22 minutes long,” Lippucci explains.

Shaun Majumder, one of Canada’s most popular comedians and now a regular on CBC’s This Hour Has 22 Minutes, talks about the bigger picture: “There’s so much business and bullshit that revolves around this festival. It’s crucial to not lose sight of the fun aspect of it all. Vic loves doing it. I love seeing him on stage. He’s so good, so giving to the audience, that as long as he doesn’t let the business part of it get into his brain and affect him, then you can’t help but win.”

The night finally arrives. Lippucci, a ball of energy at the best of times, seems to have relaxed a little for the big show. He’s in his element. The evening’s performers are backstage 90 minutes before the 7:30 show, sitting around talking about the previous day’s artist vs industry basketball game, trying to keep their minds occupied. Christopher Titus, who has starred in his own TV sitcom on Fox-TV, is on the biss. He tells Lippucci, “It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been doing it, on a show like this, you’re always nervous.” But Lippucci claims he isn’t. Just excited.

He’s dressed in a simple black shirt he paid $70 for on Ste. Catherine’s the previous day. He hits the floor in the wings for his pre-show push-ups, then does his pre-show visualizing. Manton is beside him.

The legendary Carl Reiner is onstage reading his intro from cue cards. He stops midway to put on his glasses, destroying the illusion that he knows anything about this Canadian kid. Lippucci gives a power punch to Manton.

“All right, bro, I’m outta here.” He runs towards the bright lights.

“Yes! I’m feeling great today! I got a wake-up call in my hotel today.”

The audience is slow to respond. With the time constraints, Lippucci loses some of the natural rhythm and hurries into his first bit. Still, just looking at him on stage, you wouldn’t know his big kick at the can was not going as dreamed. He looks comfortable and is having fun. He was so comfortable, in fact, that on his call-back he runs back out topless – a first in the history of the festival.

“Comedy is business,” the always-thinking Lippucci says after the show.

“What can I do so that it’ll be on the opening montage that they’ll re-air over and over again? What can I do that will set me apart?” With no time to unbutton his shirt, he simply ripped it open, completely ruining his new purchase. But as Schiess says to him after the show, “This of the heart you created. Is that worth $70? Yes it is, my friend.”

 

A contract for a TV series or a spot on The Tonight Show or even the fall Just For Laughs tour is worth a lot more than 70 bucks. But Lippucci was not on the 18-city November tour. Nor have Jay Leno’s people come calling. He says they are very interested in meeting him and Manton, though, and that he will do a show called Premium Blend on Comedy Central in the U.S. next season. “We’re planning meetings and heading down to L.A. to show them how eager we are to do business with them,” he says a month after his big show.

In assessing his performance in Montreal, Lippucci takes a deep breath and reflects on what got him there. “I did good,” he says. “I had a good time. It was fun. This was my gala. It’s over 10 years of anticipation. And it’s done.”

It may be done, but the hard work continues.

Call Me Buzzard Bait (Westworld magazine)

Call Me Buzzard Bait

Hold on to your horn, as our man in the saddle attempts Canada's longest cattle drive armed only with borrowed boots, a brand-new outback hat and zero experience behind the reins

Westworld magazine, summer 2003 (unedited version)

I am a cowboy. This surprises anyone who has known me for any length of time. This surprises, most of all, myself. You see, prior to my visit to the Kamloops Cattle Drive, I had never been on a horse. A real horse, that is. Now I have 90 kilometres of mountainous trails under my belt. I have ridden up to seven hours in a day. I have penned real live cattle. In fact, I am a champion (or sorts). I have listened (against my will) to country and western music 24/7. I have paraded through the streets of downtown Kamloops on my trusty steed. As I said, I am a cowboy.

How did this happen? I have never been what you would call at one with nature. Nature, I've always said, is nice to look at from the safety of your apartment window or a moving vehicle. I am a man who had previously slept in a tent once in his life but never set one up. And let's just say I don't even like using public washrooms, forget about port-o-potties. So what, you may ask, possessed me to borrow cowboy boots, purchase an Australian outback hat and saddle up for a week in the wilderness? I was asking myself this very question for my first couple of nights on the week-long drive, cowering alone in my nylon retreat frantically squishing insects who dared invade my personal space. The impetus was from an editor who either really liked me or, it occurred to me on day two, really hated me.

So I set off on my real-life western adventure unsure of what I am getting into. My only experience with horses so far involve 50-cent mechanical pony rides in the mall. And despite what you may believe, no amount of merry-go-rounds can prepare you for such an experience.

All I know of cattle drives is what I learned watching ‘City Slickers’. But I am a true city slicker; not some Hollywood version of one. I am not travelling with my own personal stuntman. And rather than a handful of riders, like in the 1991 film, B.C.’s annual Kamloops Cattle Drive has 190 participants. With wranglers, medics and vets, that's about a 300-horse convoy we're talking about, any of which could wig out at any given moment.

My goal is a simple one: To stay on.

After the first day, a sweltering 30 degrees, I’m not so sure even this is attainable. At a lull in our slate of "Pioneers Recognition" events, a time to meet our horses and attend information sessions, young Mandy from Seattle takes her new horse for a test walk. Said would-be stallion has other ideas: he takes off at full gallop, tossing Mandy to the dirt and breaking her ankle. Thanks for coming out. Later in the day, two burly young men are bucked from their steeds before even getting off the picket line.

I am neither burly nor young, and I begin to worry about the waiver I sign upon arriving at the Crater Valley Ranch in Westwold, a small cowboy community fed mostly by agriculture and forestry that’s our drive's starting point. I am assured they’ve lost nary a soul in ten years of moving some 100 head of cattle every summer. Rather than providing relief, I am convinced they are now due.

After signing away my life, I get the rundown on the night's events.

"There's a live band tonight," I am told, "and they play country music. I guess if you're here you like country music."

Oh, God, I hadn't even thought of that.

Still, along with the remainder of the ride's 10-to-82-year-old greenhorn cowpokes and seasoned veterans, I dutifully drag my one week’s supplies to the camping area in search of a suitable spot for my mauve (not pink) tent. I feel like I’ve been conscripted.

What a suitable area is I'm not exactly sure. But I find a spot, dump my equipment on the ground and start to set up my sleeping quarters. Only I have no idea what I'm doing. I figure if I 'Jerry Lewis' it enough, someone will come by and give me a hand. But we are all strangers today. I finally petition the woman next door, who comes over and assists (read: does it for me while I stand there watching). Once inside, I am dismayed to learn that tent walls aren't soundproof and I'm hearing 'Blue Mesa' for the first of about 15 times that week.

I arise early the following morning to a 5:30 a.m. wake-up call over the P.A. system, the smell of bacon and eggs wafting over from the mobile canteen — a much more pleasant aroma than I get the rest of the day out on the trail, with 300 riders on horseback. And the horses don’t smell so sweet, either.

Those of us who arrived sans steed are given one. Mine is a beautiful bay. The crusty wranglers who assign me this horse don't know her name, though. I was looking forward to going through the desert on this horse with no name for the kitsch value alone, but it is not to be. I call her '108', the number on her harness thingy (I'm not a good listener). But I don't call her that for long. Old 108 senses my greenness and decides to have some fun with me. On our short introductory walk, she won't do anything I want. This may have something to do with the fact I don't know what it is I want and wouldn't know how to get it if I did.

"I'm outta here," I say, and hop off about sixty feet from where we started.

Spooked from my one try, and the image of Mandy and the burly dudes being thrown from their horses, I am convinced I'll be riding the wagons all week, which is an option on the drive. I don't need to experience riding in order to write about it. I covered the NBA for six years without ever once checking into the game. But head wrangler, Brian Chase, will have none of that. He leads me to Gumby, a huge black animal with a slightly swayed back, an enormous gut and a giant ass -- not to be confused with the genuine giant ass, Emma, also in attendance (Emma may technically be a mule, but for the purposes of this joke, she's a giant ass). My spidey senses immediately tell me this horse is not for me when I see her jump up and boot the horse behind her. Then I'm told she's in heat. So adios, Gumby.

I'm finally introduced to Spike, part Appaloosa, part turtle. Spike is, without a doubt, the slowest horse in captivity. When I 'tsk tsk' or kick his hard belly, he speeds up for exactly the duration of the 'tsk' or the kick. I love this horse! I am set. Spike and I will be a team for the first leg, a 16-kilometre journey from Westwold to... er, 16 kilometres outside of Westwold.

But good-natured Spike is a love-struck little goof. He will not let anyone between him and his pal, Salty. There's a walking-only policy on the drive. This is a good policy. I endorse this policy. Unfortunately, Salty is ridden by John, a nine-year veteran of the drive. And after nine years, he wants to branch out. So John goes off the beaten path and explores while the rest of the posse trods on, per the rules and regulations. But not Spike. No, my enraptured, co-dependent horse follows Salty everywhere while I, the helpless bysitter, hold onto the saddle horn for dear life, identifying me as a tenderfoot to all who pass by. And they all pass by. Forget what Robert Redford says, whispering doesn't help any.

Along the way, I get a heapin' helpin' of advice. For example, I learn that when a horse is relieving itself you should sit forward in the saddle in order to keep the pressure off its kidneys. Which didn't exactly jibe with the next bit of advice: To get your horse moving, kick it hard in the stomach.

Day two turns out to be a resounding success because I am able to separate Spike from Salty by grabbing a tight hold of the reign and showing him who’s boss. Poor dumb Spike is crying out for his beloved, but eventually gets over it. It’s called tough love. I feel masterful and ready to take on another day. That is, until I get back to my tent and find I can't sit down. Tenderfoot? Tender tush, more like it. The human rump has more muscles in it than you might think. I head over to the medic tent to get some ice for my "knee", but I think they see through that.

At each campground, the cattle drive crew arrives early and sets up the beer tents, picket lines and port-o-potties. Once our own tents are assembled for the evening, we can rest (my specialty), socialize, booze it up, or attend demonstrations on two-step dancing or horse-training, to name but two. If a live band isn’t playing or a cowboy poet reciting his odes to the range, a sound system is playing music for our dancing and listening “pleasure.” I notice the deejay putting up a banner that reads: “We play the music *you* want to hear.” I ask him if it’s true. “Yep,” he drawls. So I request some jazz.

“I really shouldn’t put up that sign,” he sighs.

The days become a blur of jostling horses on narrow trails, stressed-out newbies, and saddle sores, but the scenery makes it all worthwhile: sagebrush hills, flatlands, babbling brooks. The clippety-clop is hypnotic as we take in black-billed magpies (I’m guessing), rabbits and more horse “exhaust” than is appreciated. Thankfully, the only cougars we encounter are riding horseback with us. As for the cattle, they've usually got two hours on us, having moved out enmasse at 5 a.m. each morning with the keeners. I've always felt more comfortable in the majority. Back in the big city, I'm a bit of a night owl. Although I find it's not that difficult to arise at 5 a.m. providing you hit the hay immediately after lunch.

On the fourth day, high above a breath-taking river valley, there's a cattle-penning competition. Although it’s a very welcome day-off from riding. I am encouraged to enter. It's a lot of fun, I'm told. I'm not so sure. I’m not confident enough yet for the added stress of having freakin’ cows running around my horse's feet, but being the sport I am, I enter. Three-member teams ride into a large pen filled with numbered cattle. The announcer reads out a number, and the team sets out to get the corresponding bovines into a smaller pen within 90 seconds. And these crafty critters will do anything to stick with the pack.

Looks like I’ll have to carry my squad. Just my luck, I’ve been teamed up with two women. But hold on there one gol-darn second, pardner. These aren’t just any womenfolk: one’s a champion cattle penner, and the other pens once a week — for fun, yet. After the first six teams fail to pen a single cow, team number seven corrals one in 28 seconds. Not to be out-done, the ladies and I corner one in in 27 seconds. Record time! This game is easy! Round two takes us 56 seconds. Not to blow my own horn or anything, but I had very little to do with either capture. We finish fourth out of 39 teams, earning me the respect and admiration of my newfound peers. Success is a huge boost to my manhood, giving me the will to carry on. I might even learn to ride with my hand off the horn.

With another day of hands-on experience, and a change of mount (a competitive sort determined to beat all comers to the finish line), it all comes together. By the last day, our four-hour descent into Kamloops, I am ready to confidently strut my stuff. I even begin to admire the spectacular scenery, although I learn a very valuable lesson: As soon as you take the opportunity to soak in the breathtaking view, your horse will routinely walk you straight into a branch. But what I saw was striking: grasslands, rocky slopes, forested mountains, and no sign of civilization anywhere for as far as the eye could see. I truly felt like I was home on the range.

My new horse and I make it to town without incident. I proudly ride through the streets, nodding my head to the adoring masses the way a cowboy nods. After all, I'm one of them. From novice to horseman to cattle penning champ (kind of) in one week. I can live with that. There’ll be no need to get back on that horse and repeat my triumphs. I'll go out exactly the way I wanted to – on top.

To Hell With Helmets (Monday Magazine)

 

To Hell With Helmets
 

Monday Magazine, September 5-11, 2002

I have been breaking the law daily for six years. As of September 1996, it has been illegal to crack your unhelmeted head open on the pavement while riding a bicycle without fear of penalty. In those six lawless years, I’ve been stopped by the constabulary a grand total of two times, each netting a warning. Every other time I’ve ridden past the police, they cheerfully ignore my wanton disregard of jurisprudence. If this is their idea of enforcement, is it any wonder there are growhouses on every block?

I must not be alone. A recent poll revealed that more than half of all Canadians don’t wear bicycle helmets. Not even when they’re on a bike.

I’m not saying I don’t like this particular law, just that I don’t like it for me. I’m of the belief I should be exempt from any number of them at any time as it suits me. Everyone else should wear a helmet while riding a bike. Helmets are sensible; I’m not. I know that. I’m tempting fate even writing about it. Potential irony is staring me in the face saying, “For God’s sake, don the lid.”

I really should. I didn’t like the seatbelt law either at first. Now, thanks to Big Brother, I buckle up each and every time I get into a car. Sure, it makes things awkward when I only want to vacuum the interior, but I just don’t feel safe otherwise.

These laws are passed for our safety, so opponents like me are in the minority. The federal government passes a law banning certain firearms and making registration of all other guns mandatory, though, and every Ted Nugent-wannabe out there takes it as a violation of his rights as neighbours of the shoot-em-up USA. Where are the conservatives on the helmet issue? In some U.S. states you can ride free as an uncaged helmetless bird on a motorbike, for Pete Fonda’s sake.

One interesting aspect to the bicycle helmet law is that people with giant melonheads are exempt. Mine is just under the wire, despite having the biggest head in my grade seven class, even bigger than Mr. Robbins, our teacher. I can’t imagine a bigger head but they must be out there. And they’re riding around sans helmet, guilt-free. Does the government value their mammoth craniums less than the rest of ours?

The very week the helmet law was announced, the feds instructed police to stop charging people with simple possession of drugs. The message being that citizens are permitted to mess their brains up with narcotics, but not with their bikes. Go figure.

Keep in mind I ride a bike like few others. Never in a hurry, I like riding slowly, carefully, defensively, with the wind blowing through me, er, scalp. I’ve been riding lidless for over 30 years with no harm to my person, save for a skinned knee as a pre-teen. But I’ve come a long way since then. I’ve even learned to ride one-handed.

I am aware of the dangers, though: a human skull can be shattered by an impact of seven to 10 kilometers per hour; helmets reduce the risk of head injury by 85 percent and brain injury by 88 percent. That’s why I further break the law by riding on the sidewalk when there’s too much vehicular traffic on the streets. The odds of me getting scrunched by a road-raged bus driver are greater than me scrunching a pedestrian – and to much less severe effect.

Don’t get in a huff; I ride responsibly, sometimes even slower than the foot traffic, ceding all rights to the pedestrian. Similarly, I don’t exercise my rights on the road because, let’s face it, my rights don’t mean a heckuva lot to a driver paying more attention to his cell phone than the road.

In Europe and Asia bikes can go pretty much anywhere they choose. They can even fit as many people onto each bike as they like, and are not forced to wear helmets. Is there a higher percentage of head injuries overseas? I don’t know, but I doubt it.

They have the right attitude, which is that cyclists have no rights at all. Old people don’t cower and topple over when a cyclist approaches on the sidewalk. They walk straight ahead, knowing the cyclist will get out of the way.

And on the road, the cars are king. That’s the way it should be. Might makes right.

Of course, there’s the argument that the taxpayers shouldn’t have to foot the bill when careless cyclists wind up with fractured skulls. No more, I suppose, than when a big fat guy who smokes and eats cholesterol straight out of the can winds up with a heart attack or develops lung cancer. I went to school with a kid who was fooling around with explosives in his basement and accidentally blew off his hand. Should we have to pay for that? Of course we should! The argument is ridiculous.

We obviously don’t live in such a puritanical society. People make mistakes, accidents happen, and we should help our fellow citizens when they screw up. Wearing helmets will not stop screw-ups. Defensive driving will go a lot further to preventing accidents and lessening brain damage than wearing helmets.

I would encourage everyone to wear a bike helmet. I choose not to. Just like I choose not to own guns, do drugs, smoke or eat right – all things the government implicitly condones.

If they really insist, the law should at least be grandfathered (with the possible exception of actual grandfathers, for whom I would add full body armour to the mandatory list). Children definitely should grow up wearing helmets, just as they are not permitted to smoke or drink. The smart ones will continue to wear them through adulthood. Then we can breed a society of helmet-heads that will live healthy and productive lives until they die naturally of drug overdoses.

Gannon credits Cellar with keeping jazz scene hot (Westender)

Gannon credits Cellar with keeping jazz scene hot

Westender, August 22-28, 2002

Oliver Gannon has never been in a hurry. Long considered one of the premier jazz guitarists in Canada, the long-time Lower Mainlander is only now, a year before his 60th birthday, putting out his first album as a leader.

Gannon has been the sideman of note on numerous recordings, however. He figures he’s been on at least 30 jazz albums since moving to Vancouver in 1969 from the Berklee School of Music in Boston, via Winnipeg. From the early days with the fusion group Pacific Salt to his numerous albums with long-time partner Fraser MacPherson, Gannon has proven to be the consummate sideman.

When you list the great guitarists in Canada, Gannon is right there along with Ed Bickert, Sonny Greenwich, Nelson Symonds and Lenny Breau. So, one naturally asks, what took him so long?

“It’s one of those things where I just never got off my ass to do it,” he says. “I’m just bloody lazy, I tell you.”

In the chapter devoted to him in Mark Miller’s 1987 book, Boogie, Pete & the Senator: Canadian Musicians in Jazz: The Eighties, Gannon is quoted as saying, “I’m not in a hurry. I feel things are happening, maybe at a snail’s pace. But I’m here now – right? – and doing my own thing.”

The past five years or so, his “own thing” has meant taking a sabbatical from performing and going legit. His brother is the programmer for the popular musical accompaniment software ‘Band in the Box’. Ollie has been working full-time for the company in charge of musical production.

But he’s back – and in a big way. Gannon credits the Cellar jazz club on Broadway for his re-emergence onto the jazz scene. His album was recorded live there on the club’s own record label, and owner Cory Weeds deserves the credit for making it happen.

“I’m getting out more and a lot of it has to do with the Cellar,” says Gannon. “It looks like a jazz club, and it’s got that feel. I just really like Cory and the staff down there and I like playing there. And we usually get good crowds. It’s nice when people are lining up to get in.”

For his part, Weeds couldn’t be more thrilled about having his “mentor” in his label: “It’s been a long time coming. I think it’s a good documentation of his playing, and I think it’s a very important documentation for the Vancouver jazz scene to have him recorded like that on a local label. I’m glad to be a part of it.”

Will this album get Ollie out of the house and back on the road? After all, he’s played most of the world’s most prestigious festivals, did three hugely successful tours of the former Soviet Union, and crossed our own country several times. Don’t count on it.

“I did a lot of that,” he says, “but after a while, it’s kind of like the Peggy Lee song, ‘Is That All There Is?’ I’m not really in love with travelling. I’m actually quite happy to stay at home, as boring as that sounds.”

One thing is almost certain, if there’s to be a tour in his future, somebody else better arrange it. Gannon recalls one such cross-country tour he did with Swiss saxophonist George Robert:

“He said it took him basically an entire year out of his life just to put that one Canadian tour together. That’s how many hoops you’ve got to jump through. And when you start hearing things like that, you start thinking, ‘Gee, do I really want to?’ I mean, that’s a perfect example of when it’s great to be a sideman. You don’t have any of the worries that the poor old leader has.”

But Gannon is not only happy leading this group, which includes pianist Miles Black, bassist Miles Hill and drummer Blaine Wickjord, he’s happy with the final product.

“I like it – and I tend to be, like all musicians, very self-critical,” he says. “But what I like about it is it swings, you know? And that’s the most important thing to me. I sure like being a leader when it’s a group like this.”

The leader and his sidemen will be swinging at the Cellar on Wednesday (Aug. 28) for the CD release party. And here’s hoping he’ll swing many times more in the future.

Writers With Balls (Vancouver Magazine)

 

Writers With Balls
 

Most players in the Twilight League are artists with a bat and glove. Literally. Meet the heavy hitters on their roster
 

Vancouver Magazine, May 2002

George Bowering has won two Governor General’s Awards for his writing. More impressively, the author and retired SFU prof has also taken two softballs in the face for his team, the Paperbacks, members of the city’s storied Twilight League.

“My reflexes aren’t as quick as they were, say, 50 years ago,” Bowering says of his second head-on encounter with a Pro Nine. “This really powerful 22-year-old guy hit a line drive that I never saw. Smashed my glasses to smithereens and blinded me for a few days. But I don’t care. Baseball’s important. More important than eyesight.”

The Twilighters started in 1985 as a softball league for artists and writers. Today, they number seven teams and some 70 players, supporting the theory that creative types really are just a bunch of jokes like the rest of us. Bowering, 66, is one of the most illustrious names to hobble the bases, though his career at the hot-corner was cut short five seasons ago when the old hand-eye coordination failed.

Even when he’s not in the field, Bowering participates in other ways. “He’s the biggest bench jockey in the world,” says league commissioner and Vancouver Sun movie critic Marke Andrews. “The thing about George is it’s like having a stand-up comic for the game. You get this cheap, live entertainment.”

Author George Bowering on heckling: "I see myself as an educator. So I see the young fellas out there who don't know quite as much about the game as I do – I like to inform them, give them a deeper bank of knowledge."

It’s not surprising some of the best entertainment happens off the diamond, given that many of the games are held at an East Van field affectionately dubbed Needle Park. When drunks are asleep in the outfield or the dugout, well, you just play around them. At the final one year, somebody stole writer David Beers’ shoes, which housed his wallet and keys. A posse eventually got everything back when they tracked down the thief at the beer and wine store.

International art star Stan Douglas spent some time in the league. “He wasn’t a bad hitter, but he wasn’t a great catcher or fielder,” says Vancouver Sun writer and original member John Mackie. “He was just like everyone else on the team, really. They had three really good players and then a bunch of artists.”

Other notable players over the years have included country/blues singer Suzie Ungerleider (better known as Oh Susanna), BCTV’s Keith Baldry, the Sun’s Katherine Monk, Western Living editor Jim Sutherland, the Province’s Jim Jamison and the Georgia Straight’s Kerry Banks. Victoria screenwriter Gerry Swallow (Black Knight and Say It Isn’t So) and controversial Los Angeles-based comedian Sarah Silverman (Seinfeld, There’s Something About Mary) have also made appearances – Silverman wearing a flowing scarf in the middle of July.

The Twilight League is showing its age. Andrews, 51, says, “I’m going to retire one of these days. And then somebody’s going to have to step up and take over if they want to keep it going. I’ve been hoping for a bloodless coup for years.”

But the real question is what will happen when Bowering retires completely.

“I think the league would just more or less disappear without me, to tell the truth,” he says. “It would be so ordinary.”

The Day the Taliban Came to Town (unpublished)

The Day the Taliban Came to Town

Unpublished, 2002

Abdolah remembers the day the Taliban came to town.

It was an unremarkable day. Just like all the rest. He arrived at the school where he taught around eight o'clock that August 11, 1998, morning. Most residents of Sar-e Pol didn't believe the Taliban would ever infiltrate their northern Afghanistan city. The Northern Alliance forces in neighbouring Mazar-e Shariff were strong. There was nothing to worry about.

Or so they thought. "It was absolute normally day," the new Vancouver resident recalled. From inside the school they heard the nearing gunfire and it was apparent to all what was happening. There was no other explanation. Everyone wanted to go home, naturally, so they piled out onto
the street. But the fighting was too close. It wouldn't be safe. Back inside they went. A few minutes passed before gunmen took over their school, shooting in the air. Two or three to a class. Staff and students were told to get on the floor. No talking.

"The children, they cry," he remembers. "They cry and the people from Taliban hit them. 'Don't cry! Quiet!' Hit the kids with the gun. I try to tell the kids to be quiet and he hit me. 'Don't speak!' The moment like a shock. Everybody shocked. Nobody says something."

After approximately twenty minutes, everyone was forced outside. It was from that vantage point that Abdolah saw fire and smoke coming from the principal's office. Some of the teachers and older students were marched off to prison. After a night in jail, Abdolah was interrogated.

"I went to some office with a bearded guy who start to ask me some question, but in Pashto language." Abdolah learned Pashto in high school the way we learn French. He understands bits and pieces, but speaks Dari (Afghan Persian) and German.

"He was too fast. I didn't understand," he says. "He cry, 'Why? You Afghan! You have to speak Pashto!'" And so the interrogation continued in Pashto.

"Who do you work for? For which group?"

"I work for nobody. I'm a teacher. I taught in the school, that's my job," he replied. In Afghanistan, in order to bypass military service, you can opt to teach for six years instead. So Abdolah, a math and physics major in university, taught math and phys ed at a local boys school.

"I know you taught Communist ideas. You are a Communist," he was accused.

"I'm not Communist. I'm teacher. I taught everything."

Abdolah, a clean-shaven non-practicing Muslim, was then questioned on his appearance.

"Why are you shaved?"

"I'm a teacher. I have to be shaved. You have to be clean."

"You are not Muslim because you don't have a beard!"

After some more questioning, Abdolah was sent back to prison. There he met two other teachers, some government workers, store owners, and not one knew why there were being held. Their families didn't even know where they were. Whenever someone would ask why they were there or what they did, they'd get smacked with a rifle. Abdolah was a quick study.

"I didn't ask, but I want to ask why I'm here," he said. "Know my family that I'm here? What happened on the outside? What's the government? We don't know. I see that the people have a question, nobody answer and they hit you. I think, okay, I don't need to ask because I ask and they hit me, too. And I didn't ask. Never."

Day turned into night. Over and over again. Everyday they got a little bit of food but never enough. And every morning it was early to rise for bathing and prayer. "Actually, I don't know how I prayed exactly," he said. "But I did the same how the other guy did, you know?"

Months passed. Four, five, six. After that length of time, prison life becomes your reality. You stop thinking about life on the outside and worry only about that night's sleep, your next meal.

"You think about sleep. How can I sleep a little better?,” he recalls. In a small cell with 15 or 20 other men, it's impossible to all sleep at the same time. “Or how's about tomorrow? Maybe good food? You think just that; not about [going] home. You forget it."

There were only five or six thin, filthy blankets. But so many people squeezed into such a small area had its advantages. Sort of.

"We are just happy to close the door and [with] all the people in the room, it is warm,” he says. “It is not air, but it's warm. It stink, too."

But these were just inconveniences compared to the other thoughts that wouldn't go away. "From beginning you think, 'They kill me, they kill me.' But after you see that everything was bad – no food, no sleep, and everything – and you think it's better if you are dead than this life here. I was scared. I was scared they kill me. But later I was not scared. I was not scared."

His mother, in fact, was convinced her youngest son had been killed, as had her oldest boy and her husband, a doctor, who heard the firing of guns the day Abdolah was arrested, grabbed his own firearm and headed outside to investigate. The Taliban saw him and shot him dead.

By chance, a local store owner who was briefly jailed with Abdolah, ran into Abdolah's uncle. They started talking, and the store owner mentioned being in prison with the nephew. This was joyous news to his family.

"The people don't know I'm in jail," he says. "The people think I'm dead. It was a surprise to my uncle to believe I'm still alive. And he told my mother and everybody's happy."

And then one night they came for him. After 22 months locked away, a guard came in, handcuffed him, and led him to a waiting car. "I thought hundred per cent they kill me today. But I was not too scared." Sitting amongst four guards, Abdolah, now with a beard down to his stomach, is blindfolded for the first two kilometres of a 24-km journey to the other side of the
city. Nobody says a word.

Nearing a small village, they stop the car. The guard up front orders Abdolah's handcuffs removed. This is it, he thinks. He is convinced he will die. Figuring he was as good as dead no matter what, he hatches a plan. "I think now to find a chance to take the guns from one guy. I try
to take the gun from him and shoot all of them. Really. In this moment, I'm not worried, I think just like this. It's a chance like this sometime takes in the movies. We have the chance, we can do that. Why not? If I do or not, they kill me."

But it doesn't come to that. The guard up front says he's free to go.

"Why I'm free?"

"Don't ask. Thank your uncle for that. You can go."

At first, he thought they'd let him walk five metres before shooting him in the back. But when he heard his uncle mentioned, he knew something was up. And it was. His uncle had bought his freedom.

The guards drive off. And for the first time in almost two years, he's a free man. Abdolah walks quickly to the village where people are waiting for him. He's told that if the Taliban attacks this village, and they find him, they'll kill him immediately. So after an hour's time, they walk to
another village in the mountains where the Taliban won't go. He is weak from his captivity, but was more than happy to walk. And walk. Which is a good thing, considering. He is told everything is arranged for him to go to Pakistan. On foot.

So off they go, six adults and two children. Thirty-three days later, through the snowy mountains of middle Afghanistan, they arrive and separate. It is in Pakistan where he meets his uncle, who sets him on his way to Canada.

He is met at the Toronto airport by two men and he can finally exhale.

"I'm in Canada," he remembers thinking. "Nothing can happen with me in Canada." They drive non-stop to Vancouver, where they deposit him at Immigration.

At Immigration, he finds out exactly how lucky he is to be alive. A United Nations team, he is told, found a gravesite containing the bodies of 188 teachers killed in one day by the Taliban.

As part of his personal philosophy, Abdolah immediately starts to integrate into Canadian society. He registers in English classes. Soon he gets work painting. A hobby magician, he hires himself out at children's parties. He eventually starts his own painting company.

"In each corner in the world where you are, be open-minded is very, very important," he says. "And accept the culture from the country."

While he loves his new city, there's no place like home. He wants to go back as soon as possible and help in Afghanistan's rebuilding process. With American bombs blasting away his homeland, it's somewhat surprising to hear his opinion on the war. He bristles at the suggestion by some that the Americans shouldn't be there.

"Yeah, but who care about Afghanistan since Taliban kill million people and the Russian military killed the people? Nobody has said that is good or bad." He believes now is Afghanistan's best chance in a long, long time. His opinion of war is strictly utilitarian. Innocents will be killed, but if their deaths provide a greater good for the greatest number, it's a sacrifice he's willing to make.

"Some Afghan people don't like [the war], too. For me, it's okay. Russia killed a lot of people. They bombed each cities in Afghanistan. After fight, after war, they did nothing. [Later], the Mujahadin and the Taliban did the same. They killed the people, too. They killed million people. But I think if America went there and kill the people now this time, it's different. A lot of the people from the Taliban, they are bad for Afghanistan; they are bad people. You have to kill them. If they kill some other people, children, woman, okay. That is war. That, to me, is war. If
they kill 20,000 civilians, that's 15 or 20 million Afghan have a nice way of life after. That's okay."

Of course, he, like most of us, can't understand why the Americans haven't found bin Laden yet. He reasons that the US has satellites that can see inside the earth and find oil and uranium, so how hard can it be to find a guy in a cave?

Sometimes cynicism gets the best of him. "I know where bin Laden is," he'll suck in a friend, before offering up the punchline: "I think sometimes he drink whiskey with the Bush together! Believe me!"

Abdolah figures he'll spend at least six more months here before moving back home. In six months, he predicts, the Afghan people will have fully comprehended that the Taliban is gone. The bombs from the US will have stopped. And companies from all over the world will come to help out.

"Then it is time to go and work with them together," he says. "And then if the people have a job, if the people busy, nobody think to fight or do something. Everybody is like before. You go to your job, come back home, your family. The young people, they live for 20 years in a war. They don't know without fighting. That is the problem in Afghanistan."

He's not sure yet what he will do, but he knows he must do something. And rather than his next meal, sleeping arrangements or his imminent death, Abdolah has other, more pleasant, thoughts these days.

"I think all the time, what is the best for me to do in Afghanistan?" His answer: "To help the people and to make money, too.

"Each country want to do something in Afghanistan," he says. "There's a lot of job now, a lot of hard work. You know, all the street is broken. And the bridge. The construction of Afghanistan need a lot of job."

You can't help but feel his excitement when he talks like the president of the Afghanistan Chamber of Commerce.

"Canada, America, Europe, Japan, Iran, all country, they want to help to Afghanistan. If they really give the money to work in Afghanistan, I give you guarantee that after five year, Afghanistan is nicer as Hong Kong. Believe me."

President of the Chamber of Commerce? How about president of Afghanistan?

"No, I don't want that. I want to be alive for a little longer, you know?!"