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.

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.

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.