Comedy Boy at night, West Ender by day
West End Times, November 3, 1993
By day he’s a mild-mannered residential caretaker. By night he’s a wise-crackin’ standup comedian. Look! Up on the stage! It’s the Bard! He’s insane! No, it’s Comedy Boy!
Vancouver comic Billy Mitchell headlines comedy clubs throughout western and northern Canada. He’s also performed in the U.S. and even Cambodia and Thailand for Canadian Peacekeepers. But his true love remains managing his West End apartment building… Well, not really. But for the time being, his “sunlighting” job helps pay the bills while he continues his climb up the comedy ladder.
The 34-year-old comedian has been entertaining crowds professionally for about five years. Mitchell started hanging out at Punchlines Comedy Club in Gastown shortly after graduating from Richmond High School. He worked in restaurants and wrote comedy with his buddies before his boss told him, “I need a waiter not a comedian.” He finally screwed up the courage to step up to the mike on amateur night. That first time in the spotlight is still fresh in his memory.
“We’d been drinking in the afternoon and shooting pool at the Cecil,” he recalls. “By the time I got there I was pretty well lubricated. I got up on the stage and just blanked. Mind went dead. I think I stood there completely silent for about two of the five minutes I had.”
Mitchell found that it’s a lot easier to make your friends laugh than to make a group of strangers laugh. “My friends can have me in stitches and I can have them in stitches. But to translate that to an audience, where it’s a group of unknowns – a big demographic pie slice – is a very, very different thing. When you’re funny with your friends, it’s dealing with something that’s occurring at the time. So it’s a very situational situation.” Pause. “Situational situation? That sounded really clever. But with an audience you have to create scenarios in their minds.”
He worked at his craft, constantly adding to his original five minutes of material. Mitchell keeps a notebook with him at all times, recording any humorous thought that comes to mind. The daily routines that we all do unthinkingly is the basis for his jokes. “Some of the best observational comedy is some of the simplest,” he says. “You train yourself to look for stuff that’s normal yet bizarre. It’s pointing out the bizarre in the normal.”
For instance, we’ve all seen the ads for dairy farmers. Mitchell wonders why they have to advertise staple foods. We know about eggs. There is no competing product. He envisions an ad campaign that states, “If you don’t use eggs… your omelet’s gonna suck.”
Throughout the years Mitchell has amassed about four hours worth of material. For each new joke he will try it out on his friends or down at the club on amateur night. But ultimately it will have to get past one tough censor – his wife. “She’s really critical,” he says. “She’ll go, ‘Oh, that’s funny, but no you can’t use that. That’s not politically correct.’”
For the most part he agrees with his wife. “I don’t want to offend any particular group,” he says. “I don’t think it’s appropriate. Also, I think any time you take the piss out of any particular group of society, you’re reducing your potential audience.”
While he won’t tell racist or homophobic jokes, he was once accused of being a sexist and that his material was male-biased. “I look at life from a male point of view because I’m male,” he says. “If I say ‘women do this’ I’ve usually got something slightly worse that men do, as a direct parallel. Equal time.”
He’s not a bland, whitebread comedian, however. He will on occasion poke fun at less recognizable targets. The Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example. When they come to his door he tells them, “Yes, I’ve heard the word of God… and it’s ‘Get off my porch.’” Or how about cancer? “April is cancer month. Geez, just when you’re over cold season… If I had only six months to live, I’d buy a shipload of furniture from the Brick. Then with my luck, they’d find a cure.”
One of the fringe benefits of being a professional yukster is the travelling. And in that regard, his highlight to date occurred this past summer. An agent rang him up and asked if he was available for ten days, then informed him that he had a couple of gigs for him in Cambodia. Mitchell thought he must have said Campbell River. “It was wild,” he says now. He and a seven-piece show band were there for three days and in Thailand for six. It’s certainly a lot more glamorous playing to plastered peacekeepers in Phnom Penh than playing to pickled patrons in Prince George.
Just back from a week in Calgary, Billy Mitchell can be seen headlining at Punchlines this week, November 4, 5, and 6. And, of course, by day he can be seen raking the leaves outside his apartment building.