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.