"I have to eventually learn to act. I mean, Melissa McCarthy and Reba Wilson are just setting it up for me right now. Thank you girls! Because we get more and more auditions that say Melissa McCarthy type. They're really paving the way. So hopefully I can ride their coattails."
– Debra DiGiovanni
Guy MacPherson: Hello, Deb?
Deb DiGiovanni: Hey, how are you?
GM: Good. We finally meet.
DD: I know! Over the phone! I appreciate it.
GM: Are you on tour right now?
DD: I am, yes. I had a couple days off. I just finished the maritimes. We did some northern Ontario last week. We've done eight shows so far. We're doing 21.
GM: Who's 'we'?
DD: Me and I get to bring an opener of my choosing, which is decadent like nothing else. For the first ten shows, I brought my friend Graham Chittenden with me. And then starting on Saturday it's my friend Nile Seguin, who I love. So Nile's going to be coming out to the west coast with me.
GM: That's nice. So you have someone to travel with.
DD: It's, wow, what a pleasure. It just feels very Entourage-y, do you know what I mean? Like, now I have a tour manager, I get to bring an opener, sometimes we have a driver, and it's all ridiculous and wonderful. It's a little surreal, it really is.
GM: It's like you're in show business.
DD: It is! But the good kind! What? Yeah, it's pretty great. I think this is probably like the Holy Grail for comics doing your own theatre tour. It's just very special. You know how it is: We spend our lives working in comedy clubs and most of the time I'll be standing at the back of the room and you hear people go, "Who's on the show tonight?" "I don't know. Some girl." They're just going to see comedy to see comedy. So this is just really nice that the crowd wants to see me. They know why they're there. So it's really lovely.
GM: Does it add a bit of pressure, though? Because when you're doing a comedy club, if nobody shows up, who cares? But it's more personal now.
DD: It is. To me it's like throwing a party. You always think throwing a party is such a good idea. And then you're so sick with nerves because you're like, 'What if no one shows up? What if no one has fun?' You just panic. It's awful being the host. It's a little like that on tour. I'm so excited this is happening, the party's going to happen, but are people going to come? I don't know. So it's kind of hard to sleep the night before. You just want it to go well. So there is pressure in that you hope people come. There's also a little bit of freedom because it's safe. These people like me so you can get up and, not just do what you want but I feel like I can have a little more fun on stage, they'll let me go places. I can try brand new material and they're totally cool with it. It's just a very sort of accepting stage.
GM: So even if you didn't sell it out, you know that everyone there likes you already.
DD: That's exactly it. Like, if there's only 63 people, the 63 people want to be there. So it's still pretty good. We just move everyone up. Move to the front!
GM: But you are bringing in people in all these different parts of the country.
GM: That's amazing because you're playing north, east, west...
DD: I know. We don't go super north. Where am I going on the tour that I've never been before? I've never been to Medicine Hat and we have a show in Medicine Hat, so there you go.
GM: All of a sudden it's not quite like show business anymore.
DD: Touring the maritimes is a treat as well. The coasts are always really great. I love that it starts in a super happy place and then nice to end up in BC.
GM: And who knew that Canada even had 21 cities?
DD: I know, right?! Twenty-one theatres! Yeah, it is a little bit of a shock. We were just in Owen Sound, Ontario, which is only about 70,000 people and they have this fabulous little theatre that I think we had about 25 seats empty. It was just a delight. Some nice surprises along the way.
GM: Those are the best sized towns to play, I would imagine.
DD: Oh yeah. I mean, without being condescending, they're excited when something shows up. People after a show are like, 'Thank you for coming to Owen Sound. Thank you for putting us on your list.' They have to drive two hours to get to the concerts or whatever so they're always very appreciative and a little easier to suss (?) out just because an event is happening in town. Where, as you know, it's a little harder in Vancouver, a little harder in Toronto. There are a ton of things to choose from. So it's easier when there's only, like, bingo and then Debra. It's a 50-50 chance!
GM: It's Debra or the hockey game.
DD: You got it! Debra and the hockey game, ooh, fun!
GM: Touring in the winter in Canada is a different thing. Are you driving or flying everywhere?
DD: A little bit of everything. Kind of a combo. In the maritimes, we flew to the main spots but then drove as much as we could because they're just nice and compact. On the clearest day it's hard to get out of Halifax. On the first day when we started, we were right at the beginning of the polar vortex, so we didn't think we were going to make it to St. John's, Newfoundland. We sat in the airport for six hours. Six hours delayed. Literally just looking at each other going, 'This is not going to happen.' They came over the PA and were like, 'Everybody is cancelled... except for St. John's, Newfoundland. We're going.' Everybody else went home except for us. But so far, so good. And this week we're mainly driving because we've got London, Mississauga... things that are only two hours away, half an hour away. So that's kind of nice. And next week is heading west. As we get closer to February, we just keep hoping the weather keeps improving.
GM: It's nice out here.
DD: Oh, thank God. A lot of people when you say, 'I'm touring in January,' they're like, 'Oh, wow, that's kind of stupid.' It's when Just For Laughs does their tour. But that being said, I have so many people coming up after the show and going, 'I got these tickets for Christmas.' So I go, 'Oh, that's why!' Yeah, good idea. I think there's a lack of stuff to do in January, too. As long as we can get there, we're good.
GM: You're in L.A. now?
DD: Yeah. Splitting my time. Probably 70-30 L.A. I don't have an apartment in Toronto anymore. I stay at a pal's house, one of my best friends, when I'm here. But I made the move. I thought, you know what? Might as well. I don't want to say I owe it to myself, but a little. I just started my 14th year in comedy and I just think might as well. I'm in a good position. I'm really lucky because I can make a living in Canada and then go and see what I can do in L.A. It's just a really good position for me right now. So friends were like, 'What else are you waiting for?' You know, I'm not married, I have no one holding me back. (laughs) Wow, I didn't mean it to sound like that! No children is what I mean. Even my cat passed away year so it's like, alright, I'm free, let's go to L.A.
GM: When did you move down?
DD: February of last year.
GM: You have agents or managers down there?
DD: When I was on Last Comic Standing in 2007, I got my working papers and that was the biggest gift ever. Winning didn't matter; I got my working papers, I got my agent. It was just huge. I've switched over and am at a different agency now but I have the same manager and my papers are still intact. So easy, easy transition for me. I'm really lucky.
GM: What's the goal down there? Is it auditions or is it standup?
DD: For me, standup is my true love, you know? I'd love to do Chelsea. That kind of stuff. I love the talking head stuff, the at-midnights, the being just Debra. That's just more down there. More people see it and they have more shows to attack. So that, I think, is first and foremost. I have to learn to act. Do I want to act? I don't know. Maybe, I'm a good liar. I don't know if that is the same thing. So I have to eventually learn to act. I mean, Melissa McCarthy and Reba Wilson are just setting it up for me right now. Thank you girls! Because we get more and more auditions that say Melissa McCarthy type. They're really paving the way. So hopefully I can ride their coattails.
GM: So you're a good liar. Are you telling me the whole truth?
DD: (laughs) You'll never know! I think we all are, as comics. You know, you get on stage on the worst day of your life and still put a big smile on and sell it. I think that's just one of those things. It's all exaggeration, too. People are like, 'Are these stories true?' I'm like, 'Yeah. Everything is a kernel of truth times a thousand.'
GM: You have such energy in regular life.
DD: That's my Italian background.
GM: When I've seen you on stage, I think you must be exhausted. Even though you're not moving around a lot...
DD: But I'm going.
GM: Or is that just you and you're used to that?
DD: I think so but it's true. For this tour I'm doing about 55 minutes, maybe 65 minutes. But honestly, I'm drenched, I'm exhausted. I really expend energy. I love it but after about four or five one-hour shows, I really do need a night off. I really do. My voice goes. Stuff like that. Hopefully one day I'll learn to save my voice. But the tour's set up really well. We go four shows, five shows, one day off, two days off. But I am one of those people. Like, after a show when people are like, 'You want to come get a drink?' I'm a mess. A wet mess. We go back to the hotel. I shower, grab a bite to eat, go to bed. Not a rock star, not a rock star at all.
GM: And you don't drink anyway.
DD: No, I don't. I am the dullest comedian in the world. I really am.
GM: You'd be perfect on Chelsea, I would imagine.
DD: Right?! That is just something I like. Because the Video on Trial just comes really naturally to me. So she's definitely in my sights. I've got my target on her for sure. So hopefully. It's just breaking into the comedy community again. I am a big proponent of... I like a little fear. It keeps us humble. I'm, again, really lucky in Canada. I just don't ever want to get complacent. So changing it up and moving, and moving by myself, and nobody knows who I am, it's humbling. I think it's good for me. I think starting over, to a certain extent, is kinda what I needed to do right now. I don't think it's for everybody but it's just something that I needed to do. I'm not saying I'm bored; I just would never want to get bored so I feel like I gotta shake it up a little bit.
GM: It must be tough starting over. You're kind of starting at the bottom again.
DD: Oh wow, it's so true. You're begging for open mic spots. Just emailing and going and talking and then they don't respond and sending clips of yourself. And then you get to the show, when they finally book you, and you crush because you're doing your favourite seven minutes and nobody knows you. So everything is new again. So that's nice. But it's just re-introducing myself to people. You get this after shows from bookers: 'So do you have 30 minutes?' Yeah. Fourteen years. You know what I mean? Another thing I've noticed is a lot of people who are getting shows and are on their own show and what-have-you, they've been doing comedy for nine years in L.A. And in Canada, it's like 12, 13, 14, 15 years where people are kind of making the move to go there and present themselves. Very interesting because it's like, 'Wow, these Canadians are so funny.' Yeah, we've been doing it longer! It takes a little bit longer in Canada to get to the household name kind of thing, where in the States it's really not. Eric André and Jonah Ray and all these dudes that you see on Nerdist and all that kind of stuff, they've only been doing comedy for eight or nine years. To me that's like still learning. You're not there yet.
GM: You also sense that when you hear them, too.
DD: (laughs) Yes. Littlebit! Littlebit!
GM: I can see that might be kind of the fun part of transplanting yourself. The bad part of starting over is trying to get on, but the fun part is seeing their jaws drop when you do get on.
DD: That's exactly right.
GM: And everyone else is almost an open mic level or a bit above that.
DD: The middles going up and they've been doing it maybe five or six years. We go up and we've been headlining for five years. Yeah, so those are the beautiful moments when people come up and go, 'Who are you?!' Exactly, that's the response you want. Perseverance. Every day I literally wake up and go, 'Okay, it's a marathon, not a sprint.' You gotta remind yourself. And L.A. is so big. If you're not living in the same neighbourhood, like literally within walking distance of each other, it makes it hard. 'Do you wanna come over tonight?' You're like, oh God, it's a 25-minute drive: 'No.' It's hard to get to know people and all that kind of stuff. It reminds me of when I went to college. I went to Ryerson in Toronto, which at the time was a very city college, they didn't have a residence. I remember being there and on weekends everyone went home to Thornhill or Oshawa or whatever. It still feels like the same kind of thing. We see each other at the show but after everyone scatters. We're not used to that in Canada. Everyone just hangs out and then takes the subway home.
GM: Have you had to make many adjustments to your act performing in the States?
DD: No. The only thing that I would say is this: I don't change it too, too much but I'm a little... You're made aware that comedy in Canada is different. Canada and the UK are a little more similar in that we make fun of ourselves. And America doesn't do that. They make fun of everybody else. It's a little different. Self-deprecation isn't really in their top five comedy attacks. You can tell who the Brits are, you can tell who the Canadians are because we laugh at ourselves a little more easily. Everyone is very confident. It's a little jarring. No comics hate yourselves out here? What's going on?! So it's a little strange.
GM: The misplaced confidence.
DD: Yes, right?! God bless America.
GM: But you still do the self-deprecating stuff.
DD: Oh yeah. I am who I am. I'm not going to change it for anybody. But there are certain times where you're not super heavy on that. Like, if I'm doing a seven-minute set it may not be all woe is me. It'll be sort of like the world is ridiculous and woe is me. You kinda gotta ease them into it a little bit.
GM: And then they all look at you and go, 'Oh, poor Debra. What's wrong with her?'
DD: Yeah, exactly. You never want that, right? You never want, 'Awww!'
GM: What town are you from?
DD: I grew up in a small town called Tillsonburg, Ontario. And the minute I graduated high school I moved to Toronto.
GM: I don't know it. Where's it near?
DD: It's in western Ontario. It would go, like, London, Windsor, up that way.
GM: You also did Humber College.
DD: Yeah, their first year was 1999 and that was the year I went. It was the inaugural year. It had a little bit of press behind it at the time. The first year it was hooked up with a New York school as well. It was only eight months. It's changed now. Now I think it's a four-year program or something crazy like that. But it was a good thing because I was searching. I knew I wanted to perform but I didn't know in what capacity or even just how to start. So that just fell on my desk. I was working in a news room at a TV station and the press release just literally came to my desk. All my friends were like, 'This is it! This is your chance!' I think I applied that afternoon. It was so safe. I was 28, I was quitting a job. It just felt like, 'Oh, I'm going to school. I'm not ruining my life to become a comedian! No, I'm going to school.' It felt legit. And it ended up being absolutely terrific. It was really one of the best eight- or nine-month period of my life. I got a little bit of everything, fell in love with standup.
GM: Did you learn anything or was it more the connections you made and the confidence?
DD: Yeah, I think so. I think, you know, there's certain things that you learn. Like, we did sitcom and screenplay writing and you learn some formulas and stuff, but it was really more just a really safe forum to perform. Improv class, acting class... let's just make it the nicest, most gentle area to start your comedy. The first time I ever performed standup was in front of the class. So you kinda just went to your first open mic in the real world feeling a little calmer than I think the average comic. And that was I think really what it gave me. You meet pals. I'm still friends with some of the guys that were in my class: Jason Rouse, Mark Forward. Maybe there's probably only about five of us that still perform from the class. It was just safe and really a nice way to jump in.
GM: Did you come out of the womb fully formed where your voice is there from the beginning? Or did it take you a while to find it?
DD: I think it took a little bit. I will say, though, that it was easy the first couple of times. It really felt like one of those magical, the sky has opened up, that sort of thing. It really did. It felt very like home the minute I did standup. But the first two years, it was a little different. It used to be almost like a monologue for me, where I literally would print out my set. It was like an essay more. And I would just kind of memorize and go. And then that changed after about two years because I had a bad show, doing a Just for Laughs showcase, and wasn't 'in the room' and something happened and I couldn't roll with it and it really broke me. Like, 'Oh, I failed!' And then a fabulous comic, who's unfortunately not with us anymore – the next day I had enough courage to go back to the comedy club – and he said, 'Just throw away your notes.' And that literally changed everything.
GM: Who was that?
DD: His name was J.P. Huntley. He passed away probably eight years ago. He was a real champion to a lot of comics, especially a lot of the people that I grew up with in comedy, that I started with. He was just a really wonderful dude. I think a lot of comics my age in comedy have a story about him because he was just super supportive. He came over and took the notes out of my hand and said, 'Go. Just have some fun.' And that was it. And now I think the frenetic energy and the way I do it now started to occur then. And then the fully formed Debra, just two years late, emerged. People were like, 'Your persona...' and I was like, 'Do I have a persona?' It wasn't a conscious decision. It's just me times a thousand.
GM: You worked at a news room. Was that CITY-TV?
DD: Yeah. I worked at CITY-TV, MuchMusic, Bravo in the '90s.
GM: What did you do?
DD: I was a switchboard operator and tour guide. That was when I decided I like an audience. I loved it. And all the other receptionists were like, 'We hate it. Can you do it?' And I was like, 'Yup!' So I just became the tour guide.
GM: So you can always go back to that if it doesn't work out in L.A.
DD: There you go!
GM: Were you there when Erica Ehm was there?
DD: I absolutely was. Erica Ehm, Steve Anthony, Sook-Yin Lee, all of them.
GM: I had a big crush on Erica Ehm.
DD: Oh yeah. Everyone once in a while you bump into her.
GM: She's on some mom's channel or something.
DD: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, she was a good girl. She was nice. Sook-Yin Lee, too, was awesome, as well.
GM: Are you still doing Match Game?
DD: Yeah, hopefully. Crossing our fingers for season three. Because we shoot that all in one month. We do back-to-back 60 episodes as fast as we can, kind of thing. But yeah, hoping. It's just so fun. It's a dream gig for a comic. We don't have to do anything. We literally show up, they put makeup on us and we sit down. That is it. That's all the preparation we have to do. We just want to be ourselves and they let us. And obviously it's one of those shows where there's no censorship at all. The first day of shooting, the executive producer – she's the pioneer of The Price is Right, Family Feud; I mean honestly, she's probably 80 – and she was just this amazing woman – maven – who would come on set – honestly 80 years old – and she's wearing six-inch heels and mother pants. Every time we would do anything she would just come up and go, 'Raunchier! Let's make this raunchier.'
GM: You're the Brett Somers of the show.
DD: Yes! Oh I love that. I think Brett Somers with a little Joanne Worley.
GM: Oh yeah, I can see that.
DD: A little bit of her. Séan of course is Charles Nelson Reilly.
GM: Is there a Richard Dawson?
DD: We can make Darrin Richard Dawson.
GM: The tour is called Late Bloomer. You started standup relatively late, not the latest.
DD: Not super late. I think honestly, Guy, a lot of people are like, 'Is it because you started at 28?' I'm like, 'No. It's because I'm an emotional and mental late bloomer.' That's what it is! I'm 42 now, right? I have a twin sister. She has three children, she's married. I'm still waiting to turn into an adult. When does that happen? When do I become a mature person? That's what it feels like. I think a lot of us on any given day feel about 17. That's kind of one of my themes in my comedy is being a late bloomer. And it's not because I started comedy at 28, it's because I feel 17. I think especially now, we change our careers two or three times... I think it's just different from when our parents grew up.
GM: Were you always different from your twin sister?
DD: Always. Yeah, very, very different. I used to joke and say that she was the prom queen and I was not invited to prom. We were very, very different. The thought of speaking in front of people would I think kill her. She would rather die than do that. She's a very natural, earthy girl. She likes camping and I don't like any of those sorts of things. I mean, friends? Absolutely. The bond of twins? One hundred percent. We're just polar opposites.
GM: Is that unusual? Are you identical twins?
DD: No, we're totally fraternal. I think identicals are usually very on the same page. But no one even guesses that we're sisters. Like ever. We look nothing alike. Joanne is like 5-9, blonde, green eyes. I mean, we look nothing alike. Nothing alike.
GM: Something is fishy here.
DD: Something is fishy here! Did we have a blonde, green-eyed mailman? We'll have to look into that. But we're good. I mean, we're on the same page but we just live very different lives.
GM: It would be cool if she were that different and identical.
DD: That would be interesting. I'd like to meet that, the rebels that actually break away from that. I know they're out there.
GM: For somebody's who's in the public eye, like yourself, if their identical sibling, who gets mistaken for them all the time, is completely different.
DD: It would be interesting to see. Because I always think an identical twin of a celebrity's gotta be weird. Going to the grocery store and everyone thinks you're whoever. Yeah, that'd be weird.
GM: I think there's a sitcom in that. Go with it.
DD: (laughs) I think so, too!
GM: Good luck on the tour.
DD: Thank you so much for your time. I appreciate it.
GM: Good luck in L.A. We'll all be rooting for you.
DD: Ooh, thank you! Stay tuned!
GM: Is it indefinite how long you'll be down there?
DD: Yeah. I mean right now I'm not giving it an end. If something happens in Canada, I get a show in Canada, please, with joy I'd come back here. But a kick of the can here. I'll give it a shot.
GM: There's the model of Gerry Dee and Brent Butt.
GM: Two white middle-aged guys.
DD: A tiny bit easier! God bless 'em!
GM: You'd think the CBC, with its mandate for diversity...
DD: I know. They've shaken it up over there. They've cleaned house. So maybe I'll check in once they've settled a little.