"In your first five years of standup, you think you're much better than you are. And then another five years go by and you go, oh geez, that was terrible. And then yet another five years go by and you're 15 years in, you're going, oh my God, I was terrible at it for 10 years. But at 10 years, you thought you were at the top of your game."
– Mark Forward
Guy MacPherson: Hello, Mark.
Mark Forward: Hello.
GM: How are you?
MF: I'm good. How are you?
GM: I'm well, thank you.
MF: I apologize that no one got back to you.
GM: These days, there's always a way to find somebody.
MF: We fight for press in this goddamn country, I hate to think that I missed it without even knowing about it!
GM: I kinda left it a little late. Sorry about that.
MF: Oh, no worries. I appreciate you doing it.
GM: You're coming to the MIX. Last time you were at Yuk's, weren't you?
MF: No, the last time I was at the MIX. It was my first time. I think it was last year.
GM: Were you ever with Yuk's?
MF: I was with Yuk's for ten or twelve years. I did do the Vancouver Yuk's when it first opened. I think it was like the second week.
GM: This is me promoting a Canadian comic.
MF: Oh, my God! You did it!
GM: So you've left Mr. D. What was behind that? I think you said on your website it was time to move on.
MF: It was time to move on, yes. Greener pastures and opportunities.
GM: It's too bad because I generally like the show a lot. But there were some characters I didn't like, usually because the actors are overdoing it a bit. But you played it understated and realistic and not broad.
MF: It was weird. He had the most odd life. Everything about him – his upbringing, his parents, his Chinese background, his African-American son – all this stuff could have gone to him being a wacky, wild character. And I didn't want to do that. I thought it was funnier just to play him real. I had a ball playing that character. You don't get to play many great characters like that. But you know, greener pastures, moving on, artistic differences. Whatever words you want to use. (laughs)
GM: You've done some acting over the years. And your stage persona in standup is an understated guy, too.
MF: At times. I think over the hour I play both ends of the spectrum. But yeah, I like to bring it down and I like to take it up. Nobody wants to watch someone scream at them for an hour, and nobody wants to hear someone whisper at them for an hour. I try to make it a show. I try to make it have levels. I came from a theatre background at one point.
GM: What is Joke or Choke?
MF: Joke or Choke was a pilot we did for CTV. Craig Brown and I used to do it live at the Comedy Bar in Toronto. Basically it was comics get a week to learn material on three different topics. And each round I judged who got booted out. I was overly vicious and overly mean because that was just part of the playfulness of the show. And most comics – 99 percent – knew I didn't mean a word I'm saying. Sometimes what I was saying was really truthful and those comics didn't like hearing what I had to say. But I mean, I would never attack someone's act.
GM: So what would you attack?
MF: Well, this wasn't their act, you know what I mean? It was something they wrote in a week. Like, if they were up there doing their act, I would never attack them. I would never attack another comic's act. I used to hate it seeing emcees do it. It makes me cringe. To me, you know what you're signing up for. Nobody was blindsiding you. The comics that took it in stride and had fun with it usually did the best. But they would make an acting choice, too. Pat Thornton was hilarious on that show. He used to try to drive me nuts. And other comics the same. Some would come out and be a totally different comic or a totally different character or give themself a different name. We had so much fun doing it live. Then Insight (*) did a pilot project at the Comedy Bar where people did their pilots live. So if you had a sitcom or a game show... they did a whole week of it and it got picked up to be made. We made two episodes and that was it.
GM: Did it turn out to your liking?
MF: Yeah, I really like it. You can see it on CTV's online web page, ctvextend.
GM: But they didn't want to keep going with it?
MF: It's still up in the air. I think they still have the option to make it so I really don't know what's happening with it.
GM: So the ones who took it personally, did it fracture your relationship?
MF: Anybody we had on the taping of the show was close and great and nobody took it personally and we had a lot of fun. When we used to do the live show, yeah, some people would come in that I barely knew. I don't think they knew what the show was. A couple people stormed back onstage after I kicked them off, screaming at me and crying. Dude, you're never going to make it in standup! All it is is criticism every night!
GM: You guys are a sensitive lot.
MF: We are and we pretend we're not. That's the funniest. We try to act like we're so tough and we know everything. Meanwhile, we're breaking down our home every night.
GM: Have you ever been like that, where somebody says something and you take it the wrong way?
MF: Yeah, early in my career. I would take everything personally. It's so weird, in your first five years of standup, you think you're much better than you are. And then another five years go by and you go, oh geez, that was terrible. And then yet another five years go by and you're 15 years in, you're going, oh my God, I was terrible at it for 10 years. But at 10 years, you thought you were at the top of your game.
GM: Well, you probably were the best you could be at any given point.
MF: Yeah. But the weird thing is we try to convince ourselves that we're better than we really are. But yeah, when I was first starting, I would really take offence if someone said I was terrible. The thing is, they were always right. Whatever they were saying was right. As comics, we'd get our backs up because we're always looking for a fight. We play a lot of Legions.
GM: How long have you been doing it?
MF: This is my 15th year.
GM: So now definitely you are good.
MF: I don't know. I'm trying.
GM: Yeah, we'll see what you say at 20 years.
MF: Yeah, if I'm still alive.
GM: Where were you leading up to standup? What were you doing?
MF: I was doing lunchtime theatre in the basement of the Scotia Bank Plaza in Toronto. We'd do a show at 12:00 and 1:00 and then I would go work in a bank from 2 am to 10 am.
GM: What would you do in a bank at 2 am?
MF: All the business deposits come in. We open them, count them, put them in the computer all night.
GM: So then you'd get off at 10 am and prepare for your theatre.
MF: I wouldn't go home because it was in the basement. So I would go do the show. It was usually a serialized show so after the 1 o'clock performance, we'd rehearse the next week.
GM: Who's going to theatre at noon?
MF: People would bring their lunches down from the business offices. And they'd watch. They'd split up a play into three or four parts so that people would come back. It was just something they could do on their lunch break.
GM: Did you study acting?
MF: I did. I went to Humber for three years when I got out of high school.
GM: But then you needed a job so you got the job in the bank.
MF: Yeah, I needed a job where I could still do what I wanted to do so I took a job in the middle of the night. No one could see me, I never slept. And right after that I got a job at a comedy club at the bar. I was bartending.
GM: And was that your first exposure to standup?
MF: That was my real first exposure to standup. I'd been a huge fan of improv and I used to go to the old Second City. I used to drive from Oakville and watch the free improv set every night and I thought that's the way I was going to go.
GM: Did you ever do improv?
MF: I have, yeah. Second City was very kind to let me get up and do it. It's such a different animal. It's fun to go on stage and be terrified.
GM: That must help your standup, just being in the moment.
MF: Totally. Great standups to me are good actors and good improvisers. Some just have it, but some took it and some didn't, and you can see it.
GM: You retired for a while, didn't you?
MF: (laughs) Uh, I wrote an article about retiring.
GM: So was that just marketing?
MF: I was on Twitter for about a year saying this was my last year in comedy and I had a hashtag. I was joking around. I didn't know that someone from the Star was following me and they said, 'Do you want to write about your retirement?' And I had not had a drop of press in 10 years of comedy. The first article I was going to get was about my retirement, so I thought I can't not write it! Just for the story alone. But if you really read it, it kind of says I have a gig next week. I was just frustrated at the time. I was doing shows that I shouldn't have been doing. I'm not a one-nighter, northern Ontario kind of comic that can just do it to make money. I kinda gotta like doing it, I realized. So these shows would beat me down. And once I dropped the shows I didn't want to do, and just started doing comedy when I wanted to do it, then my career kind of took off.
GM: So you weren't lying: you retired from doing shows you didn't want to do.
MF: I did. I retired from a certain way of doing comedy. I kind of reinvented what I wanted to be and what I wanted to do.
GM: What kind of reaction did you get when people saw you back on stage? Were they angry or confused?
MF: Comics were livid. Comics are still livid. Some comics are really mad. Because, I mean, that year I started on Mr. D, I did Craig Ferguson. It was a really good year that I retired.
GM: Retiring has been very good for your career.
MF: Yeah! I suggest it to anyone: retire, it really brings in the work. I used to say that and comics would get so mad. I understand where they're coming from. They're like, 'We're trudging away and we're not giving up and we're committed to it.' And I said I'm not giving up, either. If you read the article...
GM: I read it at the time.
MF: To me, it just sounds like someone upset but still going to continue being a comic. And the funny thing is, comedy's taken a real turn overall and everything I was bitching about in that article has kind of come full circle. You don't hear Dane Cook very much. And you hear all about Louis C.K. and Zach Galifianakis. At the time I wrote that article, Dane Cook was one of the biggest comics out there and nobody was talking about Louis C.K. and nobody was talking about Zach Galifianakis and it was driving me nuts because those guys were great.
GM: And now they're running the roost.
MF: Yeah. That kind of comedy has come full circle and it's become almost mainstream.
GM: They're now the comedy superstars. Before it was Dane Cook playing arenas; now the Oddball Tour is playing in front of 15,000 people.
MF: Yeah, which is great. Because to me, I just feel they deserve it more.
GM: You were on Ferguson a couple times. Do you play the States much?
MF: No. The only time I've played the States is when I did Ferguson and I did John Oliver's New York Standup Show. So that's why in life I always say to all Canadian comics: Just go down there and do the late night TV shows. Don't bother working in the trenches. (laughs) No, I've been very fortunate that way. But no, I haven't done much in the States.
GM: It was great to hear Craig Ferguson give your credits when he brought you on stage: "You can see him on Mr. D on CBC" or "Joke and Choke on CTV". Everyone in the States must have been wondering what they were all about.
MF: I kind of put those in in hopes they would say them, and he did. I truly would love to just stay here. But we'll see if that happens.
GM: But the audiences are just smaller here.
MF: Yeah, everything's kind of smaller here. There's not as much opportunity. And man, there's an explosion of comedy in the States with Comedy Central snapping up everybody. It's impressive. It's pretty great to see that they put Key & Peele on and that was a hit, and then they thought, 'Oh, let's try it again.' And now you have Nick Kroll, you have Amy Schumer, you have @midnight. They've become like a huge network. I wish our Comedy Network would figure out that if you make stuff, people will come.
GM: What's the problem in Canada when there's this huge explosion of comedy?
MF: They're just buying all that. And then guys like Nathan Fielder, who were here, go down there and make a massive television show that could have been made here.
GM: You worked on the Jon Dore show and he's gone on to big things in the States.
MF: Yup. We did two seasons. Our ratings were at their highest. He had just been nominated for Variety's Top 10 Comics to Watch. And it was cancelled.
GM: Was it really cancelled or did he just end it?
MF: No, it was cancelled. We would have done a third.
GM: That was the most original Canadian show I've ever seen.
MF: It was great. And I think we were just getting our legs. He's such a kind and talented man. I think he would have just started making it better and better and better.
GM: I know there's the Joke and Choke, but you are looking at other vehicles for yourself?
MF: I'm pitching stuff right now so who knows? But I'm working at it. I learned so much from Jon and I learned so much working on Mr. D. But I wasn't really ready to pitch. I know a lot of guys pitched when they were young. I'm a slow burn. So I'm trying now. We'll see what happens.
GM: A lot of people pitch when they're young and, as you were saying before, they're not as good as they're going to be. And maybe even not that good at all, all things considered.
MF: It's the Comedy Now syndrome.
GM: With the laugh track.
MF: Yeah, and the bright lights and orange background. They would give those to people that weren't ready. I did one and I hate that it's out there.
GM: How long into your career were you?
MF: It was 2006. So about eight years ago. I wasn't ready to do a half-hour special on television, not the way Comedy Central half-hours are done. I'd kill to do a half-hour comedy special in Canada now. But we don't have them. Yeah, so they would give them really early when none of us were ready because they'd just need to make them. I think it was 172 different comics had a half-hour special. Where are they now? They couldn't have been ready.
GM: But it's impossible to turn down if they offer you one.
MF: It was at the time, it really was. And the few guys I saw do it, did it and benefitted from saying no. There's something to be learned, too, later in life. Like, it's okay to say no.
GM: But you don't know where you're going to be five years down the road.
MF: No, you don't.
GM: As an independent comic, are there enough clubs around the country for you to perform in?
MF: I have not missed not being with Yuk's one day. I thought I would. In between the clubs that I work, I book my own shows now and luckily people are showing up. I was terrified they wouldn't but I'm developing enough of a following that I can pop into a city once a year and put on something. It's not massive. I'm not selling out 3000-seat theatres, but it's been great. I've enjoyed this year-and-a-half being away from them so much. I have more control over my career, whereas being with Yuk's, you're a hamburger. They used to say that to us: "People go to McDonald's for the hamburgers. They don't care what kind of hamburger."
GM: They care after the fact when it doesn't sit well in their stomach.
MF: (laughs) Yeah, exactly. I love the MIX. I walked in the first time and saw two big guys standing at the door. I was like, 'I love this club!'
GM: They throw people out, if need be.
MF: They throw people out! What a novel idea! And then the people learn that's not what it's about. Yeah, I love that club. I have so much respect for that club. I've only played it once so I hope I'm not speaking too soon, but I love that club. They treated me with such respect. It was amazing. Good people.
GM: I know in your "retirement" you talked about the drunk crowds and heckling. Do you have much of a problem with that element still?
MF: I don't fight it as much. And I don't find it happens as much with the act. I'm kinda the comic I am now. Another thing, too, is that I'm doing a lot of shows that I'm booking myself. People don't show up to get angry at something they're coming to see. It's a great thing about developing an audience. Nobody goes, 'I wanna go see Jerry Seinfeld and wreck it!' Whereas someone stumbling in at their stagette sitting front row going, 'Make the show about me!', that's a whole different ballgame.
GM: You telling your Twitter followers to promote Canadian comics. Who do you want to promote? Who's your favourite Canadian comic?
MF: Jon Dore's my favourite Canadian comic, period. But he's in the States.
GM: So it's got to be Canadian comics in Canada?
MF: No, no, no, no. As long as they're Canadian, I don't care. I've been watching this new crop of American comics come up, and if you watch Twitter, all of them support each other. It's insane. If someone has a new album, they all tweet about it. If someone has a new special, they all tweet about it. They don't even just retweet; they make a whole new tweet.
GM: That takes a lot of effort!
MF: I know! Like a couple minutes! Whereas here, we're not even doing it. It was a little bit of 'Come on, guys!' But even this morning, it was trending in Canada. It doesn't take much to utilize the tools that are at our disposal. We use social media and promote ourselves.
GM: But in the States, the American comics have more of a presence if they're promoting each others' albums or specials.
MF: Yeah, they have a bit more presence on TV but I can tell you mainstream people probably didn't know who Chelsea Peretti was last week. She's great but I can say that.
GM: But that's because she has a Netflix special.
MF: If we slowly create something here, it's better than nothing. Everybody's like, 'What's the point? What are we going to get to, five people?' Yeah, that's five people. It's the stupidest thing I like to say but every person is a person. You can't have a hundred people without one.
GM: Hey, that's deep. Okay, here's one: Who's the best Canadian comic who the mainstream don't know about?
MF: Graham Chittenden. Graham Chittenden is pretty bang-on, writing good stuff, working hard. For oddballs, you got your Tim Gilbert. Graham just did the east coast tour with Just For Laughs and he's been opening for Gerry on Gerry's tour, as well. He's just got really, really funny stuff. And it's unlike mine so that makes it even truer, I don't know why. For me to go, 'Oh, I love Jon Dore,' it's like, 'Oh yeah, because you learn from him, you emulate him.' But for a comic to like a different style... Anyway, I'll shut up.
GM: This has been great.
MF: Thank you. I wasn't very funny but at least you got me in a talkative mood.
GM: Sometimes you're not so talkative?
MF: You were great, by the way. I'm not very good at these. But I've had a lot of people in Canada call me and go, 'Hey, okay, Mike Forward...' You know? Or 'So you did commercials. How was that?' You said nice, informative, lovely questions.
GM: Hey, you have a podcast.
MF: I do. The Mark Forward Podcast.
GM: How did you come up with that name?
MF: Well, my dad took his penis...
GM: How long have you been doing that?
MF: We're coming up on two years. We're approaching our 100th episode. We're about 23 away. Then we're going to retire.
GM: Is it going to be another fake retirement?