Feature: Just For Laughs NorthWest returns to the West Coast, with many women lighting up the stage.
Ladies of Comedy
This March, Vancouver’s rep as a no fun city can take a momentary hiatus for the annual comedy festival Just For Laughs (JFL) NorthWest.
With women’s issues taking the forefront over the last year, we decided to catch up with the women who make us laugh and find out how they navigate a male-dominated industry.
Megaphone spoke to four of the talented comedians taking to the stage this month.
Maria Bamford is woke. Or at least, she’s trying. After her hit Netflix semi autobiographical comedy Lady Dynamite wrapped up this year, she put out a call for animators for a new project on Twitter, specifically looking for applicants from underrepresented populations.
“One thing I feel I could have done with Lady Dynamite is being much more mindful of having diversity. The writing staff was awesome but also majority white male, and then free white females,” she says. “I know I have benefitted so much as a person who was raised in a white, middle-class family, I know—and I have no idea the extent to which I’ve benefited from that... I’m bored with my own story is what I’m trying to say.”
“I am an older, 47-year-old white lady millionaire so I am definitely not woke. I am constantly trying to get myself to wake up, but I am on anti psychotics, so I may not be open eyed all the time but I’m doing the best I can.”
At JFL she’ll be performing twice, both at The Vogue.
“I do about six impersonations that are mostly family related, and two songs per show, that’s what can be expected,” she says.
As for her family impersonations, she says she gets mixed reactions.
“My mom loves it, my dad is OK with it, my sister said oh I think I would rather you not… about 10 years ago, she said, 'I think I'm out',” she says. “They love me, we’ve seen each other very recently so I think it’s a good sign. I’m on the Christmas card list.”
A lot of her stand-up work has focused on her experiences with mental illness, which was also a theme on Lady Dynamite. Nowadays, she says her life has changed—and it’s reflected in her work.
“My current material is a lot about being married for the last and first time,” she says. “I used to do more material about mental illness but I haven’t been doing it so much, just because I’ve been feeling so good for the last several years, so I don't really have as much to talk about, which is a delight.”
She describes speaking out about mental illness in her previous standup as a necessity.
“You can’t not talk about it because it’s the only thing you can think about,” she says. “It wasn’t something done out of bravery.”
It did help, she says, in terms of finding a massive community who has had similar experiences, resulting in support.
“On a selfish level, I think maybe I wouldn’t be as embarrassed to ask for help again. Perhaps the village might take over [and say] hey...hey you’re talking too fast and having a bunch of shit ideas all at once,” she says.“I also work in an industry that is much more OK with odd behaviour, and it’s also extremely well paid and I’m a union member, which all work in my favour, which the majority of people with mental health issues have never felt.”
Filming Lady Dynamite, the crew was understanding she said, including letting her take a midday rest and have a tent cave just off set.
She returned to comedy right before Lady Dynamite after taking two years off. What brought her back?
“Well, somebody was interested,” she says, and she was invited to a lunch to discuss projects.
“I just ate lunch and said, 'Well this is the story I have, the only story I have'.”
Four-time Canadian Comedy Award winner Debra DiGiovanni has been named “the best comedian to see after a messy breakup.” She moved to Los Angeles four years ago, but will be head back to Canada in March to deliver the signature happy, self-deprecating standup she became known for on shows like MuchMusic’s Video on Trial.
“I’m very honest in my material, so it’s kind of like what’s happening right now. I live in L.A., I’m getting old, I’m single, just a little snippet of what’s happening in my life right now,” she says.
Since moving to L.A., she says her style has changed a bit, thanks in part to L.A.’s norm for shorter comedy sets and personal evolution.
“I think it’s a tiny bit darker but dark like Debra style, still very happy and very fast. It’s less about having a cat... maybe because my cat died four years ago,” she says. “I’m never going to be a negative comedian. But I’m in my 40s, I got some stuff to talk about.”
She’ll be accompanied by her best friend comedian Zach Noe Powers, who is opening for her.
“He lives in L.A. with me, we’re neighbours. I want people to see him— we make such a good show together! Extra bonus of my friend Zach, it’s going to be a terrific night.”
She’s also been accepted in the L.A. comedy community—and feels like she’s on track career wise with breaking into the L.A. scene.
“No one is scared to tell someone they think they’re funny,” she says.
DiGiovanni also has a Crave TV comedy show coming out before the end of the summer.
“It’s exciting to get some new stuff out and reminding Canada that I’m still here.”
After almost 20 years in comedy (18 this year), her advice to aspiring comics is to get on stage as much as possible, especially within the first five years.
“I think it should be 100 times in the first year of your career. Get on stage as many times as you can because standup comedy needs to be on its feet. It has to be tested in front of a live audience,” she says. “That’s when you develop your voice and discover who you are.”
She also says it’s important to be as much of your own self as possible.
“Personas are very hard, because then you have to stick with that. I think people really enjoy honesty, people want to connect,” she says.
Comedy communities have changed a lot, she says, especially in the last five years, by making it safer for women, physically and emotionally.
“I think when I first started there would maybe be two out of 10 and now it’s almost four out of 10 [female comedians],” she says. “That old adage that women aren’t funny just isn’t being accepted anymore. We know we are funny and people know that we are funny and it’s not even a question.”
L.A.-based stand-up comedian, writer, and actress Beth Stelling has appeared on Conan O’Brien, Chelsea Lately and Jimmy Kimmel Live. But her next stop will be at East Van institution The Biltmore Cabaret. She says her show will be fun.
“Maybe I'll tell a story or two; I haven't written my set list yet. I'll tell a couple of jokes from my last special (*Netflix The Standups episode 5) just in case I should do material that works,” she says.
This time around, Stelling’s material will focus a bit on relationships and sex, she says.
“I'm barely touching anyone these days but I used to love to date potheads! They're so easy to impress,” she says. “I'm single for the first time in a very long time, perhaps since I was a baby. So 10 years into standup I'm finally talking about sex a lot. Took me a while but that seems fitting.”
She also mentions her mom a lot in her stand-up. When asked what her mom’s reaction has been, she quips: “She's started doing stand-up about me.”
This won’t be Stelling’s first time in Vancouver. She’s performed previously at the Comedy Mix and at Pemberton.
“Maybe the last time [I performed in B.C.] was when I flew into Vancouver and drove to Pemberton for that fest. Either way, I'm excited to be back,” she says. “Canadian audiences are more fun. Don't tell America.”
Vancouver local Maddy Kelly will be hosting two shows in the “Best of the West” series, All You Can Eat Laundry and Cords Comedy.
Kelly, who premiered at last year's festival, describes All You Can Eat Laundry as about two-thirds stand-up, one-third “very strange bits,” including people in character, music and audience participation. Cords Comedy, she says, is a more traditional show in Kits that has been going on for a while.
“It was known for pros always dropping in for a spot, so it was kind of a anything can happen show. We’ve tried to maintain that.”
At just 21 years old, Kelly has been performing stand-up since she was 19, but started acting at 10. “I was in improv at UBC and I’m too much of a control freak for improv,” she says.
She says Vancouver’s comedy community is welcoming.
“Once you get the ball rolling you meet a lot of people, and most nights you’ll know a lot of people, which is a really lucky thing because you get to meet people and get really good advice,” she says.
Comedic inspirations include Norm MacDonald, whom she describes as being “funny in his soul,” and Maria Bamford, whom she calls an inspiration. The advice she often hears however, is to be the funnest version of you.
“I tend to talk a lot about relationships and my age, and sometimes ill branch into stranger things... you just become aware of your thoughts more and which of them or may not be normal,” she says.
She says there’s a really good independent scene in Vancouver that JFL does a great job of taking advantage of showcasing.
“It’s a really good time to check out O'Brilocal shows because everyone will be putting on their best lineup.”
She performs at Yuk Yuks and in Cords Comedy every Wednesday, and All You Can Eat Laundry once a month.
“It’s really fun, but it can also ruin your life,” she says of stand-up. “I think there’s a relatively fast drop-off of your regular friends in the first year. You just talk about stand-up too much and everyone is annoyed by you and there’s a lot of drinking.”
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