This piece was created as part of a fundraising campaign for an ongoing multimedia project. This is not a fictional creation in and of itself, but rather an account of a real interview that took place with a fictional character. The people reported as being there, were actually there, in the actual places mentioned. The parameters of Conor Blaine’s character, from his accomplishments to his quirks, are already well established, but the dialogue here was improvised: while we each had time to prepare, we were unaware of each other’s preparations / questions, which created a unique authenticity in our interactions. And that’s how I spent a real afternoon with a fictional character…

It seemed appropriate that the night before my scheduled interview with Conor Blaine, I was up irresponsibly late drinking vodka Monsters and binge watching reality TV. While the magnitude of the event should’ve had me in bed early with outfit prepped and alarm set, it was the combination of nerves and excitement that kept me up. My better judgement warned that I would fundamentally regret my choices, but there was comfort to be found in knowing that Conor himself would approve of the use of time…and that he hates sleep.

I arrive at Else’s right on time, and even though it’s just opening, it appears Conor’s been there for a bit. He’s tucked away at a table in the back of the empty dining room, finishing up a phone call as I approach.

As much as I’m glad to see him in the flesh, he’s downright surprised to see me. I found out in short order that he wasn’t aware of our scheduled meeting, but he was a good sport about it.

I introduce myself, telling him I’m there for our interview.

“Aren’t you lucky?” he quips with a smile, and while it’s definitely arrogance, I find it rather charming coming from him.

We cover a few quick points on who I am, and how I got this meeting (his manager Margot set it up without consulting him, a fact that doesn’t appear to surprise him). He’s wearing black boots with black shorts, black heart shaped sunglasses (yes, inside), and a white tuque under his hood. His black hoodie is emblazoned with “Peg the Patriarchy” in pink, and I compliment it, which turns out to be a good opening.

“It’s a Luna Matatas design. Cara Delevigne swiped it for the Met Gala in 2021. Never gave her credit. But she knew who originally created it. It was with intention. Dumb broad. Luna is great, she’s a sex educator, primarily.”

And we’re off to the races.

Anyone who follows Conor on Twitter knows of his penchant for live tweeting 90 Day Fiance, but scattered amid those are gems that highlight his familiarity with the Real Housewives universe, where I’m hoping to connect with him.

“Fuck marry kill, all the Housewives.”

“Kill. Next question.”

Laughing, it takes me a moment to gather myself. I ask him what it is that keeps drawing him back to Montreal. He could be anywhere else, and yet he flies back here whenever he has a spare weekend.

“I love Montreal, truly. It’s a big city, but people don’t give a fuck about fame here. I can just live, you know? Whether it’s arrogance or respect, the Quebecois understand.”

I ask how long he and his husband Raphael have been together, hoping to skip some steps toward intimacy, and get closer to the subjects that matter most to his heart.

“Two years. Probably two years…I think it was two years. It was in the third season. Two years,” he says definitively. “Everybody always wants to know about Raph.”

“Well,” I say. “It’s kind of relationship goals, you know? You guys seem so happy.”

“Don’t we? Aren’t we?”

And that’s when things got interesting.

We were interrupted by local author and YouTuber Holly Rhiannon, ring light in hand, camera gals in tow, already filming.

It took a moment to straighten everything out; in the end we determined that Margot had double booked the time slot. Holly was the apparent winner of lunch with Conor thanks to an online contest.

“I’m sure you got a heads up about this,” she said.

“I’ve had no heads up about anything. I should be doing something much different than this right now.”

She seemed more curious content creator than enamoured fangirl, and it was clear that she’d entered the contest ironically. Still, neither one of us was going to get the exclusive one-on-one time with the star that we were promised, and we’d have to make do.

Once everyone settled in and drinks had been ordered (gin and tonic for Conor, of course), he asks us each what we thought about Margot. Unsure what he’s after, I tell him the truth, that she was nice enough, and Holly shrugs that she was “great”.

“I don’t think either of you have met her.”

Changing gears, he tells Holly that I’ve been asking some questions, and she says she has questions as well.

“You know how I love doing interviews!” he grins, and while Holly may not realize it, I know he’s being facetious: he likes few things less. “What kind of questions do you have? Are they personal?”

“Some of them might be. I actually don’t know too much about you.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard that in my life.”

“Well, I’m not big on celebrity,” she says.

“Not big on celebrity!” he parrots, incredulous.

Trying to get back on track, I ask him how he and Raph manage to keep things spicy considering how much time they spend apart.

He hesitates, looking for the first time at a loss for words, and just as he begins to speak, Holly interjects, saying that she’s more interested in his new Twitter account.

“One thing that I knew about you before is that you weren’t into social media, and then I saw this Twitter account pop up, and you don’t stop tweeting.”

“I was told that it was time to finally get Twitter and the only reason I’ve never had a Twitter account is because I didn’t want to get canceled.”

I ask who it was who did the telling.

“Margot; the one who tells me everything. But I decided I would do it my way. I’ve been trying a few things out; there was that whole issue with Garcelle Beauvais.”

Holly wonders out loud which reality show she’s from before starting that she’s never seen someone so into reality TV.

“Let me be clear to all the cameras involved. I do not like reality television. But I do enjoy 90 Day Fiance. It’s a brilliant socio-anthropological study on the desperation of ugly people, specifically Americans.” He pauses here and looks my way. “Your turn.”

I’m ill prepared for a tag team interview. It’s obvious that we’re coming at this from very different directions, which is a shame because I imagine that had we conspired, we might’ve been a force to be reckoned with.

I try to get back to him and Raph, and how they manage to keep things fresh from a distance.

“I mean, I guess we don’t.”

Which makes me wonder if they have an open relationship…

“No. No, not that I’m aware of.”

Holly asks about his high school experience, and if he had a nemesis.

“My mother [Lilith Blaine]. I was homeschooled, so she was probably — definitely my biggest bully. Like I’ve said, there was nothing about growing up in my house that was normal.”

Asked what would happen if he forgot Mother’s Day, Conor answers with stark honesty.

“I don’t think anyone would’ve noticed. I mean, in the age range when it was apropos to give my mother a card for instance, she was drinking heavily then. You know, she doesn’t like Sundays; or brunch. You know, we share that.”

Now that Lilith has been mentioned, it’s as if a curse has been broken, and I feel free to tell him that I’ve read all her books. As he nods deadpan, I realize how often he must hear it, and regret mentioning it.

“It’s about time I write one of my own,” he says, and I ask what it would be called. “Valuable and Vulnerable.” He has it on the tip of his tongue, and maybe he really has been giving this some thought.

While it’s hard to imagine being as famous as Conor Blaine, it’s also hard to imagine the fact that he’s never known another life. His lineage made him famous before his mother ever began to play stage mom. As much as it might appear enviable from the outside, I wonder if he ever wishes he could give it up and be someone else for a while.

“Absolutely. I’m always looking for a little bit of anonymity. It’s what I was saying about Montreal; a little bit of that anonymity is refreshing.”

At this point, Holly and her team make some adjustments to the lighting, tinkering with the angles. One of the crew says she’s read up on him, and asks about his friendship with Lindsey Lohan. I hold my breath: she is one of the subjects on the list I received of things not to discuss.

“Lindsay and I are not friends. She knows why. And she still owes me 20 bucks.”

In an attempt to get things back on my agenda, I ask about the much awaited film version of Son of Mine. It feels like it’s been in the works forever, and he tells me that they are finally in post production, with a trailer expected in November. While much of the cast has been released, we still don’t know who’s playing Conor, and I tried to get it out of him.

“We’ve got a bunch of children that play me through the years.”

While he’s a producer, he downplays his involvement with the project.

“I just paid for it. I knew it’d be a hit. It will be a hit. There’s not much I could do to improve upon it. I mean, you read the book; it’s fantastic. I’m on every page.”

In a flash, Conor deflates. He looks out the window and rolls his eyes.

“You know, I’m done here. If you guys want to ask more questions, you’re going to have to come with me.”

Holly says that she’ll definitely go along, as she was told she’d have four hours with him. Conor’s eyebrows raise at the time allotted, shooting above the frames of his glasses. Personally, there’s no way I would miss out on the opportunity, so I pack up my notebook and follow.

Conor Blaine’s a fast walker. I get the impression he’s trying to create distance, that this is the unseen interlude between cut scenes and he’s just trying to get it over with. He chain smokes and talks on his phone. The only thing he says to us, is that “it’s not far”.

We arrive at Bifteck just before 2pm. The back of the bar is in dusky shadows, the pool tables spotlighted; we wouldn’t notice the sunset if we stayed there all night. We have the place to ourselves, and Conor moves around comfortably. He tells us he used to spend a lot of time here, right around this time of day, and then into the wee hours. Again, it provided anonymity, privacy, a shelter of sorts. One can imagine that as the night goes on and people first trickle, then crowd into the popular St. Laurent dive, that the regulars would take his presence for granted, and those caught off guard would talk amongst themselves. Still, it would be hard to speak to him directly without at least trying to best him at the pool table.

Today is no different; he tells us we can only ask questions while we shoot. He lists off a bunch of rules before noticing Holly and I staring at him blankly, and then tells us to just give it a go.

I’m immediately aware of how much better I was at this game an undisclosed number of years ago, but thankfully Holly’s on par with me and we team up.

I figure it’s now or never, so I delve into the more sensitive questions. Margot had sent me a list of things not to mention, and I ask him why she didn’t just send over a typical list of talking points instead. I’ve personally never received a list of topics not to touch upon.

He’s caught off guard, and asks me what I’m talking about, which flusters me, and before I can muster anything, Holly pulls a printed page from her notebook, unfolds it, and hands it to Conor. He looks over the list, half a smile, the mischievous sparkle in his eye reminiscent of his younger self. He points to things at random:

“Well, this makes sense…I don’t know why she thought this was off limits…Lindsay Lohan does know why, I already said that, so it’s a direct quote.”

Blaine Defense Systems, funny enough, is not on the list. So taboo that it was omitted, Conor’s consistently maintained that he didn’t own the military weapons manufacturer that is the other part of his family legacy, and the media has treated the matter as settled, preferring not to rock the boat by pressing the matter. Recently however, the company was sold to Russian investors for a whopping $900 000 000. Sold in whole by none other than Conor Blaine.

“I don’t judge people like that,” is all he says on the subject of the buyers. “I inherited it when my grandfather died. It skipped my mother for obvious reasons.” He doesn’t have to specify that it’s because she’s a woman; the older generations of his prominent ancestry are notoriously old school conservative, to put it kindly.

As to where these new found profits might go, he says he’s passionate about food security. “I believe that everybody should have access to good, healthy food. I don’t think it’s right that we as a society lock food up. There are even food deserts in Montreal.”

He asks for more questions as he clears the table. Holly and I are not improving at the game, but we are getting better at working together, and we confer with each other, notebooks in hand.

I reluctantly admit we’re out; he nods, and finishes his drink.

As her team packs up, Holly and I debate another round, and another game too as we obviously need the practice. I turn to see if Conor will give us some pointers, and he’s nowhere to be found. He’d made a quiet escape, slipping out of the bar and into the comforting anonymity of a mid afternoon Montreal main street. An awkward ending, but a graceful one too; certainly an unforgettable way to end my already memorable afternoon with Conor Blaine.

Pre-Launch Peaks & Perks

Fundraiser!

Mark Forward breaks down his upcoming series of Just for Laughs shows named A Very Mark Forward rather succinctly: “They’re just really stupid, fun, idiotic hours of comedy.”

Each show has a different theme: A Very Mark Forward Safari, A Very Mark Forward Space and A Very Mark Forward Into the Future. They will also each feature two special guest comics, whose names Forward is keeping a secret.

“I have a game plan for each night,” Forward said in a phone interview when asked about his process, “I’ve done a couple of these shows in Toronto to dry run them for Montreal. So, yeah, it’s all written material and then some improv, because I just want to put on shows that are fun, because I think that’s what people need right now.”

While some comics spent the past couple of years when everything was shut down working on material or doing Zoom shows, Forward had a different outlook:

“I enjoyed the time off, to be honest with you. I just enjoyed being at home. And it’s kind of hard getting back out because I just loved the downtime. It was great.”

When that downtime ended, Forward went on a 37-state tour of Letterkenny Live (Forward plays Coach on the Crave comedy which has developed quite the following south of the border).

“So it was like going from nothing to right back into it. And it was comedy overload. It was a lot of fun.”

I asked Forward about his next career steps are now that things are back to normal.

“Oh, man,” he answered, “here’s the thing. I get asked this all the time. I have never thought beyond tomorrow, so I have no idea. I did not expect to still be doing stand up. I did not expect to be on television shows. I’ve been very fortunate and very lucky to constantly find wonderful work, but I really we don’t have a plan.”

One thing he is planning to do, sort term, is take in as much of the rest of the festival as possible. Forward is no stranger to JFL (winning New Faces in 2006, back when it was still called Homegrown) and the Oakville, Ontario native always enjoys his time in Montreal for the fest.

“I love to see the other shows, for sure. I love to see The Alternative Show every night. That sort of really speaks to me. The Alternative Show at midnight, just walking around that city. That city knows fun.”

And if it’s fun you’re looking for, that’s exactly what Forward plans to bring to the stage.

A Very Mark Forward runs July 26th, 28th and 30th, with a fresh show each night. Tickets available through hahaha.com

Rick Mercer is a Canadian legend and one of the few multitalented entertainers Canada has to offer. He’s written books, given political rants on TV, acted in movies, hosted comedy specials, and narrated documentaries. So of course, of all the days to have a phone call with one of my heroes, it had to be on the day that both the Rogers and Fido networks were down. It was therefore a massive relief to find that Rick Mercer quickly agreed to meet via Zoom instead.

Mercer was not what I was expecting. Despite his notoriety, he was down to earth and friendly, speaking to me from his shed where he says he does most of his writing, and where he spent the pandemic writing his book, Talking to Canadians, that came out last November. I opened with a question I am sure Mercer gets all the time, which is what he thinks of the current state of Canadian politics.

Mercer laughed, admitting that he’s less interested in Canadian politics than he’s ever been because he finds it so distasteful. As to whether it’s due to how politics has changed or he has, he’s unsure.
“I’ve always been an avid political watcher and still am, except I just find myself saying ‘a pox on all their houses’ more than I ever did before.”

He says he finds he has a hard time pointing to current individuals in Canadian politics that he admires and it makes him happy to be temporarily out of the opinion business to the extent that he used to be. Though known for his political rants, Mercer does not consider himself to be an angry person. When I ask him about it, he smiles and said that while his Twitter bio says “Anger is my Cardio” and he was once an angry young man, in his latest book he explains that he’s not an angry middle aged man.

“Obviously things can make me angry, make me upset, I would have to be dead inside not to, but no, thankfully I go through most of my day in a non-angry state.”

Given how long Rick Mercer has been doing political comedy and satire, I was dying to know about the politicians he’s worked with over the years. He says the politician he most enjoyed working with was former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, something I was not expecting. He says Chrétien had great comedic timing and was genuinely funny and that working with him was like working with a pro.

In terms of which politician gave him the most material, he says Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper was his muse for a long time because his government and cabinet infuriated him so much that he was inspired to write about them.

Of all the roles Mercer has played throughout his career, he considers himself a writer first. He spoke of how the pandemic was great for him because working on Talking to Canadians was the first time he’s done something without a deadline.

“When all the gigs went away, all the jobs went away I was kind of adrift… the book gave me –I won’t say purpose –but it gave me a job to do and deadlines to meet and somewhere to go every day, which is my shed.”

In addition to writing, Mercer loves hosting, speaking fondly of how much he loves touring and how much fun he has. He speaks of the big beautiful venues he gets work in and the talent has the privilege of introducing, saying that though he’s middle aged, he’s not exhausted by it all.

I asked Mercer which up and coming political comedian he admires and he admits that he doesn’t consume much political comedy out of concern that they would influence his work, creating the risk of overlapping material at a show. Of the comedians he has toured with, he speaks highly of Ivan Decker, whom he says he will always watch.

In terms of whether Rick Mercer considers himself to be the Canadian legend he is described as, his immediate response was “Oh God no!” followed by a sheepish smile. He blames the description on publicists, calling the label silly.

Of all the awards he has received over the years, one of the two most dear to him is the Order of Canada, which he was “honoured and amazed” to receive, as he never imagined getting that call. He also mentions receiving the key to the City of his home town of Outer Cove Middle Cove Logy Bay, Newfoundland, because the ceremony took place in the primary school of the community he grew up in and that the award itself – a piece of glass with a small key in it- is currently at his parents’ house.

As to what Mercer is looking forward to in the future he speaks highly of Montreal and the Just for Laughs Festival, saying that while he’s never lived here, he loves our city and doesn’t know anyone who doesn’t. After the festival, he plans to start writing another book.

Rick Mercer is hosting Comedy Night in Canada on July 29th, 2022 at L’Olympia. Tickets available through hahaha.com Check it out.

This is officially the best summer in years. Restaurants are full, dance floors are back in business, and be still my heart, our festivals have returned. The Coachella of comedy, JFL is back for it’s 40th edition, and I found out that the comedians have missed us as much as we’ve missed them.

“I can speak for every comic involved and tell you we have missed the festival so much and we are going to be so glad to once again be invading your city with stupid questions, and with jokes, eating off food trucks and just hanging out seeing the City of Montreal. Can’t wait to get back.”

Alonzo Bodden is a Just for Laughs legend. He was one of the JFL New Faces in 1997, winner of Last Comic Standing in 2004, and this year he’s back to host Just For the Culture Show – formerly The Ethnic Show (“it changed its own pronoun,” he quips).

“The beauty of this is everyone’s bringing their own voice to the show. So when we say just for the culture, it’s not like you’re only going to be talking about your culture, you’re going to be talking about the world from your viewpoint. With the Americans, you know, my culture is both Black and American. So I have both involved. And the same thing with the Canadians, you know, Dave [Merheje] is going to be who he is, but he’s also going to be Muslim and he’s going to be Canadian… the only thing I can tell you about the show, it’s going to be funny, and it’s going to go long, because we all have something more to say than what they want us to say. We are going to have a fantastic time and we are going to be uncensored, we are not going to worry about ‘don’t say this, don’t say that’. The thing I’ve always said about the Ethnic show, and now the Culture Show, is we are people who should be at war and yet we are laughing, so join us. I will do my best as host to tie it together, but quite often I’m simply one of the audience members with the best seat in the house.”

Current affairs are a mainstay in Alonzo’s comedy, so it should be no surprise that he’s a news junkie who’s been doing his own podcast for over 10 years now.

“The podcast is called Who’s Paying Attention?, and it started because the news stopped paying attention…We don’t have a Walter Cronkite anymore, we don’t have an Edward Murrow, we don’t have somebody saying, wait a minute: this is ridiculous. They cover Marjorie Taylor Greene like she’s real news. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: the only reason Lauren Boebert is so angry is she thought she was crazy, and then Marjorie came along and she’s been out-crazied. Let’s not talk about Ted Cruz, but you guys could have kept him in Canada.”

I made it clear that we don’t want Cruz, and will not be accepting that return. Jokes aside, I ask how he manages to keep his head above the never-ending flow of bad news.

“I’ll be honest, I have to take breaks from the news. It will wear you out. The constant barrage of stupidity is beyond belief.”

Which is exactly why his latest tour is called Stupid Don’t Get Tired. With that in mind, I ask him where he finds hope.

“You know, it’s really tough…on my podcast whenever I have a guest in, I ask them ‘what’s the good news’, because we have to try to find some good news in this dumpster fire. My hope, honestly, is the youngest generation. I think they’re the ones who hopefully will take over and restore some form of sanity, Even that they’ve given up on though, you know, because they started with Generation X. Okay, when you start at X, it shows there’s no long range plan. Gen X, Gen Y, Gen Z, what then? Oh, we’ll have destroyed it all by then.”

From looking forward to looking back, I asked Alonzo about the new mini-series he’s a part of called Right to Offend: The Black Comedy Revolution.

“I am so honored to be a part of that. It is such a brilliant documentary, going from vaudeville, and the minstrel and blackface era. right up into today with Dave Chappelle, and Chris Rock, and Tiffany Haddish and everyone in between. Dick Gregory, Richard Pryor, Wanda Sykes, Moms Mabley Whoopi Goldberg, so many brilliant voices in comedy over the years, and to be asked to be a part of that, to comment on that, and my history, it’s truly been phenomenal. They could have called it the duty to offend. We have to push buttons. And we do it unapologetically, because you can’t apologize for the truth. You can try to cancel us, you can do whatever you want to do. We are going to continually tell the truth…When I started, Somebody told me ‘listen, if 20% of the audience isn’t upset, then you’re not doing your job’, so I am okay with that. The truth hurts sometimes, but the other side of that, is there are people who are like ‘thank God for your voice. We’re so happy to hear you’. We need somebody telling the truth out there. Jon Stewart famously became a major news anchor and he was like, ‘you know I’m doing a comedy show. They were like ‘no, no, no, we’re coming to you for the truth’…We’re the last voice. Years ago, Lewis Black, brilliant comic and an old friend of mine said listen, we don’t want this job but no one else would do it. Right? We’re the last ones to tell the truth and laugh at how ridiculous it is.”

I know it’s selfish, but I had to ask what he loves about Montreal, and what makes us special on the global scene. It’s akin to a civic thirst trap, but sometimes you just want the likes.

Getting lost walking the streets of Old Montreal; the art galleries the whole vibe… I go to Old Montreal to get…centered… I truly miss that: walking the streets of Old Montreal, and looking at the beautiful people. Your city has beautiful people. And I enjoy that. You’re stylish.”

We chat briefly about Quebec’s politics and distinct identity crisis. There’s much to laugh at when you take a step back.

“Yeah, it is a different crazy,” he says. “But it’s a crazy that doesn’t involve bullets. I appreciate that…hang on to that.”

We’re sure as hell trying.

Just for The Culture runs from July 13 to 28 hosted by Alonzo Bodden, featuring Dave Merheje, Jessica Kirson, Paul Rabliauskas, Sheng Wang, Yannis Pappas and Zainab Johnson. Tickets available through hahaha.com

Holly Rhiannon has had an affinity for the paranormal since she was a kid growing up in Winnipeg. She lived in a series of old homes, one of which her and her mother noticed had an unexplained window when seen from the outside.

“We realized that it was behind the closet,” she said in a phone interview, “so we had a party, and we had people guess what was going to be back there. And we broke down the back wall of this closet and revealed a whole secret room. It was very cool. And especially me as an eight year old, thought this is so exciting. We didn’t find anything like a corpse in there, which I think I was kind of hoping for. I was hoping for bones or treasure or something like that. It had an energy to it, and that third floor maintained that weird energy.”

Rhiannon also mentioned that her and her mother (her father was a “paranormal dampener”) frequently heard marbles rolling across the third floor from downstairs.

“We had someone come over once who was very in tune with the paranormal. And she told us that there was an old woman in a rocking chair who liked to sit in that room. And we also found out later on that there was a death of a young boy who we think may have been the one rolling the marbles around.”

When she arrived in Montreal six years ago, she went on the various ghost tours Haunted Montreal has to offer.

“I absolutely loved them. It was just right up my alley. And then during COVID, I started doing YouTube with my writing because I’m an author. And once I had that skill sort of under my belt, I thought this would be an amazing way to collaborate with Haunted Montreal.”

Rhiannon proposed a series of video ghost stories based on the company’s blogs to Haunted Montreal founder Donovan King. As anything officially released by the company needs to be bilingual, she enlisted her friend Marc Andre, known as Dr. Mab, to host the French videos.

The pair have started from the earliest blog entries (in 2015) and are working their way forward in time, but Rhiannon isn’t skipping ahead too much.

“I’m reading as I go because I’m one of those people who had gone through maybe the first few. And then I got a lot of the stories from the tours because I’ve been on all of them twice now, and I kind of didn’t want to spoil them at first because I know that some of the tour content is in the blogs as well. And now I’m actually coming across some of that…So I’m getting a chance to go through absolutely everything now, and it’s been really great.”

Here’s the most recent video:

Haunted Montreal’s Video Ghost Stories are available in English and French every Saturday on Haunted Montreal’s YouTube channel

Haunted Montreal’s 2022 season of in-person ghost tours has begun, check out HauntedMontreal.com for more

FULL DISCLOSURE: The author of this post also works as a tour guide for Haunted Montreal

Sand sculptor Jonathan Bouchard aka Jobi is trying to make the best of pandemic life. With CBC’s reality competition show Race Against the Tide having wrapped last summer and many travel restrictions still in effect, the Saint Calixte QC native is trying to branch out into other artistic mediums.

I had a chance to sit down with Jobi about his experiences on the show. Being a visual artist, myself, I had so many questions about sand sculpting and what it’s like to be on TV.

One thing I was dying to know was how he got into sand sculpting because after all, Quebec isn’t known for its beaches. Jobi explained that he was originally doing snow carving but got into sand sculpture because it generally allows him to work in nicer weather with fewer tools.

“Carving sand is really delicate. You have to really be smooth and I like these feeling of scratching the surface and making details. To me it’s like meditation.”

Jobi’s has been on the Sand Sculpting circuit for fifteen years, and while he mostly enjoys it, the travel restrictions have made him consider other, more permanent mediums. He told me that he recently completed an outdoor concrete sculpture in a neighboring town. He is trying to do less and less sand sculpture now but would still like to do a couple of competitions every year.

All artists have a preferred subject they enjoy featuring in their work, such as trees, portraits, and so on. Jobi especially enjoys sculpting animals with robotic elements.

“I like bio mechanic stuff… I like to do a lot of small details.”

As a fellow Quebecois, I felt obligated to ask him about whether he experienced any difficulties with language and culture while working on the show in the Bay of Fundy in New Brunswick. His fellow sculptor, New Jersey native Dan Belcher, seemed like an unlikely partner for the young Quebecois.

“I get more and more comfortable with English, but especially at the beginning when I started to travel to do sand carving, it was a big challenge. I’m a different person in English than I am in French, I’m less natural, so for me it’s a little bit difficult.”

With regards to Dan Belcher, Jobi sheepishly admits he initially tried to get a fellow Quebecois sand sculptor to be his partner in the competition, but when that didn’t work out he reached out to Belcher, whom he knows from the sand carving competition circuit.

“I know he knows what he’s doing. I can trust him as a good sand carver. He’s a nice guy and a nice carver. For me that was enough to make him a good partner. Of course the language made it difficult for me to have discussions all the time. My English is ok but still it was difficult.”

This was not the first time Bouchard has been on TV, having done some small interviews and children’s shows in the past. This was, however, the biggest show he’s ever done.

“It was really intense. The concept was already something really intense to manage the tide and all the production (crew) always on our back always asking, doing some little interview, especially with the timing. But still it was a very interesting experience,”

As to whether the pandemic affected the production of the show, Jobi said there wasn’t much. They were required to quarantine at first, and take their temperature every morning, but that’s about it. Now that the show has wrapped, he’s trying to make the best of things.

Race Against the Tide premiers Thursday, September 9 at 9pm Eastern on CBC

You can see more of Jobi’s work on his Facebook page

Featured Image of host Shaun Majumder looking at Jobi work via CBC

Sophie Buddle isn’t a huge fan of the Zoom comedy show, the go-to performance option for many standups during the pandemic.

“Yes, I was doing Zoom shows,” she said in a phone interview, “but I will say that doing Zoom shows is almost worse than doing no shows at all for me because, number one, I have very bad WIFI, but as a standup, if you boil down what we do, we create a vibe in a room and in order to do that, you have to be in the same room with everyone you’re creating said vibe with.”

Buddle feels that with Zoom, you miss the smaller laughs which allow the comic to really connect with their audience.

“In my set, I have more fun with the little laughs in between the big punchline laughs,” Buddle observed, “that’s really where I think all the personality is. It’s the little in-betweenies. In Zoom shows, the big pops still come in, but all the little ones that really bring the flow along don’t get anything.”

This Sunday, she will once again be performing in front of a live, in-person audience at Just for Laughs. Of course, this is a hybrid version of the festival, meaning, among other things, that capacity will be limited and social distancing and health measures will be in effect.

Buddle knows that it will be different. She has been performing socially distanced shows in Vancouver, a comedy scene she loves, for about a month now, since venues re-opened, and sees the advantage to this new type of performance.

“Comedy audiences are as desperate for standup as the comedians are to do it,” she said, “it’s kind of good that everyone who is there is really keen to be there. There’s no filler audience members anymore.”

This year, she won’t just be performing for the audience in the room, Buddle will be recording her first comedy special for Crave and the CTV Comedy Channel. She is thankful for this opportunity and sees it as her career regaining momentum.

“I was waiting in line to board the plane to go to the Junos (she won Best Comedy Album for 2019’s Lil bit of Buddle) and I got a text that the Junos were going to be cancelled,” Buddle remembered, “I’m sure for every industry, you work your entire career to get some momentum, and I felt like winning the Juno was definitely the biggest thing and finally things were starting to roll for me and then that happened and I just had to sit in my apartment all year and I felt like I’m not going to get anything big like that again…and now that things are opening back up again and I’m getting a special on Crave, it’s just such a relief. The momentum is starting up again!”

Buddle plans to spend a few days in Montreal after the festival, as this was where she was born and spent a few years of her childhood and she still holds a fondness for this city. In the fall, though, she plans to move down to the US, California most likely, and look for comedy writing work.

Her previous TV writing gig was for This Hour Has 22 Minutes, but was cut short due to the pandemic. In particular because it was remote work, the show operates on Halifax time and Buddle lives in BC and keeps “stand-up comedian hours”, aka she’s not an early riser.

And you can catch her during standup hours twice this Sunday.

Sophie Buddle and Chris Robinson will be recording CTV Comedy and Crave Stand-Up Specials Sunday, August 1 at 7 and 10 pm at L’Astral, 305 Ste-Catherine Ouest. Tickets available through HaHaHa.com

Comedian Arthur Simeon is the kind of voice we need more of. Born and raised in Uganda but now based out of Toronto, he brings his life experience as an immigrant and a black man in Canada to his comedy, while still managing to keep such a heavy topic light and funny.

His comedy album, The Blackest Panther, is a riff on the fact that Wakanda from the Black Panther film and comic book series is allegedly located in Uganda. I had the privilege of seeing him perform at Rick Mercer’s Gala in 2017 where he was one of the highlight performances of the evening, so I was eager to speak to him before his appearance at Just for Laughs’ 2021 hybrid festival.

Like most entertainers, Simeon’s ability to perform was hampered by the COVID-19 pandemic. He admits that he’s done everything but standup since it started.

“It’s been a lot of downtime, I guess. I mean I worked a little bit; I did some writing for myself and for others. I grow plants, or tried to, just to keep my mind off of things, I read a lot, caught up on a lot of reading that over that over the years I’ve sort of let slip, but I’d run out of excuses. I was reading fiction for a long time but I was convinced try non-fiction. I went back to a book I read as a teenager called The River Between which is a classic African novel that I hadn’t read in a very long time and it still holds up, is still wonderful… A bit of fiction, a bit of non-fiction.”

With the rise in awareness of racism in Canada during the pandemic, I wanted to know about Simeon’s experiences with racism as a black man and a Ugandan immigrant with an accent. Segwaying into the subject, I mentioned that Canadians like to think they’re immune to the racism problem. Simeon immediately shut that notion down.

“Obviously, being a performer and an entertainer and traveling in so many different places I have first-hand experience with racists.”

In terms of whether racism is more of a rural thing, Simeon feels that it’s a problem no matter where he is.

“I don’t like the rural idea of people because it feels like it’s a lot of white people trying to distance themselves from their own actions. When they say ‘oh it’s the country bumpkins’ it’s like no, it’s not. I’ve been threatened, and slurs have been used in the middle of two major cities in Canada, that being Toronto and Montreal, right in the middle of the city. I’ve also been threatened in rural Canada, so it’s both. I don’t think it’s a geographical thing, I think it’s a mentality thing, it’s an ideology thing. I feel like it’s something everyone has to reckon with and everyone has to wrestle with whatever bias they have especially if it manifests itself in hateful language or action that affects other people.”

Though Montreal has been the location of a lot of Simeon’s professional success, his favorite part of Canada is the Maritimes. He finds it picturesque and loves St. John’s Newfoundland, but quips that perhaps it’s because he doesn’t live there.

While I feel that stories and comedy like Simeon’s are especially important in this social environment of heightened racial tensions and the Black Lives Matter Movement, he doesn’t necessarily see it that way.

“I think it’s being received a little more openly because the conclusions we’ve had about racism have opened up from just the hate. I think everyone focuses on just the hate and rightfully so because as we’ve seen, a man can just plow through a family just going for a walk and purely just based on hate, so I like that we address the hate a little bit, but the hate is sort of just the culmination of a lot of other things that we’re doing: the lack of education, the lack of empathy, the lack of real understanding between people who are not the same as you, and so the conclusion we’ve had in the last few months have opened up about everyone’s individual responsibility.”

He calls on everyone to stop throwing blame around, the way some claim racism is just a problem among the ignorant or rural populations. He feels that every single person contributes to that hate that culminates in violence that kills people.

In terms of his plans for his Just for Laughs appearance this year, he plans to be more purposeful in his comedy with a focus on entertaining rather than sounding preachy.

“I think after this year and after all the stress, I think there will be genuine purpose to reach out to as many people as I can and try to entertain.”

Arthur Simeon will be appearing as Just for Laughs 2021 as part of an all-star lineup for Comedy Night In Canada which takes place tonight, July 28th, at 10pm at Club Soda, 1225 Boul. St-Laurent, and will be available free online as of July 30 at HaHaHa.com

Cassie Cao is no stranger to Montreal. She lived here for four years while studying Economics at McGill and has returned on more than one occasion to perform at Just for Laughs, but she hasn’t been here since the last pre-pandemic JFL in 2019.

“I’m genuinely thrilled to be coming to the festival,” Cao said in a phone interview, “I didn’t know if it was going to happen this year.”

While Cao will be performing “Live in Montreal” to both an in-person and online audience, some of the comedians playing this year’s hybrid festival will do so from either Los Angeles or New York City while others will take part in local Crave and CTV Comedy tapings.

“I’m excited to see what’s going to happen,” Cao said of the potentially unique experience this year, “I suspect that people will make it fun. We’re all getting double vaxxed. Comics are always fun people, we’ll find a way to make it fun.”

Cao did keep busy during the pandemic, mostly by booking TV roles and doing some TV writing, but also by turning to a medium many other comics have found: the Zoom comedy show:

“I did do some Zoom shows. I liked the Zoom shows a lot…as a comedian, you are mostly bound by geography and that’s why you have to tour…and that’s the hardest part of the job, but with the Zoom shows I was doing shows in New York and LA and meeting American comics and seeing what other people are working on and happy to be invited onto their shows.”

She also considers herself lucky for getting to do some TV tapings in front of live audiences mid-pandemic, including one for the Winnipeg Comedy Festival.

“It was wild,” Cao remembers, “I was travelling by air during the second wave and everyone was like ‘it’s fine, doing live comedy’.”

Currently based in Toronto, Cao sees it as a great town to do comedy in, during normal times, of course. She hopes that when the scene returns, it will do so full-force.

“I don’t know what the landscape will look like when everything comes back up,” she notes, “but I’m confident that people want to see live comedy, so the demand will make things happen.”

As for her former home of pre-pandemic Montreal, she remembers ordering St-Viateur bagels for McGill Economics events, but mainly the nightlife:

“Honestly, I’m not going to lie, I love that everything’s open 24 hours in Montreal. In Toronto, you’d think that it is, but it’s not. Toronto shuts down at midnight. In Montreal, I lived there for four years and I just didn’t sleep for four years, there’s just always stuff going on…All the best stuff in Montreal happens after 2am.”

Most of the best stuff, that is. There will definitely be quite a bit of fun had before midnight with Cao and others at JFL Live in Montreal.

Cassie Cao will perform as part of JFL Live in Montreal, hosted by Jon Dore and featuring Dino Archie, Jen Grant, Nigel Grinstead, Marito Lopez and Rodney Ramsey. Wednesday, July 28, 7pm, Club Soda and available online as of July 30 at HaHaHa.com

DeAnne Smith is a Montreal favourite. Born in the US, they lived in Mexico for a while, and then moved to and got their start in comedy in Montreal.

I remember seeing Smith at Stand Up Strip Down in my twenties, and now they perform and do TV appearances all over the world and have their own Netflix special. I recently saw Smith at the Unknown Comedy Club’s ComedyWorks Tribute Show this past May.

At this year’s Just for Laughs Festival they will be filming their own standup special. I had a chance to speak with DeAnne as they and their partner were road tripping from visiting family on the East Coast to Los Angeles. Though I could hear the road in the background and our connection was iffy, the interview felt less like a formal exchange and more like a chat between old friends.

I asked them, as I do every standup comedian I interview, what they’ve been doing during the pandemic, given the limits on live performance due public health measures.

“Everyone says I’ve been losing my mind. Please put that on the record. It took me a couple of months to embrace my comedy, but in September 2020 I started doing my own monthly show on Zoom that I call DeAnne Smith and Acquaintances and I ran that from September until June and we’re taking a break for the summer but honestly, I think I’m going to bring it back in the fall even though there are live shows because we built such a nice, fun, supportive little community every month…I was doing my time with online shows.”

DeAnne Smith admits that, like many other comedians, it took them a while to learn the tech but they had a tech from their monthly show to help. Regarding how COVID has affected their comedy and career, they said their career halted overnight.

“Even before the pandemic, I think, a lot of what I’m trying to do in comedy… I’ve always been aware of how special it is to be in a room with people and just be creating a moment that’s not going to be repeated, that’s just for the people there. I’ve always done comedy from the point of view of real connection and I think that’s only deepened for me in pandemic. It’s like really the only thing I’m interested in is connection and making a moment where we can all feel joy together and feel good together.”

Smith acknowledges that shared joy is the goal of comedy, but feels that some people approach the art as having funny ideas they want others to hear, and while that is part of their comedy, for them it’s as much about connection and shared experience. They point out that the shared experience they seek with their comedy has deepened due to the pandemic.

“I don’t remember a moment in my lifetime where I’ve felt such a collective consciousness where we’re all experiencing some pretty similar things together.”

DeAnne is openly non-binary and has been using the pronouns they/them for many years and they made many jokes about it in their 2018 Netflix special. Though their gender identity is nothing new, they are more open about their preferred pronouns and insisting on their use.

“It feels really good to me and I’m finally in a place where I’m willing to inconvenience people a tiny bit to feel seen and referred to correctly.”

Smith says there hasn’t been any pushback regarding their gender identity and they never thought much of it until the Netflix special came out in 2019.

“I have gotten a lot of emails from people of all ages, but especially [from] teenagers and young adults saying that it was really important for them to see someone like them in a public role talking about gender issues and I forget about that a lot but I think it does help people realize that there’s a lot of ways to identify and there’s a wide spectrum of how to be a human being.”

Smith’s comedy generally has a very openly feminist slant though they admit that they aren’t discussing issues exacerbated by the pandemic like domestic violence as much in their online shows.

“One thing that’s happened with the pandemic, at least with the online shows, is that I’m not speaking to as generalized an audience as I am in the real world in the comedy clubs. By that I mean it seems the online crowds are kind of self-selected to have a similar political sensibility, so I don’t know that I’ve been pushing an agenda as much as I do in the comedy clubs because there’s not as much to push against.”

People who come to Smith’s online shows know exactly what they’re getting, with Smith pointing that if anything their comedy has gotten more personal due to the pandemic, especially with the monthly show. Many people taking in online shows are often in their pajamas or not wearing pants, and that lends itself to a more personal experience, though Smith laughingly says they will be wearing pants during their Just for Laughs appearance.

DeAnne Smith, Chris Locke and Kyle Brownrigg will be recording CTV Comedy and Crave Stand-Up Specials Saturday, July 31 at 7 and 10 pm at L’Astral, 305 Ste-Catherine Ouest. Tickets available through HaHaHa.com

The Just for Laughs festival is upon us and with more and people vaccinated and the easing of restrictions, this year’s festival is a hybrid one, with some shows streaming for free online, and live, socially distanced in-person events with limited seating. Among this year’s virtual offerings is Just for Laughs Live in LA, featuring an all-star cast of comedians including my interviewee, Jeremy Hotz.

Hotz is a standup legend, having made his big debut at the Montreal Just for Laughs festival in the nineties. His unique brand of passive aggressive observational comedy is hilarious and, as it turns out, it’s not just an act.

When I phoned Hotz on a Friday afternoon, I had SO many questions! What was he doing during the pandemic? What does he think of it? Does he really talk like he does on stage? I wondered if that high pitched, passive aggressiveness was just a persona, and whether he’d be a completely different person on the phone.

I was in for a pleasant surprise.

“Yeah, people don’t understand with me that it’s not an act. Everyone says that about me, the miserable things that happen in my act happen in my life and if you spent a day with me you realize that I seem to be a magnet for it. It’s really bizarre.”

Throughout our conversation, my best attempts at professional composure were useless in the face of his answers to my questions. When I asked him, for example, what was his biggest challenge during the pandemic, he spoke of problems getting his large nose in the mask. Given how many people wear their masks incorrectly, I asked if he only wore his mask over his mouth or covered “the whole shebang”.

“Well, you know, they got to make the mask big enough to get over the whole shebang, that’s the problem. I have the same problem with condoms.”

You’d have to be dead not to laugh.

On Just for Laughs’ website he’s identified as a Canadian American comedian. Born in South Africa, he spent much of his life in Ottawa, but moved to the United States in the nineties. In spite of this, he still considers himself a Canadian comic.

“I’m the most passive aggressive human being on the planet!” Hotz said, describing how for the past three years he’s been calling a yellow cab company once a month and sending them to a bogus address because they stood him up once, resulting in him nearly missing his flight. He considers passive aggressiveness to be a very Canadian trait.

“Canadians, they won’t say you’re an asshole but they think it all day long.”

Standup comedians, like other artists, could not perform in front of live audiences, so I wondered how he’d spent the pandemic.

“I’ve just been standing there waiting for this thing to end, like most people. And now that it is, I seem to have to go back to work which is, you know, shit…”,

When he could no longer perform in front of live audiences, he began live streaming on his Facebook page and it just exploded. Hotz says he loves the format, though, like many comedians, he had to learn the technology to give his fans the best possible experience, and that came with time and doing the show regularly. Now that they’ve mastered the tech, Hotz says they have a good little show.

“Through the pandemic when you couldn’t do standup and I could do the live show once a week, I put a lot of fucking work into it and I really enjoyed it and it became something that I actually looked forward to doing and I’m Jeremy Hotz. I look forward to sex!”

He said there are some anti vaxx trolls and conspiracy theorists that he occasionally responds to in the comments sections of his live streams, and while his responses get hundreds of likes, he can’t respond to them all.

For his upcoming appearance at Live in Los Angeles, he plans to touch on his pandemic experiences a little but feels that by the time of the show in the last week of July, the topic will be dated, opting instead to tell jokes that make people happy.

He describes the setup as a comedy club, pointing out that in Los Angeles so many people are vaccinated that COVID restrictions and mask mandates have eased almost entirely. It promises to be a good show and it’s absolutely free online!

Check it out.

Just for Laughs Live in LA will be available to watch for free online as of July 29th on HaHaHa.com

The Comedyworks was a Montreal institution. Like the Just for Laughs festival, it was a club that many big name comedians got their start at. I used to go during my CEGEP days to see the On The Spot Improv troupe and the occasional headliners.

Then one day, in 2014, it closed. It re-opened under new management a year later. But then, shortly after St-Patrick’s Day 2018, a fire in an apartment above the neighboring Irish Embassy Pub consumed it and spread to the Comedyworks. There were plans to re-build and re-open, but then COVID hit.

There hasn’t been a comedy club quite like it since, and to this day so many local comedians treat their memories there with reverence. Rodney Ramsey is no exception.

Ramsey is one of the many Montreal comedians who got his start at the Comedyworks when he was still working as a telemarketer. Now he’s a full-time comedian and the co-founder of the Unknown Comedy Club, a Canadian black-owned online comedy club presenting live stream standup comedy performances each week.

Tonight, the Unknown Comedy Club is virtually reviving The Comedyworks with a show featuring Comedyworks veterans including David Pryde, Kwasi Thomas, Eman El Husseini, and DeAnne Smith.

I asked Ramsey what he meant by the notion that the Unknown Comedy Club would recreate the Comedyworks for one night. He spoke of recreating that warm atmosphere in which so many like him got their start in standup.

The audience isn’t muted. Both they and the performers are invited to appear as themselves or as an avatar. Ramsey chooses to perform as the latter.

One of the major questions is how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting standup comedy. Ramsey replied that while comedy clubs were closed due to public health restrictions, corporate jobs performing for company events were still available at the beginning. Like other entertainers, he’s had to adapt to a world without live on-site audiences.

“We had to open a virtual club,” he says, adding that all the technology to deal with issues arising due to the pandemic already existed, if you have the money for them. “We have all the tools to replicate the standup live experience we just needed to learn how to use those tools to do it,”

Given the uptick in racial tensions in the past year with the murder of George Floyd and the suspicious death of Joyce Echequan, I couldn’t help but wonder the Black Lives Matter movement impacted the establishment of the Unknown Comedy Club. Ramsey said not really.

“I think this thing was born out of necessity. I don’t think this Club would ever have happened if it wasn’t for COVID, I think the global pandemic had the most effect on it.”

He mentions that he and his co-founder were producers of Canada’s first and longest running all-black comedy tour and are always mindful of bookings for The Unknown Comedy Club.

“A lot of the shows that are being booked are mostly white men. We’re booking diversity.”

He mentions that the Comedyworks tribute will feature Eman El-Husseini, one of the biggest acts in Canada who is also Palestinian, and that the Unknown Comedy Club has an upcoming show called I Heart Asians which will tackle anti-Asian hate head-on by featuring all Asian comedians.

“We do not book like everyone else. We’re booking for everyone.”

The Unknown Comedy Club presents Comedyworks Revival hosted by Rodney Ramsey and featuring David Pryde, Kwasi Thomas, Eman El Husseini and DeAnne Smith takes place Saturday, May 22, 9pm. Tickets for this show and any other Unknown Comedy Club shows (Wednesdays to Sundays) are available through UnknownComedyClub.com

Comedian and writer Jenny Hagel has good advice for aspiring writers: just write….but also…fake it ‘til you make it. I chatted with Jenny Hagel recently about the writing process, as well as her upcoming appearance at this year’s Just for Laughs comedy festival, which, like most live entertainment events in 2020, will be held online.

Jenny Hagel has a graduate degree in Writing for the Screen and Stage, and cut her comedy teeth while performing for five years with Chicago’s legendary improv troupe, The Second City. Hagel has written for many comedy TV shows over the years, and currently performs and writes for Late Night with Seth Meyers.

While she won’t get the chance to perform in Montreal for this year’s (online) Just for Laughs Festival, she has visited before, and the town left her feeling all warm and fuzzy. Tired of people kissing Montreal’s ‘Charming European’ ass, I worried that Montreal was getting smug, and asked Hagel if there was anything that miffed her about Montreal.

“My brother lived there for a little while, I used to visit him and man, what a beautiful, beautiful place. No, I probably have a different baseline for miffed, because I’ve lived in New York, so when I go to any other city, I go ‘These people’s manners are amazing!’”

My French is terrible though…I speak Spanish, I don’t speak any French. The one time I drove to Montreal, I listened to a French CD in the car the whole way up there, trying to learn phrases, to be a polite traveller, to be able to have some phrases when I got there. I’ll be honest, it was years ago, so those phrases have all left my mind. I tried at least, although I’m sure people in Montreal, when they heard my French accent for one second were like ‘No no, this does not help.’

But when I travel, I always feel the weight of the stereotype of the terrible American tourist, so I try very hard to be a one-person goodwill ambassador. I’ve tried really hard to reset that balance.”

Jenny Hagel’s upcoming Just for Laughs show with Amber Ruffin (Drunk History, The Second City, Late Night with Seth Meyers, The Amber Ruffin Show), Conversations with funny people featuring Amber Ruffin and Jenny Hagel will be live and unscripted. I asked Hagel if she had any memorable improv calamities she wanted to share.

“Oh absolutely. One time when I was touring with The Second City we were doing a show, and the whole audience was a convention of economists, and I’m sure are very interested in economics, but they were not interested in laughing. At least they were not interested in the jokes we were providing, and it was truly, truly, a gruelling and silent 90 minutes, I’ll never forget it.

I think about 45 minutes in, I thought ‘Well I took two semesters of economics in college, I’m sure I can pull out some fun economic references,’ and I really tried, and they were also not interested in those. I think I tried to pull out something about a PPF curve or something, I really was digging deep. Nothing worked. It was really a rough hour and a half of my life.”

Hagel went on to describe the format of this weekend’s Just for Laughs show, where she and Amber Ruffin ‘will be asking each other questions that they have not seen before.’

Basically we’re going to be interviewing each other. We’ve done a lot of panels in our lives where the moderators ask the two of us questions, but this one, we don’t have a moderator, so I’m going to interview Amber, she’s going to interview me, we’re going to go back and forth, so we each have a list of questions the other hasn’t seen.

We each dug up a clip of the other one performing — I don’t know if it will be embarrassing, but it will be something that the other person doesn’t know is going to be shown, so it’ll be fun. When you do a certain number of panels, over time you start to get the same questions over and over, so I think it will be fun to answer questions that we weren’t expecting.

Oh, and I’d love for people to check out The Amber Ruffin Show on Peacock if they’re able to.”

Jenny Hagel and Amber Ruffin also plan on discussing their approach to writing, and will be giving advice for aspiring writers. I asked Hagel if she could give us an overview of her advice for writers.

“I think I would just say write. I mean nobody wants to hear that, it’s not sexy advice, but it is the most real advice. The best thing you can do if you want to write is just write.

The best thing you can do when an opportunity comes along is to be prepared and have a bunch of writing to show someone. Like (if they say) ‘Hey, I saw you before, you’re great, do have any writing samples?’ If you haven’t written them it is too late, because they want them then.

Or they’ll be like ‘Hey can I see them tomorrow?’ You can’t go home and stay up all night and write a body of work, so the best thing you can do is be writing all the time.

“If you have one particular writing form you are trying to succeed in, write that as much as you can. If you are interested in a bunch of different writing forms, try them all out, and do them over and over again.

“At Late Night with Seth Meyers, I write monologue jokes, and I did not know how to do that originally. I learned how to do it by applying to late night jobs.

One time I had to do an application, I watched several monologues by the host of the show I was applying to and I transcribed them. Then I looked at them on paper and said ‘OK how do these feel?’ and then I wrote a bunch of stuff. I’m sure they were very terrible at the beginning, and a little bit less terrible later on, and slightly less terrible after that.

And over time, it’s just truly like going to the gym and doing reps. I think the best thing you can do as a writer is just keep writing, and it may not feel like it’s getting better, but it is.”

I expressed my admiration for Hagel’s old school ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ attitude, and meekly mentioned the growing pile of Idiot’s Guides I have piled on my coffee table.

“But that’s OK, as long as you’re doing it. It sounds silly, but I like to run, and I am not a world-class athlete at all, but I know that every time I run, I go a little bit farther, and my legs are a little bit stronger. You don’t want to strive to wake up one morning and be a genius, you want to be just a little bit better each time.

You also want to know that every once in a while, no matter how good you get, you’re going to write something that stinks. That happens to me every week — I turn in so many things each week that inevitably, many of them, I would say most of them, are rejected.

And your job is just to keep coming up with new things, and it’s OK — some will be great, some will stink, a lot will be somewhere in the middle, and all of that is OK.”

Hagel and I discussed how writers have to learn how to be prepared to deal with endless rejection…

“But I don’t even think of it as rejection, I think of it like…if you watch someone play baseball, you watch somebody take a bunch of swings, right? Every time a batter misses a ball, it’s not rejection, it’s just ‘OK, well that one didn’t connect. So let’s hope the next one connects.’”

On comedians/late night comedy in the COVID-19 era:

“You know that’s a great question. I think ‘comedians’ is such a big category, and there are so many different forms comedy can take, that I don’t think that there can be one answer to that.

I know for television, during the spring and summer, a lot of late night shows found ways to tape from home — do safe, remote work, and I think that’s what helped late night shows survive. Now some of those shows are starting to bring it back — like the host is in the studio, and SNL had a small audience last week.

So I think that the way comedy is surviving is the way that we are all surviving, in general in the world, which is to continue to adapt to each new phase of the pandemic, to each new challenge that the pandemic brings.”

On the challenges of doing comedy without a live audience:

“I think you just have to go more on gut, like when you’re writing a late night show that has an audience, then the audience tells you what works and what doesn’t, right? And I think without the audience, you have to go with your gut.

One thing I have really liked about that, and not to say that the pandemic is good, but I feel that an interesting outcome of it, is that I think that shows have started to gravitate a little more to their own weird, quirky personalities, because then it becomes less about writing and choosing jokes by committee.

Then it becomes more like, ‘OK, what is the culture, what is the belief set, the comedic taste of this show?’ It emerges a little bit more specifically, which is interesting to see. But I certainly wouldn’t take this over a normal world, where we all get to be together.”

I asked Hagel if she ever wrote jokes that were so outrageous or ridiculous that she never expected them to get on the air at Late Night with Seth Meyers.

“I think that happens all the time, like if you write enough jokes in a row, you stop being able to tell what’s funny to other people. It probably happens at least once a week where I’m like ‘Oh really? OK!’ and then meanwhile, there are other jokes that I think are a complete slam-dunk and my boss will be like ‘Pass,’ and I’m like ‘Really…OK.’”

“That’s absolutely one (Hagel’s ‘How to Properly Wash your hands’ skit) where I pitched it and was like ‘Well obviously this is not gonna get approved,’ and boy, to my surprise, the next thing I knew, the props department was building a bunch of different skeleton hands for me.”

On the 2020 COVID-19 “everything on Zoom” reality:

“I don’t know, I think it’s a mixed bag, I think everybody thinks it’s a mixed bag. There are some days when I think it really helps, like one day recently where I had a crummy day, and it just happened that a group of women that I’m friends with, one of them texted ‘Hey should we all Zoom tonight?’ Fifteen minutes later we were all on Zoom with a glass of wine, and it really helped.

And then there are some days where I feel like if I have to look at one more human face on a screen I’ll die. So I think it’s probably like a weird blessing and a curse to me, and to everybody — I think we’re getting both a little bit of solace and a little bit of loneliness from it at the same time.”

Conversations with funny people featuring Amber Ruffin and Jenny Hagel will be online on October 9-10, and like all of the Just For Laughs 2020 shows, it will be streamed for free.

Stand-up comic Andy Kindler loves Montreal. He loves it so much that he’s even (half?) joking about moving here one day. He loves the rest of Canada too, for that matter. Well, most of the rest of Canada.

During my recent chat with him, I got the impression that he was a low-key Canada-phile — he knew quite a bit about our geography, culture, politics, hockey, official languages, and he even had a shocking position on The Great Bagel Debate.

Andy Kindler is a stalwart comedy veteran from Queens, New York, known not just for his well-honed stand-up routine (with appearances at the Just For Laughs Nasty Show), but also for his recurring role on Everybody Loves Raymond, and his many appearances on Late Show with David Letterman. He is also a contributor to the Daily Show, and is the voice of Mort on Bob’s Burgers.

Local comedy fans may know Kindler from his legendary State of the Industry Addresses at Montreal’s Just For Laughs Festival. Andy Kindler has given the speech, which has become a cult institution among comedy fans and industry insiders alike, every year since 1996.

Of course, this year’s address, his 25th, will be a little different, given 2020’s quote-unquote “uncertain times.” To be read in that gravelly voice that radiates grim empathy…you know, the voice that now narrates every commercial…

I asked Kindler how stand-up comedians were faring during 2020’s COVID-19 lockdown, especially when a live audience is the lifeblood of the industry.

“I mean everyone is scrambling. I started doing Cameo…do you have Cameo up there? Like if you want a comedian or celebrity to wish you happy birthday or give you a pep talk, you go on Cameo. So what I’ve learned from that is that people will not pay $45 to hear me say happy birthday…but they will pay $35! So if I needed the cold slap of reality in my face, I know what I’m worth now.

The other thing is that I’m doing this speech for the first time virtually from home, and I actually think I’m the only person who looks forward to not having an audience. I mean I know it’s gonna be weird, but so many times I spent in the past castigating the people who aren’t laughing.

And I won’t be sitting down for the speech, I’m gonna put a little effort into it, I’ll be standing. And I’ll be dressed nicely from the waist up. I always dress nice, my mother used to say ‘You mean you wouldn’t wanna wear a dress shirt, open-necked?’ You always gotta have a nice shirt.”

While on the topic of virtual comedy, I asked Kindler about how he has taken to the whole ‘everything online’ zeitgeist of 2020.

“Well in some ways I feel like there’s a green, eco-friendly side to this, and a lazy side to it where I would love to, in the future, not go back to going in for every interview. I actually like going in the studio, but I do think that in some ways, that having Zoom, you can do a lot of things that you had to be in person for, but you can do them remotely now, so I think we’ve learned things that way. It also makes you really focus on what you’re doing because you have so much time on your hands. But obviously I think we’re all hoping it (COVID-19) lifts.”

This being Andy Kindler’s 25th State of the Industry Address, I asked him to comment on the most notable changes in the industry since he gave his first address.

“Yeah, it’s an unbelievable anniversary, unbelievable that I keep the streak going. I think in 1996 it started. So what happened is the first time I came to the festival (Just For Laughs) was ’93, and I had written an article for National Lampoon called The Hack Comic’s Handbook, you can find it on my website.

Then I did a live demonstration of hack comedy in 1995, and Bruce Hills (President, Just For Laughs) said ‘Why don’t you do another speech?’ and then my manager came up with the idea to roast the industry, and it just became a thing, like a summer camp kind of tradition where I would just give the speech.

I think that what’s changed for sure, is that when I first started coming to the festival in ‘93, it was right when a lot of comics were getting sitcom deals from comedy festivals — you had Raymond (Romano), Tim Allen — all these people got deals from the festival, so you had a lot of presidents of the networks there, so there was more of a charged atmosphere. Everybody knew what sitcoms were coming out and all that kind of thing, so it was…not easier, but I knew how to focus it better.

Now, it’s to the point where there’s no fall TV season. I mean yeah, there are fall TV shows, but it’s all changed. But I kind of like it now, because I like the festival now, not the virtual version, but I’ve liked the festivals in the past few years because it feels like people were up there to have fun. And there are actually really great fans in Montreal.”

The most pressing issue Kindler addressed was whether he would bring up Louis C.K.’s penis, which he has discussed at his previous two addresses. We also discussed who else in the industry deserves to be blasted in this year’s address.

“Nah…you know, I think at this point I will get off of his penis (chuckles), but I probably will bring him in at some point. But you know what, there are so many other people to talk about. Like Joe Rogan. And it used to be I would make fun of Jay Leno, but I kind of want to apologize to him because I used to make fun of him just for having bad comedy…but now, with Adam Corolla, he’s not just a horrible comedian, he’s also saying that COVID-19 is fake.

And everybody is going after Chris D’Elia as a person, but let’s not forget that he was also a horrible comedian. What he was doing on stage, it was also a crime.

So I don’t know exactly how I’m going to tackle this thing, but I am totally going to tackle this idea of these people who weren’t very good at stand-up comedy who have gone into things like…Adam Corolla does shows with Dennis Prager and all this right-wing media about how there are no safe spaces on campus, it is a very odd and disturbing trend, so I’m gonna analyse that a little bit.”

No interview with a New Yorker is complete without getting their take on the great Montreal vs. New York Bagel Debate, and Andy Kindler’s response genuinely surprised me. Poutine, and other Montreal and Canada-related topics were touched upon in this exchange, and his proficiency in French also came up.

“Well certain things about Montreal are always going to be great. The bagels will always be the greatest in the world. I decided to try Montreal bagels one year, and they’re lighter and they’re sweeter (than New York bagels). I took a bunch of them to my family in Long Island, and they didn’t travel well, and they made fun of me for years. But overall I much prefer, right out of the oven, a Montreal bagel.

I don’t know what it’s called…oh yeah, the smoked meat. When I first tried it, it was ‘Oh my God it’s the greatest thing in the world,’ but that did wear off. And let me say something…not that anyone cares about poutine, but there’s nothing charming about it. It’s a national joke, right?

But what am I complaining about? It’s really hard, coming from LA or New York to complain about Montreal, I mean when I first went there in the 1990s, I was single at the time, women’s legs were taller than me, I couldn’t even believe it. And the French, everything French, I just love it. And the food, the French food…it’s really hard to get tired of it. But I will say this — Montreal is very touristy.”

When the topic of politics was sideswiped, Kindler brought up a Canadian political figure I was not expecting.

“You know what, I like that Chrystia Freeland. I don’t like Bill Maher, I can’t watch him anymore, but I used to like her when she’d go on Bill Maher. You know, Canadians are better people than Americans. I know you have prejudice up there, and I know you have First Nations issues, but anything bad you’ve got, down here, it’s dwarfed — we’ve done it worse and with less taste.”

On performing in Canada’s Western provinces:

“I remember going out west, it was the late ‘80s early ‘90s, that’s how old I am, I used to play the Western part, and I remember I used to bomb a lot. I was bombing in Edmonton…these crowds were not for me, and the bartender was like ‘Yeah it’s hard to impress us because we have everything here.’ Y’know, they’d just won all those Stanley Cups, so they were very smug in Edmonton. But it’s pretty amazing how diverse the crowds in Canada are, from Halifax and Vancouver, to Montreal.”

On speaking French:

“I speak French very poorly. I took French in grade school, it was terrible, it was in New York and Queens: ‘Bone-jouar class…ou est le porte, ou est le fenêtre?’…so when I go into a room (in Montreal) now, it’s ‘Where is the window, where is the door?’”

On Donald Trump:

“At least you have a regular government there. I’m gonna get in trouble, but (Trudeau isn’t bad) compared to a fascistic madman running around. Well you know the thing is, there’s a Comedy Central clip…there used to be a show on Comedy Central called The Root of all Evil, Louis Black hosted it, and I actually argued that Donald Trump was the root of all evil, and I was making fun of Trump University. So I don’t want to say I’m a seer, but I pride myself on being the first person to compare Trump to Hitler. At least Hitler was a veteran. So that’s basically my take on it.

So you know I’m holding on by my elbows, or whatever you hold onto when you’re trying to keep yourself suspended over a vat of hot oil. I just can’t think past November, I think America is going to be sunk as a country if Trump gets re-elected. We’re in such a deep hole, because it literally is like Orwellian times a million.

Everybody he puts in every department knows nothing about the department, and just wants to undo that department. There are so many parallels (to Hitler), I mean people in the conservative Weimar government, they thought they could play ball with Hitler, people made fun of him. He obviously was smarter than Trump, there are so many parallels — he looked like a crazy man with the way he talked and everything. Actually Trump looks a lot like Mussolini, you know how he shakes his head up and down, self-satisfied.

I don’t think he’s gonna win. I think he might implode before, he’s going nuts I think now, it’s really crazy. That Mary Trump book, I got it and I love it. You really see how he is a sociopath. That will never change (Trump’s support from his base), it will always be about that 40%, but I don’t think he’s gonna get people coming onto him like he did four years ago, I think people are scared of him.”

(Ed’s Note: This interview was conducted prior to the news that Donald Trump tested positive for COVID-19)

What else Andy Kindler is working on:

“I do a podcast called Thought Spiral, and my co-host is Josh Elvis Weinstein, he used to be on Mystery Science Theater 3000. We advertise it as ‘Two jews, two microphones, two hours,’ so it’s basically us just bantering, I really love it. It took me a long time to love it, because it’s a different kind of skill, but we’ve been doing it for three years, so if you need more of me, that’s where I would go to. And I do have an album that’s still available in digital download anytime you want, it couldn’t be any less COVID dangerous.

You know what? You want an answering machine message? I’ll do it for you for $25.”

Andy Kindler’s 25th State of the Industry Address will be online on October 9-10, and like all of the Just For Laughs 2020 shows, it will be streamed for free.