After three years of bullshit, I’m filming my own comedy special.
It’s on April 16th (6:30 pm & 9 pm).
TICKETS ARE SOLD-OUT FOR THIS PERFORMANCE.
Just before Christmas, Matt caught me staring at a bowl of clementines.
“What’s wrong with you?” he asked.
“I don’t know what this is?” I panicked.
“What do you mean?” he said.
I stared at the round orange bulbs failing to match a noun to the corresponding image. It wasn’t as if I forgot the word. It didn’t exist. Clementine was just one of many words that had vanished from my brain and needed to be relearned.
“It’s a clementine,” Matt said. “What’s wrong with you?”
Nobody wants to hear how hard this business is. Nobody cares. It is an industry that recognizes the few individuals who defy the odds and labels them a success, then paints everyone else as a failure. Truthfully, if I wanted a career where trying counts I would have been an athlete.
I lost my basic cognitive functions: that’s how fucking hard this industry is.
In the past three years, I have been used as an example of success, as an example of failure, and sometimes as an example of both in the same sentence. My career has been like a single shoe in a dryer: a dramatic high followed by a dramatic thud, repeated over and over and over and over. Specifically, I went into ‘rescue mode’ last year after a deal that was supposed to be ‘my big break’ nearly ruined my career.
In 2013, I travelled to Scotland with three things in mind: do the exact opposite any expert tells you to do; go so big they can’t ignore you; finish the story you started telling during the 2011 festival. I had tested my new show a few times before traveling, but nothing could prepare me for my first preview. I walked on stage in front of a crowded audience after vomiting in an alley off Cowgate. I was nervous because there is no harsher litmus test for new work than a Scottish audience. The show worked. When The Ginger Pride Walk went viral, it hit every major media news outlet around the world (except in Canada), and my audiences were packed for the entire month of August. My initial goal was to come home with ten minutes of polished material that I could put on YouTube. Instead, I secured the most media attention in the history of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and came home with Ginger Nation.
Back in Toronto, I started making plans to move to the UK between binge-watching seasons of Friday Night Lights. I booked my first gig back in Hamilton where I played to five people (two who had already seen the show), and I drove home that night eating a whole pie I bought from a 24hr grocery store. I drifted for a few months trying to figure out what to do next until I finally landed a meeting with a major Canadian media company.
I walked into the meeting hoping to secure writing work by punching-up scripts. Instead, I sat around a boardroom table and watched as four executives voted unanimously to develop Ginger Nation into a comedy special with an added television and film option. It was the most extraordinary meeting I’ve ever taken. I walked out of the building trying not to get hit by a car or a bus because I had been offered the dream: my own comedy special with a series or a feature film. It was a legit offer, from a huge company, and nobody in their right mind would have turned it down.
I spent the next month sourcing new agents (I had parted ways with my last agent before going to Edinburgh) and securing a lawyer who would work based on a percentage rather than an hourly rate. Together, we spent four months building and negotiating a multi-platform deal that covered everything from bobbleheads to force majeure. The intent was to begin production right away on a comedy special, so I cleared my schedule and I cancelled my plans to return to the festival. Then it all went downhill: the start date was pushed, email responses lagged, and eventually months passed. It was an incredibly isolating experience because these types of deals happen in a vacuum. I only knew successful individuals who had navigated this process and their advice was spoken in platitudes and positive thoughts.
The relationship deteriorated when a producer for the Company said, “Why would we spend $100,000 on a comedy special that will only sell for $11 in Poland.” My target audience were the good citizens of Poland? I knew I was immediately fucked. The producer suggested that I stage the show so that the Company and various network executives could see it live. (A company boasting triple-digit gains asked me to produce a showcase.) My hands were tied and I tapped the only asset I had left: a run in Toronto. (Side note: it’s an industry-wide practice that you can only play Toronto once before maxing out your media and audience unless you are embedded in a festival or season.) I used my connections, booked Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, and started working towards selling four shows in Toronto.
Then money got tight, so I sold my piano and I got a job working in a warehouse. I have a suspicion that I’m not the first comedian with a Canadian development deal who had to work in a warehouse to pay his rent. Moving boxes around for eight hours a day was an amazing way to turn off my brain; I was out of my house working alongside over-educated hipsters with master’s degrees and laughing about the various circumstances that brought us together.
In the four months leading up to the showcase, I thought I was suffering from extreme stress but instead I was ignoring the symptoms of appendicitis. This is why neurotic people die from things like septicemia. While recovering from surgery, I solidified press releases, marketing materials, and VIP invitations for the showcase. But, when I asked the Company for the names of the network executives who will be attending I was met with silence. I went back to work at the warehouse and several weeks passed.
Two days after Christmas, I was onstage at TIFF doing my annual sing-a-long gig when I received a four sentence email informing me that the deal was terminated and all rights had reverted. (I do not believe that the Company was negligent. This is the business, it happens often, and apparently I was lucky. The fact that I easily regained the rights to my property was an incredible gesture of goodwill on behalf of the Company.) Fifteen months of work evaporated in one email. I cried-a-long to The Sound Of Music as I realized the four upcoming shows would be my only chance to make an impact in Toronto. I couldn’t cancel the dates because tickets were sold, I had three weeks to get myself off the floor and get on stage.
The run at Buddies in Bad Times was very much a success in the way that I managed to pull it off without any financial support. I sold-out two shows, and had one killer Saturday night show (that I wish had been taped). It reminded me that I love telling the story of Ginger Nation, and any fear that the material had atrophied while sitting on the shelf had disappeared. But, I did not have the resources or the support structure to walk away unscathed; I was back to zero with a tainted property and thankfully my agents didn’t drop me (even though they could have). As word spread, I became an example of failure. People would say, “I don’t want what happened to you, to happen to me” when discussing their own work.
I had a choice to make: I could either quit or I could double-down.
In 2015, I pushed my limits and my resources to rescue the show and my career. I started taking meetings with producers and directors to create a feature based on a treatment I pumped out. I rebuilt press kits and marketing tools. I argued (unsuccessfully) with major theatre festivals that my work is not strictly comedy, and major comedy festivals that my work is not strictly theatre. I pitched a comedy special to a broadcaster through Linkedin and got the project on their docket. I successfully pitched a feature while having tea at The Ritz Carlton, only to watch it fall apart because Roland Emmerich’s $13 million Stonewall disaster has ruined the gay male narrative in commercial film for the next 20 years. I signed a book deal with ECW with the intent of publishing Spring 2017. I landed an interview on CBC’s q with Shad. I performed ten shows in Halifax and won the top audience prize while generating more press and new reviews. I performed four shows at the inaugural Guelph Fringe and spent my Thanksgiving Sunday performing for one man in a church who introduced himself as ‘Jerry From Guelph.’ Then I booked two dates in New York at The Duplex to celebrate a year’s worth of hard work.
New York is where I lost the word ‘clementine.‘
Trying to navigate the P2 visa process to work legitimately in the United States is the reason why artists in Canada give up. For me, it was a full-time-two-month-thousand-dollar process that included a letter writing campaign to various members of congress to establish a back channel through Homeland Security to extract my application (from a bin of thousands of other Canadian performers) and stamp it ‘approved’. It involved infuriating conversations with the Canadian chapter of AFM (American Federation Of Musicians) which is the only organization that gigging entertainers can use to gain entrance to the US.
While most Americans play our venues without any paperwork and cross the border with ease, I arrived at The Duplex with three hours to shower, eat a bagel, tech, and perform my show. This was after a congressman’s assistant pulled a last minute string with Homeland Security, after I ran across Eglinton (from Yonge Street to Don Mills ) to get someone from the AFM to respond to an email, after I yelled at my AFM caseworker to put down his plate of charcuterie and do his fucking job, after I repacked my bags and rebooked my flight, after I had been searched and interrogated at customs. This was my debut in a New York club.
After my first show, an audience member said to me, “Wow, you’re American funny!”
99% of this business is just getting to the stage.
I came home after ten days in New York, found out that Roland Emmerich had ruined film for homosexuals, watched the Canadian dollar bottom out, and stared at the bowl of clementines.
I broke my brain.
I started thinking about my health, relationship, friendships, finances and how these aspects of my life have suffered greatly in the past few years.
I lost half my vocabulary for three weeks.
Was it worth it? No.
Was it necessary? Yes.
I fought for my career and I have man-cried more times than I’m willing to admit, but it has made me a better performer and a better businessman. This was my experience and I wouldn’t change it – although I would have preferred an easier more fruitful path. It was a process that made me decide whether I had a hobby or a career, I chose the latter. I no longer question my talent or my place or whether I’m a comedian, but I do question my industry.
I feel like I am part of a generation of artists in Canada who instead of hearing ‘yes‘ we heard a succession of excuses why work couldn’t be made. It started with 9-11, then SARS, then the financial meltdown, then Harper, and now… well, I’m voting oil. Instead, we were told by various authorities to ‘make your own work,‘ which means ‘develop content for free.’ Everything that has happened in the past years is a result of me sitting in my pajamas welded to my computer. There isn’t a FACTOR program for comedians, and the granting bodies do not recognize entertainment as a discipline. This mentality isn’t going to change, especially when Mélanie Joly, the new Minister of Heritage, describes the opera, ballet, and museums as the “flora and fauna” of Canadian culture.
So, how do you take your work to the next level without Clementine-ing yourself?
You can’t. Not without moving to another country.
At some point ‘the gatekeepers’ just stopped developing new talent in Canada, and instead of generating opportunities ‘they’ created a culture of excuses. This problem is only compounded by the collapse of the Canadian media. It is nearly impossible now to break an artist in Canada without the lens of the American media (It took the entire resources of the CBC three years to break one sitcom, Schitt’s Creek.)
Our primetime, our festivals, and our stages are filled with American content. I have attended way too many concerts and performances where the headlining act has encouraged Canadians to vote during a US election year; touted Obamacare to a single-payer crowd; explained gay marriage to Church Street. I hear a constant digression about American politics and pop-culture, generating a Canadian identity dangerously built on comparison. It forms Canadians to believe that we don’t have our own water problems, racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, legal injustices, populists, serial murders… well, “at least not like those Americans do.” It drives me bonkers (yes the b-word) because I want to be able to contribute to the voice of the country in which I choose to live, but every day it gets more and more difficult to tell our stories. Stories that reflect who we actually are as a nation, stories that challenge our iron clad maple syrup brand.
Last month, I was told that it could be another year until I filmed my show for a broadcaster, but without a guarantee. I’m 35, I can’t guarantee that I will have a full head of red hair one year from now. A year from now I will probably look like Ron Howard, but without his fortune or collection of baseball caps (so basically unfuckable). After all this red tape and stress and debt I’m still missing an essential calling card: a live recording.
In the words of Donna Summer and Barbra Streisand, “…enough is enough is enough is enough, Is enough is enough is enough is ENOUGH!!”
So, I’m going to produce my own mother-fucking-god-damn comedy special. (Because it’s 2016? Can I use that in this instance?) And, it’s not going to cost me $100,000 or $10,000 or even $5,000. I have figured out a crazy producing strategy that no company or broadcaster could conceive: I’m going to source some HD cameras and sell tickets.
Will it be the grandiose event in a premier venue with camera cranes that I had given myself permission to dream of? No.
Will it be perfect? No.
Will it be seen by a broad audience for mass consumption? Probably not.
Will I own the property, retain the copyright, and decide how to distribute and exploit my own work herein? Yes.
After, I’m going to finish my book while learning how to kayak, and then write a new show.
This is what creators and performers do every day. We get shit done.