GIGGLE CITY: Bob Angeli’s ethnic comedy journey

Bob Angeli doesn’t headline his own comedy club very often, but it’s Easter weekend, and Bob is Italian, possibly Catholic, so … well, you can insert your own racial joke here. Only if you, too, are Italian, of course.

Delicate thing, this racial comedy. Angeli knows the balance well, as you may see below. You may even hear some of his ethnic accents when he performs Thursday through Saturday at the Comedy Factory – a club Angeli started in 2000 after an already long stand-up career that began during lunch-hour amateur shows at NAIT. That and watching Get Smart.

Q: What’s your best heckler story?

A: It was in Calgary. It was a strip bar and it was Grey Cup Sunday. The club decided to try a comedian in between the halfs. The place was packed. They had strippers, they had the Grey Cup and they had me. So as soon as I went on, I got heckled something fierce. There were four Asian guys sitting right in the front and one guy looked at me and said (Chinese accent), ‘You no stripper! We want pussy!’ Without losing a beat I said to him, ‘And you not funny!’ and of course because I did it back to him in his accent, the place went nuts. So he stands up and picks up an ashtray – thank God it was made of plastic and not glass – and threw it at me. The light’s in my eyes so I can’t see what he’s got in his hand … I thought he might have had a knife or worst scenario, a gun. But it happened so fast. The ashtray didn’t even reach the stage. I think the bouncer came in … To his credit, that Asian, by heckling me and me returning the volley and then him throwing the ashtray, it kind of stunned the crowd into thinking, ‘Hey, this is pretty good.’ I did my seven minutes and the crowd applauded. He made my gig for me.

Q: What do you do when a fan tells you a joke?

A: Don’t forget, if it wasn’t for the audiences – and every performer says the same thing – I wouldn’t have a career. So painstakingly, you have to, with a smile on your face, accept that this person courageously, probably under drug and alcohol influence, has come up to you – because he likes you. So the joke takes 10 minutes, they’re usually two inches from your face, spitting on you. You’ve heard the joke 1,000 times. You politely let him have his moment – because he is a customer.

Q: Do you have a new bit that’s going over particularly well?

A: I do an impression of the Godfather and it always went over very well, because I’m Italian, see, I do a bit about my parents. I’m having an argument with them and one says, (Godfather accent) ‘you’re dead to me.’ And I say, ‘come on, mom.’

Q: What’s the worst meal you’ve ever had on the road?

A: It was in small town Saskatchewan. If the town loves you, after the pub close, somebody’s going to invite you to a house party. So everybody’s drunk, having a few laughs, we’ve all been smoking pot – this was back in the day, I don’t do drugs anymore – and the guy who owns the house says to me (hoser accent), ‘anybody hungry?’ I’m starved. I’d eat anything. So this guy brings out this plate that looked like pate, brings out the crackers, puts it on the table in front of me. I really did it up: mustard, ketchup, pepper. Nobody else is eating this stuff. I’m wolfing it down. And all the sudden the room erupts with laughter and the guy says, ‘Bob, I just fed you my dog food.’ I’m stoned, I’m drunk, I’m thinking, Bob, they’ve endeared themselves to you, they loved you, and this is their way of getting one on you, because they’re small town folk. This story is probably still told around the coffee shop, ‘Remember when we fed that comedian dog food?’ And I said, dog food or not, this was the best meal I ever had in this town!

Q: Have you ever been called a racist?

A: I was at the Sidetrack Cafe one night. We’re talking early ‘90s here, I had only been doing stand up three or four years. A lot of comedians do sex and drug jokes when they’re starting out. Because I could do accents well, I went the ethnic route. I had a Jamaican accent, an East Indian accent, I would do a joke about First Nations people, I call them First Nations now. After the show, an African-Canadian guy came up to me. He was huge, like an Eskimos linebacker. I was sitting at a table with a bunch of comedians. And he said, ‘why do you do that material? Are you a racist? You seem like a funny guy. Why are you doing that material?’ And a comedian I was sitting with came to my defence and said, ‘hey, dude, this is comedy, ha, ha, ha. If you don’t like it, there’s the door.’ The guy just gave my partner a dirty look, then looked at me and said, ‘You would think you’d be better than that,’ and walked out. On my way home I said to myself, Bob, if he sees it, other people see it. You need to change what you’re doing. So that’s what I started to do. It’s different if an East Indian comic and goes up there and makes fun of his own culture. Russell Peters, when he first started, he’d make fun of his father’s accent. He started off making fun of himself. So what I decided to do was look at my heritage, look inward and I started gaining confidence about making fun of myself. And once I started doing that, crowds endeared themselves to me more and then I was able to transcend the racism thing.