GIGGLE CITY: Lorne Elliott goes madly on in all directions

The combination of the words “CBC” and “comedy” does not always elicit respect in stand-up comedy circles.

Does Lorne Elliott care? He doesn’t appear to. One imagines that nothing fazes this guy. The smart and soft-spoken 58-year-old comic remains a popular draw even five years after his national CBC radio show “Madly Off In All Directions” went off the air. In contrast to last week’s dirty comics, Lorne works “clean” – as he demonstrated at Sherwood Park’s Festival Place on Sunday night.

(Reader discretion is advised. It’s just one little f-word, actually, but it’s all the more shocking coming from a guy you couldn’t imagine swearing.)

Q: If you could be any celebrity, who would it be and why?

A: Ooh, that’s a tough one … Well, you try not to be anybody else but yourself.

Q: It’s a hypothetical question. You’ve got a gun to your head. Who are you going to be?

A: Living or dead?

Q: The living?

A: Well, I read a lot of dead people. Tolstoy, but he’s dead. That’s a tricky question. Who would I rather be? Chekhov! Without the tuberculosis. He was very humanizing writer, a great artist and very funny at times.

Q: What’s your worst heckler story?

A: I had a whole audience heckle me once. That was pretty bad. This was in Syracuse, New York in the mid ‘80s. I was the warm up for a band whose name I probably blocked out: Nightflight or some damned thing. They were chanting the band name for about 10 minutes before the show. The guy who introduced me did it from off stage. He said, “I guess you’all wanna hear Nightflight!’ and 3,000 kids go YEAH! “But first, Lorne Elliott!” And there’s a pause and then 3,000 kids go BOOO! And the guy turned to me and said, “You’re on.” I tried to do my 15 minutes and they just booed me the whole way through. I was kind of laughing at the fact that they all hated my guts just because I existed.

Q: Do you have a favourite joke you don’t do anymore because it’s stale?

A: “So the Prime Minister is in Afghanistan trying to convince Hamid Karzai not to torture the people we’re trying to kill.” I don’t do that one anymore. We’re not there anymore.

Q: A lot of dirty comics say they can work clean. Can you work dirty?

A: Oh, yeah. When I was starting out, I was working dirty, working “blue,” we used to say. It works – when you have the type of crowd I just described to you.

Q: What’s your favourite joke from your blue period?

A: I said fuck a lot, when you don’t have too much material. People weren’t used to having entertainers swear, not back then anyway. The problem with shock is that once you’ve heard it, it ceases to be shocking. It’s a dead end street. Of course, shock and surprise is part of all humour. I used to say that when you swear on stage, they laugh but they don’t respect you in the morning.

Q: Where’s the line that you won’t cross?

A: You’re always playing with the line, you step over it and they stop laughing. It’s the laugh line. I think where it is, and this is very encouraging to me, is where you are making fun of somebody less powerful than you. There are other comics who try that other road: The attitude of “Why am I the only person here who has any brains?” I prefer the approach of: I don’t know anything, do you know nothing, either? It’s probably more realistic. We’re all human.

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

A: I had one that didn’t go very well. It died. I did it once up in Cobalt, Ontario: “Harper wants to build more prisons, so I suppose that means there will be more things that are illegal. But if you want to pay to keep people from being useful members of society by sequestering them somewhere else, I thought that’s why we have the CBC.” I don’t think I’ll use that one again. Maybe I should say it on the CBC.

Q: One comic interviewed for this said Americans are much more willing to make fun of themselves than Canadians. Do you think that’s true?

A: I think it just applies to everybody. Some people can make fun of themselves and some can’t – but I think you’ll find that people who can make fun of themselves are healthier.

Q: What’s the difference between kids today and when you were a kid?

A: We had to stand up and go to the television to turn the channel! Now we don’t even have televisions! Actually my official fundamental belief is that there’s no difference at all.

Q: Do you have to be pessimistic about humanity to be a good comedian?

A: I don’t think you have to be anything to be a good comedian. There are many different approaches. I don’t think it demands any particular philosophical stance. Any generalization like that is nice to think about, but I don’t think it’s going to get you any closer to the truth.

Q: Question just for you: Do you use your guitar and your music more or less as your career continues?

A: Maybe a bit less. When I started out I could always strum along. I know when I was working the comedy clubs in the ‘80s, there was immediately this class structure that asserted itself: There was pure stand up on the top, and who were of course superior human beings, and on the bottom would be jugglers and mimes. Then there’s the prop comics.

Q: Where do you fit in?

A: I have music in my act. But there are so many ways to do this. One is not better than the other. It’s like comparing movies and TV, like saying Orca the Killer Whale, the worst movie ever made, is better than The Sopranos. It’s ridiculous.