GIGGLE CITY: Gavin Stephens avoids the race card

Gavin Stephens is half black and half Portuguese – “which means at some point in history, I might’ve owned myself.”

He doesn’t do that joke anymore. There’s a lot of “let’s talk about my race” material he could do, but chooses not to. Of course it’s a swell way for a young comic to get his/her feet wet: Talk about how black/fat/hairy/female you are, be willing to laugh at yourself, and others will laugh with you. The answer to whether a “distinguishing” trait is a gift or a crutch for a comedian can be answered by the simple observation that most of the really good ones move on, eventually. Besides, there’s a lot more mileage in being a self-proclaimed nerd. Stephens just finished a run at the Laugh Shop.

(Usual mature content warning.)

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

A: It think I’ll go with Mr. T. He throws people over his head on the A-Team, drives the vans and now he does rotisserie chicken commercials – the Flavorwave. I love infomercials.

Q: Would you like to do your own infomercial?

A: I would do a TV show like an infomercial. Have you ever watched the Magic Bullet commercial? The infomercial takes place at a party, and everyone’s really excited about this food processer. I’d have it so things would happen, like someone gets knocked up in the other room while they’re demonstrating it, stuff like that. It’s something that’s been in my head for a while.

Q: Best heckler story?

A: It was about six months after 9-11 and I was doing a show in Niagara Falls, and talking about Bush. There were these Americans. They were rude to everybody. One guy was smoking a cigar in the front row. It was an old folks tour or something. So I’m doing these jokes about Bush, about when he called Pakistani people Pakis. So the old guy in the front interrupts me: “What do you call someone who’s lying face down in the ditch? A dead comedian.” It was kind of shocking. So we started arguing, about politics, about slavery. He was saying how Canada was a bunch of pussies. Then I said something like, well, we may be a bunch of pussies, but we have health care. The crowd was on my side, but the Americans complained to the mayor of Niagara Falls, so I got banned. I only noticed it when I realized: hey, we haven’t been back here in a while. I think I finally went back in 2008.

Q: Was George W. Bush a gift from heaven for comedians or what?

A: It was, and then it got over-saturated. I got bored. It became too easy. Every comic was doing it. But that’s what comedy is. You have to move forward.

Q: Do you play the race card in your act a lot?

A: I never play the race card. I think if you’re playing the race card, your entire act is about your race. It’s natural for me to talk about myself. Ten years ago, if you went to some town like Grande Prairie, they’ve never seen a black person before, so you can’t just jump into politics. You have to introduce them slowly. But now, we’re all so connected and familiar with so many cultures from around the world. It’s not a big deal anymore.

Q: Do you have a joke you’ve abandoned that you were sad to let go?

A: I was doing a bit recently about recycling and talking about the price of tuna, and why is dolphin-free tuna so expensive when it should be cheaper because there’s no dolphin in it? I’ve stopped doing that one.

Q: Do you have new material that’s killing lately?

A: I’m doing a chunk of material where I’m accepting my own mortality. It’s a good solid 15 minutes of death. A lot of old men have accepted their mortality because they’ve let go of things like vanity and social status. I’ve seen my father change his pants in the Sears’ parking lot because he just doesn’t care anymore. At a certain point you, say, this is who am I, this is what I do. I’m at that stage in my life.

Q: How old are you?

A: I’m 36.

Q: Do comedians steal from each other all the time or is there a code?

A: I think 20% of the comics out there working are real comedians and the others just love the lifestyle – and those are the ones that steal material. It’s OK to have parallel thoughts, but if you’re blatantly ripping off someone else’s material, you’re not a comedian.

Q: Do you have to be a pessimist to be a good comic?

A: It kind of works for me. My stuff is dark, but it’s also kind of light. Someone called it “grimsical.” It’s grim, but whimsical. Even my material on death is not heavy material. It’s very cartroony. That’s why I don’t think you have to be pessimist. But you have to be analytical. You have to have empathy.

Q: And outrage?

A: That helps. Our job as comedians is to stand and watch what’s going on and say: That’s fucked up. Comedians are basically outsiders. Whether it’s Jim Gaffigan talking about Hot Pockets or Bill Hicks talking about marketing, it’s standing on the outside and saying what’s fucked up about it. I think I can speak for myself. I’ve always been an outsider. The guys I relate to, which is most other comics, are kind of the same way. We don’t like crowds. We’re kind of shy. We don’t make any allegiances. It’s like a good journalist – nobody likes a good journalist. They’re going to do a great job because they don’t have allegiances.

Q: Isn’t it a sad and lonely life?

A: Hey, I’m married, so I’m good. And not to someone in the scene, either. She has to put up with a lot of my shit. I feel for her sometimes.