10.2 x 10: Interview with comedian, author, activist Charles Demers

by Andrew Loewen on January 17, 20143 comments

I am delighted to bring you the second edition of our Paltry Sapien interview series, 10×10, this time with the multi-talented Charles Demers.

When I was about 18 I got a tattoo of Charlie Chaplin down the length of my right bicep. There’s probably no ‘meeting-of-worlds’ that I’ve spent more time thinking about than I have the space where politics meets comedy.

1)    You wear three distinct hats as comedian, author, and activist; at the same time, your comedic sensibilities infuse your writing, your activism colors your comedic material, etc. Are there differing drives and motivations underlying your pursuit of these outlets, or is it all of a piece?

That’s a really good question.  My friend Max Fawcett has, written in his ‘something about yourself’ box on Facebook, a variation on Whitman: “I contain multitudes, but they’re all pretty much the same.”  While the work often feels very different, and certainly lets me change up the emphasis – here trying primarily to be funny, there being primarily political or historical, here being very personal – it does, for me, seem to be coming from mostly the same wellspring.  What I’m sort of working on is trying to make the disparate works make sense to people, the audience, as part of a whole.  But at the beginning, it was hard to get people interested in both the books and the comedy.

The worlds of literary writing and stand-up comedy exist in almost complete isolation from each other, which to me is insane, given the overlap – attention to language, ideas, observation.

And in terms of the overlap between comedy and political activism: when I was about 18 I got a tattoo of Charlie Chaplin down the length of my right bicep.  There’s probably no ‘meeting-of-worlds’ that I’ve spent more time thinking about than I have the space where politics meets comedy.  Unfortunately, my generation of the left has been taught to be sort of dour, self-policing and uptight…

2) An artist, performer, and writer such as yourself tends to face a lot of uncertainty in terms of work and income. Thoughts on this challenge? Advice for the kids?

It’s tough.

A friend of mine, sort of a freelance graphic designer, describes himself as ‘lumpen petty bourgeois’ – I think that’s an almost perfect characterization of the class position of so-called ‘cultural workers.’  There’s a tendency to be, roughly speaking, culturally middle-class and financially working class (if that, even).  It’s a position I can relate to from early on, having been raised by a single parent who worked as a teacher.

My advice to the kids, I guess, would be to fight like hell to get back arts funding and to defend the CBC and public broadcasting, and to defend the regulations – often characterized as ‘ bureaucratic red tape’ or ‘cultural protectionism’ that actually make it possible for artists to do their work.  And, in a more DIY anarchist spirit, to get out and make spaces and create art and let the rest follow.

3) A friend of mine who works at one of Vancouver’s beleaguered independent bookstores (Blackberry) remarks that the reception of your wonderful non-fiction collection, Vancouver Special, has overshadowed appreciation of your novel The Prescription Errors (which she notes is truly great). How would you compare the reception of your two books, given that they were released simultaneously?

 

 

That’s really very kind; Blackberry have been really great supporters of both books, as has the People’s Co-Op Bookstore – even more evidence, if any were needed, on the importance of keeping indy bookstores alive and thriving.  To be honest, I don’t think that Vancouver Special took away any attention that The Prescription Errors would otherwise have gotten – PE was a novel by a first-time author, from a small press, and with relatively obscure thematic concerns and a hard-to-summarize plot. It got about the reception it would have received probably in any event: 5 or 6 reviews (which I’m happy to say were for the most part very positive), and very modest sales.  VS definitely made a bigger impact, but PE is a book that means infinitely more to me; I can’t conceive of anything I would ever do again that would cut as close to the bone for me, or deal with more autobiographically pressing concerns: grief, mental illness, comedy, Vancouver, and the possibility of retrieving a relevant radical political language.

4) Do you have plans for future writing projects, fiction or non-fiction?

I’ve been working, recently, on some stuff for live theatre – hoping that drama might be a place where the literary work and the live performance comedy work can complement each other.  I’ve written a short comic monologue, my take on Vancouver post-Olympics, called Treading, which is in the current issue of Subterrain magazine. I’m also co-writing a one-act play with Ryan Beil – the insanely talented actor/improviser, feature of the Vancouver theatre scene, and, most notoriously, ‘Ryan the A&W Guy’ in the commercials.  It’s a comedy about a Canadian and a South African at the London 2012 Games that will poke fun at some of the shared racial hypocrisies of the two countries.  Further to that, I’m starting work on another collection of essays.

5) Turning explicitly to your politics, you identify as a socialist. Why?

My general political inclinations are the result of having cherry-picked what I think is the good from everything from anarchism to social democracy and even left-liberalism and Christianity, and ‘socialist’ seems, to me, to be a good catch-all for the synthesis.  It’s also, I think, a term that (in the Canadian context), is the perfect balance between provocative (‘I am more radical than what you’re used to’) and understandable (‘I’m not from another species, and I’m still interested in being a part of society in general and figuring out workable solutions in the here and now’).  Some, like Badiou, are interested in reclaiming the communist projects – I think that’s useful in a lot of ways, but for the same reason that Tony Judt rejects the term socialism (too much baggage, instantly alienating the people you’re talking to and with no particular, readily-apparent benefit), I’m iffy on identifying as ‘communist,’ though I have a great deal of sympathy for Marxist economics, historiography and philosophy.  Judt goes to too far in dismissing ‘socialism’ as a useful term, but his general point is well-taken.

Unless we’re purely self-indulgent, we take part in political conversation to communicate with people, so why throw up unnecessarily cumbersome language?

Whatever label it’s given, though, the hard kernel at the centre of my politics is Mikhail Bakunin’s observation that “liberty without socialism is privilege and injustice; socialism without liberty is slavery and brutality.”

6) You’ve been active in Vancouver’s anti-war movement and other activist causes for many years. What do you think is special or works well about activism in Vancouver, and what’s tough or frustrating about it?

Having only lived and worked here, I don’t know that I could say what uniquely good or bad about Vancouver’s activist politics, but I’ll try.  Vancouver has a long history of anti-war cultural attitudes (the Squamish called the twin peaks that are now usually called ‘the Lions’ the Two Sisters, a mythical commemoration of two girls said to have brought peace between, I think it was, the Squamish and the Haida; the first general strike in Canadian history was held in Vancouver to protest the murder of anti-WWI socialist and labour leader Ginger Goodwin), and a long history of left-wing (as well as right-wing) populism.  I also happen to think – because many of them are my friends – that the Vancouver left and anti-war movements have some really incredible, wonderful people involved in them.  There are negative things, too, for sure – self-righteousness, prolier-than-thou-ism, a conservative labour movement – but none of those is unique to here, and I don’t have anything useful to say about them.

7) A lot of people not from Vancouver have an image of it as a paradise for progressives and leftists (albeit with an unseemly pocket of “blight” in the Downtown Eastside). I’d say Vancouver’s progressivism is primarily a myth (see: real-estate developers). You?
Vancouver is, if anything, a working model of the dialectical theory of politics and history.

We’re a place of, and shaped by, powerful opposites – the same city that essentially invents modern environmentalism is run by mining and forestry companies, the same city gives the world Adbusters and the Fraser Institute – and so I wouldn’t say the idea of progressive Vancouver is a myth, but rather that it’s part of a more complicated whole.

 

I’m really happy to have grown up here and learned politics here – as a 15 and 16 year old, I got to “apprentice” in activism with people like Jaggi Singh, working on East Timor stuff; that was a unique and important formative experience, that I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere else.

8 ) You grew up in Surrey[?] and have since been based in Vancouver. How would you characterize the Vancouver comedy scene? Who are some other local comics people should look out for?

[I was born in a hospital in Surrey, spent the first two years of my life in East Van, then a year in Surrey, and the rest of my growing up in Burnaby.  I’ve lived in Vancouver proper, and east of Main, since I was 21.]  The Vancouver comedy scene is overbrimming with talent.

Graham Clark will likely, one day, be generally recognized as the best comedian in Canada.

His podcasting partner, Dave Shumka, is also a genius.  There are some very talented amateurs out there right now, too, just learning the ropes but displaying tremendous promise, like Sean Emeny, Rachel Burns, Katie-Ellen Humphries and Ben McGinnis.  Now I’ve started naming people, which I don’t want to do, because I’d hate to leave anyone off.  But there’s an insane amount of talent in this city – and not just in stand-up, but in improv and sketch, too.

9) Good comics tend to strip the artifice from their routines, giving one the impression they just walk around thinking and saying brilliant, hilarious stuff all day. What’s your process of developing and honing stand-up material?

Well, I start by just walking around thinking and saying brilliant, hilarious stuff all day.  Actually, I’m very lucky to have a wife whose sense of what will work on-stage is almost uncanny – when I think up something that I think is funny, I run it by her, and if she thinks there’s something there, I’ll try it onstage.  The rule of thumb, I think it’s Louis CK’s but I’m not sure, is that if a new piece of material works three times, it will generally (with exceptions) always work, and if its fails three times, it will generally (with exceptions) always fail.  So I get the three times, and then the perfect wording, the right pauses and emphasis gets worked out on-stage over the course of many, many shows.  There’s no other way to do it that I’m aware of.  Also, I’ve found that now that I’ve been doing it for a little longer, I can go back to joke ideas that I had when I’d just started, but wasn’t yet a good enough comic to make work.  I have a new joke about MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) that has been killing, but when I first tried it a few years ago, it got nothing.


10) This summer CTV flew you out to Toronto to tape your own full-length national comedy special. How’d that go? Any word when it will air?

That was a lot of fun.  In my (very limited) experience in that city, I’ve noticed that Toronto crowds go nuts for racial material, anything that deals with inter-cultural relations and collisions, and luckily for me, I have a lot of that kind of stuff in my act. My Comedy Now! special will hopefully air this year, either in the spring or the summer, but there’s no air date yet.

 

Originally posted Jan 31, 2011

3 comments

Daniel Demers on February 1, 2011 at 4:33 pm. #

Excellent interview questions Andrew. You have skillfully exposed your readers to the many wonderful facets of Charlie. He is equally skillful at being a husband, a brother, a friend, a cousin, and a son – I should know, I’ve known him since 3:11am July1, 1980 when he arrived on this planet.

Andrew Loewen on February 2, 2011 at 7:13 am. #

Nice to hear, Daniel. Thanks for the comment.

hilary henegar on February 2, 2011 at 12:59 pm. #

yeah great interview! well researched.

im a big fan of charlie’s work. first fell for his standup, then his prescription errors, then his vancouver special. his scholarship and sharp eye make him a keen writer and comedian – and an important voice in this city.

there was a twitter campaign going around a while back calling for charlie to replace rick cluff on cbc radio’s early edition. i’d definitely wake up early to listen to that…