Steve Patterson, a proud Canadian stand-up comic and best male stand-up winner at this year’s Canadian Comedy Awards, is touring Canada as the host of Just For Laughs Comedy Tour: British Edition, making its Toronto stop on November 4 at Massey Hall.
The all-British line-up is a first for the Just For Laughs franchise, so it only seems appropriate to broach the uniqueness of British humour. What is the tradition of British humour and why is it unique?
“[The British] have a longer tradition of comedy because they have a longer tradition of everything; they’ve been around longer,” explains Patterson. “I don’t know where British stand-up comedy first started but it was probably in front of the Romans for some reason, if any of the Monty Python movies are any indication.” He adds that “British stand-up comedy tends to have a lot of word-smithing; it’s very intense on the language — a different beat than Canadian comedy — I wouldn’t say that it’s better, but it’s different.”
On the flip-side, for Patterson, an integral part of Canadian humour lies in the audience.
“My favourite thing about Canadian audiences is they are willing to be self-deprecating… I love audiences that can laugh at themselves, and Canadian audiences are definitely like that. That’s why Canada’s comedians are pretty much always considered among the top ones in the world because we are used to doing shows for Canadian crowds that can laugh.”
Although Canadian audiences are known to be able to take a joke, there are always individuals who will refuse to laugh. When it comes to offending people, Patterson has a keen insight.
“You’re always going to offend somebody in the audience and you can’t worry about it, but what you can try to do, as a comic, is to bring your writing to a level where you’re at least being clever and you’re not just being mean. Comedy should be truthful, it should be funny, but [it] shouldn’t just be anger and mean because there are lots of other places in the world to go for that than comedy.”
For all of the insights and laughs that comedy can provide, it is often not classified as performance art in the calibre of theatre or dance, which is more than a mild annoyance for Patterson.
“There is nothing more performance based than stand-up. It’s one person engaged in public speaking — if you can’t call that performance art then you can’t call anything a performance art.” He adds that the misconception might stem from the fact that comedy is made to seem effortless by those who are masters of the art.
“Maybe everyone can be funny for a minute or two, but try sustaining that for 45 minutes or an hour and a half. I could probably make an incision, but I don’t think I could perform the whole operation… I don’t think stand-up gets the respect as an art form [that] it should … very rarely does someone show up at a ballet and yell ‘Hey, is that a plié?’”
Shifting gears from stand-up, Patterson is also the host of CBC Radio One’s The Debaters which has made its way onto CBC television on Tuesday evenings at 9:30 pm. The format of The Debaters is deceptively simple: two comedians duke it out on topics ranging from “Should Communism Make a Come-Back?’ to ‘Beer vs. Wine’ — all moderated by Patterson himself. For Patterson, the format of The Debaters allows for serious dialogue to take place behind the guise of humour.
“When people start doing stand-up, they inevitably talk about what they know, and because they don’t know a heck of a lot, that generally boils down to [talk of] bodily fluids and too often, in the comedy club environment, that is what people keep doing. Whereas on The Debaters you get to talk about things people care about, that are relevant… The fact that you can be smart and funny is the kind of comedy that appeals to me.”
The Debaters is distinctly different from any other comedy show on television today in Canada. When talking about the reason for the lack of original programming found at home — as opposed to our neighbours down south or across the pond — Patterson focuses in on the lack of risk-taking in the Canadian broadcasting world.
“Anything that inevitably becomes successful goes through trial and error, and I think we don’t have that attitude in Canadian entertainment… I can’t even describe the number of things that die in development in Canada without ever seeing the light of day because someone just gave up on it… That fear of not taking a chance on something new means nothing new will ever happen… They definitely have more resources in the States; everything is multiplied by ten. That certainly helps, but creativity doesn’t necessarily come down to dollars and cents. I used to work in advertising, and the easiest thing in the world would be to cast a celebrity in an ad. The hardest would be to make an ad without a celebrity that would just be a great ad, for a tenth of the cost … We’re all part of the problem, I guess, but the decision makers in Canada have to make some bolder decisions. Hopefully it’s starting to turn around, but it’s all up for debate!”