Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Getting into the head (and out of the mind) of Joey Elias

Montreal comic Joey Elias is catching up on his reading between his stand-up gigs these days. This time, he decided to pick up "Joseph Anton", the memoir by controversial novelist Salman Rushdie.

Why the choice of this memoir by the British novelist, who gained notoriety for the death sentence ("fatwah") that was placed on his head by the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989 for his novel "The Satanic Verses"?

Well a few short weeks ago, a Montreal Metro ticket taker had the audacity to tape a homemade sign on the glass in front of the booth in the subway station where he was working. It said -- in French -- that "In Quebec, we do everything in French". Not content to just be complacent about another shot fired in the ongoing Quebec language war, Joey decided to do his bit of civil disobedience in response to the ticket taker's stance on language. So he decided to take a photo of himself, posing in all-Canadian maple leaf shirt, pants and headgear. He then posted it on his Facebook page and announced that he would take his case to that Metro ticket taker in person ... maple leafs and all.

Needless to say, his human Canadian flag photo created a media maelstrom. It garnered a great deal of positive responses; however, the storm was fast and swift. Lawyers from Astral Media (the parent company of CJAD, where Elias hosts his nightly "Comedy Show" broadcasts) told him to pull down the photo and all the posts from Facebook and was told to state that his opinions were of his own and did not reflect those of both the station and the parent company. Then he got angry letters from three French language organizations (including the ultra nationalist organization the St. Jean Baptiste Society, which issued a press release on the matter).

"It was flattering to think that I'm that powerful and that my picture can incite that kind of reaction," Elias told me in a recent interview on the terrace of a local Starbucks. However, he also received several death threats along with all those supportive and angry responses.

Hence, the decision to read Rushdie's recently published memoir.

"I'm reading it to get some helpful survival hints in case they decide to declare a 'fatwah' on me," he quipped.

Elias' maple leaf incident is one of the stories that he will recount to an audience at Club Soda this Sunday night (October 21) in a performance of his one-man show "In My Head ... and Out of My Mind".

One of Canada's top comedians to emerge from Montreal, Elias has been plying his trade for 20 years, and performs 200 stand-up shows a year in clubs across NorthAmerica, not to mention his share of commercials, TV shows and films (he played a security guard in the disaster epic "The Day After Tomorrow" that starred Dennis Quaid). He started writing the script for his one-man show (which took him five months to complete) as a way to respond to all the questions that his fans, friends and family kept asking him about how he started out in comedy, and what it's like to be a professional comedian.

"I was never a big believer of the idea that everybody's here for a purpose, but when I started telling those stories to friends and family of what happens on the road and in my life, I realized that maybe that was my destiny," he said. "So I started to write the show as a away to answer all the questions that I ever had."

The inspiration for "In My Head ... and Out of My Mind" came from comedian Billy Crystal, in particular, his Tony Award-winning autobiographical solo show "700 Sundays", in which Elias read the companion book with a great deal of enthusiasm. "The book to Crystal's play was so amazing," he said. "You're reading one page and you're dying of laughter, and then you're crying uncontrollably. You're not going to cry uncontrollably at my show, but there are more serious moments to it."

The show will have Elias recount his life story “starting at my circumcision to the present day”.  He will present it in his usual jovial onstage persona, from his bar mitzvah, to his beginnings in stand-up comedy, to his road stories (including his tours of Afghanistan entertaining Canadian troops there). But there will also be serious moments that will be addressed, such as his diabetes diagnosis and how he copes with anxiety issues.
“For the first time, I open up about how I deal with anxiety. And the more I spoke up about it, the more I was able to cope with my anxiety,” he said. “Since I started doing the solo show last spring, I have been getting e-mails from people who suffer from anxiety saying that they never really looked at it in the humorous way I presented it. Now I accept it and doing stand-up is a way that I cope with it.”
“There is stuff that I’m doing in the one-man show that I’ve never done  -- or would never get away with -- on a stand-up stage. And that’s the beauty of the one-man show; it gives you a little more leeway and you can tell more in-depth stories. You have more time to talk about topics you can never talk about in a comedy club. And as long as I do it in a humorous way, people will get the gist of it,” he added.
“In My Head ... and Out of My Mind” made its debut last spring at the Village Theatre in Hudson, and then he did an abbreviated, one-time performance at Zoofest this past July. The version that is going to be presented this Sunday at Club Soda will contain up to 30 minutes of new material (including the story at the beginning of this column).
Elias realizes that doing a solo theatrical stage show is quite different from a headlining stand-up set at a comedy club. And he has to thank his show’s director, Sarit Klein, for helping him to make the transition from stand-up comedian to onstage performer.
“Sarit is a wonderful woman with a theatrical background who was gung-ho about my show from day one. She’s got vision, she brings the show to life, she understands comedians and she understands theatre. And more importantly, she’s patient with me,” he said.
She also gave him a sense of onstage discipline, especially when it comes to how he moves around while on the stage. “While rehearsing the show, Sarit told me not to sway when I’m talking,” he said. “I didn’t realize that stand-up comics shuffle and bob and weave a lot on comedy club stages, because the stage there is usually quite small.”
Elias admits that the show will always be a work in progress and stories will be interchangeable (with the exception of its first 10 minutes, which will remain unchanged) and will always be subject to the occasional tweaking. One way he keeps track of the stories that make up its framework is a giant bulletin board that hangs in his home, which is filled with cue cards and notes of those stories.
“When Sarit and me agreed on what stories worked, we would say ‘put it on the board.’ And when it made it to the board, it ended up in the show,” he said. “For example, when I first performed the show, I didn’t talk about school. Now I talk about my high school years, when my dad was my principal, which was a weird dynamic when I was growing up.”
Elias would like to perform “In My Head ... and Out of My Mind” five or six times a year on a regular basis on top of the 200 stand-up gigs he does annually. He is taking it to the Moncton Comedy Festival this upcoming February for four performances and is shopping it around to different comedy festivals, and hopes to take it to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. “I hope to do this show for a very long time, and I’m really happy with the way it has turned out, because the stage is the last bastion of where you can say what you want.” 

Monday, October 8, 2012

Making the leap from music to ice cream to comedy: a conversation with Joe Avati

Last week, I had a brief phone interview with Australian-Italian comic Joe Avati, who was in Montreal to promote his recently-launched "Back To Basics" comedy tour of  Canada (which will play three dates in Montreal, on October 21 and 22, and November 11). What amazed me at the offset of our conversation was that Joe remembered me when we first met about 12 years ago, when myself, Al Gravelle and Eramelinda Boquer interviewed him on the CJAD show "Freeze Frame", just before his first appearance in Montreal at the Saputo Theatre of the Leonardo Da Vinci Centre in St. Leonard, a Montreal suburb with a predominantly Italian population.

I then recounted to Avati when I attended his first Montreal show back in 2000, when he played to a packed house on a Sunday afternoon. I marveled to him how the audience was mostly made up of family members of all ages and generations, and because of how he built an international following through the pre-iTunes download service Napster, his fans in attendance that afternoon were able to recite the punchlines to his "Nonna's Car Accident" routine word for word (and this was before American comic Dane Cook built his large following through the internet, in which many more followed his example of going online to expose their comedy to worldwide audiences). As well, after the show, the wide assortment of Joe Avati merchandise (t-shirts, baseball caps and CDs) were literally flying off the shelves from the makeshift souvenir kiosk that was set up in the Leonardo Da Vinci Centre's foyer. I couldn't believe I saw such an enthusiastic fan response to a comedian whom I only first heard about a mere two weeks before!

"I bet you weren't able to understand all of my jokes then," Avati retorted with a laugh. He was right ... to a point. Although he did his set-ups in English (and was very good at it), he delivered every punchline in Italian. The audience responded with loud, uproarious laughter. I was ready to pull my hair out in frustration, because I didn't speak or understand Italian, so I never got the chance to fully experience Avati's brand of observational humour that dealt with growing up Italian "down under", which has earned him the moniker the "Italian Jerry Seinfeld".

Avati's career as an international comedian has been extraordinary. Wherever he tours around the world, he always plays to sold-out crowds, whether it be in his native Australia, the United Kingdom, the United States or Canada (where he holds the record for the fastest-selling comedy show ever; an appearance at the Toronto Centre for the Arts sold all of its 3200 tickets in just nine minutes). He also has an impressive line of tour merchandise and has produced five international bestselling CDs and five DVDs.

But Avati's career in entertainment didn't start out on the comedy stage. He began as a self-taught musician, and became quite proficient with several instruments, including piano and guitar. "I originally wanted to be a rock star, but I didn't have the voice for it," he said. "So my dad told me that I should get a degree. I enjoyed food and science, so I decided to pursue a degree in food science." When he got his degree in food science, one of Avati's first jobs was to work for a major food company in Australia, where he helped to introduce the Magnum line of premium ice cream (it's the brand of high end ice cream bars, in which its North American commercials show actress Rachel Bilson climb over cars in a traffic jam to get herself one of those coveted frozen treats from a Magnum truck).

However, being a sharp observer since he was a child, Avati decided to pursue comedy just as strongly as he pursued his other career paths. "What made me go into comedy on a hardcore basis was the fact that doing stand-up allowed me to be more of myself onstage," he said.

While few comics do bilingual shows (Sugar Sammy has broken ticket sales records with his "franglais" shows in Montreal throughout this past winter, spring and summer; and Greek-American comedian Basile still tours the U.S. with his shows in Greek and English), Avati enjoys doing his shows with the set-ups in English and the punchlines in Italian. "I love doing the double entendres and play on words in both languages," he said. "It's a fun technique that really evokes a lot of laughter, and I get a big kick out of being funny in two languages."

He also enjoys the fact that whatever city he performs in, his shows manage to bring together their respective Italian communities of all ages. "My shows attract kids, teens, parents and grandparents. Usually, I would see three generations at my shows laughing along with me, and it makes me tick," he said. "When come to my show, you leave entertained and you talk about the good experience you had there."

For his first tour of Canada in almost five years (which will play in 14 cities in four provinces, including Windsor, Toronto, Hamilton, Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver), Avati promises his classic routines that have made him an international star, along with new material and even a musical segment. "I would rather be an entertainer than a comedian," he said. "The show that is going to part of the Back To Basics tour I've developed over the past three years. So far, since I started last month in Sudbury and Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, I have been getting a lot of positive responses from the audience, and I'm really happy with it."

For more information about Joe Avati's "Back To Basics" tour of Canada, check out his website at www.joeavati.com.