Getting Weird in Toronto with Tim Gilbert

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Tim Gilbert has been a fixture on Toronto’s alternative comedy scene for almost a decade, and is one of the most consistently funny comedians in the city. He’s a member of Laugh Sabbath, a group that boasts alumni like Nathan Fielder. Tim released his first album, Please Help Me I Am Very Sick, as a pay-what-you-want download on Bandcamp. I spoke to him about the album, his wide range of work, and how his blend of horror and comedy has led him to wear a Crypt Keeper costume on stage.

Did you start performing stand-up when you began attending theHumber College Comedy Writing and Performance program, or was it something you’d already been trying?

No, I was in theater school out of high school, and then once I graduated from there I realized, “I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to be in plays, and audition all the time…” So I applied to Humber, and that’s how I started. But I’d never even been to a comedy show before I went to Humber.

So the first comedy show you saw was the introductory Yuk Yuks showcase of former graduates?

I think so, yeah.

Yuk Yuks is a mainstream venue, but you’ve ended up as a big part of Toronto’sindie comedy scene.

I think when I started going to Altdot COMedy [a weekly alternative show at the Rivoli] and seeing the people that were in the original incarnation of Laugh Sabbath, that’s when I started turning into some ‘alternative weirdo’.

Had Laugh Sabbath been around for a while before you joined up?

I think it started pretty soon after I came to town and started doing comedy, but I wasn’t part of that original group.

It’s such an interesting group, not only in terms of every member doing innovative work, but also because comedy troupes usually center around sketch or improv, and Laugh Sabbath is mainly based around standup.

Laugh Sabbath was initially just the name of a Sunday night show full of comics who’ve since moved to LA, people likeKatie Crown,Levi MacDougall, Brian Barlow, and Nathan Fielder. And also people who are still here in Toronto, great comics like Kathleen Philips,Sara Hennessey,Chris Locke, Aaron Eves, and Nick Flanagan. They were all doing these standup shows together and started calling them Laugh Sabbath.

They all got the whole thing going and then brought in new stand-ups like me, Adam Christie, and Bob Kerr. So the group was built around standup, although there are also sketch elements to a lot of our shows.

On Chris Locke’s podcast Utopia To Me? you described your first Laugh Sabbath show, which opened with the devil stealing a baby doll from you, ripping open its stomach, and scattering gold chocolate coins into the audience. Would you always try to start a show with that kind of high-concept bit?

I wouldn’t say it happened often, but the show had an atmosphere where if you thought of something, you could do it. You could try that shit at mainstream clubs, but Laugh Sabbath was the sort of place where it could actually work.

Did pieces like that get a good crowd response?

I don’t think that one got any response at all. I’d been running around town trying to find a baby doll to cut into, getting the song ready, trying to explain to the tech guy what was going to happen… After all that effort, nobody had any idea what was happening.

Were there other standups and friends of yours at the time who understood what you were doing, and encouraged you to continue? Or did you just keep going out of a need to be doing weird stuff?

I don’t think I had a ton of people coming up to me afterwards telling me they liked it, but it was my first time doing my own show, after co-hosting a Laugh Sabbath night called Talent Show with James Hartnett, and I just wanted to kick it off in a big, crazy way. Now other shows and venues around town are also doing more of those crazy bits – theChuckle Co people, and Don’t Get Bored Of Us And Leave with David Dineen-Porter and Tom Henry. There’s still the potential to do something big and weird in the city.

And you personally are still putting new and odd concepts out there. You recently ran a show called LAYIN DOWN With Tim, in which you would lay on a couch onstage for the entire show while other comedians performed.

I’d been hosting my show for a while at that point, and it had become just a regular standup show. My girlfriend Rebecca Raftus and I were talking about my feeling like I was being lazy with my show, and we started thinking about the idea of totally committing to being lazy. So I put a couch on the stage and I laid down on it, and people would come and do standup right next to me. It was a really fun show.

Since then, you’ve started doing a show called Human Life Is Worthless, with Marty Topps, in which you play a character called Swipey the Troll.

I wear a Crypt Keeper costume that Rebecca gave me for my birthday a few years ago. I call him Swipey the Troll because he swipes at everyone, trying to cut them. Marty is the straight guy who does all the work hosting the show, and we have this backstory that he stole Swipey’s ruby, so he can control Swipey.

Marty introduces the acts, and sets the show up as a sort-of standup competition, but Swipey always gives everybody zero points.

We’ve gotten a really good reaction, probably better than LAYIN DOWN With Tim did. And I kind-of wish I could wear that Halloween mask every time I do standup.

You’ve mentioned your girlfriend Rebecca a few times. She’s a big part of the organizational side of Laugh Sabbath, working with fellow producer Ashley Gray, as well as being the camerawoman for a lot of your videos. How do you feel that her support and input has influenced your comedy?

Rebecca is the funniest and smartest person I’ve ever met, and she loves comedy. She knows much more about it than I do, and she helps me with everything. She sets up websites when I need them, and generally helps me with technology. She does little things like that, and also bigger stuff like being a producer at Laugh Sabbath.

A lot of my ideas for standup bits come out our conversations. We’ll be joking with each other, and I’ll say, “Can that work on stage?”  A lot of stuff I do, I run by her and ask what she thinks. If she says it’s nothing, then it’s probably nothing. But if she thinks it’s good, I’m like, “Holy shit, this is something.”

Standup comedy can be lonely, so it must be good to have that support structure in place.

The loneliness is still there, because it’s always finishes with me on stage by myself, but it’s great to have a partner who you can talk about comedy with, and who knows comedy so well.

You ended your album recording with a very heartfelt speech thanking the audience. It was definitely a break from your usual stage persona. Did you feel self-conscious at all?

Leading up to the shows, I worried, “Oh my god, nobody is going to come to this.” But both shows far exceeded my expectations, and to have people go nuts for me, and the people I got to open for me – some of the funniest people I know – it felt like such a bonding experience.

Afterward I could’ve stood up there for an hour thanking everybody. If I could write to everybody who came and say thanks, I would.

When you released the album, so many people were spreading the word and talking about how funny you were. Did that being back those incredibly strong feelings?

It was great, and I feel very lucky to have somebody like Nathan Fielder, who I started doing comedy with and who I was a student at Humber with and who was my roommate for years afterwards, and who has since become so huge… I really appreciated what he said. Anybody who takes the time to say something nice about it, I truly, genuinely appreciate that.

It felt crazy to even think about releasing the album. Once it’s out there, you open yourself up to people being like, “This is horseshit!” And my response could only be, “I’m sorry! But I’ve been working on it for almost ten years, and this is as good as it is!” But everyone has been so nice about the album.

Was that kind of worry a big part of why you decided to make the album pay-what-you-want?

I definitely thought giving it away for free would lower the odds of somebody reacting like, “The gall of this man!” But also I thought more people would hear it if anybody could get it for free.

Do you feel the urge to get that post-recording feeling back again and put another album together soon?

That would be nice. But I really struggle with writing new material. I’ve stopped doing the material that ended up on the album, and I feel like since then I’ve written one or two good jokes I can use consistently. Everything else is stuff I’m trying, and not sure about. Will there be another album? Hopefully. But the biggest thing for me is focusing on writing new material that meets my expectations, and it takes me a long time to do that.

That’s the toughest part, knowing that you have to build everything back up again.

Is there something freeing about that clean slate, maybe an opportunity to go back to more of the experimental work you like to do?

I don’t think that’s something I’m going to consciously work on. I think that kind of material happens by accident, at least for me. There have been times when it’s obviously a choice to do something weird, like cutting a baby open, or dressing up like a troll.

It feels like you’ve made those choices to do something weird with your online work. In Tattoos By Tim, the Tim character is drawing these terrible pictures in the hope of selling them to pay for his medicine. Tim Sings is another side of this Tim, where he’s openly shilling for himself in the comment sections.

I think that persona is probably just a defense mechanism, a shield I put up so I don’t have to say actual jokes. Like maybe pretending to be an idiot will prevent people from finding out I really am one.

Tattoos By Tim was the first time I did that. Those pictures are really as bad as I actually draw. In the beginning I was trying to do a good job, and that was part of the fun of it. “Oh my god, I can’t believe that’s the best cross I can draw.”

It’s the same with Tim Sings. I’m singing the absolute best I can, and it’s not good at all. But by making myself this stupid character who comments on his own videos saying things like, “Wow, you’re so good,” it gives me the freedom to put my terrible singing voice out there.

You’ve put out so many videos on your main channel. Do you feel a freedom with projects like that in a way that differs from the pressure you felt with the album?

I guess that with the videos, and the blog, I’ve distanced myself from it enough that there’s a safety zone. I’m not saying, “Look at this thing that is my passion, my life’s work!” Whereas with the album, that’s something I’ve really tried hard at, and worked on for a very long time.

It feels like with your videos, there’s very little time between idea and execution. With 50 Characters, which is one of my favorites, I get the feeling that you thought of this funny idea and then immediately filmed it. There’s a roughness there, but it perfectly expresses the idea, and is hilarious.

That’s exactly what happens when I make videos like that. I get so excited, thinking, “I have the best idea!” And then if I’m lucky, they get a good reaction, and people I respect say, “Okay, this is good. You aren’t an idiot.”

Given that more than a few Laugh Sabbath members have made the transition to working in the US, is that something you think about doing?

I just want to be happy and have fun, and if that means I stay in Canada, that’s great. But there’s always the worry that there’s a limit to how far you can go in Canada. The ceiling is lower.

You’ve managed to take advantage of a lot of the opportunities in Canada, though. You wrote and performed for MTV’s Showtown, which was one of the few homegrown comedy shows in recent years.

They let me do a lot of interviews there, and I loved that process. I got to talk to people in interesting situations, like the Ikea Monkey Lady, which was so fun. I had a great time, and I’m sad the show isn’t on anymore.

Are you looking for more opportunities like that?

I feel like I want to try everything, still. I love doing standup, I enjoy being on TV and writing for TV, and being in sketches, and doing interviews…

So is writing something you want to explore more? Are you working on things like spec scripts and submission packets?

I should probably do that. But I’m so focused on my standup right now, and I’m surviving, you know? I’m doing the impossible: I’m alive without a spec script!

Photo by Ian Brown.

Avery Edison is a comedian and humor writer. She is just smart enough to link to her Twitter.