Her charmingly playful persona is coupled with brutal honesty and quick delivery. More than that, her stats are impressive: she’s performed at Montreal’s Just for Laughs festival nine times, been awarded the Best Female Comic at the Canadian Comedy Award three times, and made it to the top eight on Last Comic Standing. (To understand her personality quickly, watch the preview for her special, Single Awkward Female.)
With a recent move to Los Angeles, she’s now sharing her comedy with American audiences. She returns to Canada to headline the Just for Laughs Road Show Tour in twelve Canadian cities.
I spoke with Debra in Toronto about the enduring career impact of reruns, Canadian-isms, and why people question whether women are funny.
How did you develop your comedic voice?
I think it was developed for me by the trauma of my youth. I was a little girl with a fraternal twin sister and we’re very, very different; she was a cute, golden haired girl and I was the loud one. I learned very young to become funny for survival. I always made my girlfriends laugh and become all the bullies’ pals to avoid trauma. When I left my Mom and Dad’s house and moved to Toronto, it just kicked in. By the time I was about 21 it was just obvious to everyone that something was going to happen to me on stage. I just sprung into action and being a fraternal twin in a small town is half the battle – it writes itself.
Do you think it helped by starting comedy when you were a bit older?
I think in terms of material and being able to connect with a larger range of people, older works better in comedy. People say it’s an old person’s sport and it really is – we don’t really have substantial opinions until we’ve lived a bit. Now with fifteen years of comedy I go, “Oh I wish I started at 22!” just because I would have more energy. Comedy doesn’t have an age but the entertainment industry does. I would never ever be ashamed of my age but now I have my agents mentioning it. I think it’s a shame the world cares how old a woman is. It’s hard to lie about your age when you have a twin sister [laughs] I’d have to pay her off or something.
Did you make a conscious choice to be personal in your comedy or did it evolve?
That just erupted. I think in the first two years of doing comedy it wasn’t as close to my heart; it was still funny but it was less personal. Then I had a Just for Laughs showcase in year three and I bombed terribly. It was one of those situations where it hurt and stunk – it was really, really bad. At a club the next day an older comic who saw the showcase came up to me and said, “Give me your notes, just go up and talk” It is literally one of those stories; I used to write out my set like a monologue and memorise it and then it all changed. Maybe I ranted; maybe it was sadness and rage but in year three my persona solidified when I let myself be honest and truthful. I also think it’s one of the things – if you’re going to hate me with being honest, oh fuck you will really hate me! But if you like me, you’re like, “Yay!” You’re either my best friend or you wanna punch me!
Has comedy helped your self-confidence to be able to speak to a room full of people about personal things and have them laugh and accept you?
That’s a good one, yes it definitely has in terms of self-esteem. Comedy can raise and lower your self-esteem quickly because it’s competitive, especially when it’s personal. If an audience goes, “No!” it’s saying no to a part of your soul. I also am a very big proponent of therapy. I say, “Go to therapy – yeah yeah yeah!” I’ve been going to therapy for twenty years. It’s weird, you always have moments where you think you’re crazy and every therapist will tell me, “The fact you’re on stage means you’re okay.” But part of my self-confidence is sometimes the thing that makes me the most insecure. I love percentages; I would say I am at least 65% confident and 35% not.
That’s pretty good for most people!
Not bad! I might be fucking the numbers sometimes, but not bad!
Instead of a therapist saying you’re not crazy and you get that approval as laughter and clapping from an audience.
What do they say? If you think you’re crazy that is a sure fire way you’re not crazy!
I was reading the Just for Laughs tour website and you were described as “Canada’s Sweetheart.” Did you know you had that title?
No, but wow I will take it! [laughs] I don’t that’s true but if Just for Laughs wants to call me that then hey, I will accept! Canada’s Sweetheart? My gosh, oh that is not bad. Too bad it doesn’t come with a boyfriend. Do I get a sash? Do I get it for a year then give it away? [laughs]
There should be a trophy involved and passed from Rachel McAdams to you. [laughs]
Oh yeah, me and her. When you think of Rachel… I mean, come on! God bless Just for Laughs. They like me, those stinkers, I don’t know why. They have been such champions of mine. Cheesy moment: I am very, very grateful.
You are the first female to headline a Just for Laughs tour.
Oh I know, I know! That is good huh? I should tell my mother. They believe in me and I think it’s because in 2012 we did a similar tour but across Canada and they responded well to me. After the shows you would chat and do pictures, “We have to get a picture with you Debra!” They noticed people wanted to talk to me so they knew it was a good fit. It was great but the only problem with the tour is that we went during the polar vortex: January, 2014.
Do you think your persona makes you more approachable or more down-to-earth?
After shows and most of the time I get things like, “You remind me of my favourite babysitter!” or “You remind me of my best friend from grade 7!” I have the tendency to get a lot of hugs and I think it’s pretty special. There is something about me that is very approachable – it’s usually women and gay men. I send the straight men running for the hills but the rest seem to like me.
I think it’s good that people aren’t intimidated when you speak about real life.
You know what they say, I used to get this a lot and it is sort of an indirect quote about what women look for in a female comedian – that they won’t steal their boyfriend. I’ve heard that expression quite a bit but you can trust your boyfriend with me. You just don’t leave him with Jennifer Aniston. You know what I mean? Oh! Or Angelina Jolie, that’s who I meant! [laughs]
You aren’t a stereotypical female who speaks personally about real life and males look at like, “Oh her… how embarrassing.”
Yeah, I don’t think I have ever done material on my periods. [laughs] I also don’t really talk about my boyfriend. I tell the truth and I don’t have a boyfriend, so I don’t talk about him! Even though those are situations and I am never ever mad at women for talking about. Talk about what you want but I think that’s what some men believe female comedians only talk about. We know that’s not true, but some men think it’s going to be all about periods and boyfriends. I don’t do that so I am like you said, “In their safe books.”
Do you think you are more relatable because you’re Canadian? For example, I went abroad for my post-grad and lived in Scotland for a year. People knew I was Canadian (mostly because they thought I was American first and I would correct them) and would tell me I was down-to-earth. I was always unsure what that really meant.
I know there is always someone in publishing saying Canadians aren’t friendly but I really think it is a trusting quality. I think some people would use naive but I use trusting. Moving to LA I still say hello to people – I talk to people on elevators. Without any offense meant I think there is something about the entire country that has a small town vibe, even Vancouver and Toronto. You say hi to your neighbors. There are some cities in the states where you can live beside someone for twenty years and never say hello. Maybe it’s because we know that no one has a gun. You can say “Hello there friend!” and if they’re crazy all they’ll do is maybe scream in your face and run away. [laughs] People know I’m Canadian and tease that I have an accent and I do not hear it. “Your accent is so strong!” … hmm okay, I have never said aboot in my entire life.
Do you think its harder being a female in comedy now that you moved to Los Angeles where there is more pressure?
I think the status of comedy right now has way more of a female presence now and it is fabulous. I think it’s becoming less hard in a way. No one goes, “A female comedian? Ack!” That is long gone. But I still think it’s an uphill battle. I feel like in the last couple of years, and I don’t know if you have found this, I feel like there is an onslaught against women and it’s really upsetting. It seems to be receiving a lot of hatred lately… from Adam Carolla to Jerry Lewis again and Christopher Hitchens where people have been writing and quoting, “Women aren’t funny.” It is so old fashioned and strange that it’s happening now. This ridiculous adage is so stupid that it’s hard to say out loud. In 2015 people still believe that women aren’t funny. I don’t know if it will go away any time soon, I wish it would.
I don’t think it’s just in comedy.
It seems to be going around the world right now, which is even sadder. The last few years there has been a female/women-haters club going on and it really affects my soul.
Do you find that television has broadened your audience, especially now that American channels are picking up Canadian shows like Video on Trial?
That is publicity you cannot buy. When I quit University and had to get a job, I went to CityTV and worked there for years and from there I left to do standup. So when the show came around on their sister channel MuchMusic someone thought, “Debra does comedy now!” That’s one of those lucky little turns in life that I am super grateful for. That show really changed everything for me. There was a few years where I would walk down the street with friends who would urge me to take the subway because kids would come up to us non-stop. I think 2009-2011 were really strong years and it was so fortunate, but they never really paid us and a lot of comics left because of it. I was able to start selling out clubs and even now people come up to me telling me they watched me on Video on Trial when they were 12 and are now 22. You want fans to grow up with you. Chris Rock has a quote that everything he does is to put asses in the seats of his shows. Especially now it is getting more difficult because there are so many comedians, I am very lucky in Canada but in the States – zero! My friend Caroline Rhea did the show Match Game in the first season with me and she did Hollywood Squares and oh my God she filled out clubs six months in advance. TV is very powerful. I am fortunate that Match Game and repeats of Video on Trial remind people I am still alive as I slowly inch my way up in America.