Elvira Kurt and the Funny Girls
We chatted over half pints of Blanche de Chambly on the patio at Joy Bistro in Leslieville where Kurt calls home these days. We talked about her writing for Elllen DeGeneres, attending Pride Day parades, eating Hungarian, childbirth, raising kids in a lesbian relationship and what she finds funny about Toronto.
How did you get the gig as host of Funny Girls and Dynamic Divas show?
I hosted it last year. Before that, did it as a guest, so I wondered how can I get more involved, more stage time. So I volunteered my hosting services. Apparently, my jackassery wasn't enough to deter them the first time.
What's it like hosting a comedy show?
It's one of the most fun ways to be on stage. It's an interesting job. You've got to harness the crowd's energy and bring it to a place where you kind of toss the ball to the next performer. I've got to make the sort of calibrations between performers and think on my feet. I set the tone and keep it rolling. If they think it's a good show and they've enjoyed themselves from start to finish, I think I've done my job well.
I heard you on Fridays on CBC's Q doing your "Pop Cultural Hall of Shame." How did that series come about?
The point is to find three nominees, or inductees, of things in the news that are cringe-worthy and give them a final lambasting. And then move on to the next easy target. It's fun to do a weekly roundup.
Your comedy special performance "Big Girl Now" won a gold award at Worldfest. What was that like?
I only heard about the award afterward. I wasn't there at the time. As a working comic, I never turn down a gig, so I wasn't around to get the accolade. It feels great to be acknowledged for something I love to do.
How different is it for you performing for the live stage versus other outlets such as Comedy Central?
I like performing live because it's limited to what's happening in the moment. It's me and the audience, and it'll only exist for that theatre at that time. To record it and watch it on TV at a later time, it loses something. Watching a televised comedy show, you don't know what the audience is thinking. You just watch and nod your head and say, "that's brilliant" but don't have the same reaction as the crowd.
Do you ever revisit old jokes?
I definitely work certain material for several years, until I've found the funniest way to say it, in a way where I'm having a lot of fun with it. The playground stuff, for instance, now feels like it's time to move on because there's too many other comics doing that sort of material.
You've written for Ellen DeGeneres and This Hour Has 22 Minutes. Can you describe your writing process when writing for others?
With This Hour, I watched the show and learned the format. That was easier, in that it was a rip-off or satire of news. For Ellen, I knew who she was 'cause SHE'S A LESBO! But it took a while, sitting in her living room and finding her style, writing about her journey. It was more going back and forth with her and getting into sync.
What's Ellen DeGeneres like?
When I first met Ellen we were both wearing a teenage boy, vintage hipster combo. Though her version was about $200 more expensive than mine. Her mother, Betty DeGeneres introduced us at a PFLAG thing. After I finished my set, she said "Oh, I think my daughter would really like your comedy." Up until that point, she wasn't doing any gay material, so why not hire someone who has an approach to gay material that you admire.
You spend quite a bit of time in the United States (in LA and San Francisco) since you've made a name for yourself. How much of your time do you spend in Toronto?
I've become an American citizen as well. I would never give up being a Canadian. So I hold dual citizenship. But I worried after 9-11 that security would only get tighter. I had a green card that was about to expire, so I moved back to Toronto. Now that I'm a citizen there, I never have to live there. I can work there and come and go as I please. But I live in Toronto full time. My partner's a professor at York University. Home is where the health care is.
Do you attend Toronto's Gay Pride Day or Dyke March parades?
The Dyke March is a fun thing to do. I'm a little overwhelmed with crowds overall, not just during parades. The beauty in living in Toronto is that you can dip in and dip out and nap in between.
What did you learn from participating in The Vagina Monologues?
I learned how cool it was to perform someone else's work. That was the first time I had to be on stage and say something someone else wrote and do it in a way that did some justice.
What are your favourite Toronto comics?
I love Debora DiGiovanni, Dawn Whitwell, Laurie Elliott and Nikki Payne. For guys, I like Mark Forward, Daryn Jones, Gavin Crawford, Levi McDougall, Mike Balazo and Tim Polley.
What do you think of Nikki Payne?
I saw her one-woman show, My Big Fat Donated Kidney. You're laughing because it's so wrong, but it's so funny.
You're fluent in Hungarian. What's your favourite place in Toronto to eat Hungarian food?
Probably my mother's house. But when we were a little kid, we'd go down to Bloor and Spadina and eat at The Continental. Both good times and horrible, painful times. My father and I had to be careful to rave about the food, but not too much, so as not to offend my mom's cooking. And the service was pretty surly. Surly is joy in Hungarian. As my partner Chloë says, Hungarians take their pleasure sadly."
You mention your mother a fair bit in your act. How did you celebrate Mother's Day recently?
Chloë's mother was in town, so we met in the middle between Scarborough and downtown at a teppanyaki house, Memories of Japan, which filled in the awkward moments. The laid back, BC hippy mom (Chloë's) and my teeny-tiny, uptight European mom. If there was any awkward moment, we'd go "Look at the chef, he's about to turn the onion into a volcano!"
You and Chloë very much consider yourself a family now?
Chloë and I have a baby together and another on the way. The biologic dad is a comic friend, an American stand-up comic named Bob Smith. We decided to go with someone we knew, so our child would have all the choices. When she gets to the age when she starts asking those questions, she has the choice about developing a relationship with the sperm donor. We can tell her, "Bob helped us make you."
I didn't carry the child for two reasons. One: EW! And two, see number one. It's such a tiny hole! Why would you want to make something the size of a watermelon come through it? I always wanted to be a mom. I'm just glad I didn't have to do all the heavy lifting. I call myself Poppy. I feel very comfortable feeling slightly brazen about it. My role is not going to be the same as Chloë's.
This show you're hosting is benefiting Sistering. What can you tell me about the organization or your involvement in it?
Beyond doing the show, I'm not involved. But I realize what a great thing they're doing. There's never enough services for women who are marginalized. It's the least I could do.
What's your view on Toronto's Improv Comedy scene?
I was with Second City many years ago. I'm not as involved with it as I have in the past. I have yet to check out The Comedy Bar, but I'd really like to.
What about Toronto do you find most funny?
I haven't done (the comedy routine about) it in years and years, but there's always something about going on public transit: The streetcar drivers and their horns. And their little ding, ding, ding. What, they couldn't get the sound of a kitten purring? If I was a car, I'd think, "Was that an ice cream truck? Does it want me to move?"
I also love how committed cyclists are in Toronto. There's always someone still driving in the middle of winter with thick tires, wearing a garbage bag. There's that spirit of "Damn you, snow storm, I'm riding my bicycle!"
Funny Girls plays at Glen Gould Studio (250 Front Street West) this Thursday, May 28. Reception at 6 p.m. Show at 7:30 p.m. Tickets (416-926-9762, ext. 243) are $75 with proceeds going to Sistering.
Photo by Roger Cullman.