Toronto through the eyes of comedian Debra DiGiovanni
Growing up in Tillsonburg, Ontario, Debra DiGiovanni long had her sights set on moving to Toronto. It wasn't until she got here, however, that she discovered she should be in comedy.
After moving to the city in 1990, she decided the art courses she was taking at Ryerson weren't for her. One of her first forays into standup subsequently came when working as a tour guide at Citytv, entertaining groups of seventh graders from the suburbs. Deciding to give comedy a shot, she gained experience at the Second City, and enrolled in Humber College's comedy writing and performance program in 1999.
Now in high demand, the award-winning standup comedian has gained exposure as a regular panellist on MuchMusic's Video On Trial and the fifth season of NBC's Last Comic Standing. Happy to call Toronto home, she attributes the city with providing some stellar career opportunities, not to mention material for her act.
What do you like about living in Toronto?
I love the busyness. I love that things are open late. I like the anonymity of Toronto. Growing up in a small town, everyone knew what you were doing all the time and there's something kind of lovely about being lost in a city where you can go and not see anybody. My gosh, like boyfriends. I haven't seen an ex-boyfriend. They're probably avoiding me to be honest. But I haven't seen an ex-boyfriend walking down the street in like eight years. It's kind of nice actually. I still find it very friendly, but there's still that big city vibe that I kind of like.
And I like that it's forgiving. You can try things, you can do different things even just in terms of your career, y'know. I don't think I would have had the opportunities anywhere else in the country as I do in Toronto for comedy and my career, I really don't.
From your experience, how difficult is it to break into Toronto's comedy scene?
I think we have a couple sort of Meccas of comedy in Canada and Toronto is definitely number one. I mean, Vancouver definitely has a good scene but it's kind of like if you really want to be serious about comedy you do have to come to Toronto.
That being said, I don't think it's terribly difficult to break into the scene. I think you just have to want it. You have to be dedicated and really just put the time in. And really, it sounds so cheesy, but it's a really nice community. We're pretty friendly. Everybody's pretty open to new people, there's no hazing rituals or anything like that.
What are your favourite venues in the city to perform at?
My absolutely favourite, and probably the first stage I ever really performed on in Toronto is Spirits, Wednesday night at Church and Hayden. Jo-Anna Downey hosts it and she has for like the last 12 years and it is just the best room. It's fabulous. The audience loves it, they're waiting for it. There are regulars. You always have a crowd. That's the place people drop by. When Robin Williams was in town he went to Spirits. It's just such a great room, it's absolutely my favourite.
And my second favourite, very close behind, is the Rivoli on Monday nights. It's still one of the best places to see comedy and to perform. It's such a discriminating crowd, let's say that. They can be tough. They can be really tough. It depends on any given week. You can kill one week and the next week they'll look at you like "Who are you?" So it keeps you humble.
Who are your favourite comedians to check out locally?
A lot of my all times favourites don't actually make their home in Toronto anymore but they started in Toronto and made their way up the ranks. Fraser Young is just about my favourite comedian. He almost terrifies me, he's so talented it's scary. Also, I'd say some of the younger comics we have coming up right now. Nathan Macintosh is just fantastic. And another one of my favourites is Bobby Mair. He's just fabulous.
How do audiences differ from city to city?
Not to say that big urban centres aren't good audiences because they are, but there's something about smaller towns, or even remote areas, they're just so happy you're there. It's an event! So that always makes it really terrific. You go to Newfoundland and it's just some of the best shows you'll ever have. And they're such funny people. Like I was in Newfoundland in the summer and one of my all time favourite shows was a Friday night show and the club [owner] had said to me, "The audience might talk back to you, but it's not heckling." And it's really not. It was the most fun. I don't think I even did material until like a minute 30 because the audience was just so much fun. It's just different.
Toronto is savvy. They know funny, they have more at their fingertips. So I think Toronto is what makes you a great comic. This is the trenches, if you will.
You've won a number of comedy awards. What about your act do you think resonates with audiences?
I definitely am like that girl next door, but the one your parents wouldn't let you talk to because she's kind of crazy. I think there's just something about me that connects. And I'd say mainly with women. Like, I definitely get my boys, and I definitely have my gay community. But I get this after shows a lot: "You remind me of my favourite babysitter" or "You remind me of my favourite teacher in grade seven." So there's something about me that I just hit it with girls. I've got some ladies' topics, but you'll never see me doing jokes about my period. I think there's a different vulnerability as well, I'm really far from perfect but I'm still doing what I love, and I think women really respond to that. It doesn't matter that I'm not a fashion model I still get on stage and say what I want and people still listen to me and I think people kind of like that.
Do you get recognized in public from your TV appearances?
I do actually. It's still very surreal to talk about it. My friends tease me and say walking down the street with me is the longest. They're like "Oh god, we've got to get there fast or we can't take Debra." It's mainly teenagers because of Video On Trial. But the first person who ever recognized me was an 11-year-old girl on a bus. I was like "You're 11, and you think I'm funny? Okay." So I have a real throng of teenagers. But then again their moms also watch too. I get a lot of 14-year-old girls who are like, "Me and my mom love the show," and I think that's great. I bring people together is what I'm telling you. I make the world a better place.
With the TV experience you've gained, what are your current career goals?
Standup is the absolute original love. But I know I definitely want to work on television. I'd love to do sitcoms. I think my goal is to be Ellen DeGeneres except, y'know, not a lesbian. I like the talk show. I enjoy talking, I like people. I think that will be the end goal. After I win the Emmy for my sitcom of course, and then I'll move onto that.
Definitely now I work more in the States and people are always like, "Are you going to leave? Are you going to move away?" Maybe. But I can promise Toronto will always be the home base, I'll have at least an address in Toronto and wherever else I have to be.
How supportive are Torontonians of the local comedy scene?
I know people know, but I don't think they really know what kind of arts scene we have here. Again, this is where comedy is born. The people that you're going to see on TV and movies, they start here. I know people definitely support music. I wish they supported theatre and comedy and dance as much as they support music.
I don't think people realize what a fun evening comedy is. It's so much fun. You go to Absolute at Yonge and Eglinton or you go to Yuk Yuk's on Richmond. It's a fun evening. It really is. It's cheaper than a movie. There are no movies where you sit and laugh for two hours. It's a good way to start an evening, that's what I'm always telling people. You want to have a good date? Hello, go to a comedy club. You go on a date, you make the girl laugh, she's going to make out with you eventually. I don't know if people know that but that's the way it goes.
Where in the city do you find inspiration for your act?
Usually when I'm on the subway. There's a lot of fodder for comedy on the subway, let me tell you. One of my dear friends is always like "You can't think of jokes? Go do something." You just have to step out and do something in the city. It could be anything. Even just hipsters on Queen Street, anything like that . . . I mean you can go down to Pride and write a new hour of material. Caribana is always exciting [and] Toronto's celebrity type happenings. We have a lot to talk about in town, we really do. Honest to god, you go sit on a bench for an hour and 15 jokes will walk by.
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