Culture & Conversation

Them’s fighting words

Charles Demers is not your ordinary warrior. His one-man militia encompasses multiple battlegrounds through his writings, stand-up comedy, activism, and regular performances on CBC’s The Debaters. Hailing from Vancouver, Demers’ recent insurgency at Just For Laughs was astutely funny, wielding wit as a key weapon for constructive social criticism. Demers was kind of enough to answer a few of my questions.

In the Just for Laughs program guide, Stephen Harper pens a welcomes address. If the opportunity arose where Harper extended this reception directly to you and the conversation took a turn towards more political, what would you say to him?
You know, like many people, I saw that video of Harper goofing around at the podium during the sound check ahead of his victory speech and doing very, very good impressions of Canadian prime ministers past. There is no question that he has comic chops. So I would say to him: forget being on the welcome page of the program guide — join us on the festival roster. It’d be a win-win situation: the comedy world would gain a talented impressionist, and Canada could rid itself of the most mean-spirited, autocratic, myopic, insensitive, corrupt, earth-destroying, greed-headed, insincere-apology-making, parliament-proroguing, election-stealing prime minister we’ve ever had.

In a previous interview you said that your various hats as a comedian, author and activist “seem to be coming from the same wellspring.” You make a very good point concerning how “unfortunate that our generation of the left has taught to be sort of dour, self-policing and uptight.” What advice do you have for us to be less so?
I don’t know, this is a tough one. Because to be honest, and unlike many of my colleagues in the comedy world, I have a soft spot for the humorless, PC puritans in the audience. I think that oftentimes it’s coming from a good place —  though just as often it’s coming from a self-regarding, self-righteous one. I guess the pat answer is that we can, as a society, actually try to make some progress on a lot of the inequalities and injustices that people are getting upset about. But yes, I also think we need a cultural shift, where we allow ourselves to come together to take the sticks out of our asses. Commentators like Adolph Reed, in the States, have pointed out how left or progressive politics has shifted from an emphasis on actual redistribution and material justice to a politics of “recognition.” In that context, heckling or tsk-tsking when someone makes an edgy joke feels like an actual, political act. In some ways it feels like the only act. A shift back to, for lack of a better word, a more political politics — focused on social justice and redistribution — might make people feel a bit more at ease listening to jokes.

That said, I’m not saying that the audience needs to shut up and listen to male comics screech about how hilarious rape is, or whatever. I think it’s legitimate for people to bristle at that sort of thing. But on other occasions, sure, audiences can be a bit PC, and quick to theatrically enact offense, especially in my hometown, Vancouver. Ultimately, it comes down to trust, and the social contract between the performer and the crowd.

You recently wrote a powerful and personal tribute to the late actor James Gandolfini. You said that Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano, “turned sadness, anger and sullenness into poetry” and that it helped facilitate your battle with depression. Would you say that your struggles have contributed towards your many successes?
It’s tough to say — I don’t know where I’d be at if I’d lived an easier life. Maybe I’d be ten times funnier and more ambitious, but I doubt it. I tell this story often: just after I was born, as the doctor was stitching my mother’s perineum, she turned to him and said “Might as well stitch it all the way up, nobody’s getting back in there.” I consider that moment to be absolutely elemental to the worldview I inherited from her and from her side of the family: that there is a very, very short circuit between pain and humour. That life is full of trauma and catastrophe, but that it is also hilarious.

I had a really tough go of things in the first 25 years of my life, and I don’t know if it made me funny but it certainly gave me reserves of anger and resentment that have, I’ll admit, sometimes converted to energy that has fueled my ambition over the years. Contrarily, though, I’ve had it pretty good for the past few years, particularly with regards to an incredibly happy marriage to my very wonderful wife, who is now pregnant with a daughter with whom I’m already over-the-moon in love, and I don’t feel as though that contentment has made me less funny or less focused.

Would you say your turn towards stand-up was a means of being more effective in addressing important issues?
Whenever I get too cocky about the ability of comedy to change the world, I just remember that there are still bald men out there wearing comb-overs. There are still people buying Nickelback albums. More grimly, there’s the famous Peter Cook quote, recently cited in a wonderfully depressing essay about political comedy in the London Review of Books, that he was opening a club along the lines of “those wonderful Berlin cabarets which did so much to stop the rise of Hitler and prevent the outbreak of the Second World War.”

I do a lot of political comedy, but I think I’d be going pretty easy on myself if I said, you know, ‘Let other people organize unions or anti-war marches, my contribution to changing the world will be to get paid to tell clever political jokes on the radio.’ I do jokes about politics because comedians do material about what they find funny, and I’m a very political person. But I wouldn’t be doing my part if I made that the extent of my activism (though it’s true that I’ve been slacking off in recent years, not least because I’ve been trying to build my career; I’m not without guilt on that score).  Can comedy change somebody’s mind? Entirely possible, even plausible.  It would mean the world to me to contribute to that. And as Barry Crimmins has pointed out about the charge of “preaching to the choir,” the choir deserves a night out for comedy too, every once in a while. I’m happy to be there for them. I don’t know, I guess I’m conflicted about this — although I do have a tattoo of Charlie Chaplin, so I guess in the end the comedian-as-political-force is something I want to believe in.

Some of our all time greatest comics such as George Carlin truly pushed the boundaries. Do you have your limitations; have you drawn a line as to how far you would like to take things?
I really think it matters much more where a joke is coming from, and whom or what it targets, rather than the subject matter itself. I have certain rules for myself — if, for instance, I have a joke about a certain group of people, and the presence of members of that group makes me disinclined to tell the joke? Then I should never tell that joke. If, however, seeing them in the audience makes me think ‘Oh, this is great — I hope they get a kick out of this joke…,’ then I feel good about it. I have a joke about how much, as a white comic, I enjoy performing with First Nations comedians, because if I like any of their jokes, I can steal them. The first time I told it was at an all-Native show in Winnipeg, with an audience that was, I’d say, about 80% First Nations. I tell it every time I’m doing a show with a predominantly indigenous crowd, and it has always brought the house down. Now, the subject matter is the darkest there is: the colonial project, the dispossession of indigenous peoples. But the joke is coming from the right place, it has the right target, it’s ultimately self-deprecating and crowds can put that together within seconds, and they get behind the joke.

What do you have to say about the Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef who is considered to have gone “too far”?
It’s hard, looking at Youssef’s situation, or that of the murdered Somali comedian Abdi Jeylani Marshale, without feeling like everything we’re doing in North America is just kids’ stuff. Obviously, different contexts and circumstances call on different levels of courage, and I can only hope that if ever I had to, I’d have that bravery, but I have no way of knowing if I would, and, in fact, many reasons to think I wouldn’t. Egypt, in particular, has such a rich history of political humour — I remember my Middle Eastern history professor, and yours, Dr. William Cleveland, had a big doorstopper Egyptian political joke book on the shelf in his office. Sometimes it can offer a soothing, or numbing, cynicism, but at other points in can be fully engaged, vital and vibrant, connected to what’s going on in the street. What’s going on in Egypt right now is of potentially world-historical significance — it’s ultimately reassuring to know that that process has also called up its jesters and satirists. I admire them.

Your two books, Vancouver Special and The Prescription Errors are perceptive, edifying and comical, all at once.  Can we look forward to any writing projects in the near future? 
Thank you very kindly. You may be getting a bit of a scoop here, in fact: yes, there’s a new book coming out, likely in fall 2014. There are still contracts to be printed out and signed, so I don’t want to get too deeply into details, but I am very pleased to be returning to work on a new book of essays that I can’t wait to share with everybody.

You were my TA in an introductory course to Modern Middle Eastern History in 2003. Moreover, we’ve been Facebook friends for several years now, so you know who I am at least a tad bit. Say if I were to heckle you during your stand-up routine, how would you cut me down? (Please don’t hesitate to be mean.)
That’s a very creative question! I know it’s a cop-out, but my comeback would most likely be heckle-specific. There’s not much about you that jumps out at me demanding ridicule, which is a good thing. In short, I’d probably just tell the bouncers to get rid of you, but to be gentle, as you were once a semi-promising young history student.



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