Feathertale editor Grace Flahive recently caught up with funnywoman and TV personality Debra DiGiovanni over the phone from Los Angeles, to chart her long and increasingly cougar-esque journey to comedy star.
A three-time award winner of the Canadian Comedy Awards’ “Best Female Comic”, and former star of MuchMusic’s Video on Trial and Match Game, Debra let us in on the secrets of funny people, the beauty of weirdoes, and the jokes about Mexicans that Canadians would never make.
The following is a record of words spoken into telephones.
JUST THE FACTS
Hometown: Tilsonburg, Ont.
First pet: A deaf schnauzer named Dolly
Favourite comedians: Marie Bamford, Jim Gaffigan, Fraser Young.
Three things you couldn’t do without: Chapstick! Good paper and pens. And my best friend Robyn.
If not a comedian, you would be: a high school art teacher
Most embarrassing late-night Google search: cute boys with cats
JUST THE ANSWERS
Feathertale: Hi Debra, I have to tell you, I have met you before. I waved to you in Davisville Station in Toronto a few years ago. I gave you some crazy eyes. You were very gracious about it, you smiled.
Debra DiGiovanni: So good to talk to you again, Grace.
FT: So you’re calling from L.A. Tell us about that move.
DD: Well, I moved to L.A. just about a year and a half ago, and you know, I’ve moved to L.A. but there’s a lot of back and forth. I still make my living in Canada. It’s just one of those things that I feel is inevitable, in comedy. Everyone is always, Oh you have to go to America for comedy. Yeah! And it’s unfortunate. I’m not just saying that – I wish I could be in Canada full time. But it’s just not possible. We lose a television network every twenty minutes. I mean, you’re forcing us out!
FT: What have you found is the biggest difference between L.A. and Toronto?
DD: It’s very different – because everyone’s showcasing. And you know, you have your comedians and then you have your actress-comedians, and actor-comedians. And that happens in Canada too, but there’s always an agenda here. It’s very rarely just doing comedy for the hell of it.
How long will I be here? I don’t know. But you have to try. I had to do it. Let’s come out here and we’ll see what happens. And I’m fortunate enough that I’m able to, and I’m at that point in my career. Might as well.
FT: Would you say there’s something unique about Canadian comedy? You’ve mentioned before that there’s definitely a Canadian self-deprecation.
DD: I would say this – as concise as possible. The thing is with Canada: we laugh at ourselves. And that’s not something that America does. You know what I mean, because America’s whole thing is WE’RE #1!, and they believe that in every aspect of their lives.
FT: Canada is, We’re maybe #14.
DD: Exactly! We’re like, Top 20, maybe! I mean again, ton of terrific comedy out here. It’s just very different. Like culture differences. I sit in crowds and go What? Mexicans are punchlines here. And it’s just a given, it’s like, everyone makes jokes about Mexicans.
FT: You’ve been doing comedy for a long time now. How did you get started?
DD: This is like, almost fifteen years in comedy now, I can’t believe this. I was definitely a funny kid. I was never the class clown or anything like that, but you know, I always made my friends laugh. And, you know, I grew up in a small town. And I have a twin sister. So it was really just the desire for independence that was very strong. I moved to Toronto, like, right away. I think it was probably…. Yeah, 1920, 21, and I just really started realizing I could do this.
I went to Ryerson. I wanted to be a fashion illustrator. And, honestly, honestly, honestly, two of my instructors in the first two years of my program came up to me and they were like, Kid, you’re a beautiful artist, but we actually think you should be entertaining. Like, presentations, I would kill. And I ignored that for years. Over and over people were like, Have you ever thought about doing comedy? Then I quit college, I didn’t finish at Ryerson, and then I got a job – fluke! – at City TV. Years and years ago in the 90s. I was a tour guide!
FT: What kind?
DD: Like, for the grade sevens! It was like, kids coming from Mississauga. And I showed them around the building. And honestly, that was my first audience! And you know, Much Music was very supportive. Like if you went into the archives of Much Music and City TV from 1992, you would find a bunch of Debra DiGiovanni. They were like, You’re funny, do you want to do things on air? And then Humber College started their comedy program. They got a press release in the newsroom where I worked, and everyone just kind of came up to me like, there you go! So it started from there and I never looked back.
FT: So what’s funny to you? What makes you laugh?
DD: I love silly. I love anyone who doesn’t take themself seriously. I like people that don’t mind looking stupid on stage. I just love the bizarro, I love weirdoes. Do you know what I mean? Cause I am not a weirdo, I am just a slightly crazy woman who, you know, screams into a microphone. But I just love the weirdoes, things that make my brain go, I never would’ve thought of that. Like, for example, I love Maria Bamford. She’s the most perfect weirdo. And on the opposite end, Mark Ford, a Canadian who I adore. And Jim Gaffigan! One of my favourites.
FT: Another weirdo who’s worth mentioning is Sean Cullen, and you’ve worked with him as well.
DD: I look at him, I’m like, I don’t know how your brain works. What is going on in there? I love it.
FT: I have an album of his, I think there’s a song on it called, “I Rub My Bum (For You)”.
DD: YES! He takes the smallest thing and makes it into art.
FT: Your Late Bloomer tour was earlier this year. Late bloomer in what way?
DD: You know, I’ve actually had teachers, therapists tell me, you’re a late bloomer. I think I’m an emotional late bloomer. For example, my twin sister, she’s married, she’s been married for twelve years now, she has three children, and I still live like a college student. And you know, I think it’s the same with a lot of the world now. We make a lot of our decisions later in life – people marry later in life, people figure out their careers later in life. I was just one of those people. I didn’t start standup until I was 28, which is later now – most people start at 22, 23, 24. And I mean, I am an adult, sort of, but I still feel like I’m growing up, I’m still figuring out what I’m gonna do.
FT: Well it seems to be working out for you.
DD: So far so good.
FT: You’ve mentioned Melissa McCarthy and Rebel Wilson as comics who have opened up the field for women in a new way. I have to say, Rebel Wilson has made me come close to wetting myself in the past.
DD: I adore her. She’s a weirdo!
FT: How do you think those two have changed the comedy scene for women?
DD: I have to tell you, like if I ever get to meet them, they will have to pry me away because I will hug them so hard. Honestly, Grace, they make my life so much easier. The timing for me – it’s really great. You know, it’s promising. Because I know I’m funny. And they’re just telling the world, this is allowed. Because, the way we look, we’re still funny, we’re still adorable. How cute is Melissa McCarthy?
The thing is, they’re just proud of themselves, they don’t apologize. I just think it’s about time. I’m thrilled that they’ve paved the way for me, and I can’t wait to thank them.
FT: What’s one thing about being a comedian that most people wouldn’t expect?
DD: You know, I would not be surprised – I don’t have numbers on this – but shyness. A lot of comedians are introverts. It’s so weird because everyone thinks that you’re a comedian, you’re always the centre of attention. Here’s the thing about comedians: we want to be the centre of attention when we want to be the centre of attention. If I was sitting in a crowd, and someone was like, would you be able to come on stage?, I would get up and leave the room. I think people don’t realize. I’m incredibly shy. If I have to schmooze, I have to stand in the hall and breath into a paper bag for a couple minutes.
FT: Other kinds of performers, like singers and actors, seem to share this same introvert/extrovert split. Why do you think there’s this binary in personalities?
DD: Good question! Not sure if our desire for acceptance actually somehow trumps the introverted parts of our psyche? But, it seems to be a normal thing in the comedy/performance world. I know that without my desire to make people laugh, my introvert would take over and I might actually launch into a full blown recluse. Comedy forces me out into the world!
FT: You do a lot of TV work as well. How is that different from your stand-up? Does your comedy change?
DD: It does. And I’ve been very fortunate. Most of the work I get to do on TV is Debra. I am Debra. And that’s what all comedians want. And that’s the difference between actors and comedians. Comedians want to be themselves, actors are good to be other people. I’m very fortunate in that way, that I just get to be myself, amplified. But I do think I’d love to act a little! And you know you see actors where, their personality comes through every character. That’s what I assume will happen. I assume I’ll be playing a lot of crazy cat ladies.
FT: Another project of yours, with your friend Dan Magro, is Cute Boy of the Week, a YouTube series where you rank celebrity males by their good looks. First of all, love the objectification of men going on here. How did that project come about?
DD: I have wanted to do that for so. Long. This is the thing with me. Do I know anything about politics? No. Do I know anything about sports? No, I don’t. Do I know cute boys? Yes, I do.
FT: And I imagine since moving to L.A. you have a lot more material for that.
DD: I hurt my neck. I hurt my neck! Walking down the street in Hollywood.
FT: In your comedy you talk a lot about becoming a cougar. Are you there yet?
DD: I think at this point, I am an honourary cougar. I think once you hit 40, they’re just like, yeah, you can be a cougar. Honestly, when I started doing jokes about being a cougar, it was true. Now the young guys to me are like, thirty.
FT: Let’s talk about the Internet. A lot of people are enjoying stand-up on YouTube now, rather than seeing shows live. What’s that doing for comedy?
DD: It’s equal parts wonderful and ruining everything. Because we want people to come to our shows. And, you know this – live is just better. And that goes with everything – music, everything, is better watching it live. But the Internet is also beautiful because it opens it up to so many more people. Now it’s like, people in Australia can watch me. But please, still come to shows.
FT: What are you working on now?
DD: You know what, I am working on getting a sitcom going. Because this is the place to do it, so you might as well. It’s something new, and I like to try new things. Shakes you up a little bit. So I’m now in the process of thinking of show ideas, and having meetings with writers. It’s fun, you go for coffee with people, talking about what you like. It’s work dating.
FT: Do you have an idea of what your dream sitcom would be?
DD: I think most comics just want to be themselves a la Seinfeld or Mulaney. So, yeah – I would like that. Though, just being an exaggerated version of Debra is good too. I think I just want to be the crazy neighbor, etc. The DREAM sitcom would be working with friends and people that inspire me – making the next show about nothing!
FT: Into the future a little bit, where do you see yourself in 10 years?
DD: I hope, doing as much stand-up as I possibly can. It’s my true love. I’d love to act, to try it out a little bit. Movies? Sure! And also maybe ten years, fifteen years, I would love to host a talk show, I really would. So when Ellen gets tired…
FT: What about forty years?
DD: I gotta hope I’m Joan Rivers*. She won’t stop, that one. She’s on like three TV shows, she never stops touring. And I hope that, too. The thing about comedy, even though Los Angeles is the town of youth, funny doesn’t age. People can do comedy literally until they die. I mean, I was at Just for Laughs and Don Rickles was there. Do you know what I mean? He’s almost ninety. I hope that I’m able to grow old with it, and that I’m still relevant and people still want to see me. Because, you know, I don’t plan to retire.
*This interview took place in August 2014, just weeks before Joan Rivers’ death.