By Rachel Aiello
Comedian Debra DiGiovanni had the entire Commons theatre roaring with laughter on Nov. 13. The show unfolded in her favourite comedy show form, with two openers Nick Reynoldson and Monty Scott —who she’s known for several years and could easily be nominated as her ‘cute boys of the week’—added a variety of flavour to the evening. Although she is 40, her set covered many themes college students could relate to; from the times had getting high and the snacks that followed, to the fear of driving and roommate woes.
The Times sat down with DiGiovanni prior to the show to chat about her career, the state of comedy and her college experience.
Q: Do you spend a lot of time in Ottawa?
A: You know what? Actually, I do. It’s a big comedy town, which I know sounds strange. So I don’t know if you know that about yourself, but you are! Ottawa seems to love comedy. It’s always a stop anytime you’re doing any sort of touring. Any college or any group of any sort that says ‘calling from Ottawa’ I’ll take that call, that’s a good one. It’s just a pleasure to perform here; never turn down Ottawa. I don’t know whether it’s because it’s a government city and people need to laugh, or what it is, but it seems to work.
Q: Are you enjoying living in LA?
A: Yes, so far. I don’t drive, and you have to drive in LA. So which makes it scarier, because you know when someone’s like, ‘you have to do that’ and I’m like ‘I don’t want to now,’ it just makes it worse. So I’m just literally at a terror level of fear right now when it comes to driving. I’ve been taking driving lessons but I can’t seem to get myself alone in the car; I’m scared! It’s ridiculous but that’s where I’m at right now. Once I conquer that fear the city will be much easier. But other than that, it’s good, wonderful weather, lots of comedy, so it’s great.
Q: A lot of your material pulls from your personal life, is that challenging?
A: It is and it isn’t. You have these moments when you’re like ‘am I telling too much stuff?’ But I don’t think it is either; you test the waters, sort-of. The audience tells you pretty quick what is too much information. And I’ve always been very honest. It kind-of just started with me when I started doing comedy. I didn’t plan it, it just came out that way. When I first started performing people were like ‘your persona is so good!’ and I was like, ‘I have a persona?’ I didn’t know. I think it just connects people. You know that expression ‘it’s funny because it’s true?’ That’s what it is.
Q: So then you’d say that it’s good to laugh at yourself?
A: I think so. A lot of times I get people that are like ‘oh you’re so self derogatory’ and I’m like ‘you’re not actually listening to my act if you think it’s all about me hating myself.’ First of all, it takes confidence to get on stage; you don’t actually hate yourself. If you’re on stage as a comedian, you actually think you’re pretty alright. So yes my jokes do come from the land of a bigger woman, but it’s not what all my act is about. I use my self-deprecation as something that brings us all to the same level.
Q: There’s a trend affecting all comics, in which your sets get uploaded online quite quickly for the world to hear. How does that affect the currency of your new material?
A: I think most comics have a real love-hate with the whole online relationship right now because it’s wonderful, it gets you out there, people can watch you at any age, from anywhere in the world. But comedy is live. That’s the thing, it loses a bit of the power the minute it’s taped and filmed. Nothing compares to going and seeing someone live. I just hope it doesn’t turn into people never leaving their house to see a comedy show, because that’s the magic and that’s what we really want.
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It’s like going to see a band and hoping they play your favourite song, so you keep the basis of some of your jokes, the real ‘A’ material that people always love and you keep adding, you put new stuff. But there will always be some older jokes, it’s sort of like the foundation. They never come out the same way twice but it’s just as enjoyable and the energy is still there.
Q: You started off doing stand-up and then you made your way into TV, most notably Video on Trial is what my generation is going to know you best for. And now Match Game. What’s that been like, taking your comedy to a new platform?
A: It’s interesting because a lot of time people think Video on Trial is what I do, they don’t realize that we were doing comedy years before video on trial started. Video on Trial does lend beautifully to what I like to do, and it was such a good form for comics, so it was an easy jump. Match game, is a little different. Because it’s so short, we all want to keep going! And also too, I really love all sorts of games, I love game shows, so I want people to win and I get a little competitive. It’s such a fun show to do, truly we sit around for eight hours a day and laugh.
Q: Do you have any pre-show rituals?
A: Sort of. They never really seem like rituals but you don’t eat before you go onstage, and I think that’s a lot of comics. I can’t wear my hair in a ponytail, I have a superstition about going on stage with it. I also need a bit of quiet before I go on to get ready and clear my head. I also write notes, I don’t look at them but it’s just part of my process even though I know what I’m going to say, I just put it in my back pocket and it’s show-time.
Q: What were you like in college?
A: I was, (laughing) confused. I went to Ryerson for fashion illustration and I’m a bit of an artist and I love to draw, but I knew immediately that I was in the wrong program, like the first day. I just knew I didn’t want to do what I was going for school for when I was going but I didn’t know what I wanted to do. So I took the two-year program, and in that time I just knew, I was searching for something else. All I cared about was coffee… like ‘are we getting coffee after class?’ But the one thing that college/university really did for me was during that time I had professors after the semester and say to me: “You’re in the wrong program, you should be entertaining people.”
Q: So you have a twin sister, and you talk about how you two are fairly different. So is your family comfortable with you using them in your material?
A: To be honest, actually no. I’m Italian, and it’s a little private. The airing of dirty laundry is not real popular in the Italian family. I sort of made a bit of a silent agreement that I wouldn’t talk too much about my family. I mention my twin and it’s sort of just surface, I don’t really do a lot of jokes about my family. I make some jokes about being Italian, but that’s honestly just out of respect of my family. I don’t need to upset them, because they think this is weird already.
Q: There’s just one other thing I wanted to touch on. I’m noting a renaissance of female comedians being recognized for being funny. I was wondering if you had any words on this and how it’s impacted your career?
A: Isn’t it so great? It is intriguing. I’ve been doing comedy for 13 years and since I’ve started, the number of women comedians surfacing now is remarkable. That being said, I also find, in the last year, the hatred has tripled. I don’t know if that’s going hand-in-hand with more women showing up, because it’s just so old-fashioned to me that I can’t believe that men in the year 2013 are saying out-loud ‘yeah women aren’t funny.’ It just blows my mind. That being said, there’s no stopping it, and I think that’s pretty terrific. And I really think people like Melissa McCarthy, Kristin Wigg, Tina Fey and Amy Poheler, they’re the reasons for that. And all the power to them. I think people really want female comedians on stage, because there’s been such a lack of it for such a long time that I think it’s quite refreshing now, I’m thrilled, I’m all for more girls all the time, because we have stuff to say and we’re really funny. So open up everybody, we wear pants now too. It’s wonderful!