The Winnipeg Comedy Festival has wrapped for another year. Comedians have done their sets, packed their bags, and gone back to their respective homes. Scott Thompson was about to do just that, right before I awkwardly cornered him for an interview in the lobby of the Gas Station Arts Centre after his appearance on the "Make it Better" panel.
I had been trying to get an interview with him for weeks leading up to the festival, but was not able to nab him before the festival was in full swing. I saw my opportunity, albeit a tad late, and I took it. Thankfully, Scott was such an amazing guy about that whole debacle that he was more than happy to sit down with me so we could have a chat about the festival that had overtaken both of our lives for the past few days.
Perhaps it was the desperate/glowing look in my eyes, that gaze that he has probably seen in the faces of countless Kids in the Hall fanatics for years, that made him take pity on me. More likely than that, he was just through what was an amazing string of shows at this year's festival, and was eager to reminisce about them. He got to perform as Buddy Cole at the "Characters" gala, as the Queen on The Debaters, bring the house down with his trademark filth at The Dark and Stormy Show, and ruffle a few feathers and open some minds at the "Make it Better" panel. If I were in his position, I would have just taken the opportunity to gloat. I would not have thought any less of him if he had. He managed to remain humble, and was the perfect person to talk to about the festival in hindsight. As someone I respected immensely and adore as a performer, I knew he could give genuine insight into what made the festival this year so special.
"I love coming back here any chance I get," Thompson told me. "The last time I was here, it was right before I found out I had cancer. I beat that, so this time out the goal was just to blast all the shows as hard as I could. I got to do stand up, do characters, and speak on panels. I doubt I'd have been able to do this many different things in any other festival in the country, and all of those shows were great."
Scott is of course known for his groundbreaking work in The Kids in the Hall, but has branched out into other ventures with the same energy and tenacity that he brought to the Kids. He has written a graphic novel ("The Hollow Planet"), started his own podcast (Scott Free), and, as was highlighted in this year's Dark and Stormy Show, has made a name for himself as a dynamic and gleefully incendiary stand-up.
"I guess my reputation does precede me, and I knew that going into stand-up," Thompson said, reflecting on his new venture. "I feel like I finally have an hour of material, which I've never had until recently, so it's exciting to go out there and get it all out. At something like the Dark and Stormy, I don't need to worry about my whole act, though. I can go into a gig like that with confidence, like 'I know nothing is really going to upset anyone here.' I can be myself, which is great. I don't want to craft material that is known across the board as being dark, though. I touch on the big topics that get that distinction. The big ones: sex, death, race, and religion. It's what I like to talk about, but it's not what I'm exclusively about. That is why the Dark and Stormy is so much fun, though. You get to do what you want and not have to worry about some of that other stuff."
While stand-up is a new love of Thompson's, his future plans involving his act happen to be coupled with an old friend who is also trying stand-up on for size, Kevin McDonald. The two have been performing together as part of a touring two-person stand-up show that will soon be making its way across Canada.
"It's been so much fun. A lot of my trepidation with getting into stand up is that it is so incredibly solitary. Being alone on stage is fine, I can deal with that. It's the lonely lifestyle around it that I can't stand. The endless travel, the huge amount of downtime, finding things to do in cities you've never been to for the other 23 hours of the day. That's not fun for me, at all. Touring with Kevin is the best, because I'm never alone, and I always have someone to bounce ideas off of and talk to. Plus, the show we have made together is so much fun to do. I can't wait for Canadian audiences to see it."
As mentioned above, this year the festival featured the "Make it Better" panel, an open discussion between comedians who had all been the victims of bullying, spurred by the rise in suicides of young gay people in North America. It took its name from the "It Gets Better" movement, started by writer Dan Savage. Thompson's inclusion on the panel was one that many had shown up that day to witness, as his outspoken comments on the topic were sure to make a few people in the crowd uncomfortable.
"I think coddling is the new spanking. We can't keep our kids from getting hurt all the time, and sometimes we just have to let kids feel that pain so they know how to adapt to it and become well-rounded adults later in life. Of course there are situations where people need to step in, if it's excessive and kids are in danger, but by and large, we're screwing our kids up big time if we try to keep them safe from every little thing. Bullying is bad, but it exists for a reason. A bully teaches you how to stand up for yourself, to take your lumps, to evaluate who you are and what you are willing to get beaten up or made fun of for. It's not a nice thing, but it's an important thing."
A prominent figure in the gay community, Thompson has had to speak publicly about his feelings about a plethora of gay rights and causes, bullying being one hot-button topic that has been getting the most attention as of late. Whether he likes it or not, he is someone that people look to for insight on these matters, which is something he told me he's not always comfortable with.
"It's hard when some kid comes to you, asking for advice. It happens a lot, too. I always feel bad for people in that situation, because I feel like you should never be getting any kind of advice in your life from a celebrity. If you're coming to me, I know things can't be good. The connection the two of us share is so strained and one-sided, I know that there is nothing I can say to someone that will fix all their problems, or change their minds, or make everything better in one shot. The only thing I can do is listen and take it all in, and thank them for being honest with me, if being honest with me meant that they were final being honest with somebody. That's really all I can do. I wish I could do more. Things like this panel are really good, it's a chance for people to hear a lot of different points of view on it. People can take whatever they want out of it, if it was from me or anyone else, but if it helped them out, it's all good to me."
Never being known as a person to hide his outspoken opinions, Thompson came through on the panel with some of the most memorable quotes from the discussion, including one that really struck a chord with me: "comedy is violence for physical cowards."
"It's true, it really is," he told me after the panel, reflecting on that line. "Just think of the terms we use when we talk about comedy: 'I killed!', 'I murdered them!', 'I slayed!', all of that macho stuff. Comedy is a weapon that I've used my whole life, and I see people using all the time to defend themselves against all kinds of pain. I've seen people use it to build themselves up, and to tear others down. It makes you feel just a little less weak than you had felt previously. It's not a solution to all of your problems, but it certainly helped me. Being funny can save your life."
J.D. Renaud is a writer, comedian, producer, and visual artist originally from Oakville, Ontario. You can follow his weird thoughts on Twitter at @jdrenaud.