The first thing you realize when watching Debra DiGiovanni -- whether it's on stage or during her appearances on television shows such as Comedy's Match Game or Much Music's Video on Trial -- is that she's ridiculously funny. But almost simultaneously, you also notice how much fun she's having.
When I got the chance to talk to DiGiovanni at the start of her Just for Laughs tour across Canada, "The Late Bloomer Tour", I was very excited. Having first seen her on the early Video on Trial episodes and then re-discovered her when she was a finalist on the fifth season of NBC's Last Comic Standing, I had spent the last year watching way too many episodes of the new Canadian version of the classic game show, Match Game (it's a great way to see so many awesome Canadian stand-up comics, along with a few Hollywood stars, be silly for 22 minutes). I only hoped that she would be as delightful as she's always come across on television.
She exceeded any and all expectations.
Funny, sometimes snarky, and always able to pull off the dirty or even mean joke because of her booming smile, Debra DiGiovanni has become one of the most well-known faces in Canadian comedy over her 14-year career. Recently making the move to Los Angeles, DiGiovanni spoke to me about what her first couple years in comedy were like, some of the big moments in her career, why she thinks she's able to get away with some of the things she says on stage and on TV, and of course the idea of being a "late bloomer".
For tickets to see Debra DiGiovanni on the western leg of her Canadian tour, visit hahaha.com/DebraDiGiovanni. She'll be in Winnipeg on January 29, Edmonton on January 31, Calgary on February 1, Medicine Hat on February 2, Kelowna on February 6, Vancouver on February 7, Victoria on February 8, and Nanaimo on February 9.
Paul Little: I wanted to first go all the way back to when you when you started performing comedy. You started around 2000?
Debra DiGiovanni: Oh gosh. 13 years ago! When I still had hopes and dreams. Yeah, I started in January of 2000, which makes it a nice even anniversary. So yeah, I start my 14th year. You never think you'll make it to 14, but here I am.
PL: What first pushed you into doing stand-up?
DDG: It took me a long time. The push started for years -- I was being pushed for about 5 years until I finally was, like, "Okay, I'll go!" I'm not adventurous, I guess. You know, I went to college, I didn't want to be there, I dropped out, and I had professors say to me, "You know, you're great at what you do, but you should be entertaining people. You're very funny."
And then I worked at a TV station, and kind of got good feedback. If someone got sick, they'd put me on air. I was just getting pushed in that direction. I always wanted to, but stand-up seemed so scary. And there was improv -- but I was too selfish to share the stage. (laughs) Yuck! And then, stand-up was inevitable. It just took me a long time to get there. I didn't start comedy until I was 27, just about 28. I had a job, I was a "human". It was pretty great finding it, and just loving it. It was really one of those incredibly cheesy, "I just felt like home!" It was like soft lighting and music kind of moments. It was really what I was looking for. And still not bored of it! It's a good run.
PL: Well only a few years after starting out, I believe in 2004 or 2005, you had your first comedy special. These days, if someone's in the right scene, they might get a special a few years in, but even then, that's still pretty quick to be featured on TV.
DDG: It was. It was really strange. When someone talks about, you know, what's kind of going on in their career -- I know I'm funny, I love doing this, I work hard, but I also believe there's a real big chunk of luck and timing. Do you know what I mean? Somehow, I was just kind of seen by the right people at the right times. I was able to quit a day job at year 4 and a half. I was just very lucky.
And that special, I think it was 2004 -- maybe it was 2005 -- I thought of saying no, because I was really scared. I was like, "Am I ready?" But then I thought, "You don't say no." And even at the end of it was like, "Oh wow, that happened!" A little... I shocked myself. Lucky!
PL: And then it was around that time that Video on Trial became a thing.
DDG: Yes. Look how that started. I worked at a TV station, right? And then when I started doing comedy, I quit the TV station. Then Video on Trial comes about, and they're all like, "Doesn't Debra do comedy?" So then they already had my number. So it was a little bit of a lucky kind of situation.
PL: Yeah. I always found that show was, especially with the opportunities available at the time, a really cool thing for Canadian comics, because it was a regular platform to reach people across the country. Did you guys recognize at the time what was happening -- that you actually had a voice here?
DDG: That's an excellent point. I think some of us did and some of us didn't, to be honest. If you go back to Season 1 and Season 2, there's a lot of faces that disappear. And some people were just not asked back, but there was a handful that said no. Because we didn't get paid very much. But I liked doing it -- I just thought it was fun, and it took so little time, like a couple hours of preparation, a couple hours to shoot. Barely even a half a day of your life. And it was just fun! So the people who stayed saw what it was, and what it could be. And you're right, that's my favourite platform. I just want to be me. I think a lot of comedians just want to be themselves, and that was the perfect place to be just the comedian Debra.
Probably by about Season 3 is when it really kicked in, and started to get really popular. And that's what lead to me, Trevor Boris, Darren Rose -- a couple of us, it really helped us along the way. I'm sure some comedians that stopped doing it because, "Oh, we weren't getting paid very much," and whatever, sit and think, "Oh f***! Maybe not the thing to bail on." Because, yeah, it's really afforded me a lot of my career. Just the best publicity. Everyone started watching young, and now 7 years later -- you start watching it at 14, and now you're 21 and can go to comedy shows. Growing up with you. It sounds cheesy, but it's kind of true.
PL: Well I think now there's another great platform -- and these seem to be few and far between in Canadian show business -- with Match Game.
DDG: I know, right?
PL: It's another show where there are six comedians or actors, mostly Canadians, featured on national television.
DDG: And the best part about that is that they just go, "Hi everybody, welcome, have coffee, get make up, and go!" That's it. I'm serious. There's no, "We really want you to try to do..." No. It's the greatest gig in the world. Sean Cullen makes me laugh so much. He's just a crazy human being. And I love Darren (Rose) -- Darren and I have known each other for years. It's just really fun. And that's just it -- it's a nice platform. I wish that they would use more comedians, you know? Sometimes they have that middle spot for the 'sexy girl', and it's always like, "That's great and stuff, but damn, I wish they'd put another comic on!"
PL: As a big comedy fan, I've noticed that as well!
DDG: Yeah, more comedy all the time! Everyone does a good job, but there are stand-outs. There are people who you can just tell -- he's the actor and they're the comedian.
PL: I've talked to quite a few people who have been on the show, and I hear they add liquor to the equation as they day of filming goes along.
DDG: They really do. We usually do 3 shows before dinner, and after dinner, the vodka comes out. I don't drink, so I am literally the only sober one. I don't think Darren drinks during the show, either, 'cause he has stuff to say. Like, he might have one cocktail, where the panelists, they have several. There are a couple people who, honestly, on the last show, I'm just looking going, "You are holding on by a very thin..." A couple of guests just on the edge of being too drunk. And they don't care. The woman that's the producer, who's like 85 years old and still wears 6-inch heels and leather pants every day -- a fabulous woman -- and she was the one who was like, "Get cocktails!" 'Cause that's what they did in the first show -- everyone was loaded -- and so she's like, "Let's not mess with it."
PL: I talked to Dave Merheje when he was in Winnipeg recently about being on Match Game.
DDG: I love him. Did he have fun?
PL: He thought he was so bad on the show! I thought he was entertaining -- he was just terrible at the game.
DDG: Oh Dave. Yeah, it was a fun day. I love him. But that's Dave -- because he'd just give terrible answers, and that was great, and we'd just laugh. They don't realize that it's fun to watch, because everyone wants to win.
PL: I spent too much of my younger years of being a comedy fan not really paying enough attention to the Canadian stand-up scene, even after watching some Video on Trial. And it wasn't until Last Comic Standing did Canadian auditions and I saw you again on there that it really clicked, like, "Oh, Debra DiGiovanni! She's amazing."
DDG: Fabulous! Yeah, that was huge.
PL: So looking back on that show however many years later, I guess 7 years...
DDG: That was 2007, yeah.
PL: How was that whole experience for you? There were some really strong comics there in that Top 10.
DDG: Amy Schumer was from that show, and that really launched her. She is just, oh, she just gets better and better. She just gets funnier and funnier. And Doug Bensen, too, was on that. Yeah, that was a good season. When it happened, and you'd get through the auditions, and you make it to the show, it's crazy. Because it's NBC, and I got my working papers through them, and I mean, it was just huge, right? But there, it was hard shooting it. It was being shot as a reality show, so it was that weirdness of it. They made some of it unpleasant, 'cause they're trying to break you down a little bit, 'cause that's what they find entertaining on reality shows. So it had that aspect to it that wasn't fun. It was fast, and we were tired at the time.
That being said, probably one of the most valuable experiences. I can't believe, though -- 7 years, and people still say to me, "I saw you on Last Comic Standing!" I thought it would be forgotten in 8 months. I cannot believe it. It's one of those things in my life that I can't be grateful enough for it. It got me my working papers, which are hard to get. And I was literally handed them, and since I've been given them, all I do is just renew them, pay the money. It's such a gift, it's unbelievable. It was huge.
I moved to L.A. at the beginning of 2013. Hard starting over, really hard, and humbling, but I'm really fortunate just because of Last Comic Standing and the people I met -- having L.A. representation. It's been a little easier for me. On the ladder of starting over, I'm like Rung 3. You know, I have a long way to go, but I still have that just because of Last Comic Standing. I can get on at clubs, I have good management who can phone and say, "Debra's here." It's given me this leg up for 7 years -- for 7 years! You think, "Oh my God, what if I win?" You think about the money. But I didn't realize how huge it would be.
PL: And now, of course, I'm a much more strident follower of the Canadian comedy scene.
DDG: Nice work. We've got a lot of funny people!
PL: Yeah, and that's why it makes me sad that it took me so long to take notice, and that so many other Canadian comedy fans who don't realize it.
DDG: I know, because now you realize it! And it's so funny, too, because I think that happens to England, too. You know, so much funny. But I get it. Canada's so small -- big country, but not that many people. I don't think it's malicious. I don't think it's people going, "I'm ignoring Canada." You know, you go to L.A., and it's just... more. And that's why it's inevitable, I think. Canada will always be my home, hopefully. But L.A., that's what you want.
PL: That's where the money is, and the audience is. It just is.
DDG: That's where everything is! It's one of those things, just like the Video on Trial experience. That's what you want to get started here in L.A. Work for free, just to get your face out? You got it. And that's only possible because it's a 20-minute drive. So you know, I did that in Canada. Let's do that in the States now.
PL: Shifting a little bit to your actual comedy itself, one of the things I really like about your stand-up and other appearances you make is that you seem to be able to simultaneously be vicious and crude, yet also come across as super sweet and charming. It's an amazing balancing act -- how do you think you're able to pull that off?
DDG: (Laughs) That is just about the greatest thing I've ever heard. Thank you. I love that quote. (Laughs) I swear to God, I don't know. Because here's the thing... I think it's easier to take from me, too, because there's an essential jolliness about me. There's a very 'Santa Claus' vibe. I still remind people of their favourite babysitter growing up, and yet at the same time, I'm saying terrible things. This is going to sound really, you know, like, zen and stuff... but I think it's really just where it's coming from. Honestly, I just want to make people laugh. I just want to have a giggle. So I don't think it's really coming from an angry place -- myself, I'm not an angry person. I'm a happy person, actually! When there's a real sadness coming from someone, it's sad. But I can pull off sad and mean because it's not with malicious intent.
That's the thing with Video on Trial. I have moments where I'm like, "How have I not been punched?" I don't understand why, in public, someone hasn't hit me with a baseball bat. Because I think they still know it's joyous, and I'm just kidding. That's an excellent question. I'm going to have to think of a better answer and tell you some day.
PL: (Laughs) Sounds good. With your material itself, you get very personal with things. Did that start early on when you were doing stand-up 14 years ago?
DDG: No, that didn't. It was probably about 2 years in. I started, you know, write what you know. I live in a small town. I have a twin sister. I started with a sort of monologue. I used to print out my set list, but it was long form, and it was almost like a speech. Seriously, like it was, "Good afternoon everybody!" And about 2 years in, I did a showcase for Just for Laughs with a whole bunch of comics. And because I did my "speech", I wasn't in the room. I wasn't present. And something happened, and it threw me, and then I got lost and really had a painful bomb. After the showcase we went back to the club, and Gene [ed. Apologies to Debra, as she said his full name, but the digital recording skipped a few seconds at this point] who was at the showcase saw me there. He said, "I'm glad you're here." And he literally took the monologue out of my hand, threw it away, and said, "Just go on stage with your notes and do it." And that really changed it. Gene was just like, "You know it, trust it, go." And then I did. And the click of like -- instead of it being speech, I just thought it was way more fun. In that moment when I panicked, I was just honest. That was fun, and then I just stuck with it. Like I never thought of my persona. It just sort of happened in that moment, and then it became enjoyable for me, and then people started responding to it. And then it just gotten more truthful by the year.
PL: I think part of that comes with age. Not even just on stage, but I think as you get older you just think, "I'm going to be more honest."
DDG: I think so, it does. Confidence, maturity -- sort of maturity. I know who I am, and that makes it much easier. I would assume that anyone starting really young as a comic -- if they start at 20, I think by 30 they would admit they're a totally different comic. And I think it happened quicker because I was older when I started.
PL: Now your tour, "The Late Bloomer Tour" -- where does the name come from, what kind of things will you be talking about on stage, and what are you looking forward to about crossing Canada in January.
DDG: I think "emotional late bloomer", that's what I'm talking about right now. You know -- 40, hello, a little older than 40, but emotionally I feel about 17. I have a twin sister, and she's married, she has 3 babies, and she's a grown-up human adult. And I am... me. I just have these moments where, "How are you a grown-up and still not mature." It just feels like -- late bloomer -- like it still feels like I'm going through emotional puberty. And I think a lot of people feel that way! I think that's sort of what I'm talking about right now, in my life.
Travelling across the country, I'm so scared -- good scared, but still scared. I just want it to go well. I cannot believe that I'm going to quote a tweet [ed. @DebraDiGiovanni, by the way], but this morning I tweeted that going on tour is like throwing a party, because all I'm questioning myself is, "Are people going to come? Is anyone having fun?" And then in the tweet I said, "Do I have enough chips." But that's not the point. (Laughs) It's nerve-wracking. It's all me. It's exciting. January is... exciting! But this is when Just for Laughs does the tours -- they cross the country in January, because January is the quiet month for the world. But please just let us get to every location. That's all I'm hoping for. Just let us get there! And I have to go buy boots. I'm a jerk. I've been in California for a year, and I came home without a scarf, boots, mitts, and it's -24c today.
PL: (Laughs) I wanted to talk to you a little bit about what kind of comedy influences you, and how that's changed between when you first started and now.
DDG: When I first started thinking about comedy, it was never really stand-up, because I didn't watch stand-up as a young person. I didn't know about it as a teenager, I just didn't. My God, now they do. And I know it ages me, but it was Laverne & Shirley and Carol Burnett. And it's weird, because I never did sketch, I've never even desired to do sketch, but that's what I saw and knew was funny. It was just women being funny. And then watching Seinfeld, and going, "Oh look, they're having so much fun." It was just this is what I'm looking for. It was really Carol Burnett and Seinfeld, honestly, were the first people.
It changes now, it's really just stand-up. I like SNL -- Kristin Wiig, and Tina Fey -- but it's stand-up for me that's just my true love. I love Maria Bamford -- she's just pure comedy. She's just a weirdo little genius of comedy. There's just so much funny right now. There really really is. Everyone loves Louis CK, that's an easy one, we all love him. But people who are real road warriors, like Brian Reagan. He's inspiring because he's so clean and still so interesting, you know what I mean? He's just amazing. But then I like Amy Schumer, I think she's just really doing great. I think she's inspiring girls, which I know is cheesy but it's true. There's so much that she's doing, and she's so young. And I love people that I to perform with -- I love Ryan Belleville and Fraser Young. I love people that I know, that I get to perform with all the time. There's just a lot of funny right now, and it changes.
When I first started, I didn't watch a lot of stand-up comedy, because I didn't want to form my voice of somebody else's. 'Cause that's easy to do. You watching young people, and you go, "Oh, that's Brian Reagan." You can see their delivery. So I didn't watch for a long time, and now I do. Now I watch. I love Jim Gaffigan. Moshe Kasher, he's so funny. There's just a lot of stuff now that I'm really enjoying watching. And moving to California, too, it's like every show is dynamite! It's kind of fun. It's nice to be around. I'm intimidated by comedians all the time, but I'd rather be on a show full of killers than not. Oh my God, that's what's so fun -- energy like that!
PL: I just realized, with you living in California now, and with your history on Video on Trial and Match Game, you would probably be perfect for @midnight!
DDG: Oh I know, yeah. Hello!
PL: They've got 40 weeks of shows in 2014 to fill up. 4 shows a week, 40 weeks -- that's a lot.
DDG: Okay, after the tour, I'm all over that. That kind of stuff, I love it. I love Chris Hardwick, he's good.
PL: I'm just thinking, in the U.S. -- despite all the late night talk shows -- they haven't had that kind of a daily or weekly showcase down there for comics -- certainly alternative comics.
DDG: Yeah, I was going to say, not in a really long time. And it's so good -- you get to see the people, you go, "Oh, they're so funny, I'm so glad..." Oh you know who else, Rory Scovel. He's so funny. And Kurt Braunohler. So funny. And I love shows like that -- they'll all be on over and over, and then everyone will know how funny they are.
PL: While there are certainly more names out there now, including some you've mentioned, it still seems that women are far too underrepresented in comedy.
DDG: It's funny -- it's not massive numbers, but it's powerful. It may not be quantity, but it's definitely quality. Although, even just in my amount of years in comedy -- you know, 14, my God. I'd love to talk to Carol Burnett who's been doing it for over 50 years, it must be astounding to see how many girls are around now. If there are 10 new comics now, at least 4 of them are girls, at least in Toronto. And I do a lot of shows in California with more women on the show than just me. That doesn't happen -- you know, 9 people and just 1 girl. But now, there's 2, 3, 4, and it's nice, it's good.
PL: So you definitely notice a shift in the years you've been performing.
DDG: I definitely do. I don't know if it's ever going to be even. I just don't think it every will be. But it's getting close -- if there was a brawl, we'd at least have a chance now!
PL: I think if we can just get past the point where someone is billed as a "female comic" rather than just a "comic".
DDG: Exactly. There's no more comedienne. Once we stop doing that, with the double 'n' and an 'e' at the end, we're good, we're making it. We're getting there. 10 more years, c'mon!
Paul Little is the founder and Managing Editor of ShowbizMonkeys.com. When not interviewing his favourite musicians and comedians, he can also be found at The Purple Room in Winnipeg, where he is Artistic Director. (@comedygeek)