Filed under: Interviews
Jen Grant has hit the Winnipeg Comedy Festival for her first time with a vengeance. A debut act in this festival -- but certainly not in fests and clubs across the country -- she's in the enviable position of performing not only in her own headlining show at Rumor's, but also in The Debaters, the "Observational Comedy Disorder" Gala, and the highly-coveted "Best of the Fest" Gala. Not too shabby, but certainly not surprising, as Grant has already made a definite mark for herself by being nominated for "Best Female Comedian" at the Canadian Comedy Awards.
I spoke with her prior to her attending the Winnipeg Comedy Festival, and we talked about her love of good food on the road, the perks of seeing your comedy friends in festivals, and her experience performing for the troops in Egypt. More info on all her shows in the festival can be found at winnipegcomedyfestival.com.
J.D. Renaud: You're in four shows in the fest this year, The Debaters, you've got your own Saturday early show at Rumours, and two of the galas. You've played many festivals across the country from east to west, how do they compare to each other?
Jen Grant: Well, some are smaller. Honestly, the first thing that comes to mind is some are more elaborate and televised like Winnipeg is. Some are just smaller, but they're always fun. Festivals are always fun 'cause it's a chance for a bunch of comics who don't necessarily get to work together to get to spend a week or a weekend, and it's really fun. You're not going to necessarily work with everybody -- especially when you're starting out, you'll work with more people because you'll be a middle act. As you make friends along the way, then maybe you're all headlining and so to go to a festival, you get to hang out with other headliners.
JD: I've heard that from a lot of other comedians -- that festivals are the only other time they really get to see the people they never get to see throughout the rest of the year.
JG: Yeah, it's also nice just because it feels more like a real event, like the festival's a real event and people are really excited. And if it's run well -- I heard Winnipeg is run well. I've never done Winnipeg before, it's my first time, but I've done Halifax, and they are very organized and put on a really good event. It's really fun to perform because they're really appreciative crowds and people are very excited.
JD: I checked out your website (jengrant.com) and read up a little bit about your food blog. It's pretty standard across the board that the diets of most comedians are not all that grand, since it is kind of difficult to eat well on the road. Is that what prompted it, or is it just that you had that kind of interest?
JG: It combined two things that I'm interested in: obviously my career, but also I really like cooking and I think it's really important to cook good, local, organic food. When I go on the road, the only time that I ever have a really exceptional meal -- I would say nine times out of ten -- is when somebody I know who's local from that city recommends it. So even if it's not local food or organic per se, at least it's something that is really creative and different. So yeah, I like to eat. I find that's one of the biggest problems with being on the road. It's not the same as cooking at home or going to places you know are really good.
JD: You lived in New York for a period and decided to make the move back to Canada. What kind of performing were you able to do down there and what prompted the decision to come home?
JG: I always wanted to see what it was like to live in New York, so that was something I kind of had to make sure I did. We have a feeling here in the industry which is frustrating, and I don't know why that is, but I wish it could change a little bit. Everybody's always like, "Go to the States if you really want to be successful." And Canada's such a great country, that I'd love to see it change, that that's more opportunity here. So that's why I went to New York, for those two reasons, because you're always told, "Go there, go there, go there." And also, New York is just an interesting city, that I wanted to go and see what it was like. So I was there for 3 years, and I moved back because I missed Canada. I wanted to come back and give it a really good go here.
JD: Is there a big difference in audiences between the two?
JG: Generally speaking no, but yes. Specifically New York -- if you're actually performing in Manhattan, there's a lot of tourists, so that adds a different dynamic to a crowd. If you go to a local place that's close to New York like Long Island, which I performed a lot in, they are very tough audiences there. I think that the American audiences are used to a certain kind of performance. I'd say the biggest difference between the crowds is also related to the type of comedy, generally speaking. I find that there's a lot more attitude on stage from comics than there are with Canadian comics. I heard from a booker there once that Canadian comics are well known for being great joke writers but are understated in the punch lines; they're not as in your face. And Americans, even the more alternative ones, are more attitude driven. I think that's what audiences expect and want because that's what they've been used to, and in a way I get it because it's a performance level. It's engaging, but sometimes of course, there's a lot of attitude and not as much joke as we'd like, too.
JD: You've performed in Egypt for the troops. What prompted that decision? Any food in Egypt that you enjoyed while you were there too that you feel like commenting on?
JG: It was one of those great opportunities. I just happened to be somewhere where there was someone in the audience who was putting together a military showcase and she liked me so she included me in the pitch. It was really just one of those things. It was really great. I didn't even go out there looking for it but was very grateful when it came my way, because it was a life-changing experience and it was really cool. That was amazing. It's one of my highlights for sure. About the food, here's the thing: we only really ate out once, and that was in Israel, and it was interesting because of course it's different. Like I tried to ask what kind of meat it was eating and I didn't get a straight answer. I felt uncomfortable eating it. I ate it anyway, but I still didn't know what kind of meat it was. It was a little concerning. But the food was really good, it was very fresh.
JD: The comedy scene in Winnipeg is starting to bubble up with open mics and more guest spots at the clubs here in town. And there's quite a few more female comedians in the city than there have ever been before. Do you have any advice for a young female comic just starting out, specifically. For young comics in general, but namely female comics in this country, it can be hard enough to build a career. But do you have any advice for anyone just starting out?
JG: I would say to any new comic: don't take anything too hard, because it's a process and it takes a long time to become really confident on stage. You only know that by getting there and then looking back. I had so many torturous sets, where I didn't do well or bombed. I'd take it so hard, and now I know it's hard not to, but the sooner you can accept it's a process rather than, "I'm going to be amazing in one year" -- or even five years for that matter -– it takes a long time to get comfortable. I'd say just try your best to have fun and don't expect things to happen too quickly -- just enjoy the process. And I don't really have anything specific for females, because I think drawing attention to the differences to a male comic -- we're different only by gender. I went into comedy just thinking of myself as a comic. I didn't think of myself as a female comic, and I found it really interesting that people would come up and I'd be like, "Oh yeah, I guess I am a female comic. Who cares? It doesn't matter." Females get more opportunities because we're a minority, but people say that in the beginning -- especially as an amateur female -- it's harder to prove yourself on stage. However, funny is funny. That's the one equalizer. Funny is funny, so it doesn't matter whether you're female or male.
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.