Winnipeg Comedy Fest Interview: Comedian Steve Patterson on CBC's The Debaters, the festival, and more

Filed under: Interviews

Winnipeg comedy fans should be familiar with Steve Patterson (@patterballs on Twitter), the longstanding host of CBC's The Debaters (@cbcdebaters).

When Patterson is not hosting debates or performing stand-up comedy, he can also be found hosting HGTV's I Wrecked My House, a new home renovation reality show which debuts April 28 at 10pm on HGTV Canada.

The Debaters will once again descend on the very city that hosted the show's original demo years ago to record three new episodes at the 2015 Winnipeg Comedy Festival. The debates -- scheduled for 2pm on Saturday, April 11 and Sunday, April 12 -- will also feature an array of great Canadian comics, such as Derek Edwards, John Wing, Bruce Clark, Big Daddy Tazz, and Darcy Michael. Tickets are now available by clicking either date above.

Tony Hinds: So how does The Debaters work from behind the scenes?

Steve Patterson: We give the debaters about a month to prepare, so they have time to write an opening and closing argument. What they don't have time to do is prepare for what the other people say to them during the bare-knuckle round. Every episode kind of goes off the rails at some point, which is why I like doing it. It's not completely off the cuff, but there's a good chunk of it that's off the cuff, which I think makes the show what it is. The show is well-written but you have to be able to think on your feet to do it. It's not for every stand-up comic. A lot of stand-ups like to do their show and not be interrupted, but this one, you've got to be able to go different places with it. We have some people on that are sketch performers and actors and improvisers, as well as stand-up comics, because there is a pretty good element of improv too.

It's a pretty known commodity at this point, especially in Winnipeg, just because we've been doing it every year and I'm sure a lot of the same audience members are coming out again. And they can, because it's always a different line-up. There will be some of the same comedians debating, but now they're debating different topics and we have them against different people. It's got an edge to it that I don't think people know, but it's not a gross show. It's not gratuitous, but it's going to be edgier than the radio version.

TH: Does the CBC ever give you flack over the content on the show?

SP: I think there have been times. I think more so with the TV show. They trust us now. It's tough sometimes for me to listen, because I know everything that happened. So I'll think to myself: "I wouldn't have cut that joke." But at some point, they have to make these decisions. I think we probably get more letters from CBC listeners than any other show. Sometimes, they're just correcting our grammar, or pointing out that a fact we made up is not a fact. (laughs) But that's because the CBC has well-informed listeners. We get a little bit of backlash, but we're always careful to walk to the line, and in the radio version at least, not walk over it. But in the live version, we certainly do cross the line sometimes, and it's my job when that happens to bring us back to the line.

TH: You came more out of the world of stand-up though, right?

SP: Yeah, I took a couple Second City courses way back when and was able to hold my own, but I just preferred stand-up for what I do. The improv definitely helps, and I do love watching really good improv. I just like a mix of something that's prepared and something off the cuff, and (The Debaters) fell from heaven for me.

TH: The Debaters Winnipeg Comedy Fest shows are all scheduled in the afternoon. I always think of comedy as being in the domain of nighttime. Do you feel like comedy is more difficult during the daylight hours?

SP: I'm glad you said that, because yes, it is. It's sort of like for anyone who works a 9 to 5 job, it would be like them starting work at three in the morning from your own biological clock standpoint. I mean, it shouldn't be seen as a negative, but the hospitality of the people who run the Winnipeg Comedy Festival is such that you don't really have the option of going to bed early the night before. (laughs) Two in the afternoon is the absolute earliest that it can start. I don't even think the debaters would be coherent in the morning, so it's tough to get up for that atmosphere. When we tape it pretty much anywhere else, we tape at night. It just happens to be that everyone on the show is doing other shows for the festival at night, so we have to do it this way. It's tougher, but we've sort of gotten used to it and the debaters, they do what they have to do to ramp themselves up for the afternoon. It's always a good time. We somehow seem to transform the day into the night when we do these tapings. But you're absolutely right, it is more difficult during the day.

TH: Although, I suppose the benefit of the afternoon time-slot is that it's easier for families to attend.

SP: Yeah, people do like to bring their kids out to the shows. I wouldn't call it a kids show (laughs) but it's family-friendly. The kids might hear a couple of ideas that they might not normally hear at a matinee show. But parents like to bring them out and I like to involve the young people who come out to the tapings as much as possible. I had a nine-year-old girl in Vancouver help me choose the winner of the debates last time. I think we're a pretty unique comedy and CBC show in that way.

TH: What are the big pitfalls that young comics starting out today fall into?

SP: I know a lot of good young comics, and I think it's just gotten more competitive. The worst thing that you can do, and it's funny we just had this sort of as a topic on The Debaters, is just showing the world your comedy before it's ready. The inclination is that I just do whatever, tape it, put it out there online. Or someone else has taped it and put it out online. And now, that is the comic that you are to the whole world. It used to be a lot easier to do shows in clubs and you weren't worried about someone taping you with their phone. By the time you got something out there, it was ready. You had worked on it. And now, stuff leaks so early that you're almost afraid to do a live show. You almost have to assume that the material is going to get out there before it's ready. Also, there are a lot more comics. There's still some great comedy. There's just a lot more horrible, terrible comedy that's getting out into the world that wouldn't have before, because of that technology.

TH: What about some of the more established names in comedy?

SP: Well, you have those prolific guys who feel like they have to put out an album a year. The Louis CKs of the world, and they're great! But it's pretty tough to put together a brilliant new hour of material annually, so then what happens is everyone starts to compare that person to themself. Pretty quickly, you become, "Hey, he wasn't as funny as he was last year." That's just because the show that was his whole life's work was better than the show that was the last six months of his life. And there's pressure with the Louis CKs of the world, putting stuff online for five dollars! (laughs) Then, you're obviously a total asshole if you try to charge more than five dollars, because the guy everyone knows is doing it for five bucks. If you put your show out for ten dollars, everyone thinks: "You think you're twice as good as that guy?" That's a challenge, too.

TH: That's such a good point. There are comedians all over the world saying, "Dammit Louis, why couldn't it have been ten dollars?"

SP: (laughs) Exactly! "C'mon Lou, you could get fifteen out of 'em!" Now, we're all dicks if we charge more than five.

TH: The radio show element almost feels like a throwback to an old school form of comedy. I mean, I love radio comedy, but it's not as abundant as it once was.

SP: Well, I think satellite radio and streaming stuff is helping. On a long drive, I'll often put on the comedy stations and they have sort of short snippets of comedy. You can listen to comedy for a long time, and what I like about strictly audio comedy is that there's no crutch of the visual. You can't just say, "it would look something like this," and contort your face. It's all writing. It's performance with your voice, as well. But you don't have a zany look to fall back on, which can make it a little bit easier. It's more of a challenge when it's just audio. I really like it, and I say that as one of our funniest and most consistent debaters is Jon Steinberg, who happens to look hilarious. (laughs) When we did the TV taping, the crowd was giggling just looking at him, and on top of that, he's a very, very funny comedian and he brings it all together. It's got that element of theatre of the mind to it, that if you're just looking at something, the audience has to fill in some gaps and that's part of the show, too.

As anyone does when you just hear someone, you get that element of imagining what they look like, and that's sort of fun for people, too. Coming to the tapings is always a real eye opener for people because we tape about 2:1 time ratio, so 30 minutes will be 15 minutes on the radio. We have to cut half of what happens and a lot of funny stuff happens during these tapings. It's a thing that I do that I invite all my friends to wherever I am, anytime I do it, because it's always fun. There's always different comics and different topics covered. It's sort of like a festival in one show because we have so many comics on it, lots of different voices.

TH: You're also hosting HGTV's upcoming show, I Wrecked My House. How did that come about?

SP: It's kind of a weird thing that I never thought I would find myself doing. The producers of the show asked if I would do it, and I basically get to go into people's houses that have had horrid home renovation jobs and, I don't want to say "make fun of", but I do get their stories and make sure they're laughing and have fun with them. Then, a really cool contractor and his team fix it and I take them back through their homes and show them how it should have been done. It's interesting, because it's the first time HGTV has even put a comedian on their network. They sort of rely on home builders who have a sense of humor, as opposed to a comedian with no sense of home building. (laughs) We're still filming it now, but the first episode airs in April. It's pretty nuts. We'll see if we can successfully bring comedy into that genre. Right now, it's just adding comedy for comedy's sake. It's not going to be like: "Now let's watch Steve fix this." There is none of that! Steve doesn't fix anything. (laughs)

Big thanks to Steve Patterson and everyone at CBC's The Debaters for chatting with us. See you at the festival!

Tags: Winnipeg Comedy Festival, Steve Patterson, CBC, CBC's The Debaters, The Debaters, I Wrecked My House, comedy, stand-up

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Tony Hinds is a Canadian writer who studied film at the University of Winnipeg. In addition to, Tony has reviewed films for Step On Magazine and The Uniter. You can find Tony on Twitter.

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