Canada’s Best Male Comic is at home in the middle of a great debate, a prerequisite for hosting a fast-paced radio show, or attending law school – two activities which Steve Patterson knows well.
Patterson, a Montreal-based standup comic and host of CBC’s The Debaters had a full scholarship to law school – a part of his bio most find hard to believe – before his penchant for public speaking rerouted his career path.
His dorm mates signed him up for a spot during a standup show at Yuk Yuk’s in Toronto, without letting Patterson in on the evening’s lineup.
“They called my name and I got out of the audience and talked off the top of my head for seven minutes,” Patterson says. “It’s not the way I would suggest starting standup comedy, but it’s the way I started. I certainly hope it’s not caught on tape anywhere. I wouldn’t want to try and recapture the magic.”
Aside from Patterson’s judgment of his debut, it was good enough that the club management asked him back. By the end of the school year, he returned to the stage.
“Whenever you can get a big laugh it’s a lot of adrenaline and if you get that early on in life, you don’t really need any other highs,” says Patterson, who was growing disillusioned with the process of obtaining a law degree at the time.
Eventually “the weird kid in class” who revelled in being a regular of London, Ont.’s citywide public speaking contests, put that early education to use and set off on a less traditional career trajectory.
“By the time you’ve travelled and eaten, often you’re in the hole. It’s a tough gig to make any money out of. When I hear people say: ‘I sorta might want to do comedy,’ I think they’re probably not going to succeed because you really have to want to do it,” he says. “I have more lawyer friends than any comedian in the world, but I decided to go a different way. It worked out. Took a lot longer than if I had gone into law, but I’m happy about it. I just feel at home doing it.”
The past decade has brought the kind of natural progression one could expect in the content of a comic’s act. The song parodies that would gain instant audience approval, (without the respect of his fellow comedians) have been exchanged for more original songs, now included in a set built around his own take on the day’s events, with a few open letters between observations. Patterson’s gigs (Just for Laughs, The Debaters, Short Film Face-off) and accolades (Best Male Comic from the 2013 Canadian Comedy Awards) are less of a certainty in the business.
But there are at least a couple of guarantees:
“The weird requests never stop coming in comedy,” says Patterson, while recounting an unfortunate corporate show that included an unimpressed guest destroying the vibe of the event, which happened to take place in a well-lit hotel dining room. “For whatever reason, comedy just doesn’t get the respect of other forms. Sometimes you’re not on a stage, you’re just in the corner of the room and they’ll leave all the lights on so it’s like you’re performing in an aisle of Wal-Mart.”
Though he describes his This Is Not Debatable! show as edgier than what he’s able to say on national public radio, he still doesn’t like to venture into dirty comedy, preferring instead to “walk to the edge and not go over it.” Another trend he doesn’t mind bucking – discussing the age-old differences between sexes.
“Some comics don’t like to do it because they feel it’s an old premise to talk about men and women individually and how they interact with each other, but I find all comics who don’t like to use certain topics because they’re overused, themselves are using overused topics,” he says. “You can make anything funny if you do it right and for certain crowds you just have to be as general as possible and not get too specific.”
It’s also a fail-safe topic for Patterson, who claims no immunity to bombing in the right environment despite his successes. A prime example of the rough crowd? Comedy in unexpected situations.
“I was at a festival where they decided they wanted us to do comedy on a ferry and not tell anyone it was happening,” he says. “Imagine you’ve finished your day at work. It’s Friday night and you just want to go home, but when you get in your car for the drive, there’s a comic in the passenger seat that you didn’t know was going to be there who starts doing a set. Would you be receptive to that or would you be terrified? Probably terrified.”
Now moving towards more potential collaborations and hopeful for new (and unannounced) broadcast projects to get off the ground – Patterson is quick to share advice with the next generation of standup comics choosing their paths and making sacrifices for a chance in a comedy career.
“Obviously it’s a cut-throat business. You’re out there by yourself and there are limited opportunities given to people and you want to be one of those people. I get it. I’ve been there. I’ve gone through periods when I’ve spent more time wondering why someone got an opportunity that I think I should have gotten, instead of working on my own act. I think that’s wasted brain space.”
For the Victoria amateurs: watch other comedians after your act, and if you happen to be in a position to give opportunities, do it.
“It will be a lot easier to live with you, if you start being a positive person who wants to help others, as opposed to putting everyone else down because you should have done something. I’ve been in that position and I’ve made a conscious decision not to worry about what I can’t control and to appreciate other comedians. I don’t begrudge people getting opportunities that I wouldn’t want. I’ll just go make my own.”
Luckily for Patterson, the approach has been fruitful thus far.
“I don’t mind being known as The Debaters guy at all. As a comic, it’s a great gig. I would feel worse if I was the lawyer who was sometimes funny.”
Patterson takes his one-man show to the McPherson Playhouse at 7:30pm Sunday (Nov. 17). Tickets are $47 at rmts.bc.ca.
Here’s who’s making the The Debaters host and winner of the Canadian Comedy Awards Best Male Comic 2013 laugh right now:
“Mountain man of comedy” K. Trevor Wilson, Dave Merheje and Christina Walkinshaw – a stand out for her honesty, Patterson says.
Also on his comics-to-watch list, Vancouver-based comedian Ivan Decker, whose observational comedy happens to remind Patterson of a “young Steve Patterson.”