In a Toronto hotel room, an Indian Scotsman is reconnecting with his fear. He spends his morning in phone interviews and by the evening he’ll be ready to take his personal gripes to a club stage, just to check in on the translation of his cultural nuances. Next week he begins a theatre tour from St. John’s to Victoria, where he’ll do two sets April 5 at the Royal Theatre. After 15 years sharing his life experiences as a standup comedian, of sold out runs at the Edinburgh Fringe, DVD releases and widespread acceptance across international audiences, performing new work at a club as he will tonight, still ignites fear within Danny Bhoy.
But shouldn’t we expect that from the laid back everyman?
“The fear’s the best part of it, really. It’s kind of a drug,” Bhoy says with a brogue warmer than a shot of single malt. “The thing that gives you fear now is still going back into the clubs and doing five minutes for a crowd that doesn’t know you. Suddenly you’re back in that moment of your first gig again, which was terrifying. Some people jump out of planes for a kick. This is what I do for a kick. I go to a club and try out new stuff.”
Once Bhoy launches the tour, the comfort and ease will return, and then eventually so will he, back to Scotland, back to building a new set and back to the familiar fears of working it out before a small audience. That the lowest stakes item on that itinerary sparks the most anxieties is logical given Bhoy’s uncommonly quick climb. In 1999, after just a year of open mics, Bhoy won the Daily Telegraph Open Mike Award and set his career off on a skyward trajectory. Skipping across the years a new comic generally spends cutting their teeth was one quick way to get Bhoy comfortable with a large audience early.
“The downside of that was that there was a lot of being thrown into the deep end, booked to do shows when I didn’t have the material,” he says. “I suppose that was a good thing as well because the fear drove me to write all the time and try out new stuff all the time. I definitely did the open mic circuit for long enough to know how hard it is.”
In 2001, he debuted his first solo show at the Edinburgh Festival and has returned nine times. His effortless and accessible observational musings have rung out in the Sydney Opera House, Just For Laughs galas and for audiences of Live at The Apollo and Letterman. And despite the uniqueness of his Indian-Scot heritage – which he likes to describe as a meeting of two very different characters on The Simpsons – he avoids relying on racial stereotypes that distinguish us from one another and instead focuses on the little things that unite us.
Maybe that’s why members of the media insist on labeling him an everyman.
“It’s one of those things where you’re not sure if it’s a compliment or a criticism,” he says, offering that being relatable is probably a good thing in his profession. “If you become quite famous and rich and visibly famous and visibly rich, you restrict the amount of stuff that you can talk about because all of a sudden … people don’t believe that you live in the same world that they do anymore. I try to keep my work out of the media as much as possible, because I still want to be able to be that everyman when I’m on stage and for people to believe that when I say I did this and that, they feel like it’s something they did. It’s very freeing for comedy to still feel like you’re one of the people, just a normal person.”
A key to maintaining the 40-year-old’s everyday, average guy status: shutting off upon his return home and hibernating in his Edinburgh apartment with some good DVDs, good cooking and good friends.
“Just really normal stuff because touring is such a bubble and such a strange life where everything is programmed and regimental. It’s a bit like coming home from leave, except I don’t physically get shot at on stage. I have had some pretty vicious heckling. It’s not quite the same as sniper fire, but it does feel like that, like I’ve been away in a different world for a bit, then I come back to a very normal life.”
More common than the vicious heckling is an inadvertent heckle, a symptom of the closeness and ease he has with his audiences – they tend to get overly familiar.
“You can take a room full of 3,000 people and make it feel like just a handful of people. Those are the best moments when you feel like you can hear a pin drop and you’ve got their attention, but it sometimes makes the audience lose that sense of perspective as well. They do feel like they’re sitting around a pub, chatting with you, shooting the breeze and they can interject at times when it’s not appropriate. I don’t mean heckling, but engaging in a way that they feel is entirely normal and reasonable. There is a downside to creating intimacy.”
These are the daily trials of the career comic – a man who despite the chops and opportunity to pursue other avenues in the entertainment biz, is pleased not to.
“I’m not determined to take over the world. I have no real interest in doing films or sitcoms like everybody else seems to want to do. I’m quite happy. My goal is to get better at this, keep getting better at standup, keep producing new material, keep finding different ways to entertain people and to challenge myself.”
Bhoy may have had good fortune at the outset of his comic life, but it was no accident. With a self-diagnosed attention disorder that pushed him toward the spotlight, he doesn’t have to wonder what he’d be up to had he not won the Telegraph’s Open Mike.
“I’d probably be a tramp, just shouting at people on the street,” he says. “In school I used to try desperately to make other kids laugh and make the teachers laugh. I found it an embracing thing, although not every teacher would agree with that. … But I never wanted to be rich and famous. Anything that comes is a by-product of wanting to make people laugh, a bonus, but not something I went out to achieve.”
What he has set out to achieve with his latest show, Dear Epson, is decidedly different from his sole former hope of inciting laughter and laughter alone. Inadvertently drawing a comparison between himself and US President Barack Obama, Bhoy divulges his new plan to tackle some of life’s biggest issues by calling out some of the smallest ones. The show is built around a series of letters to the people and companies at their core.
“My past standup shows have just been about making an audience laugh and to an extent, that’s still true, but this is a more thoughtful show in a sense that I’m taking on subjects that I hope will make people walk away and go: ‘Well I laughed and I had a great time, but maybe he had a point there. Maybe the guy had a point there! Maybe we shouldn’t buy that thing, or do that thing, or use that service,’ … I’m not taking on politics or big government. I’m taking on the little things that would make our lives infinitely better.”
Danny Bhoy and
Dear Epson at the
Royal Theatre April 5 Tickets start at $45.50, rmts.bc.ca