Most of us see organic, free-range chickens in the supermarket and we buy one or we don’t. End of story.
For Canadian comedian Jen Grant, it’s the beginning of a story, or at least a two-minute stage routine. Chickens like these, she reports, ingest no chemicals and get to run around free, which is their big selling feature. “What’s going on in the world that I need to know the activities of my meat before I eat it?” Grant asks her audience. “What’s next? A bio and resume? Oh, ‘Played well with others.’ Ok, I’m going to eat this one. I bet you can taste its outgoing nature.”
Grant, who hosts the ninth annual New Year’s Eve Comedy Night at the Shenkman Arts Centre in Orléans, is masterful at the kind of comedy in which a perfectly ordinary situation is mined for unexpected possibilities, wry humour and absurdity. As she often does with other routines, she also weaves her observations into a loose-knit story, in this case one that includes a self-congratulatory woman named Marjorie and Grant’s own cheap shoes from Payless.
Such storytelling, she says, “connects people; everyone has a funny story. It makes it personal rather than just feeling like a script. In my comedy, I also talk about observational things that I think are really weird in life and that no one talks about.”
Describing herself as 30 per cent extrovert and 70 per cent introvert, Grant says she likes to observe the weirdness of humanity and that poking fun at our common strangeness draws people closer.
The tart-tongued comedian, who grew up in Ottawa, attended Carleton University and is again living in the area after time spent in New York City, Toronto and Vancouver, got her start at Yuk Yuks here in town more than 21 years ago. She still recalls vividly her first show.
“I was terrified. I couldn’t eat all day. I basically memorized my act and said it so quickly and just got off stage as fast as possible. The second time was worse because the first time went well, and I said, ‘Beginner’s luck.’ If I hadn’t gone up the second time I don’t think I would have pursued stand-up — it’s so terrifying.”
So, why does she do it? Because, she says, she doesn’t like holding down a regular job. Because she enjoys making others laugh. Because she’s a middle child who’s comfortable playing peacemaker and likes to remind people that life is fun and funny.
The funny part is everywhere if, like Grant, you keep your eyes and ears open and remain sceptical. One of her routines sends up pretentious beer connoisseurs: “Is this microbrewery beer? This is delicious. Can you taste the hops?” Elsewhere, she disses people who tell her she looks tired. “That’s like going up to a fat person and saying, ‘You look full. Are you full?’” Her Homemade Wine routine pillories those who insist on bringing the stuff to a fancy dinner (the routine can be found on her CD Nobody Likes Your Homemade Wine, which includes tracks like Loser Friend and Wrinkles and Balls).
Her humour has landed her spots at major comedy festivals including the Just for Laughs festival. She’s also appeared on CBC’s The Debaters and the Comedy Network and she is a keynote speaker who urges audiences to use humour in dealing with stress.
Asked what it’s like to be a female comedian in Canada, she says she’s never labelled herself that way — “I think that’s very limiting, very sexist.” Instead, she thinks of herself as a “human comedian.”
Grant adds that, while there are many women performing comedy in Canada, few are headliners.
“One time, I did a corporate show at this fancy country club and I showed up with this guy who was opening for me. The (man who greeted us) said to the guy, ‘So, you’re the headliner,’ and the guy said, ‘No, she is.’ The (man) said to me, “Whoa, you must be really good.’”
At the same time, she says that being part of a minority in comedy can be an advantage because television networks and other presenters want to offer diverse representation.
“Ultimately, funny is funny. If you get on stage and you’re good at what you do, people are laughing. It doesn’t matter whether you’re female or male or purple; it really doesn’t matter.”
It did matter at a corporate gig in Toronto in 2015. A male audience member started heckling her with lewd comments. She finally walked off the stage in tears, feeling humiliated, and the incident remains a sore point. “I don’t even joke about it on stage. It’s frustrating that it’s still like that in my industry.”
She hasn’t been harassed like that on stage since.
In a keynote talk, Grant says that self-deprecation is one of the most popular forms of humour. Pay attention to Grant’s routines and you’ll notice self-deprecation creep in even when her subject is someone or something else.
“It makes you vulnerable and helps you connect with other people,” she says. “So much of comedy is connecting with people and disarming them… people are thinking, ‘She tripped and fell, and here’s a funny story about that. I’ve done that, too.’”
Jen Grant hosts the ninth Annual New Year’s Eve Comedy Night with Christina Walkinshaw and Julien Dionne at the Shenkman Arts Centre in Orléans, Dec. 31. Tickets and information: shenkmanarts.ca, 613-580-2700