The comedian (and writer and actor) Mark Forward once won a Yuk Yuk's award for the top comedian with a day job. He's long since given up that daylight gig; he's now a fixture on the Canadian stand-up scene and recognizable for his three-season stint on CBC's Mr. D and nearly 100 television commercials. Ahead of his first comedy special, taping Dec. 13, The Globe and Mail spoke with Forward about his early days and some of the encouragement he did and did not receive along the way.
Jo-Anna Downey, a comic and host of open stages in Toronto, died last week of ALS. A lot of the comedy community had wonderful things to say about how great a champion of live comedy she was. What was your experience with her?
I had no experience with ALS. You could watch it with her, because she was a performer. Each week it would get worse, and it was tough to watch because she had such a big personality. To watch her diminish was hard.
You tweeted that she had helped you. How so?
She gave me so much freedom and stage time, at her open stages. She was a big part of me being able to make money at doing what I do. She allowed me to be the comedian that I wanted to be.
Is that unique?
Yes. At some of these open stages you're starting out at, they try to lead you and control you. Even at the clubs, when you're starting out, they'll tell you what to wear. I remember being told to not wear a suit jacket on a Friday night, but to wear one on Saturdays, because that's when customers spend the most money. I remember thinking, "What are we talking about here?" It's a weird business. Jo-Anna was never one of those people.
What's your take on the comedy club scene here?
Toronto's the worst. Except for the Comedy Bar. That's what comedy should be. It should be hit and miss. It should be good and bad. It should be people taking risks.
I think the Corner Comedy Club has the right idea as well.
I haven't been there. I hope it's great. If it's trying to be its own thing, that's great.
You've been at this for a number of years now. You've toured the country. How do Toronto comedy fans match up with audiences elsewhere?
They're okay. They're … okay. The best place for comedy is Winnipeg.
It's a stock question, but did you always want to be a comedian?
No. I wasn't sitting in a basement, listening to [George] Carlin albums for eight hours. I hear other comics saying that, and I think, "Did I do it wrong?" I knew I wanted to perform, but I didn't know how or why. I did plays since Grade 3. I just wanted to be on stage. I went to theatre school. Hated that. Eventually I did lunchtime plays at Solar Stage, at Yonge and King, in the basement.
When did stand-up comedy start for you?
I got a job at a bar called Milwaukee's. The Laugh Resort was upstairs. I ended up bartending there. After a while I thought: "Why don't I take this bartender shirt off for seven minutes and try to tell jokes on an open mic?"
We talked about Jo-Anna, but was there anyone else who helped you, particularly early on?
My Grade 13 drama teacher. She was a horrible woman. She took me into her office and told me I'd never pass the course, no matter what I did. She didn't like me. She said: "You're never going to make it in this business." But the things she said to me drove me for a good eight or nine years.
I guess you showed her.
Well, no. I found out she died of cancer. She couldn't even let me have my moment where I get to say to her, "Guess what, I'm doing all right." In terms of motivating, it's amazing what spite can do.
Mark Forward tapes a comedy special on Dec. 13, 8 and 10 p.m. $10. Comedy Underground, Drake Hotel, 1150 Queen St. W., 416-531-5042 or ticketfly.com