"I don't think I'm ever going to find something and stop," Jessica Holmes acknowledges.
In her new memoir, I Love Your Laugh: Finding the Light in My Screwball Life, the 37-year-old comedian describes her journey to self, one she feels will never end.
Best known for her work on CBC's Royal Canadian Air Farce, where she was a cast member for six seasons, Ms. Holmes has always inhabited other personas. Her hilarious impersonations of Celine Dion, Laureen Harper, Liza Minnelli and Calista Flockhart, among others, are memorable for her ability to "find the funny" in the personalities and mimic a telling mannerism.
But she has also inhabited different versions of herself.
In her 20s, before her rise to fame in Canada, the Ottawa citizen was a missionary with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, working in Venezuela. "I'm into peak experiences!" she explains. "It's part of my personality," she says in a suddenly lowered voice, leaning forward. "That's why I have my little subscription to Psychology Today. I read things, and I'm, like, oh that's me!"
Ebullient as a child, Ms. Holmes often cuts herself off in the middle of sentences when she feels she's saying too much - about her worry over her weight, about the common assumption that female comics aren't as funny as men, about her nose, which she hates but thinks makes her appropriately ordinary-looking.
Her time as a Mormon wasn't a mistake, she says. It was a phase. "For me, boy, did it ever feel like the right thing when I first joined the church. I really did feel it was an answer to my prayers. It felt like proof that God existed and that this was the right path for me. And then three years later, it was just the wrong thing." She couldn't live with the church's stance against homosexuality.
The experience yielded hilarious anecdotes, as well as her Air Farce character Candy Anderson, a craft-making right-wing Christian. Once, her Mormon sisters tried to make her over by tweezing her heavy eyebrows and teasing her hair. "They would say, 'Bangs up to heaven, Sister Holmes!' " she says, collapsing in laughter. "They made me look like a country singer. I felt so awfully out of place but I would say, 'Really? Really? Do I look like one of you?' I felt so proud in that moment even though I looked hideous with a little pinafore and doily collars."
A few marriage proposals came her way from fellow missionaries. "They proposed on the third date, knowing they didn't love me. And one guy prayed about it and said that he was given the answer that I was to be his bride, and I was, like, I didn't get that answer and I prayed," she says, screwing up her face in exaggerated confusion.
At the time, she would jot down events and people in a "funny journal" even though none of the Mormons shared her sense of humour. The note-taking was a practice from childhood. "I appreciated humour the way other people take photographs of pretty flowers," she says. "It was like a hobby … I've always loved comedy. I just didn't know comedy liked me."
Trading her Bible for a microphone, she found success as a stand-up comedian. "In that moment [on stage] it's not just feeling like I did it and you laughed, it's more like feeling this is what I'm supposed to be doing. I put smiles on people's faces." Television offers soon followed. In 2002, she headlined a sketch comedy troupe, The Holmes Show, on CTV. But it was cancelled with self-esteem-crushing disappointment. " Comedy Inc. came out and all the ingredients were the same [as The Holmes Show]except for me, so I was, like, 'Oh, they were my friends,' " she says, crumpling her face. A few bad stand-up routines followed, prompting her to think her comedy club days were over. In 2003, Royal Canadian Air Farce provided a safe landing. "I thought I should stick to what I know and play it safe."
Her decision to leave the popular CBC show two years ago was a calculated risk. "I had to leap out of the nest!" she blurts. "I wanted to regain my confidence. I wanted to face the monster and force myself to start up again where I had left off." Fame is not satisfying, she says. "Creatively, it's not enough. And whatever I do tomorrow, it won't be enough. That doesn't mean there's something lacking. It means there's something creatively that needs to come out."
To complicate the journey of finding herself, Ms. Holmes became a mother three years ago but floundered with feelings of inadequacy. She and her husband, Scott, an actor, now have two children, aged 3 and 18 months. After the second child, she suffered postpartum depression. "It was me feeling like all these other women can handle it. They leave the house with two kids every day and go to the park. Why can't I? It had me feeling like throwing up … [Motherhood]takes a certain centredness, a patience, and I used to think there was something wrong with me. And now I just think I have other things I can do and every single person has other things. Maybe some of the women who are the most dedicated moms have that [same ambivalent]feeling about going to parties or about their careers. I've accepted about me that I have places where I can really stay for a long time in life and one of those places is not in the playground. I'm okay about that now."
The writing of a memoir - her first book - came as a surprise. When she left Air Farce, "I thought I was going to write material for a show," she says with a shrug. But if listening to her muse has led to an unpredictable path, she is prepared to follow it.
Ms. Holmes has made a career out of finding the funny in other people, in situations, and now in her own life. "Who knows? Like, I might be a dentist next!" she says in acknowledgment of her restless spirit. She pauses to sip her wine then begins to laugh as a thought occurs to her. "Hey, I might even be a Jehovah's Witness dentist."