Comedian James Mullinger has the audience laughing uproariously with a story about sex toys. Sure, that's commonplace material for a comedy act, but he's not performing in a college bar or an urban nightclub. He's at Shadow Lawn, a grand, historic inn located in a leafy, upper-income suburb of Saint John, N.B. The 100 audience members are primarily retired or middle-aged professionals and business people from the town.
The story: A company sent Mullinger a box of sex toys because of a bit in a show he did in London shortly before he and his family moved to Canada last year. In the rush of packing for the move, the box was shipped along with everything else, and they never got around to throwing it out. As part of the act he's crafted for his Maritime audience, he included a story about the popularity of yard sales and how he decided to hold one himself at his Rothesay home near Shadow Lawn. His father-in-law was helping out, Mullinger says, and accidentally put the box of sex toys out for sale. Somebody not only bought them, but called Mullinger later that night to say something was missing.
"In order to ingratiate myself with the community, I had to have a yard sale – that'll be a nice way to meet all of my neighbours," he tells the audience at Shadow Lawn. "None of you told me it just brings out the freak neighbours."
After more than a year in New Brunswick, Mullinger admits his comic persona has becomes less "laddish" and more suburban dad, though it still has a crude edge that's refreshing even for conservative audiences in a province without a robust stand-up scene. Mullinger moved here for lifestyle reasons: His wife grew up on the Kingston Peninsula, a rural area outside Saint John, and they moved back here from London so they could slow the pace of their lives and spend more time with their young children.
Though he didn't expect to thrive professionally here, he quickly built up a local comedy business that includes regular club, theatre and corporate gigs in the Maritime region. He also produces a show for Bell Aliant called Blimey! An Englishman in Atlantic Canada. He was nominated for Best Live Solo Show at the recent Canadian Comedy Awards in Toronto (but didn't win). He is also the subject of $7-million feature film currently under production, The Comedian's Guide To Survival, with British actor James Buckley playing Mullinger.
"I have never been so happy in all my life," says Mullinger of his move to New Brunswick. "And the fact that it has improved my comedy career, as well as my private life, makes me wish I had done it a lot sooner."
Mullinger and his wife Pamela moved here in early 2014. He was a successful comedian and comedy editor of the British edition of GQ who had interviewed many well-known actors and comedians, including George Clooney and Jerry Seinfeld. She was the founding publisher of Monocle, and had worked as the head of fashion advertising for another Tyler Brule publication, Wallpaper. She left her job as publishing director when she moved here, but remains head of advertising sales for North America.
Mullinger expected to sacrifice a lot professionally. Saint John would be a jumping-off point for tours and shows in larger markets, but not much else, he thought. He has returned occasionally to the U.K., doing shows there last July and then again in October and November. But something unexpected happened. He started getting a lot of work here, booking stand-up shows and corporate gigs around Saint John and the Atlantic region.
"Everyone told me there would be no work for me here, and yet I am having to turn down more here than I ever did in England," he says. "I could work every night here. I don't think many comics in the U.K. could say that right now."
He promotes aggressively on social media, especially Facebook, but says most of his local bookings and big crowds come through word of mouth. People who see his standup routine often recommend him for corporate gigs. It creates added pressure, he says, because he can't afford poor performances like he can when he's just passing through a town or city on a tour.
"In the same way a builder or plumber or contractor in a small community can't risk making mistakes, because people talk, I have to be super-professional and go out and smash every gig," he says. "There's no room for error. If I have a bad show, too many people will hear about it and that will hit my business hard."
Bruce Hills, chief operating officer of Just for Laughs, says Mullinger is a rarity in the Canadian comedian scene. Hills says it's difficult to make a living on the national circuit, and comedians have to work hard on the business side to be successful.
"In Canada, it is essential [to approach comedy as a business]," he says. "A lot of comics don't do it. They consider themselves artists. They can't take rejection, and they're just not comfortable in that space. James is comfortable. He's so good at it, he could manage an agency [of comedians] himself."
Hills says Mullinger's genuine love of his adopted home is evident in his comedy: "He's not a snobby Brit talking down to people there. There's a mutual respect and appreciation. He's a smart person who knows what they want to hear."
Mullinger does seem to truly embrace life in Rothesay (pop. 12,000), comparing it favourably to life in London – with perhaps some exaggeration for comic effect. "I look out the window and I have a beautiful view of the Kennebecasis River," he says. "I looked out my study window in London and I could see a shop called Burger Feast with vomit outside it."
He still loves big cities – especially Montreal, where he did a week-long tour in the spring – but he no longer wants to live in one. "It is my favourite city in the world to visit," he says about Montreal. "I couldn't live there though. I am a country bumpkin now."