Campus Life
This Humber alum is making space for women in comedy
by David Ratcliffe | November 20, 2019

“Just do what truly comes out of you.”

Debra DiGiovanni is an award-winning comedian and Humber alum. You may know her from Match Game, Video on Trial, and Last Comic Standing. Debra has been nominated for a Juno for Best Comedy Album for Lady Jazz. Her comedy special Here’s the Thing is available on Crave. Debra had been performing comedy for 19 years and I was honoured to have the opportunity to chat about her experience in the industry.

If you’re interested in starting stand-up or you’re a comedy fan, I encourage you to read on for Debra’s story.

comedian Debra DiGiovanni laughs on stage

Can humour be taught?

DG: I don’t think it can be taught, but I think it can be honed. I think there’s a common belief in the comedy community that anyone could have a good set. Like literally anyone. Anyone could get up with some work and preparation for five minutes and get big laughs. Like any human person.

It’s the consistency and always doing it and long sets in front of different crowds all over the world. Do you know what I mean? And that you can’t teach. You could write something for someone, direct them, walk them through it, and they have a good set, but actually being funny, that’s just born. You’re just born with that. It’s genetics.

What was the biggest issue you had when starting out and do you have any advice for people trying to break into comedy?

DG: My number one tip is just to get on stage as much as you possibly can. Especially in the first five years of your comedy career, because you’re just figuring out who you are. When people talk about persona, it’s not so much a thing anymore. It used to be. But even so, your persona, your plan, your point of view, it will change. Get your voice, get your legs, you know what I mean? That’s the most important thing. Like if you say, “I do comedy twice a month,” that’s ridiculous, that’s a waste of your time, you should stop. If you can’t get on stage upwards of four sets a week, move somewhere that you can.

Another thing I’d say is always be kind to the staff, the servers, or whoever the booker is–introduce yourself, say hello. Those are the people who are going to remember you and will be the ones working at clubs and stuff. If you walk in and you’re rude, you’re not getting booked again. People want to work with people they like. I shouldn’t have to tell people that, but it’s true. It doesn’t matter how big you are, be kind to everyone around you.

But also, do what you want, don’t listen to other people. Don’t follow a style of comedy that you think is “it,” just do what truly comes out of you. Because that’s what’s funniest. I think being truthful always helps.

When did you figure out that you wanted to do comedy?

DG: I was just one of those people who always made her friends laugh. That was it. Especially when I left high school. I grew up in a small town called Tillsonburg which is Southwest Ontario. I moved to Toronto when I was 19 and felt the freedom of being on my own.

Once I was on my own and meeting people who I wanted to meet, rather than just the town that you’re forced into, that’s when it started–“oh you’re so funny, have you ever thought of performing?” When I went to college, I had my professors say to me, “you should be performing, you’re in the wrong program,” and it didn’t even dawn on me as a young girl in a small town.

I took improv classes which I loved, and that’s another good tip. A really great way to start stand-up is to take an improv class because it helps you trust yourself and that’s huge. If you want to do improv for the rest of your life, great. But you will benefit from taking one round of Second City because it’s really beneficial. Once doing improv, I realized no, no I wanted to be on stage by myself. That’s what finally did it, and of course, going to Humber.

 

Do you believe that comedians should be accountable for what they joke about? And has this recent trend changed the way you’ve performed comedy?

DG: I do feel held accountable because–it’s funny. I really do believe in freedom of speech and if it’s a joke, it’s a joke. That being said, there is good taste, there’s being a good human and there’s not. I don’t think I need to worry like that, I’m not that kind of person. I’m not going to slander other people, I’m not going to attack people on differences because that’s not who I am as a human. So when I see something like that I think you should be held accountable because that’s garbage behaviour. But do I think a topic is taboo? No. I don’t, especially if it’s funny.

It’s a fine line, but it’s a line. Comedy is punching down–it just is, because comedy is low status most of the time. High status is very difficult. To win an audience over like Anthony Jeselnik does is high status, and he does it beautifully. It’s a little bit like, “I’m weird, I’m broken,” and that’s what connects you to people. But then there’s the real punching down. Attacking people that are different, attacking people that are troubled–I think it really comes down to who you are as a human.

How’s your experience been as a woman in comedy? How is the industry right now been for women and has it changed since you first started?

DG: It’s been a 180. I started in Toronto with, what, like 12 of us? There wasn’t a lot. The whole thing is so weird because it’s a double-edged sword. I got a lot of gigs because I was one of the few women. So there was a bunch of gigs passed around a dozen of us because there were only a dozen of us. But then at the same time–why was there only a dozen of us? It was bitter-sweet. We got work because they always needed a girl and I was lucky to get that girl position. It’s also sad that it didn’t feel safe for women or the queer community to be performing.

Now it’s finally getting close to even. Still not yet, but soon. It used to be two out of 10 for women and the queer community, now it’s like four out of 10. And that’s still pretty terrific. It’s great. We want it to be 50/50 or even more but it’s huge. That’s been over 20 years.

Are there any lessons that you learned in the comedy program in Humber that you still used today?

DG: It’s the little things, the minutia that you don’t think about. It’s nice to walk in with the basics. It taught us to doggy paddle while everyone else was flailing. All the writing was great. I was improv-ing, acting–that was wonderful. The first time I ever did stand-up was in class at Humber. Learning about tags, and rolls, and little stuff that are things you have to learn on your feet as a comedian.

I was in the first year of the program and they brought in a person from the American Comedy Institution, Steven Rosenfield. He was literally the whole reason that Humber was so wonderful for me. He just had so much knowledge and everything he said was absorbed like a sponge. It’s the little things that you remember and keep with you. Other people have to learn on the spot and I went in with that in my back pocket.

Is there a project you have yet to do but want to pursue?

DG: I want to do more acting. Even at this point in my career, I don’t really have a lot of acting experience. I’ve always been very fortunate that most of my TV stuff has been me: Debra being Debra. And I am so grateful for that, that’s my favourite. But also, someday I would love to be useful in the world with comedy.

My best friend is a therapist and she works with people with addiction, and I’m sober. I have an issue with food and compulsive eating, and I would love to–if there was any way–in my life, somehow work in that area. I’d love to work with young women, young humans. I feel like eating disorders affect people very young and if I could save one person from going through the misery and the burden of having an eating disorder, that would be so great. I’m embarrassed–it feels so lame to say that but it’s true. I want to be a comedian, I want to make people laugh, I want to make money; but also, there is a real part me that would love to be useful in that cause if it’s at all possible.

comedian Debra DiGiovanni raises arm in disgust on stage

What comedians do you think are killing it right now?

DG: There’s so much good comedy right now:

  • Maria Bamford is still one of my favourites. She just gets better and better. She is comedy. Everything she says is so funny.
  • Owen Yang on Saturday Night Live, he’s just brilliant.
  • Nikki Glaser is funny, it’s terrifying–she’s such a good joke writer. She’s just so smart.
  • Sabrina Jalees is murdering things right now–she’s doing such a good job. She’s always had such great hustle.
  • My friend Dave Merheje.
  • Rory Scovel is one of my favourite comics, he’s a perfect comedian. He’s smart and he’s silly.
  • Toronto’s Mark Forward, he is one of the best comedians I’ve ever seen. He never stops. He’s so original and inspiring–completely fearless and he’s staying in Toronto. Since the first time I saw him, he was one of my favourite comedians.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


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