“Hi, my name is Jon Dore. I can’t get to the phone right now. My roommate Steve Patterson is a racist. Please leave a message. Thanks.” BEEP
In the process of contacting Canadian comic Jon Dore for an interview before he arrives in Australia, I repeatedly reach his voicemail; performing in the LOL Sudbury Comedy Festival in Ontario, he’s understandably busy. So I leave a message for his ‘racist’ roommate Steve Patterson – a great Canadian stand-up who I met on one of several Australian visits – and assure Jon I’ll phone again. At least the delay enables me to watch a few clips online, not just of Dore’s stand-up, but also excerpts from the television show he landed after serving as the ‘whacky correspondent’ on Canadian Idol.
“Oh. I’m sorry to hear that,” Jon offers as his icebreaker, when I tell him. I figure I should just get stuck in. It seems to me Jon must have some experience in improv-based comedy, seeing as there’s a strong physical aspect to his comedy, and he’s able, when interviewing on his show, to ‘accept offers’ and bounce off them to go in a new direction.
“Absolutely,” Jon says – about the improv experience, I assume, since he carries on with, “but when you say ‘physically’, I’m not sure what you mean.”
“That bit where you take the stuff off the stool, move it, sit on it and start swinging your legs as the set-up for a joke,” I offer as a clear example. “There is a physicality to what you do.”
“Oh yeah,” Jon agrees. “I would say that’s a very specific moment where there’d be some physicality. I do walk onto the stage – so it’s starts pretty physically…”
There may be other clear examples that constitute evidence of a ‘physical’ approach to Jon’s comedy, he concedes, but he wouldn’t actually know. “I don’t think I’ve ever analysed it that way. I mean, I like to take it easy as much as I can and not move around much. I get tired.”
Fair enough. But as far as the improv aspect goes – there is clear evidence of it at work in one of my favourite clips from The Jon Dore Show, in which Jon turns to a little kid for help with giving up an addiction to cigarettes. It doesn’t look as though the kid’s been fed lines.
“We couldn’t feed him anything,” Jon confirms. Julian – the child in question – was chosen out of “a bunch of kids” because they were after someone who wouldn’t sound “scripted”. Although they soon discovered that Julian was no slouch when it came to ‘improvising’ either. “There was no way of controlling him,” Jon recalls. “He would get off the couch and run into the kitchen and pretend to shoot bad guys who weren’t there. He was a genuine child, completely unaware that there were cameras there.” The trick was to ensure that Jon ‘accepted all offers’ – bounced off whatever Julian did, using it as inspiration for the next bit. “We shot for about half an hour. We had to sculpt the interview into some kind of sensible viewing.” According to Jon, moments like those – “getting kids on the show, treating them like adults – are among his favourite. “That’s my theory: treat the adults like kids and the kids like adults. That seems to work out all right.”
Go (mis)directly to comedy
Jon got into comedy “the way anybody would”, he reckons: when he was a student in his early 20s, a comedy club opened in his neighbourhood in Ottawa so he went there and started telling jokes. “I was terrible, and I then just kind of kept at it. A lot of my heroes were comedians and were funny, but I never thought I’d be a comedian by profession. I always thought it would be a fun thing to try, and you just continue to do it and it seems work out.”
At the time, Jon was “slinging drinks” in a
bar to supplement his student loan while he studied television production – a
degree he completed. “It solidified what I wanted to do,” he says. “I had no
idea what I wanted to do in life, and then I studied TV broadcasting and found
out I loved writing and directing and editing.”
Hence, Jon has a hand in all aspects of The Jon Dore Television Show, from writing it with his friends, to producing it while friends direct, to sitting in on the edits and liaising with the network regarding notes on the show. In other words, he says, “I was a bit of a control freak. It was the only way it could have happened.”
Perhaps ‘being a control freak’ is the only
way the television show could have happened; the beauty of Jon’s stand-up is
that there is no clear-cut way any of the jokes happen. That is to say, the
only way to predict a punchline would be to predict the most unpredictable
outcome. He always seems to be subverting audience expectation. Is this because
he is always able to see a multitude of different options and pick the
seemingly least likely? A good question, according to Jon, but one to which he
doesn’t have know the answer.
“I think that’s just where, as a writer or a comedian, I naturally started to go,” he offers. “I started to see what would make audiences laugh, and it was the unexpected. The misdirection – making them feel like I’m going one way and taking them in a different direction – is what I became comfortable with. I don’t know when that happened or why that happened, I think that it’s just a natural way of evolving as a writer.”
Although, as far as Jon is concerned, “all comedy
is misdirection”. Not knowing what the comedian is going to say next is part of
what makes you laugh. “Sometimes it’s a more familiar punchline,” he concedes,
“but I prefer to work in a world where the punchline is not going to be
something familiar, it’s something the audience wasn’t thinking.”
Jon’s reluctant to analyse it further. Or at all, really. That mode of comedy comes naturally to him. “It’s how I behave with my friends. Having beers and talking, and then saying something they weren’t thinking always seems to get a response.”
Jon hasn’t visited Australia before. On the verge of departure he’s “very, very excited”. He’s also “scared”. In fact, he says, “I’m a whole bunch of things”, partly because he knows very little about the country – just what he learned at school and what friends have subsequently told him. “I imagine it’s a warm place,” Jon says. “People have told me that it’s very similar to Canada in terms of politics and personality.”
“Your flatmate would have told you that
breakfast costs too much,” I tell him. I remember Steve Patterson remarking,
from the stage, that the base price of a café bacon-and-eggs breakfast in this
country appears to $15, whereas back in Canada, it is $5.
“My flatmate?” Jon says. “Oh, yeah, I got your message. You’re thinking of a different Steve Patterson.”
What? Surely not…
Turns out the Steve Patterson Jon shares a place with is different to the Steve Patterson who has come to Australia a few times. “I know the Steve Patterson you mean,” Jon says. “I’m also friends with him. He now lives in Montreal. My friend Steve Patterson is another comedian and writer, who also helped me write The Jon Dore Television Show.”
“I was certain there was only one funny
Steve Patterson in Canada…” I offer.
“You know what?” Jon says, “I think they both wish there was only one funny Steve Patterson. This confusion is what we constantly run into now.”
Anyway, I soldier on and point out that the
other funny Steve Patterson’s observation: breakfast costs too much in
“Is that right?” Jon says, unfazed. “Here’s
where that won’t affect me: I won’t be up till afternoon! That’s how I save a
little bit of money.”
Not having seen a lot of Jon Dore’s work, I can’t make any sweeping generalisations regarding what his material is ‘about’. So I ask him to break it down. “I enjoy being facetious,” he says, proving it by adding, “I love lying – if you believe that! And I love being silly as well.” Like all good comics, Jon is drawn to any “so-called ‘taboo’ subject”, but adds, “not for any greater purpose – just that when tension’s built, it’s fun to relieve it.” Although he wouldn’t describe himself as “controversial”, and doesn’t specifically focus on ‘heavy’ issues like race and religion, Jon acknowledges the “built-in tension” of controversial topics that draws him to them. “If there is tension there, it’s a fun topic to approach,” he says.
‘Fun’ itself is a fun topic to approach, I
reckon. I put it to the comic: what does Jon Dore do for fun?
“Interviews!” Jon says. Not just a clever response, given that he’ll derive comedy from interviews on his television show. But he is a comedian, after all; isn’t ‘fun’ a comedian’s raison d’etre? Well it is in Jon’s case, almost by definition, since he adds that he does “just about anything” for fun, and that “everything’s kind of fun”. He can be more specific, of course:
“I love hanging out with my girlfriend. We
just ordered ‘heelies’ online. Adult-sized heelies.” ‘Heelies’, Jon explains,
are “the shoes with wheels in the heel” that you see kids scooting along in. “We
just found them incredibly cheap: $40 a pair, delivery included. So that’s fun.”
Grown adults in heelies. It is fun. But it’s also… rather childlike. Perhaps that’s where Jon’s theory – about treating adults like children, and children like adults – has its origins. As a comedian, he’s always ‘embracing the child within’, surely, in order to see the world fresh with a child-like innocence. Or not.
“I don’t know,” Jon says, sensibly avoiding
any high-falutin’ philosophical nonsense. “I don’t think about it. I just know,
for television purposes anyway, for whatever reason, it’s just fun to be
childish and ask child-like questions of adults because they come across as a
little more honest, a little more realistic, because they’re not crowded down
with red tape and rules. And then to treat a kid like an adult and make them
respond to various questions, they come out with some very earnest answers.”
It’s another one of those perfect comedy disjunctions and Jon cites a classic example of it: the show Kids Say The Darndest Things, best remembered for when Bill Cosby took over from Art Linkletter as host. “There was something fun about that: an adult in a suit with a microphone, asking a child to respond to a very adult-like situation and then saying something very childlike and honest.”
Treat adults as children and children as adults. I almost feel bad publishing it. It’s too good a secret to share with the rest of the world. Nobody needs the competition of other people who know ‘the secret to good television’. Jon’s not so precious.
“We’re all gonna die one day,” he reminds me. “Print what you want.”