Pete Johansson isn’t even 40 yet it seems like he’s been around forever. The Kelowna native started his standup career in his teens, in Vancouver in 1989, and has spent chunks of time here and in Los Angeles, Montreal, and London. It’s like he’s had four distinct careers.
Johansson has been living in the U.K. for the last five years, mounting shows at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, making television appearances, and touring the world from his new home base, but the local kid still feels a strong connection to the area.
“I’ve always been a strong and vociferous proponent of western Canadian comics and their under-representation in the overall entertainment industry,” he says over the phone from Banff, where he, Arj Barker, Craig Campbell, and Dan Quinn are playing with the annual Snowed In Comedy Tour. “It always pisses me off when I see guys from Toronto and out east getting Just For Laughs when we have just as good talent out west.”
To drive his point home, three of the four acts on this growing tour have western Canadian roots. Campbell, who’s been in England even longer than Johansson, is an Alberta boy who spent his formative comedy years in Vancouver, while Quinn, who’s the father of Snowed In, still resides here. (Barker is a West Coaster, too, albeit from California.)
Proving they’re just as worthy as their eastern counterparts, the lads will play 27 shows around B.C. and Alberta, with one stop in Bellingham for good measure. And in mid-February the tour makes its first run to the Swiss Alps, while a foray into New Zealand for its winter in July is in the works. They’ve been filming themselves along the way, and will at their upcoming appearance at the Vogue, for a possible sale to television.
“Every year we come back and the crowds are bigger and bigger,” says Johansson. “There’s this idea of hope that I think inspires, too. Like, ‘Oh, wow, we can do this ourselves. We don’t need a club or an organization.’ People will show up to see you, the comics. To be reaffirmed of that in Canada, where we thought the club system was king, it’s just fantastic.”
The tour is like a working holiday for the comedians, who snowboard all day and take to the stage at night. It makes for sore bodies but soaring spirits. “Craig put a branch through his face last year and had 15 or 20 stitches, Dan has hurt his back really bad, Arj hurt his hip flexor, and I hurt my LCL ligament in my knee.” Not that they care.
“It’s beautiful for the spirit and the mind,” says Johansson, who took to the sport only four years ago. “It’s so amazingly spiritual. Not to sound corny or new-agey or anything, but you just feel great. It’s something I look forward to all year now. I’ve never had a hobby I’ve cared this much about.”
Each comic, a headliner in his own right, will perform about 25 minutes. Last year Johansson talked about the ravages of age on his body. This year his whole set will revolve around bears. It’s not just that he has a fascination with the creatures, but that’s part of it.
“They’re a great medium to talk about other things because they’re cute and people love bears,” he says. It fits beautifully into the Johansson style, which is silliness mixed with social criticism. “I like to trick people into thinking” is how he puts it.
As opinionated and intelligent as he is, he’s come up against societal barriers in his travels. “I was in Malaysia and I had a joke where I said, ‘Imagine how much more advanced your country would be if you had a call to science eight times a day instead of to prayer.’ I had to not say that.”
Rather than fight it, Johansson takes a pragmatic approach. He picks his battles: “If you’re banned from everywhere then you don’t have a voice at all, do you?”
Spoken like someone who really has been around forever.
The Snowed In Comedy Tour plays the Vogue Theatre on Saturday (February 2).