Nathan Clark and Ivan Decker jokers with serious talent
It’s a given that show business is full of gregarious look-at-me types. So it’s always surprising when the otherwise introverted take to the stage. What drives them to be the centre of attention when in their real lives they do their best to avoid it?
“A big part of me doesn’t know why I became a performer,” says the quiet Nathan Clark, who’s been a main-stage player with the Vancouver TheatreSports League for eight years, is a member of both Urban Improv and its sketch-troupe offspring Canadian Content, and works with the !nstant Theatre improv ensemble. “I like performing and I like when audiences like me, but I also like walking into a coffee shop and knowing that nobody knows me.”
True to his reserved nature, Clark doesn’t force himself on an audience, preferring to sit back and take the pith out of a scene, perfectly encapsulating it with a precise bon mot.
“In improv, I don’t tend to drive scenes or be the guy who’s making everything happen,” he says. “I tend to be the guy supporting the people. That’s where I feel my strengths are.”
After taking the resident improviser-training program at VTSL, Clark was given the call near the end of the course, asking if he was available to do shows that very week. He became a regular and hasn’t looked back since.
“I went from nothing to five shows in one week,” he says. “It was just terrifying. You’re right up there with all these people you really looked up to, and all of a sudden you’re in scenes with them in front of an audience.”
His dedication to the craft was such that he’d work at Pizza Hut in his hometown of Mission during the day then drive into Vancouver at night to do some improv. For three years.
“People would always be like, ”˜I can’t believe you drive that far for one show.’ And I’d be like, ”˜What are you talking about? Why wouldn’t I?’ And now I’m like, ”˜I can’t believe I drove that far.’ ”
The day jobs are gone and he’s moved to the West End, where he lives with his wife of one year. And he’s currently in the middle of the biggest show he’s ever done, Gutenberg! The Musical!, a 75-minute two-man musical spoof costarring Ken Lawson, which you can still catch on Saturday and Sunday (September 13 and 14) at the Granville Island Stage as part of the Vancouver International Fringe Festival.
Clark is really stepping out of his comfort zone for this one. Asked if he can carry a tune, he replies, “I hope so. It sounds stupid but I had no idea that there were notes you had to hit as a singer. I just thought people just sang. I didn’t get it.”
What he has always understood, though, is how to make people laugh.
Standup guy Ivan Decker may look boyish, but he draws his biggest influences from some pretty old geezers of comedy. Alex Waterhouse-Hayward photo.
Ivan Decker is an old soul. The 22-year-old standup comic has the rhythm and cadence of a bygone era’s comedians. It’s the juxtaposition of that style with his boyish looks that sets him apart.
Decker was influenced by all the usual suspects when he started out three years ago. Comics like the hugely popular Jim Gaffigan and Mitch Hedberg were his role models.
“Then I started exploring more comedy,” he says. “I started to like the older guys. That old style of comedy just seems a lot more fun. I find it to be more entertaining, quick-witted, clever kind of stuff.”
While many of his contemporaries listen to all the hip alt-com podcasts and recordings, these days Decker is listening to old Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis shows with guests like Danny Thomas.
He may be rooted in the masters, but don’t get the idea he’s doing throwback material. “You can’t be a carbon copy of that, because you’d sound ridiculous,” he says. “Nobody talks like that.”
Decker has accomplished a lot in a very short time. He’s already taped his own Comedy Now! TV special, which will air next year. He represented B.C. at the Just for Laughs Homegrown Comic Competition in 2007 and was the only Canadian to perform at that festival’s Best of the Fest shows—not once but three times.
He wasn’t scheduled to perform that coveted show, but got the tap on the shoulder telling him he was on after American comic Greg Fitzsimmons.
“I’m like, ”˜What? I’m not ready for this!’ There was that instant switch in my head where I went from ”˜I really want to do a spot’ to ”˜I can’t do a spot on this show! Look at all the people that are on the show. Who the hell am I?’ But the venue coordinator came up to me afterwards and went, ”˜That was really good. You want to stay and do the late show?’ ”
Decker’s singularity of purpose is perhaps one reason why he’s climbing the ladder of success so quickly.
“I really made it priority one in my life,” he says of comedy. “Any job I ever got, I always told them I’m not working nights.”
He’s also one of the few who actually sits and listens to the other acts. “They [other comics] come to shows to hang out, but they just hang out. They drink and they talk to people. They sit in the back and talk to each other.”
Decker believes you can learn from every comedian, good or bad. And while he still gets down after a bad show, he’s mature enough to take home something from the experience. After one horrendous show the night the Canucks were eliminated from the 2008 playoffs, he could simply have written it off to circumstances.
“I’m always hard on myself, because there are things I could have done to handle that situation better,” he says. “I never write it off. I know there’s always something I could have done. Because I believe there’s a way to succeed in every situation.”
Words from an old sage, indeed.