Joking about about Nazis and fatherhood during the same set is no easy task, yet Charlie Demers has found a way on his new album Fatherland.
Toddlers are yelling in the background when the Georgia Straight calls Demers, just as he is dropping his child off at daycare.
Demers has been a professional comedian for quite some time, starting in 2004. After trying his luck at the infamous Urban Well, Demers was told by well-known Vancouver comedian Sean Proudlove that "the Well" was not really the starting-off point for a comedian. Not leaving empty-handed, Demers was given a list of one-nighters around town and ended up at El Cocal on Commercial Drive, which had a comedy night run by Graham Clark. Demers was unsure how to get on the show, so he showed up with a group of friends (always helpful to bring a bit of a crowd with you) and asked Graham for some time. Clark gave him four minutes, which is pretty standard for a first-timer.
Demers had to follow a comedian who had been poking fun at local antiwar rally where Noam Chomsky had spoken. “He was making fun of the way the guy who introduced Chomsky, and that had been me who had introduced Chomsky," Demers says. "It was a nice little entree that I could use as my opener. It was a lot of fun.”
Since the first night went well, the obvious question is: at what point of his career did he know standup was something he should pursue full-time? Demers chuckles and says, “I think that feeling is rarely permanent.” He says, “Sometimes on-stage it feels so good and it will be going so well and you just think that this is the thing I was born to do. And then you’ll have a sober moment, even the next day, where you think that there is nowhere to go in this country for a comedian. And so it's one of those things that has all kinds of existential malaise bound up in it, where I do find myself wondering how much longer I can make standup my main focus of my creative life.”
Hopefully, he won’t stop doing standup, but if he ever decides to hang up the mike he has other talents in his repertoire as a professional writer and voice actor. Demers reminisces about a time when he, Graham Clark, Paul Bae, and Erica Sigurdson had a nightly news panel show called City News List on City TV in 2009. “It looked like it was being produced in some Soviet satellite stage in the mid '80s,” Demers says.
A turning point came in 2009, when Demers began to explore his other talents. In addition to performing standup at Just For Laughs in Montreal, he also published two books, Vancouver Special and The Prescription Errors. Since then, he’s also expanded his resume by writing the first three East Van Panto plays (Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, and Hansel and Gretel).
Fast-forward to 2016, when Demers landed the voice of Walter the slug on the hit series Beat Bugs. “That was a real gift from God, that one,” he says. “We keep googling Beatles songs to see how much longer we can go. I’d love it to go on forever, but when we get to 'Helter Skelter' we’ll know that the end is near.”
This autumn, Demers is happy to talk about his newest album, Fatherland. Although the project mentions Nazis, and was released the day before Remembrance Day, the timing was simply about making the deadline for the Juno's Comedy Album of the Year Award, which will be handed out this coming March here in Vancouver. And while he acknowledges that talking about Nazis can kill a room, Demers has crafted his material in such a thoughtful way that it’s not just about shock value.
“Since I was a kid, I was fascinated by Nazis and mobsters. It’s like there’s like this voyeuristic thing where here are the people who are my exact opposites. Here are the people that when I zig, they zag when building the moral world.
“So much of comedy is about bringing out into the light the little dark corners of shared human experiences. It happens to be a moment in time where those dark corners are expanding and coming out into the middle of the room.”
With a degree in history, Demers has the educational chops to craft jokes that are thoughtful to the audience. “When you’re making a joke, so much of it is about intention and your level of thoughtfulness, and the audience intuits that.”
He's also a master of dad jokes. It’s easy to write a joke about young fathers and people in their 50s and 60s will like to hear about the fumbles of fatherhood because it brings up some fond parenting memories. “But a hip alternative show full of 20-year-olds think you’re going to move into this Wonder Bread type of comedy and like jokes about Volkswagens, but I keep my Volkswagen jokes on the Nazi side of the album”, he jokes.
“Any joke can be as lazy or meanful as your willing to make it," Demers says. Canadian comedy legend Irwin Barker who at the end of his career was making jokes about Costco. And usually a red flag that you’re listening to a hack is when they make jokes about Costco but, Irwin could make any premise funny. Irwin gave this advice to Demers: “There is no such thing as hack premise, only hack jokes.”
"Irwin's joke was about going to Costco and having cancer and no longer shopping there because he no longer needs that much of anything. It’s such a dark, jarring, and honest joke. It’s about Costco, but it’s really about mortality," Demers says.
“On my album, a lot of my jokes about being a dad but a lot of those jokes about being a racism and about fear. And the overwhelming burden of guilt placed on new mothers. Being a father is the main thing in my life right now and so naturally that’s what I’m going to think of for the jokes.”
Next up for Demers is a comedy crime novel coming out in the spring about Vancouver real estate and gang war, called Property Values (Arsenal PulpPress). We will be looking forward to that.