When Ari Matti first arrived in Vancouver from halfway around the world, he lugged his bag straight to the late-night open mike at Yuk Yuk’s and hit the stage at 12:52 a.m., the 31st of 32 comics on the show. He knew no one and no one knew him.
Back home in Estonia (where he goes by Ari Matti Mustonen), he had developed a name for himself in the blossoming comedy scene, selling out theatres across the country. He didn’t care that he was now playing to eight people; he came to Vancouver to further develop his comedic chops. Despite his success in Estonia, the 27-year-old was a relative newcomer to the genre.
Growing up on Eddie Murphy and Dave Chappelle, who made it look easy, Matti, in his late teens, decided to give it a go. Not knowing that comedians spend years developing an act, he put on a show. How hard could it be?
At just 18 or 19—it’s all a fog to him now—he sold tickets and filled a venue. There’s nothing like a room full of silent people to tell you you’ve got some work to do.
“I was drenched in sweat,” Matti says, sitting outdoors at a downtown café. “I bombed for an hour. I still didn’t understand structure; I didn’t know that Louis C.K. was not just talking; I thought Dave just had some ideas. I didn’t know what a closer was, a premise. The crowd wasn’t laughing. See, that’s the problem with Estonians. They’re such nice people that they don’t leave.”
But bombing didn’t dissuade him. Taking off for Australia, he entered what he calls “comedy college”. He took a workshop in Melbourne, where he lived for just under a year. He watched comedy specials every night, devoured podcasts, talked to established comics, and, most importantly, hit every open mike available. His mentality was “This gig is going to make me one percent better,” he says. “Eight gigs a week is automatically better than two gigs a week.”
He quotes from his “textbooks” during our conversation: autobiographies and memoirs by the likes of Kevin Hart and Sebastian Maniscalco.
A one-week trip to Thailand turned into four months. “The scene was erupting and entertainers were so needed,” he says. “A headliner saw me for literally 10 minutes and said, ‘I’m going on tour for two months. You’re going to open.’ ”
After that stint, he headed back to Europe, thinking his life was over. But he stuck with it. The talents he picked up abroad helped him stand out back home. “Estonian people hadn’t seen…the style I brought from western comedy, the physicality, the confidence.” He started a podcast with a fellow comic that took off and soon comedy fans were showing up to his shows in shirts emblazoned with jokes from the podcast or his act.
He turned down a TV offer because he didn’t want to be a big fish in a small pond: “I made the decision that I can’t get stuck here.”
Enter Vancouver. The past year he’s been honing his craft at every comedy room in the city and surrounding area, gaining confidence in English every step of the way. “People know comedy here. They don’t give you free laughs,” he says.
His year is coming to an end, however. Come July 4, he’ll be on a plane home. But first, he’s headlining a farewell show at the Rio the night before. He calls it Imported Goods, and it features some of the friends he’s made during his stay, all with an immigrant connection: Ola Dada, with a Nigerian background; Dino Archie from the U.S.; Andrea Jin, a Chinese-Canadian; and Andrew Packer from… Toronto? “He’s not that much of an immigrant but he’s an outsider,” Matti says. “And I have to show my respects for the Raptors.”
His flight leaves at 7 a.m., so he’ll end his stay here by bringing the same travel bag to the gig that he hauled into Yuk Yuk’s last July.
Ari Matti’s Imported Goods plays the Rio Theatre on Wednesday (July 3).