You could say that Graham Clark's path to standup comedy was partly paved in vinyl. His father owned an array of comedy records that the chuckle-hungry child would immerse himself in, LPs by the likes of Steve Martin, Woody Allen, and Monty Python.
"And even Cheech and Chong," recalls Clark on the line from his home near Cambie and 25th. "I think I was too young to be listening to it, but I also didn't know what they were talking about. I just liked their funny voices."
If Clark wasn't old enough to get the hippie/pot humour of C&C, he certainly had no problem digging the nerdy vibe of one character who was a little more kid-oriented. He was crazy about Pee-wee Herman.
"I really thought that's what comedy was," he says. "It just struck a chord with me. I knew early on that I liked silly stuff."
Clark's burgeoning desire to make people laugh manifested itself in high school, but it wasn't as if he was the class clown. One of his junior high teachers at Calgary's R.T. Alderman School, a Mr. Ward, made a distinction between class clown and class comedian.
"He drew a line and said, 'Class clowns are just trying to get a rise out of everybody, but the comedians are trying to get laughs.' He was a smart guy."
Clark was 15 when he first performed comedy in public, at a talent show put on by the Calgary Stampede. He didn't place in the competition but he got some laughs--enough to provide encouragement. He moved to Vancouver in 2000 to attend film school, but after he graduated the movie industry went on strike and there wasn't a lot of work, so he fell back on the funny stuff. His first paying gig was at the now-defunct Urban Well in Kitsilano, where the comedy shows were being run by Brent Butt of Corner Gas fame.
Fast-forward 20 years or so and Clark is one of the most recognizable names on the Vancouver comedy scene. He's a three-time Canadian Comedy Award-winner and has appeared at Just for Laughs, the Halifax Comedy Festival, Bumbershoot, and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. His next big gig is a 24-hour marathon on December 17 and 18 that will raise funds for the Little Mountain Gallery Eviction Fund. The independently operated comedy theatre and community space at 195 East 26th is being closed and demolished.
"It used to be a place called The Butcher Shop," explains Clark, "'cause it was formerly a butcher shop, and then some artists took it over and turned it into an art gallery, which it was for many, many years. One guy took it over and started bringing it up to code--doing electric and plumbing and stuff like that--and then it was deemed that it would be a pretty good space for comedy.
"There was a guy named Ryan Beil that was kind of keeping it going in the intervening years, and then a co-op of comedians took it over, and that's been a full-time comedy venue ever since. It has a lot of history in the city for sure."
Clark is emphatic that the loss of Little Mountain Gallery would be a major blow to Vancouver's homegrown comedy scene.
"Oh, it's vital. We're doing comedy as best we can in a studio where a lot of our venues have closed in the last coupla years. We're rapidly running out of places to perform, so it's of vital importance as a place for people to put on shows and for people to discover comedians that they like."
For the 24-hour comedy marathon, Clark won't be alone in his efforts to keep standup from falling down in Vancouver. He'll have a team of comedians constantly writing material for him--and handing him food so he can keep his strength up--as the clock ticks down.
"These are the best comedians in the city," he claims. "I've just been lucky to meet so many fantastic funny people in this city, so it was an easy crop to pick because it's so plentiful here. One of my favourites of all time, Charlie Demers, is gonna be there. And at this point a couple of the members of the Sunday Service, which happens every week. And we even have a guy named Tim Gray who's coming all the way from Winnipeg to write for the show."
Good intentions aside, one has to pose the question: considering the skyrocketing property values in Vancouver, is it even feasible to think they could find another venue for Little Mountain?
"We're hoping so," replies Clark. "I know the city of Vancouver has a policy that they don't want to lose any more art space, they want it like a zero-loss kinda number, so if one closes another one should open. And so hopefully under that banner we will be able to find a place kind of working in tandem with the city."
While standup comedy is Clark's bread and butter, his artistry doesn't stop there. He also paints with his beard and sells the finished works to support various charities. He started the hairy habit as a quirky way to try and raise funds for a friend's alternative cancer treatments, and the practice took off.
So far the sale of his beard paintings have raised funds for GlobalMedic’s earthquake relief efforts, Oxfam’s East Africa famine relief, Adsum for Women and Children, the Vancouver Food Bank, the Save the Rio Theatre Campaign, Charitable Impact (chimp.net), Alberta flood relief, Megaphone Magazine, the Downtown Eastside Women’s Emergency Shelter, Small Talk, and to purchase a new wheelchair for Ryan Lachance, a local comic living with spastic quadriplegia cerebral palsy. Money raised from Clark's most recent beard paintings are also destined for the Little Mountain Gallery Eviction Fund.
It's pretty obvious that the 40-year-old Clark is committed to raising as much money as he can for charities and worthy causes. So where did he get his propensity for helping others?
"I would say mostly from mom," he replies. "She was a nurse for many years, and she was always kind of keeping the community together. So that was baked in in my childhood, ya know."
Graham Clark's 24 Hours of Standup Fundraiser takes place at Little Mountain Gallery from 8 pm on December 17 to 8 pm on December 18.