A UBC professor. A published author of fiction and non-fiction. The 1998 team captain for the Canadian high school world debate team. All of these are things comedian Charlie Demers is (or has been) when he’s not doing stand-up in Vancouver. I meet up with Demers for an early dinner at his chosen location, the Storm Crow Tavern, described online as “Vancouver’s Hottest Nerd Bar!” It’s a homey space with masses of signed Firefly posters and Doctor Who gadgetry coating the walls, as well as an abundance of obscure board games nestled in a corner. Demers seems to be a regular, shaking hands and spurting brief inside jokes with various patrons. He orders a beer, the beef stew, and we’re off.
A versatile force in comedy, Demers has been a stand-up for nearly nine years now, but his mindset for the business was set at a very early age. “I’ve always been interested in being funny, and I’m sure that had a lot to do with the household I was born in, the things that were valued in my family,” says Demers. “My mom, in a baby journal when I was about two weeks old, for the first time in my life, referred to me as a comedian because I had peed on a doctor. That’s something a lot of babies do, but not every mother puts a comic frame on it.”
Already seen with a talent for humour, Demers was cracking jokes as a young boy. “I remember doing my first bit when I was six or seven years old,” says Demers, chuckling as he sets down his beer and prepares his brief story. “My parents were talking about a couple who had gotten pregnant by accident and I did a whole bit on how that could have happened. Like a lot of observational comedy, it came from a place of ignorance. I didn’t realize that people had sex for pleasure. I thought that if you had sex, it was for a baby. So my bit was based on if they accidentally got pregnant, then they accidentally had sex, and how did that happen?”
As it remains today, politics emerged as a large part of Demers’ life at 15. “When I was a teenager, I was in a Trotskyist sect, which was very bizarre,” says Demers. “I certainly would no longer describe myself as a worker-Bolshevik.” Demers is of a rare breed, one in which his only memory of the Cold War was the Head of the Class episode where they went to the Soviet Union and Arvid and Dennis tried to sneak in a bunch of blue jeans. As to how his politics affects his work today? Well, as Demers puts it, there’s one very clear benefit. “I’m kind of the in-house emcee for 98 per cent of the labour and left events that happen in Vancouver. I’m exaggerating, but only slightly.”
It’s at this point that Demers stops me. “Am I being funny enough?” he asks, wondering exactly what type of piece I’ll be writing. It’s a testament to Demers’ many roles (stand-up, writer, activist, professor) that he wants to tailor his demeanor to my article. As we’re about to move on, he adds, “Will this be scathing? I deserve to be taken down a notch. It’s about time somebody wrote that exposé.”
on the difference between stand-up and print:
“You can be a bit more of a self-indulgent douche in prose than you can on stage, because the author really is an authoritarian figure in terms of their work. You get absolutely unlimited time and space to make your case in the way you want to. And the only thing readers can do is buy it or not buy it, or take it out from the library or not take it out from the library, read it or not read. Comedy audiences are incredibly empowered in terms of shaping what material survives. The audience exerts almost a geological force on the shape of a bit. When a joke is naked and you’re taking it out on stage, no matter what’s funny about it, the audience will tell you ruthlessly whether you’re off-base or not or how that joke should go.”
Over the course of his career, Demers has become known as a man of large side projects, writing both the darkly comic novel The Prescription Errors and the crisp and observational Vancouver Special, a non-fiction account of Vancouver as a whole, as well as appearing many times on CBC’s the Debaters, a radio debate show that combines “laughs and logic,” a gig in which his debating experience serves him well.
“When I hit adulthood and there was this show that was half comedy and half debate, it was a real ‘you got chocolate on my peanut butter’ situation,” says Demers.
And while these projects have been near and dear to him over his life, Demers has moved into another realm in his professional career, today as a professor for UBC’s Writing For New Media course. “Unless there’s some dramatic, unforeseeable change in circumstances for me, I do plan for teaching to be something that I continue to do,” says Demers, adding that they’re hoping to add Writing For Comedic Forms, which he would be teach. “It’d basically be comedy writing in the Creative Writing Program. And that’s very close to being official. That would hopefully be starting next January.”
For other parts of Demers’ future, well, it’s simple to predict what he’ll keep striving for. “I love comedy, I love writing, and I love politics. In my professional life, I’m happiest when those things are overlapping.”
Demers is headlining the Comedy Mix from May 9 to May 11. Download Demers’ stand-up special at thestandupcomedians.com.