Stand Up or Shut Up

Because my parents are British, our family didn’t communicate unless we were talking comedy or sports, or if we were drinking- since liquor makes you think you’re funnier and watching sports with beer is a solid English tradition.

So that’s how we bonded. Being funny was serious business and a lot of our comedy relied on sarcastic one-upsmanship. Who could get the best insult in the most cutting way. We almost had a fistfight over a Monopoly game once when the insults got too personal. But my family was funny. And I was funny… or at least I was the one blurting out the stuff that everyone else wanted to say but wouldn’t.

I had always nursed a fantasy of doing stand up comedy and used to go to comedy clubs a lot. Somewhere around 1997 when I was living in London Ontario and had lost the one non-stripping job I’d ever had as an adult, I started to think seriously about doing stand up.

Every weekend I would go to Yuk Yuk’s – sometimes twice a weekend so I could watch the comedians do their sets, so I could watch the difference between the early and late crowds, the Friday and Saturday crowds, the drunk and sober crowds. I loved it. It was like comedy school and I was soaking it up. I was writing down a lot of material and most of it revolved around my job as a stripper. It was, as far as I knew, a schtick that hadn’t been done yet and I was desperate to be the first, knowing the value of novelty.

I was beginning to feel comfortable at the club and the waitresses were even beginning to call me by name. One Friday night, the headliner was a tiny man named Kerry Talmage. Kerry was five feet two inches tall with dark hair and big bushy eyebrows. He came on stage in a red satin shirt and black pants. People were laughing before he even opened his mouth.

Kerry Talmage in 1987 Winnipeg Yuk Yuk's

Kerry Talmage in 1987 Winnipeg Yuk Yuk’s

And when he did open his mouth, they howled. His voice was high-pitched, breathy and very feminine. So were his mannerisms. He was obviously, flamingly gay. He started to do this hilarious, lengthy, double-entendre bit about hockey and the last line was “and Sawchuk gobbles it up in the corner!”
People were doubled over in laughter. It was really a brilliant piece of comedy- I have yet to see it matched by anyone and this was back in 1998.

Suddenly, his voice became deep and gruff and it was obvious that he had seriously pulled the wool over everyone’s eyes. He was making a great point. Some people had NOT liked him when he had pretended to be gay. Suddenly he was ok to like and Kerry was quick to point out the hypocrisy. Almost everyone was in love with him.

He had a particular talent for improvisation and frequently veered off of his set to become funny on the spot. At one point he asked one of the audience members what he did for a living. The man replied that he was an accountant. I laughed out loud – a little TOO loud.

Kerry turned to me. “Oh, you think that’s funny eh? What do YOU do?”

My heart started pounding HARD. I knew what was coming. I was going to be heckled into a hole in the ground. I didn’t want to say anything, but I had to.

“I’m an exotic dancer.”

The entire crowd burst out laughing. They laughed for a very long time.

The dark room hid my red face, thank God. I braced myself for the barrage of insults from this tiny man.

“what’s so funny?” he said,  “I’ve known plenty of dancers and most of them are pretty cool. They’re just doing a job like you and me. They just happen to look a hell of a lot better than YOU doing it.”

He looked at me and smiled. I exhaled and smiled back.

It was one of the kindest things I’d ever experienced. It was pure and sweet mercy, a trait exceedingly rare in MY world, in a world as merciless as mine.
He went on to kill it. He was a diabetic and had been operated on 32 times. He had died on the operating table and had a near death experience that he talked about with the crowd.

“I’ve seen the light so many times, God sends me a Hydro bill.” He joked.

He was different. He was not a cruel comic, though there was sarcasm there. He was observant and clever, profound and uplifting. It was a rare thing and we all knew it. The audience rose to their feet at the end of his show. The room was electric. I was so grateful for having experienced something so rare and beautiful. It was comedy at it’s finest hour.

After the show, the crowd filed out and I waited until they had left. I walked to the bar and saw Kerry standing there chatting with the bartender.

My heart started to pound a little harder. I wasn’t sure what I was going to say.

“Hi Kerry. My name is Paula and I’m the exotic dancer. You had a golden opportunity there to rip me to shreds and you didn’t. I just want to say thank you and I’d really like to buy you a drink if I may.”

“Hi Paula. Nice to meet you.” He held his hand out and I shook it.

“I’ve known tons of dancers. I’ve worked with a lot of them and they get a bad rap if you ask me. A lot of them are single moms trying to feed their families. Why would I make fun of that?”

“Can I buy you a drink?”

“That’s really nice of you Paula and I don’t drink because of my diabetes but let me buy you one.”

Well, we chatted during the set break and I told him how much I’d loved what he had done and how different it was. I told him that I wanted to do comedy too- as frightening as it was to tell a talented professional, he was encouraging and even offered to help me. It was incredibly exciting. It was like my dream was coming true. He gave me his card- it had a caricature of him on the front of it. It impressed me much more than it should have but that card represented so much to me. An opportunity, a friend, a possible future.

“Come and be my guest and watch the second show.” He set me up with another glass of wine and sat me in the front row. I knew I’d be safe there.
I watched him work his magic again. It was fascinating to watch the set morph into something else on the spot, to watch him take advantage of every nuance. Once again, he got a standing ovation. I had never seen that happen before.
After his show, Kerry and I and Kevin, one of the other comics had a few drinks together, talked, laughed and it was one of the best nights of my life. I felt like I was with my tribe.

At one point Kevin mentioned “The Boob Book”. They were making a collection of polaroid pictures of women’s breasts from all over the country- just pictures of the breasts- no faces. They didn’t ask- I offered. But I wanted my face in the picture. I’d be the only one.

We headed up to Kerry’s hotel room and I looked at the book. We took my picture and I proudly inserted it into the pages with my stripper stage name. This was the name I’d use as a comedian too. Kevin left at some point and Kerry and I continued talking until 6:00 a.m..

He told me more about his experiences in the hospital- about his near death experience and how it had changed him. How it had softened him and made him less bitter. How he wasn’t afraid anymore. I felt so safe with him because I knew he wasn’t a physical threat, but as much as that he was so respectful to me, he and I had a true exchange of energy that night. He listened to my dreams, didn’t belittle me. Offered to help me out in Toronto and show me where to go for amateur nights.

As the sun was coming up, the energy between us changed and we ended up making love. I just wanted to give him something that he couldn’t give me. I wanted him to remember me as I knew I would remember him.

I went to see him every time he came to London after that. And when I moved to Niagara Falls later that year I took my friends to see him. We chatted on the phone and he encouraged me to take steps to make my dreams happen.

By then though, I’d met Brian and my brain had turned to oxytocin mush along with my ambition. I never did go ahead and audition even though I had worked up and practiced 20 minutes of material. I let myself drown in other things, my relationship with Brian, my advocacy work in the sex industry, alcohol and pot. But mostly Brian. And maybe my own fear.

Not following through with my dream of getting on stage to try my hand at comedy was one of the great regrets of my life. I know it fueled my ambition years later as I pursued a Humorous Speech Championship. And as I still found my way into several comedy workshops to study and learn. And I still feel that being funny is one of the defining things about me. And I know that there is more to do.

Last night at Jan Bannister’s comedy class I almost NAILED a five minute set that I will be doing on a comedy stage next Thursday, March 22 at Lafflines.  It was a high unlike any of my life so far. I CAN’T FUCKING WAIT TO GET UP THERE.

Kerry Talmage found an amazing woman a few years later and they married. I was so happy for him. He deserved to be loved well. He died of complications from diabetes in 2004.  He finally paid that Hydro bill.

I still feel I owe him a set. This one’s for him.

Kerry Talmage

Kerry Talmage

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