Derek Edwards’ award-winning humour has made him one of the hottest properties in Canada. Identifying himself with the ordinary working guy, his comedic gift is making the ordinary extraordinary. A regular at the Just for Laughs Festival, where he was recently hailed as a “virtuoso at the peak of his performance,” Derek has also just been profiled in The Toronto Star:
Derek Edwards, in the bemused, gosh-golly manner that imbues so much of his standup act, says he’s humbled when told his peers — many of whom are of considerable pedigree — revere him as the ultimate comic’s comic.
But the Timmins transplant, who moved to Toronto in the late 1980s, is also a bit guarded about the title.
“I’m blown away by the kindness of it,” he says on the phone from his cottage near Kingston. “But that used to be the kiss of death: the standup who could entertain the fellas (other standups) at the back of the room who got in for free!”
Edwards, 58, is right. Each generation of standups has its heroes. But more often than not, it’s someone whose act is too esoteric — or, worse, too laden with inside jokes — and leaves most non-comics bewildered and/or bored.
But here’s the thing. Edwards, currently on a theatre tour in Ontario, is also a people’s comic.
His material deftly walks that tightrope between the sophisticated set and ordinary folk.
He’s about one school year short of an English degree from the University of Western Ontario: pre-empted when “my roommates and I got kicked of our apartment for having a great party.” That combined with his mining town mentality allows Edwards an erudite-meets-ruralite sensibility. His word power is scholarly but still accessible and not overbearing. Add his trademark Timmins accent — probably the most mimicked by other standups struggling to stand out — and the juxtaposition is refreshing.
Mike Bullard, the veteran standup and Toronto radio host, describes Edwards — his favourite standup — as “a modern day Will Rogers . . . that’s why he can go from entertaining at a black-tie gala to a Rotary Club community show without changing a thing.”
What comics often point to when praising Edwards is his comic voice, his point of view. Most standups take years to establish theirs — if they find it at all. Edwards has had his since his rookie years.
The hair is now greying, but the frumpy black jeans and too-big suit jacket ensemble have remained. So, too, has the easygoing but brilliantly sarcastic delivery. It’s a stage persona that reminds you of someone you might find asleep on a park bench — with a well-thumbed copy of a Steinbeck novel on his chest.
That comic voice is not something he’s really given much thought to, Edwards says.
When pressed, though, he offers a theory. Most standups get into the game in their early 20s. “But I had a good chunk of time, like 10 years, in the workforce,” says Edwards, who did construction, painted houses, worked the kitchen in a fly-in mining camp and even did market research.
“Talking to guys in the lunchroom . . . (participating) in coffee break chatter . . . working with crews . . . that gave me a grounding and helped solidify the voice. Just carrying the lunch box, being happy enough in the trades . . . that (shaped) my point of view.”
It also instilled a blue-collar work ethic that’s rare amongst standups.
Brent Butt, whose success also suggests a strong work ethic, recalls seeing Edwards in a hotel lobby early one morning after a gig, scribbling into a notebook. “He said he was ‘just trying to refine some of my stuff from last night.’ He had totally destroyed the previous night. And here he was, up bright and early . . . trying to make it even better. I thought to myself, ‘Yikes. If the funniest guy is also going to be the hardest working, the rest of us had better step up our game or we’re doomed.’”
It’s remarkable, really, that the people’s comic isn’t more familiar to more people, especially in Toronto where he lives and perfected his craft. He’s playing to near-sell-out, 600-seat theatres, but the closest his tour gets to Hogtown is Oshawa or Markham.
“The bigger the market, the tougher it is to crack,” he says sounding more matter of fact than embittered. “In smaller towns, I seem to be more recognizable.”
Theatres in smaller centres and lucrative private corporate shows keep him busy and flush; no small feat considering most standups are seeing their incomes drop dramatically in an ever shrinking industry.
He’s quite happy and grateful for his life, he stresses. There’s a plan to create something — a movie script, maybe — with his good friend and fellow comic Mike Wilmot, “who’s cursedly-gifted.” Maybe a move to the country one day, away from what he calls “the Big Smoke.”
Married more than 20 years, Edwards beams with enthusiasm when discussing his wife, Dawn, and the rave reviews she’s earning as an ebook author under the nom-de-plume Judith Jackson.
“Honestly,” he says, “I just feel blessed and very fortunate to be doing this.”
Derek Edwards’ Baloney and Wine tour plays Sarnia and Chatham Saturday and Sunday. Full tour details at derekedwards.ca. Denis Grignon is a writer and standup comic.
Derek Edwards’ jokes
“Camping is just something that’s near and dear to me. I’m from Timmins, Ontario, OK? Camping. I’ve been trying to explain camping to Americans when I’ve been down there. . . . You get a bunch of friends, a whack of booze, you go out in the bush, you get back home, you can’t quite believe nobody died.”
“I’ve been sitting there and had the guy come over at the restaurant, say, uh, ‘Good evening, welcome to Joey Tomato’s. My name is Pete. I’ll be your waiter tonight.’ Did I order a story? He feels obliged to tell me his job description. Like I couldn’t piece the clues together on my own. You’re not carrying a fiddle. No basket of roses under your arm. Guy’s got a vest and two menus. Geez, I thought you were an astronaut.”
“You know I’ve been thinking about getting a gun. I don’t want to rob a bank. I wouldn’t mind getting some service though. Wouldn’t that be great when you’re in that 12 o’clock, 12:30 lineup just to fire off a round? All right, where’s the manager? Is that you? Is that you? OK, on the ground. OK, now listen, I got a question. Where’s all the friggin’ tellers, eh?”
What other comics say about Derek Edwards
Comedians of all levels heap praise on standup Derek Edwards. Rick Mercer has publicly stated, “Everyone knows Derek is the funniest man in Canada.” Here’s what others have observed.
“Every joke is a half-hour sitcom episode. Unlike other people who lord their education over your head, Derek’s English degree is evidenced by the subtle tweaking he does with every joke to make sure they resonate with everybody in the room.”
“I adore Derek. He’s effortless and just pure comedy. His voice, his brilliant writing . . . he’s the comic other comics hope they can become.”
“His delivery is almost quiet. Not gesticulating wildly, he stands there, almost looking too thin for his suit, his voice almost shaky. And from this, he holds everybody in the palm of his hand . . . everything coming out his mouth is brilliance.”
“Hard to pick a ‘funniest person’ because that’s such a subjective arena. But anyone familiar with Derek would put him in the running, for sure. He’s not only one of the most naturally funny humans I’ve ever encountered, he’s also one of the most dedicated craftsmen.”