Lorne Elliott has been telling jokes for a long time. Thirty-four years, in fact, which is longer than most Pique staffers have been alive. He's been remarkably successful for a Canadian comic who refused the promises of wealth and fame south of the border, choosing instead to enlighten and enliven communities throughout his home country.
And yet, after all these years, he claims he has yet to master the art of joke writing.
"I still haven't mastered it. It's a mystery. It's an art, you know?" Elliott says from a tour stop in Kamloops.
To be fair, he understands the formula. There's the specific arrangement of information where the situation is set up, built up and paid off with a punch line. Sitcoms are rife with "rapid-fire formulaic jokes" but Elliott has never been interested in formula. He has a sensibility shared by all great comedic minds — or any great artist ever, really: that is to speak from the heart about the world as he sees it.
"The art part is something different, and that is to take something of yourself and something that makes more sense after you've said it, that makes the world have more meaning than when you had said it before," he says. "That's, uh, that's a nice way of confronting the world, isn't it? Trying to figure things out rather than having something in by next Tuesday's script meeting."
Looking back on his career now, he's most pleased with the fact that he's been able make a living by confronting the world in his own way, while on stage sharing with other people.
"It's rare, you know. It's more rare than hackwork and I've done some hackwork so I know. We all pay our dues, you know, but I'm very lucky to be in a situation where I can practice my craft and try to elevate it to an art. And the audience allows me to," he says.
And yet, with that freedom comes one glaring caveat: he's forever beholden to that audience. He's there for them and always will be so long as he wants to remain an entertainer. Fortunately, he's "come to an agreement" with what he can do on stage. Judging from YouTube video clips, anything but potty humour goes.
"Once you find that sweet spot, that's the playground that you can develop in. If I didn't have a direct connection with the audience I would never have found that place," he says.
It began when he was 24 years old, playing folk songs in Newfoundland pubs and coffee shops. He'd tell jokes between songs and soon discovered that the audience would respond more favorably to his comedic interludes than to the songs themselves. He started writing more jokes and singing fewer songs. He worked his way through the Canadian comedy circuit and enjoyed a steady climb in popularity. He's opened for Rodney Dangerfield and Jay Leno. He's had comedy specials on the CBC and the BBC. He's performed at the Just For Laughs Comedy Festival nine times — no small feat, by any means.
Much of his standup material is rooted in Canadiana, managing to both celebrate and lampoon our nation's identity with every joke. Every tour stop brings with it fresh material that he's written specifically for that city — always original and usually tested live, on stage.
If that sounds frightening, he says it is. Of course he's fearful in those situations.
"And you should be. You don't know, that's the risky part. It's the fun part too. When it works, it works like nothing else you know. It's a little bit of jazz, you know. You should be up there hitting those notes that no one's ever done," he says.
"It's about finding that one thing that people inside it don't see. When you're from the outside, you see with fresh eyes. I find that very effective."
His willingness to experiment, his acute comedic radar and (I can only assume) his wacky head of hair have inspired more than one commentator to call Elliott a "national treasure." As honoured as it makes the comic feel, more than anything it makes him feel, well, rather "old."
"There ain't no young treasures," he laughs.
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