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Canadian comedy star Debra DiGiovanni feels the fear again

Ontario comic and her Snowed in Comedy Tour compadres are itching to get back in front of live audiences 
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L to R: Stand-ups Pete Zedlacher, Paul Myrehaug, Debra DiGiovanni and Dan Quinn will be performing in Whistler on Jan. 24 and 26 as part of the annual Snowed in Comedy Tour.

[Editor's Note: The day this story came out in print, organizers of the Snowed in Comedy Tour reached out to say, with the current COVID-19 situation, the Whistler shows scheduled for Jan. 24 and 26 have been combined into one show now set for April 25. The article follows as it was originally written.]  

When you’ve been performing for as long as Debra DiGiovanni has, the stage fright that comes from getting in front of live audiences tends to melt away. 

After all, the 49-year-old, multi-award-winning Toronto stand-up and TV star has pretty much done it all in the comedy world. She’s a four-time Canadian Comedy Award winner, counts specials on Netflix and Crave, was a finalist on NBC’s Last Comic Standing, has performed on Conan, and her 2018 album, Lady Jazz, earned her a Juno nod, among a litany of other accolades. 

But with her first shows in front of actual people in months coming up as part of the Snowed in Comedy Tour, DiGiovanni is feeling that familiar feeling once again. 

“That terror goes away and now it’s back—and wow, it’s fun,” she says. “I feel like a young girl of 37. It’s all new again.” 

Like so many other performers that watched gigs dry up in the blink of an eye at the start of the pandemic, DiGiovanni went through something of an existential crisis early on. 

“It just crumbled. The entire calendar year of 2020 disappeared in an afternoon,” she recalls. “Not performing like that, your brain is like, ‘what am I doing? What else do I do?’” 

There is perhaps no art form more interactive than stand-up. Comics hone their sets through the reactions of live audiences, and although DiGiovanni kept busy doing corporate gigs over Zoom, without the constant feedback loop she used to rely on, doubt began to creep in.  

“Here’s the thing: fine, great, I’m a professional and I am able to do a 30-minute set to nobody [in-person]. Literally nobody. But is it good? I’m not sure. I can’t tell. I just spoke and there was no feedback at all. I don’t know if everyone’s logged off. I have no idea,” she says. “I can do it but I don’t know if it helps me as a comedian or as a person. It’s very strange … At least my laptop thinks it’s funny.” 

Fortunately, DiGiovanni has established herself to the point where losing the lion’s share of her live gigs didn’t set her back too much. Along with the online shows, she used the pandemic to set up a makeshift recording booth out of her L.A. home, which allowed her to land more voiceover work (including an ad campaign for a menopause drug—“Don’t be jealous,” she says. “This is where I’m at. No longer the ingénue.”). 

“Things still happened and I was very, very grateful. Because of where I’m at, I was able to still work over the last year and a half,” DiGiovanni says. “It was interesting to see the things that we could still do remotely and the way people made things happen regardless of what was happening in the world. It’s kinda nice, too, because you have that moment where you’re like, ‘Why am I leaving my house? Do I ever have to leave my house again?’” 

Five years ago, DiGiovanni was living the life of a homebody, yet for a very different reason. This was around the time when California had legalized weed for recreational use (“I walked out of my apartment on Day 1 and some kid went by on a skateboard smoking a joint and I was like, ‘Here we go!’”), and with her career at a stage where she no longer had to work a 9-to-5, it wasn’t uncommon for her to smoke from morning until she had to leave for a show. 

“I didn’t have to get up and go to a day job anymore, so it was like, why not? It’s 10:30 in the morning. Why not? That’s when it got to the level that it became an all-day thing,” she recalls. 

DiGiovanni recognizes marijuana doesn’t have the same addictive traits as hard drugs, but for her, it was a means of escape, and she began cancelling gigs left and right. 

“I think probably 90 per cent of the world that smokes pot will smoke it normally and never have to worry about it. But there are some of us that do. It just became everything. I think it was a real symptom of not being happy,” she says. “Then the cancelling started to turn into a bigger beef than I thought. I was cancelling festivals. I remember once I was at the airport and I cancelled and turned around and went home. That was the real thing for me when I was like, ‘OK, this can’t continue.’” 

Ditching weed came with the silver lining of making DiGiovanni a better comic, she believes, flying in the face of that old showbiz myth that substances are essential to keeping the creative juices flowing. 

“I think a lot of people believe that’s how they’re funny or that’s where their creativity comes from. Anyone who’s like, ‘I’m scared I won’t be funny.’ You’re funnier without it, trust me,” she says. “Now I like everything better.” 

The Snowed in Comedy Tour returns to Whistler with a pair of shows at the Maury Young Arts Centre on Jan. 24 and 26 at 8 p.m. Alongside DiGiovanni will be tour regulars Dan Quinn, Pete Zedlacher and Paul Myrehaug. Tickets are available at snowedincomedytour.com