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Working not just for laughs but for cash: Four comedians on their career choice

Don Rickles, a headliner at the Just for Laughs Comedy Festival in Montreal, says the secret of comedy is being different from the next guy.

Mark J. Terrill/The Associated Press

Everybody's a comedian, right? Wrong. We all know funny people, but only a select few make a living at it. Some of those pros are giving performances at this year's Just for Laughs Festival in Montreal, happening through July 28. We asked four of them the same question: When did you first realize that you were a career comedian?

Don Rickles, the charismatic insulter: "I went to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. I was trying to be an actor. I studied really hard, but it was a tough road to go. I used to go to private parties and kid around, and I got good reactions. I developed a style, and caught on with people. They laughed. So I said, 'Hey, this is the way I'm going to be going, because the acting part is tough.' So I tried that out. I had a lot of rejection, but I kept going and they kept laughing and applauding. My style was very different. It still is. I have a great deal of charm. I'm not hateful – nothing mean-spirited. I'm not a joke-teller. It was my personality and my attitude, and it's always worked for me. That's the secret of comedy, being different from the next guy. Someone like Bob Newhart, on the other hand, he's not talented at all. He's a stiff. He's not going any place, and I've told him that." (July 23 and 25)

Kathleen Madigan, the user-friendly observational Midwesterner: "I stumbled upon an open-mic night. I was bartending in St. Louis, and we couldn't drink at the bar where I was working. So a couple of us went to another bar that happened to have an open-mic night. I was busy. I had just gotten out of college, and I was looking for a real job. But me and another bartender kept doing the open-mic for fun, until somebody offered me a gig at another place. It was for $50, and, not to be forgotten, a porterhouse steak. As soon as I got that pay, I realized I could probably get paid again. And I did. But I'm not sure a comedian is still what I want to be. Some comedians have this thing, that they always wanted to be one and it's a dream come true. It wasn't my dream, though. I get paid. It's a fun job. But I'm actually thinking of opening a bar in Ireland." (July 24 and 25)

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Tommy Tiernan, the Irish storyteller: "It was in an ordinary run-of-the-mill pub in Ipswich, England. I had performed in Ireland, but there was no long-standing, historical comedy scene there. But there was in England. I got paid £100, and there was something about terra firma in the English comedic world. I realized that it would always be there for me, that irrespective of what happened, I always would be able to earn a living working the clubs of England. The thing is, I discovered something since then. That terra firma I felt then doesn't exist for me now. I am unsure of my solidity in this business, and I always will be. It's a creative wasteland sometimes you find yourself in. You think, 'I've gone to the well so many times.' You go back, and it's not there any more. There's a little man standing where your well used to be and he tells you that your well has moved and that he can't tell you where and you'll need to find it again. So, I think those concepts of solidity and assurance don't last. Not for me, anyway." (July 21 to 26)

Lewis Black, the acerbic American monologist: "I still can't believe I am a comedian. I can't believe people are allowing me to get away with this. There was no exact moment when I first realized that I'd be doing it for a living, really. I just found myself on the road, working. But it began in Houston. Up to that point I was a playwright, though I had begun to do more and more comedy. I was being screwed by the theatre there. They had told me I could stay on and work on my play, but they lied. So, I couldn't stay on. One night I went across town to a comedy club, where I did a 15-minute audition. They said they'd have me back in a month, which would at least allow me to see my play. Also, they were going to pay me the same amount of money I was getting as a playwright for something I'd spent two years on. They were going to put me up in a nicer place, and they were going to give me a car to use. That's the point where I said, 'I'm going to do this.' I was very lucky." (July 23 to 25)

The Just for Laughs Festival runs to July 28.

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Brad Wheeler is an arts reporter with The Globe and Mail. More


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