NIKKI PAYNE appearing at Just For Laughs, with LEWIS BLACK, RICHARD LEWIS, JEREMY HOTZ, JO KOY, BOB MARLEY and ARDAL O'HANLON at Massey Hall (178 Victoria), Friday (July 27) at 7 and 9:30 pm. $45.50-$99.50. 416-872-5555. Rating: NNNNN
You don't see many people like Nikki Payne on TV. But that could change very soon. The stand-up comic known for her raunchy act and prominent lisp is, as they say in the biz, taking it to the next level.
Not only does that include a spot in the Friday-night gala for Toronto's inaugural Just For Laughs fest, alongside Lewis Black, Richard Lewis and Jeremy Hotz. It also includes a TV pilot for a variety show centred around her.
There's even been interest from The Tonight Show.
Not bad for a woman who proudly confesses in her act that she grew up in a Nova Scotia trailer park.
"I think it's important that I be on TV," says Payne, a Yuk Yuk's regular and Mark Breslin discovery. "We're told by TV that only good-looking people solve crimes and save lives. If my being on TV helps dispel that myth a little, then cool. It's not what I set out to do. I'm like every other egomaniacal entertainer - I just want people to love me."
Before our interview, I ask her to meet me at a spot that means a lot to her, and she suggests jogging in Sunnyside Park. How very Barbara Walters Special! Although, on second thought, Payne is less Walters or The View than, say, Jerry Springer.
She even has a signature bit in her act about the Springer Show - something about how trashy girls flash their titties to win arguments on the air. In her act, she lifts up her top to show how ridiculous that would be in ordinary life.
It sounds a lot cruder than it actually is, much like Payne herself, who though she frequently appears to be humping objects onstage (you've got to see it to appreciate it) and has a hilarious bit about bowel movements, is shy and quiet offstage. She doesn't drink. She's only recently begun dating.
That bundle of energy and unruly id with the microphone is obviously a psychological, as well as an artistic, outlet.
"I think onstage I get to say and do the things I wish I could say and do in real life," she says. "My friend Kate Davis says I'm funnier onstage when I'm angry, if there's something going on that's got me riled up. Maybe that's why some people like it. We've all had those moments when we're boxed in a corner and we want to yell and scream and get out."
I opt out of the jog - how would I take notes? - and settle for a chat at the Sunnyside Café. She tells me she often writes material nearby in a secluded little spot where she can block out the distractions of the city.
"I write these crazy, horrible stream-of-consciousness rants. I rant and rant in the notebook, and then when I get back home I'll think about what's funny or not. If it rains, sometimes I'll go to a library. Cafés are too distracting. There are too many shiny things to look at."
It's been months since I last saw Payne, and she looks noticeably different. Her hair's dyed a dramatic black. And she's lost weight - strange, since one of her famous stage bits includes grabbing her midriff flab and telling the young women in the audience, "This is your future, girls!" I'm assuming the transformation (and the jogging) is a SoCal thing. After all, she's been living in Los Angeles part-time.
"Actually," she says, as candid as ever, "I'm donating a kidney to my dad, so I'm getting in shape for whenever he needs that. And his doctor told me I should look after myself, too. Hollywood could never convince me. I got scared into losing the weight."
As well, during the tests to find out if her kidney would be compatible, the doctors found a tumour in her stomach.
"I found out during the taping of Last Comic Standing," she says, referring to the reality show, where she made it as far as the semi-finals last season and received a lot of North American exposure. "I was in such total denial about it. They said, 'We've found a mass in your stomach,' and I was, 'Well, I'm kinda doing something right now. Can we deal with it later?'"
The mass was eventually removed (it was benign), and so far Payne's dad hasn't needed the kidney. But the comic's diet has severely changed.
"My stomach won't take McDonald's or KFC," she says. "I won't go into detail, but I physically can't eat it. It hurts. Anything greasy and I'm down for the count."
While she's telling me this, Payne occasionally giggles and laughs, rolls her eyes. It's her style to undercut anything serious with something funny. If we laugh, we will not feel sorry for her.
In some ways, that's been the motivating force in her life and career. She was born in Sackville, N.S. with a cleft lip and palate, which explains the lisp. In her longer sets she usually reveals this fact a few minutes in, then mimics the front row wiping spit off their faces. From then on, the audience, who might not have known if her speech impediment was a gimmick, is completely on her side.
"It's unfortunate and unfair, but we live in a society that judges people by their covers," says Payne, who raises money and volunteers for several groups, including Making Faces, a charity that teaches improv to children with facial deformities.
"People get uncomfortable when they see someone with a facial difference. It shouldn't be my responsibility to make people comfortable around me, but I do it. I find having a sense of humour shows you've dealt with something and have come to a certain understanding about who you are. I don't want to appear too self-deprecating onstage. I think I come out the winner."
Payne doesn't know what material she's going to do for the Just For Laughs set. She's got a solid 45-minute set and a can't-miss 10 minutes, but lately she feels she's moved past some of her more successful material. Her life's changed too much.
"I've hit one of those temporary plateaus when you're trying to figure out what you want to say," she tells me. "I want to make the set interesting, so I'd like to throw in a couple of new things. But I don't know. Watch me wrap myself in duct tape for the millionth time, screaming 'I'm a hack!' and crying while I'm doing it."
The duct tape bit, by the way, is something she's long retired. It mocks women's obsession with plastic surgery and body change. It's funny but painful - that tape covers her hair, too.
Stunts like that, which she demonstrated for the Last Comic Standing judges and are available on YouTube, have given her a reputation as someone who'll do anything for a laugh.
"I like taking risks," she chuckles. "I'm willing to take something really far for a laugh. I only draw the line if it hurts someone. I talk about my personal life, but I avoid telling stories about my family. Those are their stories, not mine."
She didn't even know she wanted to be a stand-up until comic Simon B. Cotter toured to her community college campus and asked her to do five minutes. People had told her she was funny, in a bird costume, as the college sports team mascot.
After a brief trip to do clubs in Montreal, Ottawa and then Toronto - where she studied at Humber's summer comedy program and met Breslin - she returned down east, finished up her summer job and then came to stay in Toronto, working as a live-in nanny and doing open mics.
"I'm sort of like the Forrest Gump of stand-up comedy," she says. "My career's been 'So do you want to do a show?' Okay!"
In a profession known for its unpredictability, obviously Payne's been picking the right chocolates. But she doesn't know what's next.
"For a long time I think I really wanted to be famous, but I'm not even sure about that any more," she says. "I want to be successful, but we're living in a day and age where you can be famous for being a drunk twat."
She pauses, and I can see the wheels clicking in her mind. Her eyes get that sneaky look so familiar from her stage act.
"My drunk twat days are over."
Additional Interview Audio Clips
On a memorable fan from Last Comic Standing:
On seeing an Eddie Murphy video when she was way too young:
Nikki Payne Video Clip