JESSICA HOLMES part of the ALT.COMedy Lounge, Monday (December 4) at the Rivoli (332 Queen West), 9 pm, pwyc, 596-1908; and in THE ITCH, Tuesdays at 9 pm on the Comedy Network; and in COMEDY NOW -- HOLMES ALONE, December 16 on CTV. Rating: NNNNN
It's probably the most significant day of Jessica Holmes's professional life, and yet here she is, in her kitchen, baking banana bread.
"I'm a regular Martha Stewart," she says in her fussy-suburban-mom voice, one of many she adopts at will.
Bright-eyed and girl-next-door pretty, Holmes is soft-spoken and a little recessive. She's nice. Give her a wig, though, and watch her change.
She's been transforming herself on comedy stages for the past couple of years, creating characters as quietly subversive as Candy Anderson Henderson, an Alliance-voting Christian fundamentalist who makes Dana Carvey's Church Lady look like a ho, and an alt version of Celine Dion who blithely confesses she was raped by Rene.
In a few hours, her weekly Comedy Network series The Itch, a so-so parody of entertainment news programs -- think Entertainment Tonight meets This Hour Has 22 Minutes -- premieres on TV.
Holmes and her partner Scott have invited her closest friends to watch the show, eat the banana bread she's making now and drink champagne.
It's been a busy day. Earlier, she taped Canada AM, slightly disappointed that there wasn't a live audience to laugh at her comic sparring with Itch co-star Jason Jones, who plays a younger John Tesh to her younger Mary Hart.
Now, in her kitchen, the folks at StarTV are filming her as she fondles the overripe bananas.
"What you're about to see has never been seen on TV before," she says to the camera. "I'm really proud to bring this to the world."
Suddenly she squeezes the gooey white insides out of the bananas' black phallic sheathes and into a bowl. Physical comedy -- not her forte. But she's good at improv and makes it work. The camera's running.
"Oh, I am so going to regret doing this," she says. "This is terrible, I'm exploiting bananas. These bananas didn't sign up for this!"
After popping the banana bread in the oven, Holmes discusses the ingredients of her own career. Nothing's been left to chance.
"I researched comics I liked and did everything to find out what it takes to make it," she says, nestled on her living-room couch. Momo and Celie, her two recently adopted cats, prowl protectively around her.
"I read The 7 Habits Of Highly Effective People, listened to Tony Robbins CDs and started watching Oprah all the time. All things that helped with goal-setting. So when I got the call about the Comedy Now special (rebroadcast on CTV December 16), it was like it had all paid off: "Here's exactly what you wanted -- it's yours.'"
Tony Robbins? Oprah? Is she joking? Nope. But she's the one with the series, remember.
"What's amazing is that I've reached every goal I set from three years ago," she says. "Other performers found it strange or annoying that I set high goals. Why should it be strange? Why do this if you don't have some kind of dream?"
Holmes's healthy chutzpah might stem from her upbringing. She was raised in Ottawa by a rape-crisis-counsellor mother and a network-manager father who's a Mormon.
A turning point came while she was doing missionary work -- again, no joke -- in Venezuela. She couldn't speak Spanish well enough for people to understand her, and felt she had nothing to offer the world.
"Not being able to communicate was the most awful feeling," she says. "I realized that if I couldn't be myself, if I couldn't be funny, I had nothing to be excited about. When I came home, I had a whole new vigour. It took having no voice to show me that I love talking, love being onstage in front of people."
When she was a radio and TV student at Ryerson, friends dared her to enter an amateur night at the Laugh Resort, and on her second appearance an agent spotted her.
"There was this huge range," says agent Louise Parent at the TV launch party later that night. "It wasn't really a hilarious set -- it was only her second time out. But the voices, the little things she did. It was all promising."
The promise has paid off, even if Holmes can't get a commercial to save her life. ("200 auditions and only a couple of callbacks.")
If there's a key to her work, it's her social conscience. It lurks beneath her savage parody of former Spice Girl Geri Haliwell's embarrassing flirtation with the United Nations. It's there in her critique of Kathie Lee Gifford's exploitation of her son Cody.
"I think my conscience tells me that if I'm going to be a performer, I'd better have something to say," she says. "For instance, I can't do comedy that's demeaning to women. That was one of the problems working with some mostly male comedy troupes. Once, we were working on a sketch about rape, and one of the guys said, "If I'd been raped, I would want to laugh about it. I think we're helping these people.' I thought, "OK, I think I'm going to do monologues instead.'"
Before her informal premiere party, Holmes reads out a statement thanking her friends, her partner and her agent for their encouragement on the road to success. Some friends here have known her since high school, others are in the business or dream of being in the business (maybe they should borrow her Robbins CDs). There's some gossip, some news, some low-level Second City-bashing.
"The first episode isn't really the greatest," Holmes announces before the show airs. "Don't feel you have to laugh."
We do, in spite of her warning.
Later, after the show's over, she shows us some sketches from future episodes. And yes, they are actually funnier than anything in the premiere.
A week later, over steamed milk in a neighbouring cafe, the glow of the premiere has almost worn off. The reviews are in, and they're mixed.
Holmes stays philosophical. She wants to learn if she's doing something wrong, but doesn't want to read that she's "just not all-around great."
Someone from the States phoned her this week and told her they loved her work. Her agent got a mysterious call from CBS asking for more info. Mad TV might be interested.
"Maybe something will come of it, maybe something won't."
Holmes pauses, sips her milk. She's in that curious Canadian career limbo. In a year or two, she could be surrounded by handlers, as impossible to reach, or understand, as the stars she makes fun of now. She might no longer have the time to make banana bread.
Or she might become this year's Carla Collins. All buzz, no bite.
"I'm getting addicted to all this," she says, as level-headed as ever. "It's the excitement of the maybes."