Jo-Anna Downey

Fearless stand-up rips into bullard, garofalo and wet t-shirts

jo-anna downey hosting open mike night: 6th anniversary show at Spirits Bar and Grill (642 Church), Wednesday (March 20) at 9:30 pm, free also appearing in pirate video cabaret at Clinton’s (693 Bloor West) Sunday (March 17) at 9:30 pm, $5 and ALT.COMedy Lounge at the Rivoli (332 Queen West) Monday (March 18) at 9 pm, pwyc. See comedy listings, page 75, for details.

Rating: NNNNN

every so often, jo-anna downey imagines becoming a normal stand-up.You know, the kind who tells the same jokes the same way every night. The kind who lip-synchs to old Ellen records and dutifully practises in front of a mirror, clutching her tidy set list.

But then, during a performance, someone in the audience will blurt out that they’re from Montreal. Or some dude will walk by wearing a funky-looking hat. Or an idiot will try heckling her under his breath.

Within seconds, Downey’s eyes open wide and she rips into the crowd, riffing on the subject of her hometown and cool hats. As for the heckler, well, buddy, it was nice knowing you.

“I hate comics who go on auto-pilot,” says Downey, nursing a beer in the bar where she’s hosted the city’s longest-running open-mike night, Spirits (see sidebar). This week marks her sixth anniversary as host and producer of the show.

“People criticize me for never telling a joke the same way twice,” says Downey, all sober and serious. “But how can I? Every audience is different.”

A couple of nights later at a smoky one-nighter at the Cameron, she embraces the audience with her intimate, always personal act. There’s a communal feeling. Downey doesn’t deliver jokes she tells funny stories. She doesn’t talk at you she talks with you, almost through you.

“She’s like your dirty aunt,” says veteran stand-up Mike Wilmot, who recently headlined at a Yuk Yuk’s club where Downey was hosting. “You know, the aunt who let you smoke in her basement when you were a kid, but only if you listened to her stories.”

Onstage and off, Downey’s slightly pushy, Type A behaviour has helped her out. She once convinced Janeane Garofalo, no pushover herself, to stick to her word and play a comedy night after the Larry Sanders star casually told a local radio station that she might drop by.

But being loud has also got her in trouble. She remembers bawling out a bunch of noisy headliners in the back of the room at Spirits, telling them they were no better than anyone else. She regrets that.

“God forgot to put an internal editor into my body,” she jokes.

Then there’s her Mike Bullard story. After she paid the talk-show host a compliment one night, he bragged that he didn’t get where he was by winning the lottery. Downey turned the story into a vitriolic bit.

And what does she have to say about never being so much as phoned about the all-women March Of Dames fest?

“Maybe I’ll have my own March Of Dames consisting of all the girls who’ve never got in,” quips Downey. “I’ll call it Tits R Us.”

She laughs her machine-gun-fire laugh. Chalk one up for Mama, her stage nickname.

This time last year, Mama had what she calls a “mini-meltdown.”

“People saw me as a producer and a host — as “that girl who runs Spirits,'” she says. “No one thought of me as a comic.”

Last fall she walked into Mark Breslin’s office at Yuk Yuk’s, and soon after began working the regional clubs. Since then, performing five times a weekend (compared to, say, the standard seven minutes a week most indie comics get in the city), she’s gained a new level of confidence.

She’s matured. You can see it in her act tonight, as she leans her elbow on the mike stand and chats up the audience, smoothly regaling us with her temping stories and her moral dilemma about whether she should lick pussy for a Porsche. After all, she says, the summer before, she “fucked a guy for air-conditioning.”

The story goes over well. Even if it hadn’t it would be OK. Two years ago she would have shunned criticism. Now she knows how to take it in properly.

And if something doesn’t feel right, she acts on it.

September 11 changed her life. She dumped her agent because she felt he didn’t believe in her. She cut down on drinking, entered Weight Watchers and lost 30 pounds. Today she no longer has to “wear jackets to hide my big ass.”

Recently, she entered — and won — a wet T-shirt contest at the Horseshoe. Why? She had lost the weight, was in a solid relationship (with stand-up Pete Zedlacher), looked great and was about to hit a milestone birthday. Why the hell not?

“It was a laugh,” she says. “If I hadn’t won I wouldn’t tell the story onstage. But it was all about feeling good and following my instincts.”

Those same instincts got her into stand-up, almost by accident. Seven years ago, a friend took her to the Spirits’ open mike to cheer her up. She ended up cheering everyone else up with a story. A year later, after bitching to the club’s manager that there was no host, he told her to host herself. She did, and stayed six years.

Today she’s got lots of goals. She’d like to do a play. She’d love a talk show. TV series? Maybe, but she hates comics who are only in it to score a sitcom, and besides, she thrives on a live audience.

Stand-up Wilmot quips that if he were ever cast as an asshole next-door neighbour on a TV sitcom, Downey would be great as his wife.

“Man, being Wilmot’s wife?” laughs Downey. “That’s penance for ya.”

The money would be nice, though. Two weeks ago she had a minor epiphany while watching Sex And The City, the episode where Carrie realizes she’s dirt poor.

“I sat there and realized that I, too, don’t own a thing. Everything in my apartment has either been given to me or was my start-up stuff. I have no savings. I don’t always know where the rent’s coming from. I’ve borrowed from my parents.”

But then there are nights like her recent gig in London, Ontario. After the show, a 22-year-old woman with four kids — someone who on the surface had nothing in common with the urbane Downey — came up and thanked her.

“She told me, “It was so worth the babysitter,'” says Downey, her eyes filling up. “Hearing stuff like that makes your life have purpose.”

in good spirits

As six-year producer and host of Wednesday’s open-mike night at Spirits Bar & Grill, Jo-Anna Downey’s escorted lots of real and quasi celebs to the back of the room. Law & Order’s Michael Moriarty once did a set. Barenaked Lady Kevin Hearn’s father co-hosted once.

But nothing compares to the full-frontal nudity and the chicken wings.

The nudity came via a guy celebrating a stag — “I missed it I turned around and he flashed — my luck,” says Downey — while the chicken wings got tossed at comics onstage by a tempestuous transvestite in the audience.

And then there was the guy with the funny hat.

“He ripped off his shirt and started licking his own manboobs,” says Downey. “That was his entire act.”

Downey estimates there’ve been over 300 shows in the last six years, and about 700 different performers. These include big names like Sean Cullen, Sandra Shamas, Harland Williams and Gavin Crawford. They also include Spirits regulars like Pete Zedlacher, Harry Doupe, Dave Martin, Kristeen von Hagen and Gord Disley, who all developed much of their acts within the Church Street club.

“There’ve been great nights, crazy nights, drunken nights and nights that never seemed to end,” she says. “I’ve had to take drunken comics offstage and hauled others off because they weren’t funny and were hurting the show.”

Everyone who signs up eventually gets on (hence the manboob act), but the waiting list is longer than ever.

And no matter how many headlining gigs a comic’s racked up, he or she still gets only five minutes, often to try out new material.

“It doesn’t matter what club you work for or who your boss is,” says Downey.

She’s coy about how long she’s going to keep hosting, and estimates she’s missed only 10 out of 312 shows.

“In two years maybe I’ll call it my 20th anniversary and no one will know the difference,” she says. “I’ll call Letterman. Maybe he’ll do a spot.”

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