THE DEBRA & TREVOR COMEDY TOUR with Debra DiGiovanni and Trevor Boris. At the Isabel Bader (93 Charles West), Saturday (January 27) at 8 pm. $29.95. 1-888-222-6608, www.ticketweb.ca. Rating: NNNNN
Valentine's Day is a few weeks away, but Debra DiGiovanni's already got plans.
"Oh yeah," she growls with her oversized laugh, full of juicy innuendo.
Instead of chocolates or flowers, she'll be getting something much more thrilling for a working comic: a cheque and a roomful of laughter. She's worked V-Day for five straight years. To hell with a love life.
"I'm probably one of the first comics they ask," she says. "'Debra? Are you free?' 'Hell, yeah!' I get to let loose on the couples in the audience."
It's early afternoon and we're sitting in the empty Laugh Resort, where DiGiovanni is one of the house favourites. I'm not used to it being this dark or quiet. I am, however, used to hearing DiGiovanni's non-stop banter - just onstage, not at one of the tables.
Years ago in these pages, I called the then-up-and-comer the "best comic to see after a messy breakup." Like a lot of great female comics - not all, mind you - DiGiovanni's an empathy magnet. She understands sadness, her own and yours. The ultimate irony, of course, is that she's onstage in a position of power, eliciting laughter instead of tears.
"That's what's so delicious about the whole thing, isn't it?" she says, wearing a black track outfit that looks loose and comfortable. "I'm up there, I have the mic and I'm still talking about being lonely or whatever."
She says the word "lonely" in a mock-tearful way, complete with a nanosecond sad-clown face. Even offstage, every sentence she utters is a tiny soap opera fleshed out with conspiracies and confessions.
"It's truthful but it's exaggerated. Do I love my life? Absolutely. But is there a whole bunch of heartache from years gone by? Yes. It's like therapy - for me, and for the people in the audience who connect."
Mind you, that connection's not always guaranteed. The circumstances have to be just right for a good gabfest. A few months ago I caught one of her headlining sets here, and a rowdy corner crowd threw off DiGiovanni's energy and focus. She remembers the night.
"I'm a big aside person, so if you miss it you miss it," she explains. "I think I've got this demeanour that's crazy but sweet. Getting mad never works. If there are hecklers, I try to put a sweet spin on it. If I get angry I lose. If we're having a good time and there's a moment of anger, I don't get the crowd back."
That kind of insight into her process has made her climb up the comedy ladder relatively smooth - and quick. She's grown a lot, but she knows she's still not where she wants to be.
"I would love to be able to destroy anywhere. I should be able to walk into a room full of men wearing baseball caps and make them laugh."
She pauses, then says, "Oh, but I'd run after the show. Men with baseball caps terrify me!"
This week she's taking her comedy to another level by launching a five-city Ontario tour with her stand-up pal Trevor Boris. Both have earned a cult following among the tween set and nostalgic boomers for their chatty, catty deconstructions of pop culture on MuchMusic's Video On Trial.
"The first person who recognized me was 11 years old," deadpans DiGiovanni. "I could be her mom. I think the average age is 16 or 17. I'm thrilled to have teenagers, because they'll grow up with me. Maybe my appeal comes from that combination of immaturity and insecurity that is still very teen-angsty."
Taping the bits at Citytv makes her feel her career's come full circle. It was at that station that she got the performing bug while working as a switchboard operator and sometime tour guide. She recalls an infamous Christmas party where she hosted a show in front of 800 people.
"At that time I still drank and probably had had three or four glasses of wine," she says. "But it was at that moment that I knew this was what I wanted to do."
A short while later, someone at the station dropped off a press release about the brand new Humber school of comedy. DiGiovanni enrolled in the inaugural class and hasn't looked back.
Her parents, who still live in Tillsonburg, don't follow her career. Her family, of mixed Italian and English background, are born-again Christians. When her Comedy Now appeared a few years ago, they were upset.
"There was a little language they didn't like, and any talk about sex is not really cool for them," she says. "My gay friends said it was like my coming out to them, my 'This is who I really am' moment. My parents had to see that. I'm not the same with them. I sit there quietly."
Even growing up, she knew she was different. Her twin sister, Joanne, was blond, thin and quiet. Debra was dark, outgoing and let's say stocky.
"My mother tells me that when we went to kindergarten, my sister was crying, but I turned around and said to them, 'Okay! See you later!' I walked in no problem."
In grade school she made kids laugh by doing teacher impressions. In high school she entertained her girlfriends - the single ones - in the cafeteria.
DiGiovanni sighs knowingly. Honesty is a big part of her act - it's what makes her jokes ring true. She tells me she hasn't had a date since she started doing comedy. Seven years.
"It's a solitary life, but it's a choice," she says. "I knew my life was not going to be conventional. All my friends are married, and most of them have babies now. That's not really in my game plan, you know? Am I happy with it? Absolutely. But there are moments of ."
"I work every weekend, many nights. Maybe sometimes I over-perform because I've got nothing else to do. I put comedy first. And it's not like men are knocking down my door. But I never want to hear someone complain, 'Are you performing again tonight?'"
In a way, DiGiovanni's still performing for that cafeteria table, only her audiences have increased. Hugely.
She got a taste of big-time success when Russell Peters invited her on his sold-out tour of concert halls. She rose to the challenge.
"Russell Peters is a rock star," she says. "His shows sell out in hours. It introduced me to the whole idea of people seeing a comic, as opposed to just comedy, or comedy being thrust upon them unknowingly. These are people going because they've chosen to.
"That's what I want. That's the lifestyle I'm looking for in stand-up. If it moves into TV, fine, but I love stand-up. Talking to Russell and learning from him, I saw what's possible in comedy. Yes, comics can do this. We are able to do this."
Here's DiGiovanni on some subjects that are near and dear to her twisted heart.
On making fun of famous people: "They started it! They got famous, so now I can talk about them. But if I ever meet Paris Hilton, its gonna be: Hi, Paris! Im not gonna say, Get away from me, you skanky whore.'"
On her obsession with pop culture/gossip: "It's fun news. It's not the news that makes you have bad dreams. If Mary Hart didn't say it, it didn't fucking happen."
On her weight: "Do I have plans to lose 100 pounds? Yes, but there's not going to be any Star Jones activity. I will not be marrying a gay man any time soon."
On her gay following: "Maybe it's the struggle, not being completely accepted, always being slightly outside. Gay men stop me on the street and say, 'Do we know each other?' And I say, 'No, but let's hug!'"
Debra DiGiovanni Video Clips