DEBRA DiGIOVANNI headlining at the Laugh Resort (370 King West), Friday and Saturday (July 18 and 19), at 8:15 and 10:30 pm. $10-$15. 416-364-5233. Rating: NNNNN
Debra Digiovanni's biggest fear is that she's gonna puke on a comedy stage. Within a few years, the fast-rising stand-up has worked her way up from open mikes and amateur nights to headlining gigs. Next month she tapes a much-coveted Comedy Now special for CTV and the Comedy Network.
People are obviously laughing. She should be, too, no?
"Before many shows I think, 'This is the night! This is the night I'm going to throw up onstage!'" she tells me in her tangy, fast-talking voice days before her weekend gig at the Laugh Resort.
"A few nights ago I even had the waiter set up a water pitcher onstage. I needed a handy receptacle just in case."
She didn't lose it, of course, and - here she knocks on the wooden table of the chi-chi Queen West patisserie we're sitting in - hopes she never will. But facing that fear is one of her prime motivators.
"It's a circular thing," she laughs. "I get scared, feel sick, conquer it, then come off with elation and the feeling of having done a good job."
It's this kind of honesty and we're-all-human confession that makes DiGiovanni's act so likeable.
She's the regular girl, the good friend, the confidante who won't bullshit you if your outfit or hair looks terrible. Don't take it personally. After all, she's as hard on herself as she is on you.
"I call my act lovingly self-deprecating," admits DiGiovanni, who makes jokes about her size, her penchant for perspiring onstage and her single status with lots of cats. "Listen, if I had genuine self-hatred, I wouldn't be here."
Her sense of humour came about naturally, part genetics, part survival mechanism. She grew up in a big Italian-English family ("You've got to be loud and fast to be heard") in Tillsonburg. Her non-identical twin sister was, as she puts it, "by all standards quite beautiful - blond and green-eyed."
"I didn't pretend that I looked like my sister," she says. "My whole thing was that I knew it and I was OK with it. I was funny for survival. OK, I'm not the prom queen, but, hey, I'm fun to be around!" she says. "I was always the pal. I was the boyfriend's friend."
It's not a bad position to be in. Audiences feel comfortable seeing a regular-looking person onstage.
"Can you name me one ultra-gorgeous perfect person who goes onstage making the haha?" she challenges. "No. It's intimidating. Women especially hate really beautiful women. We don't want to listen to them. What does this bitch have to say? Oh, please!"
After a stalled start as a fashion illustration student, DiGiovanni got a job as a receptionist at Citytv and caught the performing bug while guiding tours at the station, a gig that she admits helped her become a good host.
She quit in 1999 to enter the first Humber School of Comedy class - Jason Rouse was a fellow student - and in her second semester vowed to get up onstage at least once a week.
"I didn't bomb until maybe my sixth or seventh time up, which can be dangerous," says DiGiovanni, who soon got nominated for the Tim Sims Encouragement Fund Award.
"The first few times it was, 'Wow, this was fun! This is gonna be super-easy!' And then I bombed at Yuk Yuk's in Hamilton, and it changed a bit.
"But afterwards it just got more fun. I haven't stopped. I get onstage as much as I can."
Early influences included Carol Burnett, Laugh-In and the Laverne And Shirley show. Her delivery - especially the quick fill-ins after punchlines - owes a lot to the pre-red-carpet Joan Rivers.
As for contemporary comics, she nods to Janeane Garofalo and Joan Cusack.
"If I could pick one person to emulate, it would be Cusack," she says. "She always steals the scene - maybe she's not the star, but you remember her. That's fine.
"I have no problem with that."