Gerry Dee as part of Just For Laughs Toronto Festival, at Massey Hall (178 Victoria), Friday (July 25) at 7 and 9:30 pm. $55-$120. 416-872-4255, hahaha.com/toronto.
Did you hear the one about the time Gerry Dee wasn't funny?
It was last Monday, the least funny day of the week. We were sitting in his parked VW Jetta, a practical and entirely unfunny automobile engineered by a practical and entirely unfunny people. (The Germans' love of David Hasselhoff is funny weird, not funny ha-ha.) The temperature was near 32°C but the AC was off, which was also not funny.
And our conversation - about the Torontonian's early failures as a comedian, his success last year on Last Comic Standing, his more recent success as an incompetent TV sports reporter on the Score network - was almost exclusively unfunny, too.
Not that I expected any different. Comedians offstage are often polar opposites of their onstage personas - being funny is just their job.
Even Robin Williams is pretty sedate when the spotlight's not on him.
But it's not like Dee had a pole up his ass. He was friendly and good humoured. He just wasn't there to yuk it up.
"People always expect me to be funny, to have a joke to tell," says the 40-year-old. "It's an occupational hazard."
The pressure to bring the funny has been even higher since Dee finished third in last year's Last Comic Standing, the stand-up talent search on NBC.
"It's a silly show to some degree," admits Dee between yawns. (He hasn't been sleeping much since his daughter was born while he was in L.A. taping LCS.)
But the career boost the show's given him has been the equivalent of strapping on a rocket pack.
"People now know my name a lot more, and I get booked more, get paid more, and people stop me on the street because they recognize me."
As we talk on an Annex side street, Dee spots a buddy walking by. T.W. Peacocke directed Dee in the CBC mini series Canada Russia '72, in which Dee played Boston Bruins great Wayne Cashman.
And that's when I finally pinpoint Dee's "shtick" - he's a jock comic. The Toronto Football Club T-shirt he's wearing should've tipped me off.
Not that Dee's routines are filled with sports-related jokes. Dee had never heard any of George Carlin jokes until his death last month, a surprising admission given that one of Carlin's most famous bits (after the über-infamous Seven Dirty Words) is the one about the difference between baseball and football.
"I did not know stand-up when I got into this," says the former high school history teacher who studied kinesiology ("a big word for gym," he jokes) in university. "The guys I idolized were John Candy, Michael J. Fox and John Ritter."
But there's a jock attitude about Dee. After bombing his first couple of times onstage, the competitive athlete in Dee wouldn't let him quit.
"I did so badly, I just felt so humiliated, so defeated, that I had to prove to myself I could do it," he recalls. "My third or fourth time I got some laughs, and it's like golf - you hit one good shot and you go back, but it's the most frustrating sport in the world. If I get one little laugh, I know there's something there." (For the record, Dee has a 2 handicap.)
Sports network the Score picked up on his jock attitude and hired him to star in a series of segments called Gerry Dee Sports Reporter, in which he ineptly interviews local athletes.
While Dee loves the character, a parody of himself, not everyone feels the same way. He pulls out his BlackBerry and reads me a viewer e-mail: "You look like a complete ass. You have to be one of the most ignorant critical backward morons I have ever seen on TV. I've seen smarter commentators from grade school. You are a disgrace to all sports shows and reporters. Have a lovely day, you little sack of shit."
Dee can barely hide his glee. "This has got to be the dumbest person in the world," he says. "Do they not get that it's a character? It's great."
Dee performs this weekend at Just For Laughs Toronto - he'll be introduced by host Jason Alexander, which has Dee wondering if the Seinfeld star will have a funny line to bring this new Gerry onstage - and has a cross-Canada tour in the fall. He's also written a sitcom in which he hopes to star.
"I play a teacher who's stuck teaching subjects I don't know anything about," Dee says, "kind of like how it was when I really was a teacher."