MARCH OF DAMES 2001: A DAME ODYSSEY w/ Lisa Merchant, Janet van de Graaff, the Atomic Fireballs, the Lolas, Teresa Pavlinek, Tricia Williams, Shoshana Sperling, Sonja Mills, Debra McGrath, Jayne Eastwood, Melody Johnson, Laurie Elliott, Ali Eisner and others, through April 1, Thursday-Friday 9 pm, Saturday 10:30 pm, Sunday 8 pm. $15-$20. Tim Sims Playhouse and Second City (56 Blue Jays). 416-343-0011.
lisa merchant and i are discuss-
"Bea Arthur," she says, point blank, "is definitely a dame."
"Yes," I concur. Maude rules.
"None of those women on Friends are. Neither is Calista Muckeyhead. But Janeane Garofalo is absolutely a dame. It's a sensibility thing."
As the brains behind the March Of Dames women's comedy festival, now in its 8th year and running until Sunday, the husky-voiced Merchant has seen lots of ladies, girls and women try to drum up laughs.
But only the best make the cut for what's become a highlight of the comedy calendar.
"Sure, people try to lobby to get on the show, but they're not very good at paying me off," she jokes over a cappuccino and muffin at a College cafe. "They could learn a thing or two about that."
Merchant, who's familiar to TV audiences from her appearances on Go Girl and whose improv skills can be seen weekly in the hilarious soap opera spoof Sin City: Radioland, traces the origin of March Of Dames back nearly a decade.
At the time, she was performing with improv troupe the Chumps, doing Star Trek parodies for happy crowds.
"I was playing Lieutenant Uhura," she explains, groaning slightly, because that life seems light years away from her current one.
"Then I started wondering if I was going to be doing a really good version of Lieutenant Uhura for the rest of my life. That was depressing."
She also looked around and saw women struggling to get on comedy line-ups or trying to get their voices heard in male-dominated sketch troupes. So she put together a few nights of female entertainment.
"But," she warns, "this has never been a feel-good, warm-and-fuzzy, aren't-women-great! kind of experience. And it's not about women versus men. It's about being funny and gaining confidence."
Confidence is one of the proven after-effects of the fest. Comics who were just starting out eight years ago have matured into headliners. Hot young comics like Laurie Elliott and Ali Eisner, both on this year's bill, are springing up monthly.
"Attitudes have changed," she says. "Women walk through a room in a different way now. It's no longer just assumed that they're relegated to doing support for guys."
Merchant shrugs off a question about whether the men-are-from-Mars, women-are-from-Venus rules apply to humour.
"I've seen women who do the female version of the dick joke, but that does nothing for me," she admits. "In the same way, I don't respond when guys just shout out, "So, my girlfriend, whatta bitch!' That's so pedestrian."
With her Star Trek parody days behind her, Merchant's boldly gone where few have gone before.
Or go today. Sure, occasional women's nights have sprung up in the city -- Yuk Yuk's monthly Broad Appeal night is one -- but nothing compares to the scale and variety of MOD.
"It's still an anomaly," she admits. "If you approach venues or producers with the idea of an all-women's night, chances are they'll tell you, "You know what? We just had one last month.'
"That's not right, dammit."
Spoken like a true dame.
dames to see
Check out these highlights of the March Of Dames lineup.
ALI EISNER Her talent is raw and unmistakable. Catch the frizzy-haired singer and former YTV host before she hits it huge. Cross your fingers and hope she presents her now-infamous CBC video. (Thursday, March 29).
BABY JANE Lisa Merchant and Janet Van De Graaff's dead-on recreation of the dinner scene from Whatever Happened To Baby Jane is becoming a cult fave on the comedy circuit. Rumour has it the former Go Girl hosts may be creating an entire show from similar camp movie moments. So consider this a sneak preview. (Friday, March 30, and Sunday, April 1).
LAURIE ELLIOTT The winner of last year's Tim Sims Encouragement Fund Award keeps on getting weirder and wackier. She's got a manic, lipstick-smeared smile and a gritty voice that can take audiences to the strangest places. (Saturday, March 31, and Sunday, April 1).
ELVIRA KURT Now that she hosts her own TV show, the out-way-before-Ellen comedian makes fewer local appearances. So her final-night hosting gig for the Comedy Network broadcast is a must-see. (Sunday, April 1).
JAMILLAH ROSS/SEAN FISHER The pairing of Ross, who does a diva send-up of Diana Ross, and Fisher, the piano-playing half of duo the Goatee Boys, should be a match made in musical comedy heaven. (Saturday, March 31).