nikki payne appearing at Yuk Yuk's West (5165 Dixie), December 19-22, Thursday and Sunday 8:30 pm, Friday-Saturday 8 and 10:30 pm. $5-$17. 416-967-6425. Also appearing in the new year's eve comedy extravaganza at Massey Hall (178 Victoria), December 31 at 8 pm. $38.50-$52.50. 416-872-4255. Rating: NNNNN
onstage, nikki payne is like a demented, evil child. Imagine the Bride of Chucky let loose in a comedy club. She swears. She humps imaginary objects. She plays with her titties. At one point, she flings imaginary poo at us. Welcome to one of the smartest, and funniest, acts around. But how real is it?
"I'm pretty shy," she says over hot chocolate a few days after a breakthrough weekend of headlining sets at Yuk Yuk's Downtown. "I'm prudish. I wasn't the class clown, "look-at-me! look-at-me!' People I went to school with are pretty shocked that I do this."
Today, sitting a little uncomfortably in a Queen West café (I think she's actually nervous), she's wearing a T-shirt that says Little Miss Big Shot, a title that's becoming more and more appropriate.
This weekend, the winner of the Comedy Network's Search For Canada's Funniest New Comic (she also copped a Gemini nomination this year) performs at Yuk Yuk's Mississauga. She's also on the star-studded lineup for the New Year's Eve gala at Massey Hall.
Not bad for someone who grew up in a Halifax trailer park -- it's part of her act, and also true -- and arrived in town four years ago with a few phone numbers and a dream.
"I was only supposed to be here for six months," she says. "The plan was, I was going to get it out of my system, go back to Halifax and have a cool story about me doing amateur nights in Toronto. But I'm still here."
Encouraged by Yuk Yuk's Mark Breslin and fellow Humber School of Comedy alumni like Levi MacDougall and Ryan Belleville, Payne's worked her way up the comedy ladder.
It hasn't been easy. There are those who are skeptical. For one thing, she's got a noticeable speech impairment -- a cleft lip and palate.
When I saw her headlining debut last January, she was funny, but her energy was almost overwhelming. I thought she might burn herself out.
But since then, she's refined her act, made it tighter, more honest. And the results are astonishing.
About 10 minutes into her headlining set, after she's done a bit about Tourette's syndrome and warned us that -- here she puts her hand on a downhill angle -- the night's intellectual content is gonna plummet, she admits to her lisp.
She tells a childhood story about an inept speech therapist who kept making her say the word "wagon," even though she had no problem saying the word. She tells another anecdote -- again true -- about screaming into the phone when an automated airport service didn't recognize her pronunciation of the word "Jetsco."
After these two jokes, filled with truthful rage, the audience is remarkably hers. We warm to her. It's not a kissy-kissy, Oprah-hug moment. But we go over to her side, and never leave.
"The placement is important with that joke," she explains. "If I do it right off the top, people aren't comfortable enough with me. I have to let them hear me long enough to realize I'm not making the lisp up, that this isn't a character. I have to give them enough time, but not so much that they're distracted by it. So I acknowledge it, we laugh and then we move on."
She also admits to changing the joke. "I used to do a hokey thing where I pretended to be a phone sex worker, which I never was. Now I'm talking about things that actually happened. It's more honest."
Honest without being self-pitying, that is. Or rah-rah inspirational.
"I never wanted to do self-deprecating stuff, "Poor me, I don't get the boys' jokes," she says. "I always wanted to admit that, yeah, there are some crappy things going on, but I still get up every day, have fun and laugh."
Turning that honesty onto her career expectations is another thing. Is the entertainment world ready for a performer with a lisp?
"So far, everything that was supposed to hold me back has propelled me forward and made me stand out more. Everything that I've got on film or TV has been something someone's written with me in mind. I'm writing more. I'm working on a screenplay."
There are some things, though, that she knows won't happen. Commercials, for instance.
"I probably won't be selling underarm deodorant on TV," she laughs. Then, to cut any self-pity, she mimics rubbing something soft and delicate under her pit.
"Buy it!" she screams in a demonic voice. "Would you really want to buy deodorant from me?"email@example.com profile