JAMES CUNNINGHAM, part of the seventh annual LAUGHING MATTERS benefit for Casey House, with CARLA COLLINS, SHAUN MAJUMDER, SEAN TWEEDLEY, MAGGIE CASSELLA and the SECOND CITY TOURING COMPANY, hosted by MIKE BULLARD, at Bluma Appel Theatre, St. Lawrence Centre (27 Front East), today (Thursday, June 1) at 8 pm. $35-$60. 366-7723.
JAMES CUNNINGHAM, part of the seventh annual LAUGHING MATTERS benefit for Casey House, with CARLA COLLINS, SHAUN MAJUMDER, SEAN TWEEDLEY, MAGGIE CASSELLA and the SECOND CITY TOURING COMPANY, hosted by MIKE BULLARD, at Bluma Appel Theatre, St. Lawrence Centre (27 Front East), today (Thursday, June 1) at 8 pm. $35-$60. 366-7723. Rating: NNNNN
James Cunningham is living a dream. In August it'll be four years since he turned pro on the crazed Yuk Yuk's circuit. NBut while it's imperceptible to observers, the quick-witted, Milton-born chrome-dome still feels wet behind the ears every time he gets up there to deliver his well-wrought and wily reality-based stand-up shtick.
That's because he learned from the masters, travelling to T.O. as a wide-eyed teen to watch the likes of Mike Wilmot, Jeremy Hotz, Kenny Robinson, Derek Edwards and Larry Horowitz howl at the moon.
"I studied the best," avers Cunningham at a Church Street cafe. His own steady rise has put him on tonight's (Thursday, June 1) star-studded Laughing Matters lineup at Bluma Appel Theatre.
"And when you watch these guys -- man, talk about structuring jokes and knowing how to do it! Pound for pound, these guys have the science of comedy right down, more than anybody. Right here in Toronto.
Masters mime "When you break it down and really absorb their rhythms and methods, it's amazing. So I credit most of my technique to these guys. As a result, things are starting to happen, but it's still at the point where I feel like a babe in the woods wandering around going, 'Wow!'"
Cunningham's smart enough to understand, though, that his naivete, feigned or not, could be his ticket to the big time. He still keeps a keen eye on his heroes. But now it's with a mind to bending the hard road they've travelled in a completely new direction.
He refers to a new generation of Canuck stand-ups -- guys like Terry McGurrin, Gavin Stephens, Jason Rouse, Ron Josol and Darren Frost -- who are "stumbling" to try to find the "next big style." But nobody knows just what that might end up being.
"We're looking at the old school from the 80s boom period," says Cunningham. "And we listen to all their stories about how mean it was back then. Now we're in kind of the echo of that legendary time on the comedy scene.
"So it's weird, because we're trying to venture out and find something new. But nobody really knows what it will be, and we're all very aware that big breakthroughs are few and far between.
"I intend to keep going in all different directions. I want to do characters and maybe get into the costume aspect of that. Mostly I want to evolve from the base of what I've learned and create my own thing.
"It's like moving out of your parents' house for the first time."
Done deals It's a done deal. Already Cunningham has toured the UK, appeared on the Mike Bullard show, done his segment of Comedy Now and performed at Cream Of Comedy.
Word is, he's a virtual shoo-in for this summer's Just For Laughs in Montreal. And he's gained the respect of some of the great minds of Canadian stand-up along the way.
Nevertheless, he's humble as can be. He still has his day job, on the advice of Bullard, who worked for Bell until he got his show. As a U of T theatre grad with a longing to be his own writer, director and star, Cunningham can't believe his staggering good fortune.
"I never dreamed I could make a living doing this," he laughs. "It's been like wandering into a big minefield. Nothing's happening, and all of a sudden things start blowing up left, right and centre.
"People started calling me up out of the blue and offering me these sweet, sweet gigs. And I'm on the same bill with the Rembrandts of stand-up. It's just wild."