GAVIN CRAWFORD SH**TING RAINBOWS written by Crawford and Kyle Tingley, directed by Tingley, with Crawford. Presented by the Toronto Sketch Comedy Festival at the Randolph Theatre (736 Bathurst), Monday (March 10), 8 pm. $20. 647-505-1050, torontosketchfest.com. See listing.
Gavin Crawford is one of the funniest people on the planet. So why isn't he a superstar?
He's helmed his own TV show, been part of Canadian comedy institutions Second City and This Hour Has 22 Minutes, wowed Just For Laughs crowds and hosted pretty much every Canadian awards show you can name, as well as winning a clutch of trophies himself.
But outside the comedy community, he's not exactly a household name.
You could chalk that up to the fact that as a character comic he disappears into his dead-on impressions of everyone from Rufus Wainwright and Chantal Hébert to that woman on the Discovery Channel's Daily Planet. Or maybe Canadians want their stars "aw, shucks" wholesome and straight, like Brent Butt or Ron James.
Or perhaps it's simply because, apart from a brief stint in L.A., Crawford has stayed in Canada.
"And we're not a nation of risk-takers," he says on the phone from Victoria, BC, where he and co-star Naomi Snieckus are making an indie film called Two4One in which he plays a female-to-male transgendered person who discovers he's pregnant.
"Wouldn't it be great if Canadian TV didn't just try to make American-style sitcoms?"
When he's feeling really dark about the industry, he says, he even jokes about launching a Kickstarter campaign to finance a move to England.
"For a $50 donation you will receive a Gemini!" he says in a soothing, put-on marketing voice. "One of six available!"
He waits as I double over laughing at this gag, which perfectly, sarcastically sums up the Canadian comedy conundrum.
"That would be a super-asshole move," he says, "but it is funny."
Finding that balance between funny and inoffensive is something Crawford's perfected. It's on his mind as he remounts his brilliant Sh**ting Rainbows show from last Pride - which I named the best comedy show of 2013 - for the Sketch Comedy Festival.
For instance: how is he, an out queer comic for decades, going to deal with the recent Sochi Olympics?
"I haven't quite found the right way to approach Sochi," he says. "Just look on Facebook. There are tons of articles telling you why it was or wasn't bad."
He pauses, then admits he'll probably go the show tune route.
"I started writing alternate lyrics to Sit Down, You're Rocking The Boat."
He used a similar approach when sending up the methinks-he-doth-protest-too-much heterosexuality of Hugh Jackman, whom he has singing I'm Not Gay to the tune of Les Misérables' Bring Him Home.
And he's savagely skewered Rufus Wainwright and husband Jörn Weisbrodt by having Wainwright shill for Weisbrodt's Luminato festival to the tune of Hallelujah (penned, incidentally, by Wainwright's child's grandfather, Leonard Cohen).
Although Crawford's performing for a broader audience at Sketchfest, he won't "degay" Sh**ting Rainbows, and he's been under no pressure from organizers to do that. One of the reasons he didn't stay in L.A. was that everyone told him he shouldn't be out.
He'll likely update his tart impression of Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne and revisit a sketch about Mayor Rob Ford that at the time was eerily prescient.
"He hasn't been arrested or removed, so it all still works," he says. "I remember wondering how I was going to do Ford, because I look nothing like him. I mean, I could fit into one of his pant legs. Initially I thought that if he stayed on crack maybe in the future he'd be super-skinny...."
What he and co-writer/director/partner Kyle Tingley have come up with - I won't ruin the surprise - is a mix of pop culture references and politics that is simply out of this world: smart and razor-sharp.
He'll also likely revisit his Downton Abbey send-up, in which he takes on all the TV characters' voices to the tune of Petula Clark's song Downtown. The sketch gets howls of laughter from some audience members and silence from non-Downton fans, but that's fine with him.
When he took his act to the Edinburgh Fringe last year (he hopes to return in 2015), one of his secret desires was to see how his Downton accents fared with actual Brits.
"I wanted to know if my Mrs. Hughes was up to par!" he says, in her Scottish brogue. "And people came up to me and said the voices were bang on. So I felt, ‘Yes! Okay!'"
Even if everyone doesn't get his references, being able to test material in a live show is gratifying. Back in his 22 Minutes days, a roomful of producers used to vet his bits; at first they didn't even think people would get his impression of The National's At Issue panelist Chantal Hébert, now one of his classics.
"I would be pitching something about the Kardashians to people who didn't know who they were because they didn't watch TV," he says.
A couple of years ago, he suffered a big blow when the TV series he developed with Tingley, Gavin Crawford's Wild West, was dropped after the network had its funding cut and announced it wouldn't be producing new half-hour comedies after buying six scripts.
The broadcaster screened the pilot last summer - a hilarious Chris Lilley-style mockumentary set in Alberta - and it picked up five Canadian Screen Award nominations, including best comedy series and best actor.
There may be life in the show - or something else the pair are developing - yet.
"Let's just say we're exploring the possibility," he says. "I don't want to make them mad."
Currently he's got a juicy supporting part in the darkly funny Super Channel series 24 Hour Rental, in which he plays a film-snob video clerk. It reminds him of the four years he spent working at Vancouver art house video store Videomatica.
"It was the only place you could rent Pink Narcissus or a Bruce LaBruce movie," he says. "We were all snobs and could get away with anything because there was nowhere else in the city to rent those films. This was pre-Netflix."
Frequent customer Sarah McLachlan used to call him "Difficult Boy" because he once refused to rent her the American version of The Vanishing, foisting the Dutch original on her instead.
And Crawford continues to do theatre, which was his first love. He studied theatre at UBC and confesses he did comedy to help him get parts. Last year he picked up a second Dora Award for his gentle, understated performance in Sky Gilbert's A Few Brittle Leaves.
He remembers meeting Gilbert after auditioning for the Shaw Festival, where Christopher Newton (cue dead-on accent) told him "he'd be uniquely unhappy there... but there was a theatre in Toronto called Buddies in Bad Times."
Part of his audition for Gilbert was showing off his unique skill: being able to tie a knot in a cherry stem with his tongue, which Gilbert always brings up.
This summer he and cabaret mainstay Sharron Matthews are hoping to collaborate on a show for World Pride.
Then there's the indie feature he's filming right now.
As for stardom, Crawford says he feels kinda like Tony from West Side Story.
"You know, ‘Something's coming... something good.' But I don't know what it is.
"Last year I did a lot of legwork and threw stuff out there," he says. "I haven't seen a lot of tangible benefits, but that's how my career's always been. Sometimes the coolest stuff suddenly appears, seemingly out of nowhere, because you planted these things before."
And will he and Tingley, who met at Buddies' Rhubarb Festival nearly two decades ago, ever tie the knot?
"For my feelings on that see Sh**ting Rainbows," he says, laughing. "Before it even became an issue we'd already been together for such a long time. Now when it comes up we look at each other and say, ‘Or we could take a vacation.' Also, neither one of us wears jewellery."
Photos by Liam Sharp