At time of writing, I’ve confirmed two separate (and very different) Michael Harrisons known to exist in the comedy world. One of them is a ventriloquist. The other one is not. Phew! Nothing against ventriloquism. We here at the TG Comedy Desk believe that what a consenting puppeteer and his or her dummy (?) do is their business and no one else’s. But I’d be hard pressed to fill up a whole piece on the subject. Nevermind having to constantly spell ventrilo… screw it, I forget already. Let’s move on
Michael Harrison, the young hotshot pictured here has been making big waves on the Canadian comedy scene for well over a decade. He first took the plunge way back when at the tender (and terrified) age of 17. More on that later. Now in his early 30s, Harrison is in the throws of another one of those turning point years that amateur comics salivate over. The gigs that comics grind it out for, night after night – fighting for recognition in an endless, and sometimes hostile sea of open mics, hecklers, dive bars and brutal disappointment. The odds on actually ¨making it¨ in the comedy game, which itself is open to interpretation, are slim. The survival rate is something akin to the life of a sea turtle.
This past week alone, Harrison was invited to appear on Toronto’s innovative interactive #JFL42 Festival (the brainchild of the same world renowned jokers that bring us Montreal’s mammoth Just for Laughs). He’s always home for the big gigs (lately, the list seems endless), but Harrison is in every way a true blue road comic. On any given week, Harrison’s gig sheet reads like the campaign schedule of a candidate on the national trail – dotting the map, hitting the club circuit from North America’s comedy meccas, to towns even Stats Can would be hard pressed to pinpoint on a Rand McNally
Harrison played at this year’s Montreal festival too. Where by the way, he was confused for the ventriloquist of the same name.
¨I looked at the promo, and realized they had his (other Michael Harrison’s) bio under my photo¨, recalls Harrison. ¨It said things like ‘he has opened for The Muppets and Boyz 2 Men. He was on America’s Got Talent, he’s a favorite of David Hasselhoff and Sharon Osbourne… Some guy pointed it out to my Mom and asked if I really did all that stuff, she told him ‘Yes he did! He doesn’t tell me all of the things he does, I’m pretty sure that’s all correct‘
One of his big breaking moments came a few years back, when Harrison taped his own special on the Comedy Network’s then long running standup series Comedy Now.
In his own words, ¨I got a ton of messages afterwards from people who watched it, and said they loved what I was doing. It made me feel really confident in the direction I was going. Then I got a message from a girl I had a crush on way back in high school, telling me how funny she thought I was. Well buddy, I felt like a sexy rock star¨
Not bad for a starry eyed kid from the Canadian prairies. But comedy ain’t all roses, in fact the ratio can be pretty high on the thorny side (case in point, seeing that analogy through to the end, not my own personal best). While Harrison has certainly made big waves coming all the way from the heartland of Saskatchewan, he’s tasted his fair share of shit sandwiches along the way. Bombing, hecklers. Making the nut from gig to gig. It’s par for the course, for all of us. Every time you step on stage could be your greatest moment, or your biggest test of faith as a (for better or worse) ‘pro comic’.
It seems to be those nights when we think, ¨I’ve got this¨. When that surge of adrenaline, those pangs of nervous energy – the so-called butterflies, the ‘8 Mile Moment’ – whatever language you’d like to put on it. When all of that is gone. Sometimes, we forget to focus and we run right off the road. And an audience will never follow you there
Harrison recalled a night where he indulged himself in an experiment gone wrong.
¨I remember on my 3rd set ever, I did a competition in Calgary. For some unknown reason, I thought it would be funny to do my set while lifting my shirt and brushing my nipples with toothpaste. I know, this sounds dumb, but to me at the time, I thought I was being wildly original and daring. Seriously, in my head I thought that it would only be a matter of time before I got on Letterman. Man did that choice ever backfire. I don’t think anyone could focus on a single joke I said as they stared at me in confusion while I brushed my ariolas with Colgate. When I was bombing, I remember being shocked that I didn’t get a standing ovation for my brilliance.¨
That’s a familiar sting. My own first true bomb came the first time someone actually paid me to do this. I was about 5 months in, and I took a gig middling for a Scat singer at a Toronto Jazz club (it has since shut its doors, I like to think that wasn’t just because of me). I wore a suit jacket, the whole nine yards. I looked like a hangover from the days when Club 54 was still on the air. No one in the crowd had any idea that this strange, pale kid with jet black Jack White locks and a clearance rack sport coat from The Gap was going to step into the neon mood lighting, on a stage long considered holy for Toronto’s Jazz elite, and wax philosophical on college sex and 90s Pop Culture for 20 minutes. But I did. And the room looked at me like I was fucking a corpse
As Canada’s infamous Darren Frost (¨Frosty¨) once told me, ‘One day you’re going to be out there. You’re going to be alone, in a shitty motel in the middle of nowhere, you’re going to be lying on the bed on top of the covers because you’re scared to turn them down. You will have just bombed. Eaten total shit in front of some smalltown crowd full of strangers. Your signal won’t work, so there’s no one to talk to that night. Just you, and your thoughts. And you have to think about that set. Why it happened like that. And you have to get up the next morning and do it all over again’
The life of a road comic, a TRUE road comic, is tough to say the least. It’s also rare, these days. Certainly in the Great White North. But those few who can really do it, who are carved from that golden cloth – they make it seem effortless. To them, I guess, it’s just what they do. Harrison’s star is on the rapid rise – here in Canada he’s carved out a solid niche for himself already. But he’s got his sights set on bigger pastures. Already a regular face on club stages across the U.S and beyond, Harrison is someone we might soon see on the grassy side of L.A’s infamous pilot season – that sun-soaked mecca that Canadian comics flock to like migrating geese. He might turn up even more regularly on the New York scene, who knows. Every time he makes his way back to Toronto, he seems to have another new notch in his belt. Of course, he just sort of shrugs it off. It’s his job, and he loves what he does
Oh, and as promised. Where did it all begin for Michael Harrison?
¨When I was 17, I realized that I could get into bars if I was a performer. I was unpopular in high school, so I thought it would be cool to tell everyone that I had been to a bar, so I thought I’d just do stand up.”
Simple enough, no?
¨I was so nervous when I got there that I sat in a washroom stall and hyperventilated for about an hour before the show. Then I got introduced, and awkwardly told jokes about sex (which by the way, I was still very much a virgin) for 5 solid minutes to an audience full of people who felt sorry I was there. I somehow believed I did great!¨
Whatever happens next for Michael Harrison, we can always guarantee one thing – at heart, he’s just a hard working Canadian kid who likes making people laugh. It just so happens, he’s one of the best more recent comics we’ve got. But to talk to him, you’d never know it. He’s just as humble as he must have been over a decade ago, at those first open mics. It’s almost like he doesn’t even realize how far he’s about to go. Or where he already is. If that’s true, man! It’s going to be ever sweeter when he arrives
For all things Michael Harrison related (well, comedy-wise) follow him on Twitter @ComedySlave. Chances are he’s performing near you sometime soon, maybe even right now.