Photo courtesy of Chris Locke.
“I’m doing Ajax tonight. I’m excited.”
That might be the last thing you expect to hear out of anybody’s mouth in a trendy Queen West coffee shop. You especially might not expect to hear it from a born-and-bred city dweller trying to make a living off his creative passion. But these are the words of downtown comedian Chris Locke, a man with a fire in his belly and laugh-hungry suburbanites in his sights.
“For years it was such a thing,” he tells us over our elitist, espresso-based coffees last week. “‘You don’t want to go and do Yuk Yuk’s in Ajax.’ People would just talk like that. And now it’s like, ‘Yeah I do, that’s going to be the best.’ I’m really excited.” Then, to really drive home his point, he adds, “There’s only so many times you can do these independent rooms to 14 polite people and feel satisfied.”
Locke has been a major presence in Toronto’s independent comedy scene for almost a decade. In 1999, he dropped out of university after one year of “partying like crazy” and started heading to open mics. Over the years he’s built up his reputation as a lovable yet intense goofball with his mix of body humour, self-deprecation, and absurd yet grounded logic. (A joke about realizing that he has a badass skull behind his own face flesh offers insight into a mind preoccupied by ridiculous truths.)
“Chris has an ability to be present that is almost scary—if a pin drops and he’s onstage, he’ll probably notice,” frequent bill-sharer Nick Flanagan tells us by email. “He uses that ability to really dig himself into the moment as a performer, addressing the crowd in a confrontational but very self-reflective way. He renders his neuroses absurd and fun in an honest way. This makes crowds feel good.”
Locke’s propensity for the weird kept him away from comedy clubs like Yuk Yuk’s and Absolute Comedy for the most part, forcing him to find his own niche audience. In 2005, he started producing a variety show called Let’s Get Hot! with co-host Aaron Eves that now runs as part of Laugh Sabbath’s Sunday night series of “alternative” comedy (a label many comics consider outdated and irrelevant) at Rivoli. But after a successful six-year run, Let’s Get Hot! is coming to an end in May. Why now? “We’ve been doing it forever, there’s no bad reason. It’s just, ‘Let’s stop.’ Me and Aaron will probably do comedy together forever, but I really want to be free to travel for my stand-up.”
Hitting the road is new interest for Locke. Having watched some of his friends move to L.A. recently, he made three trips to New York this last year to perform and found himself sharing bills with big comics including John Mulaney (who writes for SNL), Hannibal Buress (who writes for 30 Rock), and Jim Gaffigan. That taste of the big time has made Locke hungry for a new level of success—success he knows can only come from touring and through the clubs.
But he’s not turning his back on the independent scene. It’s where comedians find their voice and can truly be themselves, something Locke calls “invaluable.” As if to prove his commitment to this new two-front audience assault, he’s performing a 45-minute headlining set Thursday April 28 at a self-produced show at Double Double Land. It doesn’t get much more non-traditional than a converted apartment above a bakery in Kensington Market, but Locke expects more than 14 polite people will attend. It’s an approach that has galvanized a whole scene of upcoming comics. Tim Gilbert, who is hosting Thursday’s show, admits Locke has been a big influence. “[The first time I saw Chris perform] it made me realize that comedy doesn’t have to be horrible jokes about why the Leafs suck or why Amish girls would give good handjobs—which is a real joke I told when I first started.”
Despite being most comfortable in a back room, Locke is no longer hesitant to head to places like Yuk Yuk’s Ajax, places he once figured wouldn’t like his act. When we ask if he’s worried that his comedic style doesn’t play well outside of the city, he dismisses the argument. “I’ve been to Halifax a lot. I’ve been to Montreal a lot. I’ve been to Vancouver. There are a few big cities in Canada I haven’t been to. But I trust these cities get whatever…It’s just humour at the end of the day. It’s not like we’re only making jokes about getting stuck on the subway, or the CN tower.”
The big difference is, these days he’s more willing to play ball with the audience. “I used to go up and start with the most insane thing and either it would hit or it would ruin the tone of the rest of my set. And I was always like, ‘The audience doesn’t understand me.’ And it’s like, no they don’t. They don’t understand you. They don’t know who you are.”
And, he adds about going on tour, “I would definitely like to eat better pieces of chicken.”
Chris Locke performs “We’re All Rich Geniuses” on Thursday April 28 at Double Double Land (209 Augusta Avenue) at 9 p.m.; $7.